The Board Game Soapbox: We Need Better Tie-Ins

It is time to demand a better quality of pop-culture tie-in.

My Meeple Mountain colleague, Justin Bell, recently suggested there might be too many games coming out each year. If I am being honest, I think he has a point. As a gamer and as a content creator, it is tough to monitor an industry that publishes at an average rate 9-to-13 new items daily. Add in the annual releases for role playing games, and it can be overwhelming. That said, I think that somewhere in that barrage of new products, there are some missing products.

Where We Were

When I was very young, I knew that when there was something that became a significant part of popular culture—be that books, television, movies, or what-have-you—there was going to be a board game tie-in. Granted, these were generally cheaply made and with rules that would not be much of a step up from Candyland. Bet they were there. Meeple Mountain’s Tom Franklin wrote a wonderful article about the book Spin Again, which discusses board games from the 1950s and 1960s including many tie-in games. He has also written about a book called The Games We Played which reaches back even further into what the author calls “the golden age of board and table games.”

I can remember playing tie-in games in my childhood that ranged from roll-and-move affairs such as The Emergency! Game (based on the popular 1970’s television show Emergency!)…

The Emergency! Game box cover from the 1970s.

…to oddities like the Jaws game (based on… nevermind, I assume you know this one) where you fished things out of the shark’s mouth.

The Game of Jaws. I think you may have seen the film this was based on…

It seemed that the various other entertainment industries saw the board game market as a viable alternative revenue stream. This was not high quality gaming, but at least some degree of thought went into each of these to tie them in with the properties they were emulating. Looking at the board gaming industry of that era, these tie-in games were not very different from the quality of the typical mass-market sludge being released.

The Emergency! Game came out in 1973, competing for kids’ attention alongside that new-fangled Pong TV screen game, along with a few other tie-in games (e.g., Snoopy Come Home, The Price is Right, etc.). The other games released in 1973 are about what you would expect: preschool fare, roll-and-race games, sports games, typical dice and/or card games, and a slew of war games covering this battle or that campaign. There were some decent, original concepts dotting the board game landscape of the year (i.e., Triplanetary), but nothing to write home about. The point is this: board games with a pop-culture tie-in were being produced with the same degree of care and quality as other board games, and had been for decades.

Since the start of the 21st century, the board game industry has not been stuck in the mire of the mass-market productions of yesteryear. We have seen production values increase, the quality of rules and concepts skyrocket, and a stark increase in the inventiveness of game mechanics. This is not to say that there have not been releases that resemble the %@#*^ we saw in department stores when I was a pre-teen, but those have become the exception rather than the rule. Can you imagine a game like Root or Empyreal or Gloomhaven (!!) being produced in 1973? Me neither.

So if the overall quality of board gaming has gone up, why do we not see many high-quality tie-ins?

Where We Are

Let’s look at a couple of relatively recent examples.

Speed Racer (snippet from the movie poster)

Speed Racer

In 2008, Village Roadshow Pictures and the Wachowskis released the live-action movie Speed Racer based on the animated series from 1967-1968. The movie was fantastic… if you were a fan of the original series. The visuals were amazing resulting in some truly awe inspiring racing! That same year, there was a tie-in game produced that got favorable reviews and sold well.

Unfortunately for the board gaming community, that tie-in game was a console video game. No board game was produced. There is a market for board games about auto racing; there are plenty of designers and studios that could do this franchise and do it well. Such a game could sell well. It could even continue to draw people in with crazy track, environment, and character expansions. So why did 2008 not see a Speed Racer tie-in game?

This is one of a thousand potential examples. So much lost opportunity for well-designed, playtested, modern board games that tie-in with properties we all love. This means I have a lot of games I want to buy and play, but they just don’t exist.

The Incredibles (snippet from the movie poster)

The Incredibles

That example just speaks to the board gamer. What about the role player? It has been a while since role playing has been marginalized, demonized, ostracized, and so on. Credit where credit is due, there have been some tie-in products but these are generally uninspired. For example, the Dungeons and Dragons Stranger Things starter set. This one example should have had so much more and been so much better.

In 2004, Pixar Animation Studios released the original animated movie The Incredibles.The movie was amazingly popular and was a hit at the box office. That same year, there was a tie-in game produced that got mixed reviews, but sold very, very well. This was—once again—limited to the realm of video games. It would not be until after the sequel, ten years later, that a board game for this property would be produced: The Incredibles: Save the Day Game. It isn’t terrible, but it isn’t all that good either.

Even so, the true missed opportunity? Why is there no Incredibles role playing game?

It is not as if the superhero genre isn’t popular. Games like Mutants and Masterminds, Marvel Multiverse Role-Playing Game, Sentinel Comics, and others continue to generate content and sell. Mutants and Masterminds did a four-book set that put the DC Comics universe within their rules set. The books were a rethemed core rules, a book detailing the DC universe as a setting, and two books which had the game stats for a whole heapin’ helpin’ of DC heroes and villains.

I believe that a four-book set that did the same thing for the world of The Incredibles would have been quite popular. I would have certainly purchased it. My friends and family would be begging me to run that game. So where is it?

And so on…

There are so many missed opportunities. We get the occasional well-designed tie-in (e.g., Marvel VillainousVillainous being an example of a series that embraces tie-ins), but rarely anything substantial. The book industry seems to like the board gamer most, if properties like Harry Potter can be used as an example (yes, I understand that Harry Potter has expanded well beyond its literary roots): there are nearly 200 board games, expansions, accessories, and so on for this property! These range from original games to reskinned versions of classics such as Chess and Sequence. The role players have to settle for, you guessed it, a computer game.

As for the rest? Meh. I cannot fathom why this is the case.

So what should happen now?

Where We Should Be

Perhaps the iron is no longer hot enough to strike when it comes to some of the properties we all might have liked to see turned into board games and role playing games. But hope is not lost! Retro is often “in” and new elements of pop-culture are born every day. Opportunities are right around the corner.

What needs to happen, however, is for someone to approach the studios and producers of these properties to convince them that a well designed, well produced board game and/or role playing game can be both a boon and profitable.

Do you agree? What book, television, or movie series do you think has been sadly overlooked when it comes to being translated into a board or role playing game?

Related board games

About the author

K. David Ladage

Avid board gamer, role-player, and poet; software and database engineer. I publish some things under the imprint ZiLa Games. Very happy to be here.

Add Comment

Click here to post a comment

Subscribe to Meeple Mountain!

Crowdfunding Roundup

Crowdfunding Roundup header

Resources for Board Gamers

Board Game Categories