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I have a confession to make. I'm not proud, but I have to tell the truth. I was one of the five or so people in the world that thought the movie Hudson Hawk was wonderful. I thought the satire was well done and hysterical. I liked it so much, I actually went out and bought the GameBoy game Hudson Hawk. At that point, I realized none of the qualities I saw in the movie were in the game. It was dreadful, easy and I finished it in about half an hour.
Thus was my rude introduction into franchise games, the games designed to go along with an established license. Frequently, the games are weaker than stand-alone games, as they can rely on the draw of Harry Potter or, uh, Hudson Hawk, instead of sheer game design.
Board games are no different. The popular gaming database and website, boardgamegeek.com, lists over 200 games based on novels. These include games such as a 1938 classic based on Ferdinand the Bull and the 1973 game Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Games based on novels include at least nine games based on Lord of the Rings (including one based on The Hobbit) and at least five games based on Harry Potter.
Speaking of the boy wizard that bought J.K. Rowling a castle in Scotland, I fell for the bait again and bought the Quidditch Card Game. I liked card games and was looking for something nice and portable to take on a trip. It was a dreadful game that, in theory, must have been fun, but I had no idea because the rules were so frikkin hard to figure out. There's something annoying and humbling about two adults having trouble figuring out the rules to a kids' game.
So, burned by Hudson Hawk and Harry Potter alike, I turned my back on franchise titles. I ignored all licensed videogames and board games for several years, until my husband bought Lord of the Rings, designed by famous German game designer Reiner Knizia. We figured it had to at least not suck. The people who licensed the game knew what they were doing; they not only got Knizia to design it, but it was also illustrated by John Howe, the same concept artist that worked on Peter Jackson's movies, which gives the game some of the best art in board games, hands down. For fans of the books and movies, the game was immersive, gorgeous and well worth the price of admission. It was also cooperative, which was a breath of fresh air, as well as quite difficult to win.
Large, sprawling epic struggles against an outside supernatural force seem to translate well into cooperative games. First, we had Lord of the Rings place the players as hobbits with Sauron advancing toward them, and shortly afterward we had games where the players could band together to fight the elder god Cthulhu or Dracula (although in Dracula's case, someone does get to play the bloodsucking count against all the other players).
Arkham Horror and Fury of Dracula put the worlds of HP Lovecraft and Bram Stoker, respectively, into board games. The interesting things about these games is they tend to inspire one to read the books and stories behind them, if only so you can know what a shoggoth is or why "the color out of space" is supposed to be scary. Frequently in Arkham Horror, you will end up in a situation where "The pinkish rays almost get you," and it's good to know exactly why that's scary. Sure, the god of the bloody tongue is not someone you want to mess with, but the pinkish rays?
Licensed games attempt to capture the feeling of the property - some, like Lord of the Rings, are designed to have you retrace the adventures in board game form. See if you can avoid the Nazgul the way Frodo did! They have to bring across the humor or the desperation or the excitement of the book. Others attempt to give you an original story based in the world, like Arkham Horror. You don't go through the plots of the stories, but you are a character in Arkham dealing with Lovecraftian monsters. You could encounter Cthulhu, the color out of space and the Dunwich Horror all in one game (but I wouldn't recommend it).