Attempts to Build LEGO Board Games take the Fun out the Construction Toy System

A great example of a really bad LEGO board game. At least Time Cruisers came with around 40 actual LEGO parts.

In case you didn’t get the memo, “The LEGO Movie” is awesome. It’s a celebration of the perennially popular Danish construction toy and the particular culture of LEGO building, playing, and collecting. References abound throughout the anarchic film, including funny jabs at failed LEGO concepts like the pro sports-themed sets, circa 2002, and the flat-out weird Fabuland. But one element of the LEGO world that didn’t get a split second of screen time is tabletop board games. For most folks, LEGO is principally a building toy. But the trademark bricks and blocks have inspired a few interesting board games over the years.

Interestingly, it took LEGO decades to really work out a way to make a game out of their product. Which isn’t to say that thousands of kids—myself included—hadn’t already started using LEGO in everything from makeshift war games, with make-it-up-as-you-go-along rules, to creating dungeons for roleplaying games. LEGO board games started appearing in the 1990s and, for the most part, they weren’t particularly compelling, which is ironic, given that LEGO is widely regarded as one of the most creative and inspirational toys of all time.

Treasure Quest really had nothing to do with building or LEGO at all; it was really just an electronic guessing game.

One of LEGO’s first attempts at a board game was 1997’s Time Cruisers board game. It’s one of those corny licensed games, likely designed by a committee rather than a games designer, that pop up in retail and quickly fade away into clearance-bin obscurity. Although the game featured more than 40 LEGO pieces—including minifigures and accessories from the then-current Castle, Space, Wild West and Aquazone themes—the gameplay was the pits. A simple roll-and-move game, the idea was for players to collect artifacts from each world to become the ultimate Time Cruiser. The pieces in the box are likely worth more than the game itself these days, but I would be shocked to find a copy of the game containing all of the actual LEGO materials.

LEGO Treasure Quest, produced in 1998, was another less-than-encouraging example of an early LEGO board game. Other than some Indiana Jones-style adventurer minifigures, the game didn’t really have much to do with LEGO. It was mostly a simple deduction game where players try to figure out which colored keys to stick into an electronic treasure chest. It really wasn’t much more than a cheap cash-in on the LEGO brand.

At least LEGO’s charades-style building games are more in the spirit of the toy. The more recent version, pictured on the right, includes one of the very cool LEGO dice.

Constructionary (1999) was a little more in the LEGO spirit of building. Basically a Pictionary-style game of charades but with the clues built from LEGO blocks, it was decent for small children but very limited in terms of how many different words or subjects you could make with a limited set of blocks. LEGO would revisit this idea 10 years later with Creationary, a much more robust rendition of the charades-with-LEGO concept. Essentially, you draw a card and are tasked with building one of the objects pictured. Then, everyone has to guess what it is you made. Needless to say, without a comprehensive set of pieces available, you’ve got to get creative. Creationary also had a single expansion that added 20 subject cards and a handful of new blocks to expand the possibilities.

Also from the late 1990s, LEGO Creator (also known as Create-It) also sought to gameify the building process. But this title, aimed at younger children, was more of a competitive race to build an object depicted on a big, colorful goal card with instructions and a complete parts list. It’s another roll-and-move game, with players earning a piece of the color of the space they land on—or stealing one from another player. Generously packed with 72 LEGO blocks, this game won the 2001 Children’s Game of the Year award in Denmark. The unfortunately titled Builder Xtreme (2003) was a somewhat more older-skewing version of this game. 

These games were more competitive. As the subtitles suggest, “the race to build it board game” is exactly that. You get a card and try to build your model before other players. The “Xtreme” version has more pieces and is more suitable for older children.

Moving into the 2000s, there are a couple of artifacts, such as two different preschool counting game, but not much of note. It is significant to note that the two counting games (one Duplo-branded) and essentially every other game listed to this point was published by RoseArt, a company mostly known for making stickers, pencils, notebooks, erasers and other school supplies. Somehow, it got a line on producing poorly made board games from licensed properties. There is definitely a trend there, and far be it for me to say that LEGO’s association with RoseArt may have been one of the reasons why LEGO board games weren’t, to this point, a very hot commodity.

The early part of the decade also saw LEGO mostly attempting to parley its brief flirtation with professional sports into tabletop games. This made sense, since having a LEGO soccer team that just stands there doesn’t make for a very fun game. LEGO’s auto racing, hockey, soccer and basketball tabletop action games were all developed in-house rather than licensed out and all featured special engineering to make them work. For example, the basketball minifigures were equipped with spring-loaded arms and legs to make them able to throw the ball. But the sports theme was mostly a flop, disappearing after just a year.

LEGO’s sports line was a big failure, and as a result the relative coolness of these action games has been somewhat diminished. Granted, these games were essentially LEGO-ized reworkings of existing tabletop sports games but there were some fun features and, heck, anything is more fun with minifigures.

With most of these games failing to sell well enough to keep in print, it’s clear that LEGO wasn’t pursuing an effective strategy to turn its product into tabletop board games. The building games seemed like a can’t-lose proposition, but why buy a board game to do what you can already do with your much larger collection of bricks that you already own? Regardless, I’m sure many of these games were gifted to LEGOmaniacs over the years, the bricks now likely incorporated into larger collections or the games locked away in attics or long resigned to thrift and yard sales.

LEGO Produces Games In-House
By the mid-2000s, LEGO would get their game product strategy together. Well, at least somewhat. LEGO started to produce its board games in house instead of licensing them out to RoseArt, and there were some definite improvements.

LEGO finally comes up with a cool, original concept to use their bricks in a game. Unfortunately, it’s not the most exciting abstract you could imagine, but the idea was solid. It’s too bad LEGO hasn’t revisited this as a way to package a board game product.

In 2004, LEGO released a product line as part of its Creator series called X-Pods. These were small, circular capsules that contained an assortment of around 55 bricks. You could build a couple of little models with them or one big one. LEGO released a board game that went along with this product line called the X-Pod Playoff Pack. Retailing at $20, it came with four themed X-Pods. You assembled your pieces from the X-Pod you pick, but because of the piece limitations you had to be selective about which units you built. The game wasn’t all that big of a deal—it was really kind of a checkers variant with each model having a special ability—but making the construction of the game part of the total package was kind of brilliant.

But one step forward, two steps back. Returning to RoseArt in 2005, Lego sold its name to be placed on a chintzy pirate game called Search for the Pirate’s Treasure. While RoseArt was selling this simplistic spin-and-move title under that name, it stuck pictures of LEGO pirate minifigures on some other boxes and slapped a LEGO: Pirate’s Treasure label over the original title. It’s crude marketing at its worst. There isn’t a single LEGO component in the entire game. 

I mean, really. I think even my 4-year-old boy would cry foul if he got a LEGO game and it had pictures of minifigures instead of the real deal. RoseArt strikes again with this cheap cash-in.

After a couple of years of relative silence on the board game front, LEGO made another go of it in 2009, and this time it looked like the company was serious. It signed Reiner Knizia, the superstar German game designer, to design a couple of products in what would become a new line of board games that—quite significantly—would use only LEGO components. No cheap cardboard punch-outs with pictures of minifigure pirates. No cards. And even the dice would be custom LEGO pieces.

Anticipation was high, especially with Dr. Knizia’s name attached to the flagship title of the new line: Ramses’ Pyramid. The games were more appropriately pitched as actual LEGO sets, and when they were shown at Essen Spiel, the New York Toy Fair and other trade shows, they looked great. It seemed like LEGO might have finally gotten it right.

But Ramses’ Pyramid had terrible, vaguely written rules that immediately turned off the more hobby-oriented crowd, who were also disappointed that it wasn’t quite the Next Great Reiner Knizia Game. Hobby gamers felt the game was completely phoned in. Some of the other titles, such as Robo Champ, Monster 4, Magikus, Lava Dragon, LEGO Race 3000 and Pirate Plank had the feeling of extremely simple games gimmicked up with LEGO pieces. There wasn’t anything particularly great about the games other than they were made from bricks. There was definitely fun to be had there in building the games and playing them but, ultimately, they were by and large unremarkable as board game products. The games didn’t need to be complicated, but they did need to be at least a little clever. They just weren’t.

This was probably the first time Reiner Knizia’s name was seen on a U.S. mass-market retail shelf. Dr. Knizia has designed hundreds of games, many of them modern classics. Despite the fact that Ramses’ Pyramid looks amazing with its LEGO pyramid, the game is sadly not one of those classics.

What Potter fan wouldn’t be excited about a fun, buildable Hogwarts game with microfigures of Harry and the gang? This was one of the more successful designs, if only because it leveraged a popular license and featured some fun, thematic gameplay that any fan could enjoy.

But there were a few notable titles during LEGO’s period of “almost” board game success. Minotaurus was an exceptionally good children’s game that tasked the kids with running a team of Spartans through a shifting maze while avoiding the titular monster. There was a Harry Potter game where the board was a fun 3-D facsimile of the fabled Hogwarts, complete with character microfigures (the name given to the smaller game pawn figures). The 2011 Ninjago game featured a battle system that used a LEGO top and a cool movement mechanic using a grappling hook. There were big, highly thematic sets for the Lunar Command and Atlantis product lines that weren’t particularly well-designed as games, but at least they had huge kid appeal.

But by far, the closest LEGO has come to getting it right—even though it was a complete and total flop—was Heroica, released in 2011 and discontinued not too long after. This was a series of fantasy-themed board games that were essentially a very, very simple version of a Dungeons and Dragons-style dungeon-exploring adventure. There were microfigures with different character classes and special abilities, monsters, treasures and—best of all—a build-it-yourself dungeon layout. The game was supported with an online Flash game and comics and it seemed to have all of the right elements in place for an unqualified success.

But the game was strangely under-designed. The rules were—here it is again—vague and oversimplified. When you build one of the dungeons, it certainly seems like the game is going to be awesome. But it winds up feeling paltry and in need of some serious tinkering to make it interesting. Or, you can play it with a 4-year-old like I did. I don’t even look at the rulebook; I just let him make up a story as we go bashing our way through one of the game’s adventures. He’ll make up what the potions we pick up do, what a weapon does if we roll a magic talisman symbol on the die, and what happens when we lose all of our health. It’s incredibly fun and totally off the proscribed instructions. 

Fortaan was sort of the main Heroica set. The other sets—all with equally nonsensical titles—were generally smaller. You could play them as individual mini-games or assemble them all together for one gigantic (and probably painfully long) adventure.

Circling back around to the mention of “The Lego Movie” that kicked off this examination of LEGO’s relatively disappointing board game efforts, one of the themes of that movie is building without instructions and just being creative. And after analyzing the LEGO board games, I think that may ultimately be what the problem is with all of them—it’s hard to reconcile the structure, process and rules adherence that a board game requires with the spirit of building and creativity that the toy seeks to foster.

The charades-style games really are more about playing with LEGO than playing games, and the more serious attempts at rules-writing wind up with crummy games with the appeal of LEGO-building bolted on. I hate to say that I think LEGO should stick to what it knows, but that’s really the sum of it. If Reiner Knizia can’t come up with an amazing game with the bricks, then I don’t know that anyone really could. So maybe all of those vague rulesheets were a sign—just play and don’t worry about them.

LEGO is still making board games, but that push from 2009-2011 has subsided. There is a new game tied to the City theme and one based on The Hobbit. A LEGO Batman game was released recently but not in the United States, so I’ll withhold comment there. As a tremendous Batman fanatic, a lifelong LEGO lover and the father of two kids, we have to have it. But I know it’ll likely be more of the same, and we’ll just make our own fun with it.

Michael Barnes is a lifelong game player, collector and enthusiast. He has parlayed his passion for games into several successful ventures, including a retail hobby store, two popular gaming Websites, and 10 years of widely read commentary and criticism about both tabletop and video games.

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