The problem with Intellectual Properties in Board Games
@RGL we enjoy a game so much more when its theme is brought out through its gameplay. Betrayal at House on the Hill has its design problems, but it does an excellent job at making you feel like you’re exploring a haunted mansion and truly leaves you guessing as to what is round the corner. We also love superheroes. Seeing extraordinary people perform fantastical feats to save the day is incredibly exciting and a brilliant form of escapism.
So with our love of superheroes and our love of thematic board games, it would make sense that we would enjoy superhero themed board games. But alas this is seldom the case. The majority of superhero themed board games that have an intellectual property (IP) attached to them, feel exceptionally… unheroic.
Is there a problem with IPs in board gaming? Can having an IP attached to a game make it better or hurt it? Does a good board game need to be rebranded with an IP? Here we shall discuss the principles of IPs in board gaming and how rebranding a board game with an IP can affect the player’s experience.
Merchandising is easy money
The concept of applying a brand to existing merchandise is nothing new. You can buy Harry Potter socks, a Daenerys Targaryen phone case, a Batman clock and even a Spiderman toilet seat should you desire one. When this type of merchandise is made, they take an existing product, put an image of a superhero on it and call it a day. Which is fine. So long as our clock tells the correct time and has Batman’s face on it, we are happy.
Anything can be merchandised.
Unfortunately, some companies seem to take a similar approach when it comes to applying a superhero theme to a board game. They take an existing board game, put the hero’s face on it, and call it a day.
The problem with this is when we play a board game we want to feel immersed in the experience and the game’s theme. We don’t need to believe we’re Batman when we are looking at the clock, but we do want the theme of the game to come out through the gameplay.
Some board games have put their entire identity into being rebrandable. Fluxx by Looney Labs was originally released in 1997 and it didn’t have any theming to mention. In 2003 came Stoner Fluxx, followed by a few more brand free versions including Zombie and Christian Fluxx.But in 2008 they released their first version of the game with an IP in the form of Monty Python Fluxx and today there are 58 different versions of the game ranging from the Wizard of Oz to Firefly. Now whenever somebody says “Do you want to play Fluxx?” The next question is always “Which one?”
Some versions of Fluxx try to use their IP to change the experience of the game. In Cartoon Network Fluxx there is a card that gives you the option to talk like a cartoon character and if you do you can draw an extra card. In Star Wars Fluxx the villains take the form of Creeper cards which can prevent you from winning the game.
These little thematic touches are nice, however due to the chaotic nature that resides in the core gameplay of Fluxx, most of the different versions of Fluxx feel almost identical. The IP is only added to broaden the appeal. Fluxx can be fun, but playing Batman Fluxx will never make us feel like a superhero.
We want to look at Codenames and Love Letter. Both games were published only a few years apart. Both are short filler type games that involve deductive reasoning. Both were critically acclaimed and both have also been rebranded with Superhero IPs, in the form of Codenames: Marvel and Love Letter: Batman.
Love Letter was released first so we’ll start there. For those who are unfamiliar with it, it is a short game played over several rounds where in each round you are trying to get your Love Letter to a Princess. The whole game consists of just 16 cards featuring 8 different characters, each with unique effect and a value from 1 to 8. At the end of each round if you are the last player standing or have the highest value card in your hand, you win a token of affection (in the form of a purple wooden cube). First to 4 affection tokens wins.
The original was very well received and won multiple awards including the Guldbrikken (it’s a weird sounding name because it’s a Danish Gaming Industry Award) Best Family Game and Origins Award for Best Traditional Card Game. We really enjoy the gameplay of Love Letter, it is fast paced, every decision is important and it has some light but good deductive reasoning. It also has some nice artwork, with each character being illustrated with the style of a Renaissance painting.
But the theme doesn’t do a lot for us. The 8 different characters featured on the cards are rather soulless. They are also unnamed, with them just being referred to as their title (Baron, Princess, Handmaid). Plus the idea of trying to get a love letter to a Princess never really comes out in the gameplay.
3 years after the original was released we got 4 licensed versions of the game including Love Letter: Batman. The game had been re-themed with the 8 characters being replaced by Batman, Robin and 6 of their most infamous villains. The more painterly artwork of the original has gone and we now have more vibrant and expressive comic book style illustrations for each of the characters.
Don’t laugh at your new Princess.
While the rules remain mostly the same, the objective has changed. We aren’t trying to get a love letter to the Joker, but are trying to apprehend the criminals of Gotham. Also the generic cubes that were the tokens of affection have been replaced with Batman tokens, a yellow oval with Batman’s logo printed on it. You also need 7 points to win now, with an additional rule added to help you earn points in a different way. This is a good variation as it limited the frequency of some players ending the game with 0 points.
So with the change in artwork, the card names, the new rule and the new tokens, what was different about this game? Well it had Batman on the box… and that’s about it. The gameplay is 90% the same as before. This was a very straightforward reskin to try and sell an old game as new to a different market and that’s not a bad thing. Add the misprint where it mentions a Penguin card, which isn’t even in the game and you can tell how fast many of the games are getting an IP overhaul.
Codenames: Marvel follows a very similar story. In Codenames the players split into two teams (red team and blue team) and each team nominates one of their team members to be a Spymaster. From a deck of 200 word cards (which are double sided for 400 words in total), 25 are randomly chosen and laid out in a 5×5 grid. Each spymaster now takes it in turn to give clues to their teammates to identify specific words. The first team to identify all of the words they need, wins.
Codenames was released in 2015 to much acclaim and like Love Letter it won lots of awards including the Gouden Ludo Best Family Game and Spiel des Jahres for 2016. It is an excellent gateway game for new gamers and can be played with grandparents and young children simultaneously. Being in two teams provides the competitiveness you want from a board game, while also allowing you to cooperate with your friends and family.
Two years later and we got Codenames: Marvel, featuring all your favorite Marvel heroes (except for X-Men and the Fantastic 4 as they were not part of the Disney empire at the time).
One interesting twist the game now adds is the word cards now have an illustration on one side and a word describing that illustration on the other. The illustrations look like they were taken straight out of the comic books, and are often very dynamic and exciting. Plus unlike the change of artwork for Love Letter: Batman, it affects how the game is played. Play with the illustrations face-up and you are no longer giving clues about generic words, but to a picture of Captain America throwing his shield.
The words on the reverse side are no longer everyday words such as Dog, America and Fire. But now we have Web Shooter, Hydra and Gamma Bomb. Plus the team leaders aren’t Spymasters bur Directors, and it isn’t Red vs Blue but S.H.I.E.L.D vs Hydra. Everything in the game has been changed to fit with the Marvel brand.
Yet the gameplay is still identical to the original. The addition of having illustrations is good, but sometimes the illustrations and theming only limits the game’s appeal. Anyone can understand, play and love the original Codenames, but Codenames: Marvel fills in a very specific niche. Due to the nature of the illustrations and the words on the cards, this is only a game for those who enjoy both Marvel and Codenames. If you are one of those people then brilliant, this is the perfect game for you. However you’d probably have hard time getting this version of codenames out to play with your grandparents – unless he was Stan Lee.
Codenames: Marvel and Love Letter Batman are rebrands though. Amazing games with a new skin of paint. There are plenty of designers who love certain IPs and make deeply entertaining games when using them.
Battlestar Galactica is an enthralling sci-fi TV show. The premise is that mankind has developed space travel and robots (called Cylons). The robots gained sentience and rebelled, creating their own human-like versions that are indistinguishable from the real thing. They push humanity to the brink of extinction, and the last surviving humans must now find a new home, not knowing who they can trust.
Each episode of the show is tense, with the crew of Battlestar Galactica having to deal with calamities, deceit, power wars and the struggle to survive. The board game does a perfect job of recreating this feeling.