Today I will be talking about what makes for a good licenced board game, by which I mean games based on popular media or intellectual properties. This topic stems from a question from Danielle Thomas who asked a related question during one of our AMA live show.
Danielle asked: “There are a lot of boardgames that come out linked to popular media. ie. movies. What is the best and the worst you’ve played?”
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The Short Answer:
What are the best and worst board games based on movies I’ve played?
First off, let’s answer Danielle’s question directly and talk about some of the best and worst licenced games I’ve played.
The worst for me has to be any of the thousands of licenced Monopoly variants, the most recent being the Monopoly Star Wars Episode 1 Edition. I received this as a gift and expected it to be Monopoly with some Star Wars trappings that made it a bit better than the base game. I expected some rule change that made it actually feel like I was in the Star Wars universe. Instead, it was just Monopoly with a cool 3D board and renamed spaces and decks of cards.
The best licenced game I’ve played is probably Battlestar Galactica the Board Game, but that’s based on a TV series and not a movie. So going to movies I think I’m back to Star Wars again with Star Wars Imperial Assault. Imperial Assault is one of the best one vs. many dungeon crawl campaign games out there and it just happens to have the Star Wars licence, which makes it even better.
The Long Answer:
For years licenced games were something to be scared of, thankfully times have changed.
While Danielle was only looking for a specific best and worst game in this category I think it’s worth taking some time to talk about what I think makes for a good licenced game.
For years seeing a licenced property on a board game box cover was something that scared gamers away. They were mostly mass market games created for kids that were incredibly simple and used boring, tried and true, and I would even go so far as to say terrible, mechanics like roll and move or miss a turn. Many were variants on the same theme or even the identical game with pasted-on themes. The thing that was meant to sell the game was the name on the box, not the gameplay itself.
I’m so glad times are changing and we are moving away from that. Nowadays, with the growing popularity of tabletop gaming as a hobby and the fact that now that there are more people playing new and different games, the public, in general, has become more discerning in their tastes. Most people no longer want just another version of Monopoly where Park Place is disguised as Hogwarts or Coruscant, they want better games, and publishers are realizing that more and more.
Today there are a large number of actually good licenced games out there. There are even some great games based on licenced properties. It’s a trend I hope continues and that we never have to go back to the days of The Smurf Game.
What makes for a good licenced board game?
So what exactly is it that makes today’s modern licenced games so much better than the drivel companies were serving up in the past? What makes for a good licenced game?
For a licenced game to be successful first off people need to actually care about the licence. A good example of where this recently failed is in the series of Atari video game based board games that were released in the last couple of years. There was Centipede, Missile Command, and Asteroids, all put out by IDW games. The thing is, not enough people care about these old game properties. Now Buffalo Games was smart and put out a Pac-Man game, that got some hype.
Having the right licence can often be enough to sell a game on its own. This is what companies have gone off of for years. I’ve got a friend who just dropped money on the Star Wars Han Solo Card Game just because it was a Star Wars game he didn’t have. He now regrets that decision.
What a good licence can do for a game is to bring attention to it when it otherwise may have been missed. We talk a lot on our podcast about how many games get released each year and how it’s now impossible to keep track of, let alone play, all the new games released each year. This is where a good licence can save your game. Having a known name on the cover can get people to try your game that may have otherwise overlooked it. It’s also a way to draw new people into the world of tabletop gaming in general. A video game licence could attract video game players to try their first hobby board game or a movie based game could get a family member to give something other than Trivial Pursuit a try.
This is where all the Monopoly games fail. Well, one of the ways they fail. People play licenced games so that they can feel like they are taking part in that thing that they enjoy. You play a Star Wars game to feel like you are a band of Rebels fighting against the evil Empire, or to feel like you are behind the helm of a starship, or exploring the galaxy trying to find the Rebel base. You aren’t playing Star Wars to roll doubles, move twice and buy a hotel on Tatooine.
While playing a game about X, you better do things that are related to X. If it’s a Minecraft game I better be mining and/or crafting, if not both. If it’s a Battlestar Galactica game I better be wondering who’s a Cylon. If it’s a Harry Potter Game I expect lots of spells and teamwork required. For a licenced game to be good it needs to tie into that licence in more than name alone. The more things that make you feel like you are part of whatever imaginary world is being sold on the box the better.
The Licence Doesn’t Matter
While this sounds like I’m contradicting my first point, where you need the right licence, what I mean here is that the game should appeal to players despite its licence. The licence should be the icing on the cake. The thing that makes the game even more appealing than it already is. The licence should be the thing that may draw in new people to the hobby and get fans excited. You shouldn’t need a great licence to sell the game because…
The actual gameplay and mechanics are the most important part of any board game. How fun the game is to play. How engaging it is. The level of player agency and interaction. All of the things that separate a good game from a bad game still apply to a licenced game. Solid gameplay is what is going to get players wanting to play your game and play it more than once. It’s what is going to get gamers talking and spreading the word. You can’t have a good licenced game without it simply being a good game in the first place.
A good game is going to appeal to all kinds of gamers. It’s going to get the podcasters and reviewers talking. It’s going to get ranked on Board Game Geek, it’s going to get gamers excited to play it regardless of what name may appear on the box.
What are some of the best licenced board games out there?
What follows is an unranked list of some of the best licenced board games I’ve played.
Harry Potter Hogwarts Battle – We got this one for our kids who are huge Harry Potter Fans. Besides being a very solid deck builder this has some great thematic elements. You play through a campaign unlocking more books as you finish each one. The players are all students who have to cooperate to defeat the forces of darkness. Players build up their own deck filled with spells, items and allies from the Wizarding World.
Fantasy Flight Star Wars Games – Overall Fantasy Flight has been doing amazing things with the Star Wars licence. Here I’m grouping together a bunch of different games. Star Wars Rebellion, a two to four player game that people are calling “Star Wars in a Box” where one team is playing the Empire trying to find the Rebel Base, while the other side is playing the Rebels trying to avoid capture. Star Wars X-Wing is one of the best dogfighting skirmish war games out there, made even cooler by the fact that you are flying X-Wings and famous ships like Boba Fett’s Slave 1. Star Wars Imperial Assault is one of the best one vs. many dungeon delving board games. It is also a great two-player skirmish war game that just happens to also be Star Wars themed.
Star Trek Ascendancy – If Rebellion is “Star Wars in a Box” then Ascendency is “Star Trek in a Box”. Explore strange new worlds, seek out new live and new civilizations and boldly go where no one has gone before, unless you’ve played the game enough times to have seen all the systems that can come up. This is a great asymmetric game that plays very differently depending on which faction you play. Each faction’s mechanics are tied thematically to the Star Trek universe. The base game lets you play the Federation, Klingons and Romulans with expansions adding more factions.
A Game of Thrones the Boardgame 2nd Edition – This folk on a map game is all about controlling Westeros. Up to six players each take on the role of one of the great houses of the Seven Kingdoms, vying for control of the Iron Throne. Released long before the popular TV series, this game includes all of the warfare and diplomacy you would expect from a Game of Thrones game. Mechanically you assign orders to your units in secret so you never know when an ally may betray you. People like to talk about Diplomacy ruining friendships, well I’ve actually seen it happen with Game of Thrones.
Battlestar Galactica – This game is the perfect example of a great game that happens to have a theme that makes it shine even more. I first played Battlestar Galactica only knowing the original series from the 1970s. The owner of the game had to explain to me that Cylons could now be disguised as humans. I had no clue who the characters were or why I should care that Boomer could by a “sympathizer” and I still had a great time. It was actually this game that got me to watch the series and returning to the game after watching it, the game was even better. One warning though, be sure to point out to all of the players that the game doesn’t necessarily match the series, just because someone in the show was a Cylon doesn’t mean they will be in the game. We’ve had this go horribly wrong on us a couple of times, ruining a rather lengthy gameplay.
Starcraft The Board Game – While you aren’t going to find this one on the market now (and if you do you won’t want to pay for it), Starcraft was one of the first, good Fantasy Flight licenced board games. It’s one of their original coffin box games and one of the best asymmetrical games ever made. This area control game features the three major factions of the video game with two versions of each allowing for up to six players. The units in the game act and are used in similar ways to their digital counterparts. Unleash a Zergling rush to take down those difficult to breach Photos Shields but hurry up before the Humans upgrade their decks with too much tech.
Minecraft Builders and Biomes – This new Ravensburger board game does a rather good job of tying in just enough things from Minecraft the video game into its mechanics to make you know that it’s a Minecraft game while still being a rather solid set collection game on its own. I particularly like the way they’ve tied in having to mine bricks of various resources. While it may lack the crafting element that’s a big part of the digital version, this is still the best Minecraft game released to date.
Horrified – Another new game from Ravensburger, in Horrified you are moving around town trying to collect items to defeat the Universal Studios Universal Monsters. The game includes Dracula, The Werewolf, The Creatures from the Black Lagoon, The Mummy, The Invisible Man and Frankenstein’s Monster and his Bride (which work as a team). Each monster has its own set of rules and the gameplay changes depending on which monsters you face. The theme is well integrated here. For example, you will be collecting “red” weapons to destroy Dracula’s coffin but then you’ll need “yellow” mystic items of sufficient power to defeat The Count himself.
Legendary Encounters: An Alien Deck Building Game – This deck-builder based on the Marvel Legendary card game twists things up by making it a purely cooperative game. To enhance the squad feel the game includes cards that can be used to help out the other players. A hidden movement system helps recreate the feeling of not knowing what’s around the next corner and the timing mechanic really ramps up the tension. Toss in the fact that the core box includes various scenarios and strategies that let you play through various movies in the Alien series and you’ve got a winner.
Firefly – Here’s a big map of the galaxy showing all the interesting planets and ports of call. Each has a deck filled with interesting contracts, some legal some not. Out here at the edge of space is a Reaver ship, watch out for that. In the galactic centre is the Alliance, you don’t have to worry about them if you don’t do anything illegal but what’s the fun in that. You are a captain, you’ve got a ship, time to find a crew and go. I don’t think anyone could have done a better job of capturing the feel of Firefly than Gale Force 9 did with this game.
Pillars of the Earth – This is an excellent medium-heavy euro all about building a cathedral in Medieval Europe. Characters and events from the book and TV series are represented by the random events and crew cards in the game. While it may not be tied to its licence as much as the other games on this list, I wanted to include it as an example of a great game based on a lesser known licence. They don’t all have to be blockbusters.
Middle Earth: The Wizards – Here’s another long out of print game and one of my favourite collectable card games of all time. You play a Wizard wandering around Middle Earth, forging alliances and recruiting allies into your fellowship. This game is heavily tied to the books it is based on and includes many multi-part quests to get the best cards in the game into play. Another interesting touch is that your deck is half cards for you to use and half hazard cards to play against your opponent. Sticking with the theme, there’s a second way to win, toss The Ring into Mt. Doom (if you were lucky enough to have actually found a copy of The One Ring card — I never was).
There you have my thoughts on what makes for a good licenced board game. Not only does the licence matter but the mechanics better actually be tied to that licence and even more importantly the game better be a good game in its own right. What do you think makes for a good licenced game? Let us know in the comments below.