Transcript of our podcast from 13 September 2008

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Popular Culture in Games PART I: Movie-tie-in Games

by Moritz Eggert

After talking at length about board game depiction in popular culture I want to turn the tables and look at popular culture depicted in gaming. Of course the first thing that comes to mind is movie-tie-in games, of which there are plenty.

Movie-based games have an incredibly bad reputation among boardgamers, and rightfully so. Often these are pure hack-jobs churned out by large companies to cash in on a trendy film, very often designed by poor nerdy office workers who suddenly find themselves in the role of a game designer without knowing the basic principles of the hobby. Some designs are even so bad that they are virtually unplayable or go on forever, like the game based on the David Lynch-Film “Dune” by Parker – not to be too confused with the most excellent EON game based on the books - or the awful “Battlestar Galactica” game by the same company, also not to be confused with the new game by Fantasy Flight Games, which is based on the new and not the old series, and which is hotly anticipated by Tom and Sam.

Some film-based games seem to have been abandoned in the middle of the design process, like “Nightmare on Elm Street” by Victory Games, which features colour codes on the cards that are actually not used as a mechanic in the game. Others are playable, but absolutely no fun, like the Kojak-game by Milton Bradley, which manages to be more boring than Pacheesi, which of course makes you think why you haven’t played Pacheesi in the first place.

But rarely, very rarely, good game designers are up for the task to create memorable games for memorable films.

Leading Edge’s “Aliens”game for example is an outstanding example for this. This now highly-sought after out-of-print game manages to resist the urge to dumb down the elements of the film into the usual “pick-up-and-deliver” shtick that pervades so many film-tie-in games, but is instead a detailed simulation of all the major action scenes of the movie, with absolutely no element missing. With the expansion set you can actually game the whole movie from start to finish in an incredibly detailed manner, and there are rules to provide you with alternative paths and scenarios should certain characters die or survive that differ from the film story. There are even rules to play out scenes that happen off-screen in the film, like the alien invasion of the drop ship or the killing of Burke once he has locked himself in before the sewer chase sequence. Even better, it’s a cooperative game that can be played solitaire or as a group. It comes very close to a very detailed miniature wargame in boardgame form, but without being overly complicated or mind-boggling for a newbie. In short a worthy game to accompany one of the best SF-action movies ever made – it really feels like you’re there, overrun by hordes of aliens.

Star Trek as a franchise has been relatively lucky in the field of boardgames, as it has been used as a background for many excellent games, but of course also a few duds. “West End Games” had quite a good streak with Old Series based games like “Star Trek : The Adventure Game”, which is a variant of “Tales of the Arabian Nights” in the Star Trek universe. In this wonderful game by Greg Costikyan you are the captain of either a Klingon or a UFP vessel bound to explore a formerly unknown sector of space. There are several planets to explore, and each time you do so, you decide the exact combination of the landing party including the famous red shirts who were always bound to die in the Star Trek episodes. Then you enter into a kind of gamebook sequence similar to “Tales of the Arabian Nights”, in which you get offered several choices based on the combination of skills in your party, while your opponent reads to you what happens. Many of the situations you will encounter are similar to the ones in the TV episodes, but have different outcomes, some of them pretty catastrophic, as characters like Kirk can actually die in this game, even without uttering famous last words like “oh....my”. All in all it really captures the spirit of the series while being a perfectly accessible game for all ages.

Another game to check out is “Star Trek III – Three Solitaire Games”, if only for the excellent “Kobayashi Maru” starship combat game. “Starfleet Battles” is another evergreen in the gaming universe, but the hypercomplex spaceship combat simulation in a semi-Star Trek, non-official universe is not to everybody’s taste, as playing even seconds in a space battle can take ages to resolve because of the micro-management of shields and energy allocation.

A curiosity in film/tv tie-ins is the fact that the official game for “Buffy-The Vampire Slayer” can boast to be one of the worst and one of the best film tie-in games...at the same time! The reason for that is that there have been two versions of this game, one for the UK market and one for the US market. The UK game is apparently awful, whereas the US version is a valid attempt to mix light roleplaying and boardgaming that kind of works, and not only for fans of the show.

Return with me to the world of movie and tv games next time, when I talk about one of the biggest franchises ever and its impact on gaming: Star Wars!

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2008, Westpark Gamers