License to Thrill; More than Just a Mover

License to Thrill; More than Just a Mover

This article was written for the 2011 Playthings Magazine/Global Toy News Toy Fair Issue.


Licensed products are huge.  Walk into any big box store and you can see America’s favorite cartoon characters, movie titles and TV game shows used to sell products ranging from mugs to cookies and pajamas to backpacks.  In these instances the products being sold are relying solely on character images and logos; but when you translate a license into a board game it often requires more interaction with the license than just the graphics.

There are plenty of companies out there that have found great success marrying popular licenses with existing games so kids who are Dora the Explorer addicts can enjoy classic games with their favorite TV pal.  While this is one way of bringing favorite licenses into the game aisle, it doesn’t delve too deeply into the essence of the show or character.  So what if you want to take it a step further and create a game specifically for the license?


Translating the license from a TV show, a movie or a game show to a board game isn’t easy.  We all know that strong licenses typically sell products because they come with a built-in fan base, but this fan base is made of loyal watchers who will know when the product deviates from the story laid out in the show or movie.  They know key quotes, specific scenes, character interactions and all sorts of other small tidbits that aren’t abundantly clear to the occasional viewer.  It’s the little things that are going to prove that the game was made to highlight the licenses versus a license that was overlaid on an existing game concept.  For example, when designing a game for a TV game show, keeping the same style and tempo for the questions is crucial because it gives the players the ability to imagine the host asking the real TV contestants the same questions.   Being faithful to the license and its core attributes is essential.

Zathura Game Redo WHITEFans want to be immersed into the realm the license creates.  Whether the license includes a wizard, super-hero, princess or a charismatic game show host, license-loyal consumers want to be apart of the show or movie.   Players don’t want to live vicariously thought their character, they want to BE their character and simply moving that character’s token around the board doesn’t count.  Creating a mood and giving players control over their character’s special features will help captivate players’ imaginations.  Years ago I worked on the Pressman Toy board game for the movie Zathura (at right).  Similar to the movie Jumanji, the characters were playing a board game that gets out of control and sends them and their house into outer space and they must finish the game to get back to Earth safely all before the evil Zorgons destroy their house.  Instead of just re-creating the board game the kids were playing in the movie, we added a feature where parts of the house broke off during play and the game would win if the entire house disappeared before someone reached finish.  This forced difficult decisions on whether to help another player to save bits of the house and gave the game a sense of urgency when only a couple pieces of the house remained.  Obviously recreating the Zorgon attacks was impossible, but the excitement and tension of the house falling apart prompts recollections of scenes from the movie and created a similar mood.  Another Pressman game I worked on was for the first Fantastic 4 movie where the superheroes battle Dr. Doom (see below).  Each of the four characters has a different special power that makes them unique and it was imperative to capture this in the game.  Each mover represented one of the characters and had special areas of the board where they could use their superpower.  The Thing could smash through walls, Mr. Fantastic could stretch across several spaces, The Human Torch could fly up to spaces above the board and the Invisible Woman could move from room to room without being seen.  Players got to choose when to employ their special powers and each game was different depending on which characters were playing and how they worked together as a team.  Providing a way for players to make these decisions allowed them to BE the character versus just using their favorite character’s token during the game.

Fantastic Four

Creating board games for licenses means you’re creating games for fans of an existing product.  They may be tough to please but they might also be venturing into an area of the store they wouldn’t normally shop because they like the license.  So don’t disappoint them; create games that engage through mood, theme and the character interaction they crave from their beloved license and don’t forget to add some strong graphics and awesome packaging because after all, it is a licensed product.