I have a confession to make. I’m not proud, but I have to tell the truth. I was one of the five or so people in the world that thought the movie Hudson Hawk was wonderful. I thought the satire was well done and hysterical. I liked it so much, I actually went out and bought the GameBoy game Hudson Hawk. At that point, I realized none of the qualities I saw in the movie were in the game. It was dreadful, easy and I finished it in about half an hour.
Thus was my rude introduction into franchise games, the games designed to go along with an established license. Frequently, the games are weaker than stand-alone games, as they can rely on the draw of Harry Potter or, uh, Hudson Hawk, instead of sheer game design.
Board games are no different. The popular gaming database and website, boardgamegeek.com, lists over 200 games based on novels. These include games such as a 1938 classic based on Ferdinand the Bull and the 1973 game Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Games based on novels include at least nine games based on Lord of the Rings (including one based on The Hobbit) and at least five games based on Harry Potter.
Speaking of the boy wizard that bought J.K. Rowling a castle in Scotland, I fell for the bait again and bought the Quidditch Card Game. I liked card games and was looking for something nice and portable to take on a trip. It was a dreadful game that, in theory, must have been fun, but I had no idea because the rules were so frikkin hard to figure out. There’s something annoying and humbling about two adults having trouble figuring out the rules to a kids’ game.
So, burned by Hudson Hawk and Harry Potter alike, I turned my back on franchise titles. I ignored all licensed videogames and board games for several years, until my husband bought Lord of the Rings, designed by famous German game designer Reiner Knizia. We figured it had to at least not suck. The people who licensed the game knew what they were doing; they not only got Knizia to design it, but it was also illustrated by John Howe, the same concept artist that worked on Peter Jackson’s movies, which gives the game some of the best art in board games, hands down. For fans of the books and movies, the game was immersive, gorgeous and well worth the price of admission. It was also cooperative, which was a breath of fresh air, as well as quite difficult to win.
Large, sprawling epic struggles against an outside supernatural force seem to translate well into cooperative games. First, we had Lord of the Rings place the players as hobbits with Sauron advancing toward them, and shortly afterward we had games where the players could band together to fight the elder god Cthulhu or Dracula (although in Dracula’s case, someone does get to play the bloodsucking count against all the other players).
Arkham Horror and Fury of Dracula put the worlds of HP Lovecraft and Bram Stoker, respectively, into board games. The interesting things about these games is they tend to inspire one to read the books and stories behind them, if only so you can know what a shoggoth is or why “the color out of space” is supposed to be scary. Frequently in Arkham Horror, you will end up in a situation where “The pinkish rays almost get you,” and it’s good to know exactly why that’s scary. Sure, the god of the bloody tongue is not someone you want to mess with, but the pinkish rays?
Licensed games attempt to capture the feeling of the property – some, like Lord of the Rings, are designed to have you retrace the adventures in board game form. See if you can avoid the Nazgul the way Frodo did! They have to bring across the humor or the desperation or the excitement of the book. Others attempt to give you an original story based in the world, like Arkham Horror. You don’t go through the plots of the stories, but you are a character in Arkham dealing with Lovecraftian monsters. You could encounter Cthulhu, the color out of space and the Dunwich Horror all in one game (but I wouldn’t recommend it).
Some people find the story walkthroughs as lacking in excitement, since they already know what’s going to happen. This flaw is inherent in the game Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective, which pits you against Holmes in 10 scenarios where you try to find the right clues and solve the puzzle before (or, more realistically, at the same time as) the great detective himself. The main problem is that once you play the whole game through, you’re done. There’s no way you can play a mystery twice, since you already know the answers going in (unless you’re one of those people who likes to cheat, and then you can get a sense of false superiority when you beat Holmes).
Licensed games are, honestly, just like regular games. There are some wonderful ones, and there are some real dogs. The issue is if we like the license, we expect everything connected to it to be wonderful, too, down to the plastic Burger King cups. Even if we know in our hearts that the novelization of a science fiction movie isn’t going to be as good as the movie, we still hope and expect it to be. And that’s what the marketers want.
It’s easy to slap a Harry Potter on something and hope it will succeed. Often, these products are purchased not by the user, but by a well-meaning relative or friend. “He likes that hobbit movie thing, so he’ll probably like the shot glasses with the four hobbits’ heads on them. It’ll match those hobbit sheets I got him last year.” But marketers don’t care where the money comes from, they just care that it does. So licensing works.
Kids’ games are a different animal, however. Studies have shown that kids will prefer green ketchup simply because it’s green, even though taste tests show it doesn’t taste as good as regular ketchup. Novelty goes a long way, and if kids are drowning in passion for Eragon and A Series of Unfortunate Events, they will probably enjoy anything you give them with those stamps on it. On the other hand, kids also have a sharp eye for crap and will turn up their noses to something that doesn’t meet their mysterious standards as they slather their fries with green ketchup.
Gamers need to consider what they want out of a game; do they want to retell a popular story or do they just want to run amok in the world they’d enjoyed reading about?
And really, like with any big purchase (don’t laugh; many board games are $50 or more these days) you’ll want to do your research. Check out boardgamegeek.com for ratings, check out your Friendly Local Gaming Store for opinions. And if all the ratings say it’s crap and you simply must have the game based on the latest werewolf chick lit, well, you might still like it. I liked Hudson Hawk, after all.
Mur Lafferty is a freelance writer and podcast producer. She has dabbled in as much gaming as possible while working with Red Storm Entertainment and White Wolf Publishing. Currently she writes freelance for several gaming publications and produces three podcasts. She lives in Durham, NC.