Feature: Forget game-to-movie spin-offs – have you seen some of the awesome board games that have emerged from the digital realm recently? From Gears of War to World of Warcraft, we look at some of the most successful, and work out what makes them tick.
You know the old truism that franchised products are universally awful? How videogames based on films – or, for that matter, films based on videogames – seem to scrape the bottom of the quality barrel time after time with tedious inevitability? Well, there’s a notable exception: the adaptation of several big-name videogame franchises to the venerable world of pen-and-ink board gaming.
I know this because I’m one of those few who, in an age where playing digital twitch games with strangers from across the world has become commonplace, prefers to get their gaming kicks the old-fashioned way. Frantic sessions of online gaming are fun enough, but their socially dislocated, ephemeral nature can’t hold a candle to late nights facing down the chaos of the dice and the strategies of your friends over beers and a board game.
It’s the slow burning of an unfolding narrative that’s utterly unique to this game, and these people, and this night alone, pushing on toward a mountain of delicious tension as competing plans collide; the belly-blow shock of suddenly reading cold murder in the eyes of your best friend the turn before he brutally scythes you down and steals all your resources. It’s incomparable.
To be clear, I’m not talking about mass-market adaptations like Risk: Halo Wars here, but hobby board games released by specialist publishers. For some peculiar reason, the market in quality videogame conversions belongs almost totally to two such companies: Fantasy Flight Games and Eagle Games.
As a result, the designers there have considerable experience in making sure that the board games they produce share play elements with the videogames that inspired them, tying both together into something that can please gamers coming at it from either direction. And there are certain techniques that you can see repeatedly deployed across such conversions, with varying degrees of success.
The first tool is visual design. I’m sure I don’t need to point out the importance of branding, given the vast sums spent on it, or that a Starcraft fan looking at the Starcraft board game is going to expect to see artwork and logos from the original. But it’s easy to underestimate how appealing this is: it’s one thing to know that you can build up to a Zerg rush in the Starcraft board game, quite another to be able to do it with a handful of actual plastic Zerglings, beautifully sculpted replicas that you can touch, move and hold aloft as part of a victory dance in glorious, three dimensional real life.
Even in titles that don’t have such iconic individual icons, such as Civilization, the boardgame implementation has subtle visual aspects that capture the correct feel. Little plastic wagons for settlers. Terrain tiles that look a lot like the videogame graphics. Small things, but they all help to add to that feeling of familiarity – to connect the titles in your head, make fans of the videogame feel at home.
And it’s a powerful set of buttons to push: the Railroad Tycoon board game (now re-published as Railways of the World) had virtually nothing in common with the videogame that inspired it apart from trains, and a shared box cover. Yet videogamers bought it, and enjoyed it, on the strength of that link alone.