One sure way to get a tabletop game noticed is to have it themed on an original franchise or license. Nothing attracts even the most casual gamer like seeing a favorite movie, TV show, or comic on the cover of a box.
Unfortunately, whether the game itself is “good” is as random as trying a new restaurant. From gameplay to components, a favorite fandom is no guarantee of quality.
This concept crossed my mind when I heard about an upcoming Kingdom Hearts board game.
At first, I was excited as Kingdom Hearts is a favorite franchise of many people (including those of us at PCU). My enthusiasm quickly turned to dread, however, when I found that the game was no more than a reskinned version of Talisman.
For those unfamiliar, Talisman was (and continues) to be a favorite fantasy-themed game created by Games Workshop in 1983. It mirrors most classic Euro-fantasy (like D&D), with each person playing a single class on their quest to find the Talisman and rule over the land; along the way, they’ll visit strange locations, fight monsters, and collect items to increase their strength.
Unfortunately, for all its popularity (including revised editions and expansions as recent as 2016), Talisman also remains an example of classic or “bland” board gaming.
The game is notorious for being nothing more than constant dice-rolling and randomness; Talisman has minimal strategy, and players’ lives (and the likelihood of success) are almost entirely at the whim of the dice. Also, the game is long, far more than the “90 minutes” the publishers claim; many games stretch hours with tales of Talisman games continuing overnight and into the next day (especially if the players keep dying and having to start over).
Don’t get me wrong as I still enjoy a game of Talisman on occasion; I played it regularly throughout my youth, I own the digital version, and I even bring out a copy for new gamers. That doesn’t mean the game is “good,” however, and my playing it is like dusting off an old (and flawed) RPG or movie for nostalgia’s sake (and laughs).
Re-skinning the game for Kingdom Hearts, rather than creating a unique game, was a poor decision. This choice also made me think about the many other licensed games that have come out but shouldn’t have.
So, let’s explore some of the worst in franchise-themed tabletop gaming, and see whether it’s the game that succeeds or the fandom slapped on it.
Overall, we’re blessed that Star Wars (at least since Fantasy Flight Games has held onto the IP) has some of the best tabletop games to grace our tables. Rebellion, Imperial Assault, Legion, Armada, Destiny, X-Wing, etc., the list goes on, and that’s not even including their RPG.
Before FFG took over, however, Star Wars games were rather “meh,” although this is one franchise you could slap on your average game and it’s instantly better. Still, only a single game stands out as exceptional, while the rest linger toward the cheap or poorly designed.
Of particular notoriety is the Star Wars: Episode I – Battle for Naboo 3-D Action Game, a horrible product that used a Gungan catapult to dictate actions each turn. I’ve spoken in the past about how games that rely on physics can fail, and between the randomness of the catapult and the rest of the gameplay, this product belongs in the Hall of Shame.
Star Trek games were rare for much of the franchise, with few making any notability (or notoriety). That was until the 1990s when two Star Trek: The Next Generation games proved that having a license can’t cover up for bad design.
Star Trek: The Next Generation was essentially a quiz game, as you must use your knowledge of Star Trek to progress in your pursuit of “seeking out new life and new civilizations”. This product was a crappy Trivial Pursuit hiding as a traditional board game, and makes us wonder why you don’t just play Star Trek Trivial Pursuit.
Star Trek: The Next Generation Game of the Galaxies was a silly game where different crew members “raced” each other for peace treaties. After all, isn’t that how the crew proved they were the best on the Enterprise?
Luckily, in more recent years, we’ve seen a rise in quality Star Trek games, starting with WizKids’ Star Trek: Frontiers and Gale Force Nine’s Star Trek: Ascendancy. While these companies know how to make a good licensed game, they’re also good at game design in general; it’s not really the license that made the product.
Other Science Fiction
Of course, there’s more to science-fiction than just Star Wars and Star Trek, and while there are some good fandom-based games, there’s as many (if not more) that are horrible.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Parker Brothers and others tried to cash in on pop culture by slapping fandoms onto otherwise terrible, boring games. Among these was E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, a linear romp through the movie, where each player attempted to get E.T. to his ship; suffice to say, it’s also considered one of the worst board games in history.
The Doctor Who Collectible Card Game appeared during the CCG craze of the 1990s and was considered so bad it’s often used as a model on how not to design a game. Since then, Doctor Who has received very little love and almost no licensed tabletop publishing, outside of the RPG (which is actually good).
Transformers is another franchise with minimal tabletop presence, and its most “memorable” game was Wizard of the Coast’s Transformers 3D Battle Card Game. An attempt to cash in on the Michael Bay films, this combination of collectible card game with 3D cardboard standees has no strategy, horrible components, and is simple to the point of being annoying.
Lord of the Rings
J.R.R. Tolkien has possibly received the most games based off his work, ranging from those originating in his novels to everything published because of Jackson’s movie adaptations. Ironically, the latter has done far better than the former.
As the films were released, Terry Miller Associates and RoseArt (now a toy company called Mega Bloks) attempted to create board games for all three movies. Every game was a tedious slog of dice rolling and card reading, as characters moved on the same strict route on the board; the only thing good things were the pretty components and all the cinematic pictures.
In 2012, Pressman Toy Corporation and Vivid Imaginations also tried to cash in on the LotR craze, especially with the release of the first Hobbit movies. Pressman’s LotR Complete Trilogy and Hobbit games had overcomplicated (and poorly written) rules, no player agency, and completely unbalanced characters; Vivid’s Hobbit game was mindless and had no strategy to it whatsoever.
Luckily, Tolkien’s work has had better luck with other publishers, including FFG (yes, the ones currently producing Star Wars games) and Ares Games. Given these companies focus on game design, unlike the others, this suggests that toy companies should stay out of the board game industry.
Other Movies, Television, and Novels
Harry Potter, sadly, has received some of the worst games on the market, begging the question if some British IPs are cursed. Among the most notorious are Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone The Game and Quidditch: the Game; the former is a series of bad mini-games (reflecting the quests of the first book) and the latter tries to mirror the action of quidditch through boring tile turning and launching balls with a catapult.
Sometimes it’s not even a good franchise that people attempt to license, and they produce a game we wonder why anyone wanted. The most prominent examples were the horrible games for Eragon and two of the Twilight movies; publishers were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.
Even popular franchises can’t save horrible games; Buffy the Vampire Slayer: the Board Game should have been a hit, but it turned out to be a poorly designed guessing game rather than anything unique (or relevant to the show). Similar complaints about incoherent rules, nonsensical gameplay, and boring design plague games for Friends, CSI, Big Bang Theory, and Lost.
Overall, franchises based on cartoons, comics, anime, and video games have done surprisingly well. From Batman to The Legend of Korra, Death Note to Fallout, good game design and licenses can produce great products.
Not everything is flowers and award winners, however, as seen with RoseArt (yes, the same ones that failed at Lord of the Rings) and their game, The Simpsons: LOSER Takes All! A sad attempt at a “Truth or Dare” party game, with boring questions and gameplay, really emphasized the “loser” in its title.
Not everything is blamable on poor designers and publishers; WotC bombed hard with their Looney Tunes Trading Card Game, just like they did with their Transformers game. This weird CCG, which was even simpler than Pokémon and stranger rules than Doctor Who, was a flop who’s only redeeming quality was the artwork.
One final salute to a game that should never have been made, even though I love the franchise: Myst. Whoever decided to turn this mystery and exploration game into a race to see who could complete a (literal) puzzle deserves a special honor in the Hall of Shame; then again, University Press has not been the best publisher, with many bad games including the Quidditch game we mentioned earlier.
Franchise Does Not Equal Success
Now, there are of course many good games based on franchises, and I don’t mean to suggest that Kingdom Hearts will fail (or that Talisman doesn’t have its merits). But there’s a tendency for companies, especially those not versed in game design, to just slap a license onto another game (how many Monopoly’s do we have?) or even onto subpar classic or “Ameritrash” rules someone scrabbled together.
The best games start with a good design and then add the license, and I think that’s what Kingdom Hearts should have done. If only Fantasy Flight Games had received the license instead of USAopoly, a Hasbro licensee that (shockingly) does their business by taking others’ games and simply reskinning them.
We can all hope that years down the road, when Kingdom Heart 4 is released, we get the KH board game we deserve.