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Turning popular video games into great board games is a lot harder than it sounds

Polygon spoke with several teams beating their heads against this particular wall

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We’re eight months into 2023, and already board gaming fans have spent more than $18 million crowdfunding new games. And not just any kind of board games, mind you, but board games based off of video games.

All told, at least eight campaigns across three different crowdfunding platforms have garnered interest from over 96,000 people. It’s a segment of board games that is quickly gaining in popularity, with more being announced every month. But there’s more to turning a hit video game into a successful board game than just slapping some intellectual property onto a box and making sure there’s some excellent miniatures inside. Polygon spoke with a handful of designers to learn more about the process.

Perhaps the hardest part of adapting a video game to the tabletop is deciding the scope and scale of the project as a whole. Designers must first ask themselves what aspects of the source material they hope the board game brings to life. Do they stick with the familiar haunts that players are already used to? Or do they try to take them someplace entirely new? Either way, they’ll need to get the owner of the rights to the video game to sign off on the concept — and they’ll need to get the existing community of fans excited.

Stacks of poster-sized maps, game components destined for the Divinity Original Sin board game.
Stacks of materials destined for boxed copies of Divinity Original Sin the Board Game.
Image: Larian Studios

However, board game designers are often tasked with translating unique video game mechanics to a platform they are poorly suited to — aspects of a game so tied to its identity that come hell or high water, they have to be included in the tabletop version. Trying to tackle these kinds of stubborn systems or thematic requirements can lead to revisions, alterations, or even total reworks in order to create something fun. This was a predicament that Larian, a studio known for its computer role-playing games like the recent Baldur’s Gate 3, encountered while working on Divinity Original Sin the Board Game.

According to Kieron Kelly, the producer heading up the board game project at Larian Studios, one carryover that the company knew had to make it into the Divinity board game was the interaction between the elements, the world, and its players. Hitting water with fire, for example, would create steam clouds that obscure vision and prevent ranged attacks from going through, while hitting an oil barrel with fire or electricity would cause an explosion. These statuses (wet, oil, fire, etc.) all applied to characters and enemies as well, meaning that similar reactions would occur, which players could take advantage of in their strategies to overcome obstacles. This added strategy and interaction was paramount when making the jump to the new medium.

Every time the design team made a change to how the status effect mechanic worked, it was never quite close enough to how the video game worked, Kelly explained. After nearly eight iterations of trying to get the system to a spot where Larian wanted it to be, the team decided to bring in outside professional consultants to get a fresh perspective on the situation. The responses were that the status effects bogged down an otherwise great game. The mechanic as it existed at the time was scrapped and redesigned from the ground up using the provided feedback, resulting in the final system that players will experiment with when they play the game.

An argonian character board with slots for chunky, custom dice.
A player sideboard for The Elder Scrolls: Betrayal of the Second Era.
Image: Chip Theory Games

Occasionally, developers are able to adjust and tweak an existing system of theirs to fit into an adaptation project, an example being The Elder Scrolls: Betrayal of the Second Era from Chip Theory Games. Known for its premium board games utilizing dice and poker-style chips (including it’s most popular title, Too Many Bones), developer Chip Theory Games used its intricate RPG character customization system from that game as a springboard for the player-character system in its upcoming Elder Scrolls game.

Too Many Bones incorporates a more restrictive take on player choice, where players choose from a pool of characters with preselected skills and abilities that level up over time. That approach is distinctly not how fans of Elder Scrolls experience progression. Bethesda’s series touts its freedom in character development, allowing players to explore any and all aspects of its game’s narrative and design. Speaking with Josh Wielgus, Chip Theory’s chief marketing officer, and Ryan Howard, the company’s development director, they explained how Chip Theory was able to adjust its Gearloc system and fit it with the world of Elder Scrolls.

“In an effort to better get class and racial traits into Second Era, we arrived on the similar system we have now, where stats and skills all operate on the same grid, and we force you to pair certain stats/skills across from one another depending on your race,” Wielgus said. This approach has created a balancing choice for players where, in order to improve in one aspect, they will have to accept that it will be at the cost of another. These choices will not only serve to make players put more thought into their characters, but Chip Theory Games hopes it will be an invitation for players to try out different builds, increasing Second Era’s replayability.

While license holders obviously get to have a say in the process, one of the delights of crowdfunding board games is that fandoms get their say as well. Sometimes they say things that developers just don’t expect. Jakub Wiśniewski, CEO of Glass Cannon Unplugged, the studio behind the recent successful campaign for Apex Legends: The Board Game, revealed during our interview that it was thanks to positive fan feedback and requests that the project gained its initially unplanned solo game mode.

“When we announced the game, people started asking about a solo mode, and at first we thought it was a joke, but then we saw they were serious about it,” Wiśniewski said. “They were serious about it because they know what we did for Frostpunk, and they had expectations that if it’s Glass Cannon that’s making this game, [Apex] is going to have a good solo mode, and we realized the potential there.”

Simply because the potential was there, though, didn’t mean that the new addition of a solo mode was a foregone conclusion. Adding in a new mode, especially one that hadn’t initially been included in the scope or the funding target, requires a lot of careful thought and planning to happen. Wiśniewski and the rest of the team at Glass Cannon had to work out whether they could work with the content in Apex to give the fans a quality solo mode. From there, if it was decided that they could do so, they then had to work out how the solo variation would play. Bringing in the team and some outside friends, Glass Cannon sat down and, through careful deliberation, brainstorming, and playtesting various concepts over several days, what resulted was a rewarding and fun solo experience that the team was proud of and found to be worth including for the fans.

With all the systems that are required in a tabletop experience, becoming overly complex is a risk. If you aim for the hardcore board gaming fans, with more complex mechanics and an impressive table presence, you risk scaring off the audience that simply enjoys the video games. These players may only have experience with the source material, where many of the systems are handled behind the scenes by the software, or they haven’t experienced a tabletop game more complex than Uno or Scrabble. If you opt to design a simpler game that may be more appealing to the video game crowd, you risk alienating your existing audience due to a lack of the complexity or depth they expect from you.

A good tabletop adaptation needs to have a fundamental understanding of what lies at the core of the property being adapted. It’s simply not enough to make sure it mimics or recreates its systems one to one. Being able to evoke similar feelings that the video game can, and choosing the right aspects to bring over to engender those feelings, is what designers strive for. With this specific genre of adaptation becoming more and more popular, developers will continue to seek out and attempt to capture that digital spirit in cardboard and dice.


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