He had expected an image, probably carved with the skill of a forgotten art.  But no art could mimic the perfection of the figure which lay before him.  -Robert E. Howard  “The Servants of Bit-Yakin”

The hobby gaming industry is one that is in love with licenses.  We love our Star Wars and our Lord of the Rings and our Star Trek.  We love our Dresden Files and our Evil Dead and our Aliens.  We love Babylon 5 and X-Men and A Song of Ice and Fire, and the list goes on and on.  But the fact of the matter is that many gaming companies seem to think that making a game based on one of these beloved settings is a sure fire way to a great game (and great sales.)  Most of the time, they’re wrong.

For every BATTLESTAR GALACTICA board game (great!) there’s two score IMAJICA Collectible Card Games (awful).  For every STAR TREK EXPEDITIONS (surprisingly good!) there’s a dozen A WHEEL OF TIME RPGs (don’t ask).  For every good Cthulhu game there’s at least three crappy Cthulhu games.  (That’s a column onto itself.  Don’t get me started about the crimes against Lovecraft.)

The mass graves of the hobby gaming world are filled with the corpses of ill-advised attempts to capture the look and feel of a beloved novel, movie, or TV series.  And sure, while many of us may have fond memories of playing some of them, the fact of the matter is that very few of these games will be listed among your favorites after the buzz of the original movie or whatever has worn off.  Things have gotten slightly better in recent years, but that’s not saying much.

One of our regular gamers in the shop recently expressed his dismay with one company in particular, and I asked him to put it in writing for me.

“Insofar as licensed RPGs are concerned, some of the biggest design failures in recent memory were the first few offerings from Margaret Weiss Press.  In the case of both Serenity and Battlestar Galactica there was no real integration of system and setting. At that time the Cortex system was a vague and sloppy set of rules that banked on the tunnel vision of super fans that merely need the slightest hint of a game to animate their participatory fanfic. Although they’ve learned from their mistakes and added some more thematic mechanics to their newer games, I truly believe that the Cortex system would be virtually unsellable if it were not bolted to major television intellectual properties”

Now he was speaking of RPGs in particular, but he gets to the heart of the matter.  Rarely do the game mechanics reflect the tone of the license.  The vast majority of licensed games feel like the mechanics were designed in a vacuum and then the licensed property was painted on as the final step.  The rules do not inform the setting and visa versa.

Rogues in the House
One particular victim of this sort of “design” over the years is our Cimmerian barbarian friend.  To wit: The CONAN COLLECTIBLE CARD GAME.  Each player controls his or her own version of Conan in an attempt to be crowned king.  Really?  Four different Conans running around?  And all of them seeking to become king?  For fans of Robert E. Howard’s stories, this is just wrong on so many levels.  And the less said about the various Conan RPGs made over the years the better.  And now a 15-card MUNCHKIN: CONAN THE BARBARIAN pack is on the horizon.  While I understand the appeal of this sort of thing, for a Howard purist, this is practically sacrilege.  Do we really need Conan presented in a tongue-in-cheek humorous way?  Please, didn’t Conan the Destroyer do enough damage?  “Groo the Wanderer” exists for a reason.

Now with a promising new movie on the horizon (Look, it’s Khal Drogo!) gamers may very well be hunting for a hobby game that does Howard’s amazing creation some justice.  What’s that you say?  You’ve heard whispers of a Stygian Snake Cult that has somehow uncovered a good Conan game that’s been under our noses for years?  Can the serpent worshipers actually be speaking the truth?  Aye.

AGE OF CONAN: THE STRATEGY BOARD GAME is just that game.  Released in 2009 by Nexus Games and distributed by Fantasy Flight Games, AGE OF CONAN is designed by Roberto Di Meglio, Marco Maggi, and Francesco Nepitello, and the mechanics are loosely based on their earlier WAR OF THE RING board game (more on that title later.)  Right off the bat, you notice something different about this Conan game.  It’s game played across three ages, with each player controlling one of four kingdoms in Hyboria.  AGE OF CONAN is a fairly straightforward war game with the addition of one havoc-wreaking mercenary/pirate/barbarian Cimmerian running around the board occasionally throwing his lot in with one side or another and generally making life somewhat complicated for everyone around him.  And while the various nations are busy fighting over territory, subjugating native populations and swindling gold out of each other, Conan is completing the various quests and adventures that we are all familiar with from Howard’s wonderful stories: “The Tower of the Elephant”… “The God in the Bowl”… “The People of the Black Circle”… “The Frost Giant’s Daughter”.  These quests serve as a timer, determining when each age ends and the next begins.

Who gets to play Conan himself?  Nobody.  And everybody.  After each adventure, players bid cards to control Conan for the length of the next one.  Clever manipulation of Conan during these jaunts around Hyboria can result in treasures and glory for your kingdom, much like the various nobles and kings manipulated Conan in.. wait for it…Howard’s original writings! Sense a pattern here?

Not only that, but in what must be one of my favorite board game mechanics of all time, during the third and final age of the game, if certain conditions are met, a player may attempt to crown Conan as his king.  I have only seen this tried in about half of the games that I have played over the years, but when the stars are right, a player can attempt this risky maneuver to shore up victory for himself, or as a hail mary pass to win the game despite being otherwise out of contention.  Successfully crowning Conan won’t win you the game outright, but it will end the game and alter scoring conditions in your favor.  If you fail?  The game still ends, but Conan decapitates you for your ignorance and the remaining players do a final scoring with you, naturally, out of the running.

Yes, there are some dissenting opinions on this game out there, but I largely blame the slightly obtuse rulebook.  Once you get one session under your belt, the true brilliance of the design really shine through.  Yes, it’s a war game, but in a lot of ways, it scores like a Euro-game.  At the end of the day though, this is the only time our Cimmerian friend has been done justice in a game of any sort.

It should be noted that just recently, it was announced that Nexus Games, the producer of this fine game had gone belly up.  The planned expansion for AGE OF CONAN is now likely M.I.A. and I can’t imagine the game will be reprinted after the current batch that FFG has sells through, although there are currently plenty of copies floating around out there.
A New Hope
The question arises, why is it that more often than not, licensed games suck?  I think the answer lies in why we find them so appealing in the first place.  Sticking a license on the box… it’s basically gamer short hand.  Especially when dealing with a role-playing game.  Think about it.

Let’s say your gamer group is really into space-faring laser-blasting science fiction stuff.  All things being equal, which game would you prefer to introduce to your group?  TRAVELLER?  Or STAR WARS?  I thought so.  I mean, why bother trying to explain some vast new setting when you can just say “we’re playing Star Wars.”?  BOOM!  Everybody immediately knows the setting and everybody is immediately emotionally invested.  All the dirty work is done for you.  Where the problem arises is when the publisher lets all that good will and built-in resonance do all the work for them.  If you’re gonna create a Star Wars game, you are gonna need to work to make sure that the tone and feel of Star Wars comes through!  Otherwise, you’re just being lazy, and if you’re slapping that logo on all those books and boxes without designing mechanics and game play to specifically dial in to the setting… why bother?  You’re just gonna make a crappy game that causes explosions of NerdRage.

While we’re on the topic, if there’s one license that tends to elicit the most NerdRage or Joy from gamers, it’s Star Wars.  I think it’s safe to say that more games have been made from this property than any other.  And with good reason.  It is a deeply, deeply beloved world and over the years, the comics, novels and TV shows (the “extended universe”) have added to an already full and rich background.  It is ripe for the picking.  Alas, unexpectedly, Star Wars has rarely gotten a fair shake in game form.  I know STAR WARS: THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT board game has its followers, and so does the SAGA edition RPG, but other than that?  YOUNG JEDI?  STAR WARS RISK?  Please.  Roleplaying games are of particular note.  No Star Wars RPG has ever lived up to the setting’s potential in my opinion.  There are some interesting things about all of them to be sure, but none of them ever felt truly right.  They all lack a certain starwarsiness, and they all suffer from second-fiddle syndrome (more on THAT later too).

Now, that being said, literally as I was writing this column, Fantasy Flight Games announced a broad and comprehensive licensing deal with Lucasfilm.  I daresay this news was the buzz of GenCon this past weekend.  First up is X-WING, a tactical ship-to-ship combat game using pre-painted minis in the style of WINGS OF WAR; and the cooperative STAR WARS Living Card Game.  Both will take place during the classic trilogy’s continuity.

The deal covers board games, miniatures games, and… RPGs.   A new Star Wars RPG can’t be far away (indeed, FFG has confirmed that work is apace).  I am hopefully optimistic.  Why?  One word.  WARHAMMER.  Fantasy Flight Games took over the WARHAMMER FANTASY and WARHAMMER 40,000 RPG rights from Games Workshop and Black Library a few years ago, and the results have been outstanding.  Games Workshop is notoriously protective of their intellectual property and yet FFG has not only managed to present the depth and scope of the settings while keeping Workshop happy, but they are pushing thematic boundaries in a way that Workshop themselves haven’t done since the REALM OF CHAOS books in the late 80’s.  So yeah, I am charging up my lightsaber in anticipation.

Stay tuned for HOBBY GAMING LICENSES PART II in the coming weeks.

Paul Alexander Butler is the Store Manager of Games and Stuff and organizes Board Game Night every Tuesday at 6pm.   [CARD.BOARD.BOX.] is his monthly gaming column.  Thirty years ago he stole the large jewel known as “The Eye of the Serpent”  from a poorly guarded tower and now rules his ophidian worshipping minions from the Mountain of Power.

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