Licensed Board Games: Junk or Jewels?

By Michael Barnes

What is a licensed board game?

Chances are you’ve seen plenty and probably played several in your time. They’re the board games festooned with characters and imagery from television shows, movies or other entertainment media. Whether it’s “Hopalong Cassidy,” “Dick Tracy,” “The Six Million Dollar Man,” “Fantasy Island,” “Pac-Man,” “Desperate Housewives” or “Disney Princesses,” licensed games have a long history as examples of cross-marketing successful properties into different entertainment formats—often for a quick cash-in on what’s momentarily hot.

Pac-Man

Pac-Man

Sadly, most of these games are completely terrible, representing little more than a crass and condescending attempt to milk a couple of extra dollars out of popular trends with little regard to building an interesting or worthwhile game around them. Most of these games are among the simplest, most basic designs possible—roll a die, move a pawn, pick up a card or spin a spinner with appropriate photographic stills or illustrations that attempt to contextualize the crude game play. But does it really make sense for four players to all represent Batman in a “Batman” board game?

Of course, some licensed games can carry significant value for collectors focused on items representing particular characters, shows or films regardless of the quality of play the games offer. But even though I am a huge fan of the films, “The Dark Crystal” and “The Nightmare before Christmas,” I know that their respective board games are total dreck in terms of game play. I do not even want them as collectibles since my gaming dollar would be better spent elsewhere.

However, over the past couple of years, hobby-market publishers, such as Fantasy Flight Games, working outside of mainstream channels have released very successful games based on current and perennially popular licenses. These include “Lord of the Rings,” the “World of Warcraft” video games and the new “Battlestar Galactica” series that are actually great games far removed from the crude game play of the licensed games of the past. I even rated “Battlestar Galactica” one of the best games that I’ve ever played. It is a masterpiece of game design that also happens to be about one of my favorite television shows.

Battlestar Galactica

Battlestar Galactica

This current crop of licensed hobby games is not only a great opportunity for fans and collectors of particular properties to extend their enjoyment of them but also represent good investment potential. Licenses will eventually expire meaning that publication of some of these games will cease.

Of these more recent licensed games, in particular titles like Avalon Hill’s “Star Wars Episode I: The Queen’s Gambit” (a much better game than you would ever imagine given the movie) and Fantasy Flight’s recently out-of-print “Marvel Heroes” game based on the exploits of Spider-Man, the X-Men and other favorite comics characters will, I believe, see significant increases in value in the coming years. “Star Wars: Epic Duels,” released by Hasbro in 2002, met with good notices in the hobby community yet was inevitably found on the clearance shelf at most retailers for as little as $5 once the marketing blitz for the second prequel film subsided. Now, secondhand copies of the game pull in between $75 and $100, and with practically no chance for a reprint, those prices will likely remain constant or increase over the next few years.

Star Wars: Epic Duels

Star Wars: Epic Duels

Licensed games are a good bet for collectability as long as you are looking at the right ones. Skip the faddish ones you see on the shelves of the major retailers, and look toward the hobby publishers for great games based on great licenses.

Remember that a licensed game from a hobby publisher might see a print run of 10,000 copies compared to the millions of copies that might circulate for a “Monopoly” game with licensed characters. And if you’re a fan of some of these properties, you might find that the biggest return on investment you’ll get from one of these games is a great evening of entertainment with friends, family and fellow enthusiasts.

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