Commercially Licensed Games That Don't Suck
Joshua Miller
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For decades, the North American board and card game industry has been awash with the flotsam and jetsam of commercially licensed games - uninspired spinoffs of TV shows, movies, books, comics, etc. The vast majority of this opportunistic drivel has never been of much interest to the sort of hobby gamers that frequent places like the Boardgamegeek. These games are generally designed to sell on the strength of the brand name, not the strength of the gameplay.

However, a few recent games are causing some of us to re-think our preconceptions about commercially licensed board games. I'm thinking in particular of some of the more satisfying Lord of the Rings and Star Wars games. I hope this trend continues, since commercially licensed games have the potential to reach a much bigger and broader audience than the "niche" games that we game geeks like to play and discuss.

I would welcome suggestions for any games I might have missed!
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1. Board Game: Lord of the Rings [Average Rating:6.77 Overall Rank:698]
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It strikes me as odd that one of the most innovative designs of recent years arrived in the form of a licensed game. Lord of the Rings is one of the most abstract games on this list, yet it manages to carry off the theme quite well, I think. The actual mechanics may not do a very good job of vividly capturing the details of the books, but Knizia does a remarkable job of communicating the proper "feel." It really does feel like you're desperately struggling onward in the face of impossible odds. This game has really grown on me since the introduction of the Friends & Foes expansion, which has eliminated my initial concerns about sameness and solvability. So far, I don't like the Sauron expansion at all.

Worth the $15 I spent (KBToys.com clearance).
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2. Board Game: Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation [Average Rating:7.21 Overall Rank:413]
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Knizia's third Lord of the Rings game. (His second was Der Herr der Ringe: die Gefährten das Kartenspiel, which may or may not belong on this list - I don't know enough about it.) Like its big-box cousin, LoTR:TC is fairly abstract for a commercially licensed game. However, it will feel more thematic to some gamers because the players actually maneuver individual characters across a landscape and engage other characters in battle. Others will feel that it is less thematic because there is little reflection of the actual storyline of Tolkien's books. I'm of the latter persuasion, although I find this little game to be truly outstanding.

Worth the $15 it will cost you online (regular price).
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3. Board Game: Middle-earth [Average Rating:7.23 Overall Rank:915]
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My second-favorite collectible card game behind Magic (I'm not especially a fan of the genre), and the best Middle Earth-themed game not designed by Dr. Knizia. A shame that this one never really caught on, although perhaps not a surprise, since it was more involved and cerebral than your typical CCG fare. Also, the system for movement between regions was too cumbersome. Thematically, ME:TW is the most impressive Lord of the Rings game I've played. Like the first game on this list, it actually feels like Tolkien.

Worth the steeply-discounted prices, if you can find both the cards and an opponent.
 
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4. Board Game: Star Wars: Epic Duels [Average Rating:6.97 Overall Rank:890]
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The Star Wars franchise and the Middle Earth franchise are head and shoulders above the competition when it comes to licensed board games. There are at least three non-sucking Star Wars games, although I don't think any of them are quite as impressive as the Lord of the Rings games listed above. By and large, the Star Wars games are targeted at a somewhat younger audience - but the best of them are also suitable for adults.

I would describe Star Wars: Epic Duels as a "quick and enjoyable romp." Its appeal may be broader than most of the other Star Wars games because it features a nice mix of old school and recent Star Wars characters. Pretty good for a game aimed at 8-year-old boys.

Worth the $10 I spent (Toys'R'Us brick-and-mortar store Hasborg 2-for-1 sale).
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5. Board Game: Star Wars: The Queen's Gambit [Average Rating:7.54 Overall Rank:545]
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I've never played this one, but it has been well received among the discriminating gamers of boardgamegeek (avg. user rating = 7.51). At the very least, it's an impressive box of bits!

I'll probably pick up a copy if and when it's marked for clearance by the major online retailers.
 
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6. Board Game: Star Wars: Episode 1 – Clash of the Lightsabers [Average Rating:6.27 Overall Rank:3396]
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Very similar to Epic Duels, but more compact, more abstract, more skillful, and probably a little less fun for most Star Wars fans. Certainly not as pretty nor as evocative of the whole Star Wars experience. I think it tends to appeal to players of German-style games and/or card games, both of whom will be comfortable with the high level of abstraction. The quality of the card stock is horrible.

Worth the $5 I spent (Toys'R'Us brick-and-mortar store clearance).
 
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7. Board Game: Dune [Average Rating:7.63 Overall Rank:215]
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Its only serious rivals for the title of "Best Boardgame Based on a Book" are the two Lord of the Rings games at the head of this list. That's quite impressive, considering that the folks at Eon published Dune more than 20 years ago! It stands up well against the best games of recent years because it combines a variety of clever game mechanisms into a workable and appealing whole. A great success, both as a game and as a believable translation of Herbert's novel(s).

Worth giving up Circus Maximus (purchased new for $7.50 at Amazon.com!) in trade.
 
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8. Board Game: Password [Average Rating:6.11 Overall Rank:3500]
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Any remotely-succesful game show is bound to have a "home game" version, but how many of those are still being played 40 years later? Password is a good choice for anyone who likes word games - a portable and versatile game that fills the gap between the yelling-style word games (Taboo, Catch Phrase, Pictionary, Charades) and the quieter ones (Scrabble, Balderdash, Scattergories, Boggle).

Worth the dollar you'll pay for it at a second-hand store.
 
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9. Board Game: eBay Electronic Talking Auction Game [Average Rating:5.97 Overall Rank:5441]
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Apparently not as popular as the real thing, since every KB Toys I've visited has been selling it for $5 for a *long* time now. I haven't played it yet, but the consensus is that it doesn't suck - so here it is on the list.

Probably will be worth the $5 I spent (KB Toys brick-and-mortar store) plus the AAA batteries.

<i>Update 10/19/02: I had a chance to try this one with my family last night. A decent game. The hurried pace of the electronic auctioneer is what makes it work. It should be the sort of game that you can play with just about anyone. Definitely worth the $5 I payed for it, although I wouldn't buy it at full price (~$20).</i>
 
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10. Board Game: Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Game [Average Rating:6.63 Overall Rank:1635]
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Simple enough for young children, but with enough chrome and non-obvious decisions to keep adults interested. I'd say that's a smart design decision for a game based on a TV show that caters to a similarly-broad age range. The Buffy game will probably appeal mostly to those with some knowledge of the subject matter - moreso than many of the other games on this list.

Worth the $5 I spent (Toys'R'Us clearance).
 
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11. Board Game: Daytona 500 [Average Rating:7.15 Overall Rank:1334]
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Daytona 500 now appears on four GeekLists, and three of them are mine! This would be my choice for the best game from this list, although it's hard to compare a relatively light game like this with more involved games like Dune and Lord of the Rings. Daytona 500 was officially licensed by NASCAR, although the license is really only used for the box cover.

Worth the $7 I paid (eBay).
 
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12. Board Game: Strat-O-Matic Baseball [Average Rating:7.63 Overall Rank:1133]
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Rather than list all the various non-sucking statistical sims licensed by the players' associations of major sports leagues, I'll just let the eldest brother speak on behalf of the entire family. Although I no longer have any interest these games, I've spent more hours of my life playing them than all the other games on this list combined, by far.

Worth the unknown amount of money I spent on this and some other player-based statistical sports sims way back in the days of my youth.
 
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13. Board Game: Starship Troopers [Average Rating:6.46 Overall Rank:2309]
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There's nothing especially enthralling about this outdated wargame. However, it doesn't suck, so it belongs on the list. Its most outstanding quality is its adherence to the source material.
 
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14. Board Game: Aliens [Average Rating:7.23 Overall Rank:1765]
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<i>I haven't played any of the games from here on down to the end of the list, so there is no ironclad guarantee of non-sucky-hood below this point!</i>

War/battle game based on the second "Alien(s)" movie. As far as I know, it doesn't suck.
 
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15. Board Game: Buck Rogers: Battle for the 25th Century Game [Average Rating:6.42 Overall Rank:2978]
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Simple Game Master-esque wargame based on the comic/movie/TV show. As far as I know, it doesn't suck.
 
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16. Board Game: HeroClix [Average Rating:6.50 Overall Rank:1759] [Average Rating:6.50 Unranked]
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Simple collectible miniatures game using Marvel and DC comic characters. As far as I know, it doesn't suck.
 
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17. Board Game: Groo: The Game [Average Rating:6.27 Overall Rank:3180]
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Light-hearted and chaotic beer-and-pretzles card game. As far as I know, it doesn't suck.
 
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18. Board Game: The Powerpuff Girls: Villains at Large Game [Average Rating:6.38 Overall Rank:5515]
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Kids' game that reputedly holds some interest for adults as well. I would actually be interested in trying this one sometime if I can find it. As far as I know, it doesn't suck.

Thanks to Peter Loop for alerting me to this one.
 
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19. Board Game: A Game of Thrones (first edition) [Average Rating:7.27 Overall Rank:312]
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Here's one that has been getting great buzz lately. It's based on the fantasy novels of George R. R. Martin's best-selling fantasy series "A Song of Fire and Ice," taking it's name from the first book in the series. I'm hoping to have a chance to play this for the first time at our Grand Rapids Games Day this weekend.

Based on everything I've heard, I'm confident that this one doesn't suck; many say it's outstanding.
 
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