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Pop Culture: License For Fun

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The tabletop industry has a long history of adapting movies and books into board games. Unfortunately, many of our first experiences with licensed tabletop games either had our theme badly pasted onto unrelated mechanisms (eyes Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Tower of Doom) or special editions of retail channel games. I wonder how many would-be hobbyists shied away from trying board games again because they were burned out on Star Wars Monopoly. Likewise, I wonder how many hobbyists missed out on amazing games because they saw a license and thought the worst.

Here are some game industry game changing games that overcame the licensed game stigma to win over hardcore hobbyists:

  • Hero Clix: Now a longtime staple of every game store, Hero Clix took the hobby by surprise, releasing affordable prepainted miniatures based on Marvel superheroes. It wasn’t the first combat dial game (that would be Mage Knight), but buyer’s familiarity with the characters helped them better understand the subtlety of the design choices. Following up with a compatible set based on DC solidified Hero Clix’s legacy as one of the first and still one of the few ways Marvel and DC loyalists could play a licensed super hero game together (Green Lantern taxi issues notwithstanding). It changed wargames and collectible games forever and remains on top of both categories.
  • Battlestar Galactica: Released towards the end of the show (itself an unlikely successful adaptation of a TV show), no one could have predicted how good and popular the Battlestar Galactica board game would be. Although it has a lot in common with Shadows Over Camelot from a few years earlier, Battlestar Galactica reinvents the traitor mechanic in an intriguing and thematic way. Essentially turning a cooperative game with a traitor mechanic into an asymmetrical team game halfway through, just as players feel comfortable with who they can trust, the game sprinkle more paranoia everywhere. It’s the rare licensed game that is so good it makes fans out of players.
  • Batman: Gotham City Mystery: Hardly a classic but sometimes you pick up a game from the discount bin at Toys R Us expecting exactly the kind of licensed game I mentioned above and instead get exactly the game for you. The plastic components are amazing, with prepainted plastic miniatures of Batman, Batgirl, and my favourite versions of Nightwing and Robin (Robin’s tiny cape notwithstanding) that rival the best Hero Clix. But the real winner is the Batcomputer, where you slot evidence gathered by beating up goons and analyzing the stolen ingredients to determine the villain’s plan. It has its issues (card quality is cheap, the rules could be clearer, game length is very variable, and, as I mentioned, Robin’s tiny cape), but I have had a tonne of fun playing it multiple times.
  • Star Wars: The Queen’s Gambit: I am not exaggerating when I say that geekdom became a more skeptical and judgemental place after the release of The Phantom Menace, so it’s no surprise that many Star Wars and tabletop game fans passed on this 2000 release based on Phantom Menace’s four final battles. As a result, we missed out on possibly the only opportunity to own an elaborate, engaging simultaneous action featuring lightsabers. A licensed game, so it can’t be reprinted as is, not successful enough to reimplement with a generic theme, and very expensive to find complete on the secondary market, this is truly a collector’s item and an argument in favour of grabbing licensed games that interest you when you can (after the appropriate research, of course).

Don’t expect these games in this month’s Pop Culture theme, but three great games along these lines. You still have a few days to subscribe to Pop Culture!