Once considered the dregs of the hobby store shelves, licensed board games have never been more popular and better quality than they are right now. From the surprisingly robust gameplay mechanics found in Disney Villainous to the intense and rewarding challenge provided by Marvel Champions: The Card Game, licensed board games are no longer the shallow and uninspired cash grabs that they used to be.
To investigate how this dramatic change might have come about, Dicebreaker spoke to Deirdre Cross, VP of Funko Games - which is responsible for the likes of Back to the Future: Back in Time and Godzilla: Tokyo Clash - and a previous member of the Prospero Hall team, a tabletop development group that has created arguably some of the greatest licensed board games in recent memory including the aforementioned Disney Villainous, as well as the Universal Monsters themed game Horrified and the Jaws board game.
Having been a part of Prospero Hall for almost 15 years, and now a vice president of Funko Games, Cross provided some insight into the industry’s shift in focus to making better licensed board games and what this could mean for the future of tabletop gaming.
Do you think that licensed board games have improved over the last few years? Are they better than they used to be?
I think there has been strong creative work happening in this space for many years (X-Wing, Battlestar Galactica, and others in the preschool space) but it has only been recently that we see more broad acceptance and willingness to “take a chance” on a licensed game. There are so many wonderful licensed, IP-based board games on the market these days, our team at Prospero Hall has been proud to be a part of bringing many beloved stories to the tabletop.
It has only been recently that we see more broad acceptance and willingness to “take a chance” on a licensed game.
If they have improved, why do you think that licensed board games are better now?
The great thing is that so many game designers are turning their attention and passions toward making games for properties that resonate with them. I think that passion is coming through in spades in the marketplace right now. Marvel Battleworld and Funkoverse are great examples of these experiences – where gamers can also expand their game experiences with the addition of new and beautiful game pieces of their favorite characters, that are also collectibles.
What makes for a great licensed board game? What are the vital ingredients?
The first thing we do is take a deep dive into the property we’re making a game for. We immerse ourselves in the source-material, the story, and grok the resonant touchpoints of a particular license. And so much the better if the team working on it are fans of the IP. Then we work to dovetail the mechanics in the game with the story of the property.
Do you think that the growing popularity of tabletop gaming in general has led to more and better licensed board games?
Absolutely! There are so many amazing new games coming into both the mass game aisle and FLGS each year – the buyers are taking chances and it’s paying off in bringing more players.
One thing we really try to do is to leverage the people on our team who have the deepest fandom.
Which licences have been your favourite ones to work on during your time at Prospero Hall and Funko Games?
We really focus on licenses that we love- so I’m going to have to say all of them are my favorites. But one thing we really try to do is to leverage the people on our team who have the deepest fandom. Everyone is a fan of something! When we’re working on a game for Marvel, we have the people on the game who know every comic book series, and every movie by heart. When we work on something for the Disney Parks, we have people on the game who’ve traveled to every park in the world, and who listen to podcasts about the Parks in their spare time. If it’s coming out of the Prospero Hall studio, you can bet someone on our team is obsessed with the license.
Licenses are a powerful way to bring new people into gaming.
Do you think that the future of tabletop gaming is in licensed IPs?
For sure. Licenses are a powerful way to bring new people into gaming. For your average customer, they may not have purchased a new game since Uno. But, when they’re rolling down the aisle at Target and they see Hogwarts Battle, they buy their first deck builder. The IP will give them a hook to understand the mechanism of the game. So, an instruction like “acquire more powerful cards to enhance your deck” equals: “If I “learn” more Spells, I’ll be able to fight the Death Eaters!” Boom, suddenly you’re deck-building. If we’ve all done our jobs right, the game will meet new players where they are, and use the hooks of the IP to bring them into deeper gameplay. Next time, they’re ready to take a crack at another deck-builder where they may not know the story as deeply but they understand the technical aspects of the mechanic.
Which licenses would be your dream to work on next?
We’re already working on them, so I can’t tell you that! But I can say, we’re thrilled with the 2021 games we’ve announced so far, and we’ve got more exciting news to share at Gen Con in Indianapolis this fall. See you there!