Back in 2017 Sean J. introduced us to five of his favourite games licensed from existing intellectual properties. In it he mentioned that until recent years licensed games had a reputation for being terrible games, made by people who wanted to cash in on the property’s value, and who didn’t want to waste any money on pointless things like game development. While the greedy cash grabs do make for terrible games, that is hardly the only reason that getting a good licensed game to market is a challenge.
Many owners of IP are very concerned with their brand, and don’t want anything that deviates from that brand to happen involving their IP, so they can often times have requests that hamper the designer’s freedom to create. It may be a list of things that MUST be in the game, or elements that absolutely must NOT be in the game. And since they control the IP, they control the agreement. I designed a licensed game for a little movie called the Crow, and the demands from above were 1) emotions had to be a core element, and 2) an engagement ring had to be a focal point of game play.
The publisher will also have demands on the designer, that may have nothing to do with quality of game play. The publisher of the Crow had spend money on acquiring the rights to the movie, including images, so they demanded that whatever game I designed, it had to have ample opportunity for the game components to contain images from the film, as well as featuring figures in the likeness of characters. The publisher also had a number of other licensed products in their stable, and so they put a deadline in place that presumably fit their publishing timetable. The effect of which was to give me very little time to actually get a working prototype built and sufficiently tested. I raced to meet the deadline, and then the publisher sat on my prototype for over a year before doing anything with it.
I don’t think the Crow turned out to be a bad game (though the users of Board Game Geek tend to disagree), but I can definitely say that, had I not had content constraints from the IP owner and the publisher, and had the publisher given me more of the year that they held onto the prototype to actually test, develop, and refine the game, it would have been a very different animal from what eventually made it to the shelves.
Now let’s take a look at some licensed games that managed to clear all the hurdles, and avoid the pitfalls, becoming quality games.
This is probably the granddaddy of licensed games. Originally published in 1979 by Avalon Hill, this out of print classic was on many a gamer’s holy grail list. The idea of a reprint languished in limbo, as the Frank Herbert estate was being very protective of their property (probably has something to do with the disastrous filmed versions of the story). People had given up hope of them licensing the rights to another game company, so in 2012 Fantasy Flight Games acquired the rights to the design, but not the IP, and published a retheme set in the universe of their game Twilight Imperium. Rex: Final Days of an Empire is a well regarded game, with high production values, but without the Dune theme, it left fans still clamouring for the “real” game. Then in 2019, against anyone’s predictions, Gale Force Nine released a second edition of the original Dune game. It has the classic rules for the die hard fans, but also has a set of revised rules for those looking for improved game play. I have not played the new edition, but if the upgrade to the art is an indication of the care they put into upgrading the rules, they’ve done a good job.
Aliens: Another Glorious Day in the Corps
This article is not meant to be an ad for Gale Force Nine, but they have a strong history of producing games licensed from film & TV properties, including Firefly, Sons of Anarchy, Doctor Who, and more. Not all of their games are equally revered (their Family Guy line is considered dreck), but most of their licensed products score strong 7s out of 10, or even low 8s, on the Board Game Geek. Aliens, the movie, is one of the best sequels Hollywood has ever produced, and it is no stranger to game adaptations. Gale Force Nine’s Aliens: Another Glorious Day in the Corps is a co-operative, campaign-based miniature skirmish game that tells the story of the movie in small, mission-sized chunks. The base game has three story missions, plus resupply and rescue missions, and three survival mode “bug hunt” missions. The game already has several expnsions, each adding more missions, more figures, and more characters from the film. The rulebook is an awful mess, with many vague points, and downright missing rules, but if you slog through the FAQ from the publisher, and the BGG forums on rules, there is a great game in there. Or you can watch my tutorial video here.
Another company that’s doing a number of licensed games these days is Ravensberger. They have partnered with the design collective known as Prospero Hall, and have made a number of Disney products, such as Villainous, and Jungle Ride, but they’ve also done a game for one of my favourite movies of all time, Jaws. Jaws, the game, is a 1 versus many game played in two acts, pitting one player as the shark, against up to three players as the shark hunters, Brody, Hooper, and Quint. The first act fo the game is set on Amity Island, and in it, the hunters are trying to locate the shark and put two barrels in it, while the shark is trying to evade capture, and eat as many swimmers as possible. The more people the shark eats, the more powerful it is in the second act of the game. Act two is set on the Orca, Quint’s fishing vessel, and it is an all out battle for survival. The shark is trying to sink the ship and/or kill the three men, while the hunters are trying to kill the shark.
Another game from Prosperous Hall is Horrified, a co-operative game about fighting the classic movie monsters from the Universal Studios stable. Dracula, the Mummy, Frankenstein’s monster and more stalk the streets of a sleepy town, preying upon the villagers, and it’s up to the players to escort the errant townsfolk home, while collecting the resources needed to confront the monsters. Each of the monsters works differently, so every game has different goals and challenges, depending on which monsters you choose to use. Like any good co-op game, you can scale the difficulty by increasing the number of monsters you play against.
Star Wars Games
Anyone who knows me, knows I’m a huge fan of the original Star Wars trilogy, so. It should come as no surprise that I want to take a moment to mention the franchise in an article about games based on IPs. Star Wars games abound, and the name still gets slapped on everything from yoga mats, to adult incontinence products, gone are the days when a Star Wars game is just a greedy cash grab. In my piece on two-player games, I wrote about my two favourite Star Wars games, Risk Star Wars Edition, and Star Wars Rebellion, but they are just the tip of the Hothberg. Imperial Assault, X-Wing, Armada, Outer Rim, the Star Wars LCG, Dark Side Rising, etc, are all worth looking at if you’re a gamer, a Star Wars fan, or both. Stay away from mass market kids games with the Star Wars name on it, and most rebrands of Hasbro products (Star Wars Monopoly, Star Wars Life, etc), and stick to games produced in the last decade or so, and you stand a good chance of picking up a quality Star Wars game.
Big Trouble in Little China
I’m going to leave you with another game based on one of my favourite movies, Big Trouble in Little China. The film was a box office failure from director John Carpenter and star Kurt Russel, but it’s a very silly action flick that became a cult classic which stands the test of time, so when Everything Epic Games put out their co-operative, dice chucking, miniature-laden board game adaptation, I jumped at it. Players take on the roles of the characters from the movie, Jack Burton, Wang, Eddie, Gracie Law, and so on, and explore the streets and sewers of Chinatown, fighting mooks and monsters, and leveling up before the inevitable climax in Lao-Pan’s underground fortress. This game has a lot of moving parts, requires a good attention span, so it isn’t really for the novice gamer, but for the seasoned hobbyist (especially one with a fondness for the movie)