Let’s talk about licensed games.
Licensed video games are notorious for being soulless cash grabs, and with good reason. For every Goldeneye 64 or Darkwing Duck, there’s a dozen games like Chicken Run for the Game Boy Color. This may surprise you to learn, but Chicken Run didn’t turn out to be a bastion of quality.
It may surprise you then that, on average, licensed board games tend to be a bit better!
Obviously there are games that no one in their right mind should go near no matter the medium, but I’ve found IP conversions of board games are some of the best adaptations out there. My qualifier for this list was that these games had to be received well by non-fans of the properties they’re adapting, and all five of these games passed that test with flying colors.
Super Mario: Level Up!
This is the laziest pick of the list because it’s a game I’ve already reviewed. I explain what makes this game work so well in detail there, but essentially it’s a rethemed sequel to a good game that very few people played called King Me!. Sometimes a fresh coat of paint is all you need, even if there’s some…mild thematic disconnects present.
Each player receives a secret card that shows which cute Nintendo mascots they want to succeed. On your turn all you do is pick one of the characters and move them up a step, then possibly use an item that’ll fuck things up. When a character makes it to the top step, the table simultaneously votes on whether or not they’re happy with this result. If it’s a unanimous yes, everyone scores points accordingly. If there’s a single no vote, the mascot gets summarily executed. The Mushroom Kingdom has gotten harsh.
It’s all fun and games and bing bing wahoo until Peach gets thrown down the goddamn stairs. Then everyone becomes a conniving sunnavabitch. You’ll advance characters that aren’t yours just to kill them off in the vote. You’ll start votes that you want to fail but vote yes anyway, banking on other people to kill it for you because your no votes are limited. You’ll bluff, double bluff, and backstab your way to democratically elected leader of the Mushroom Kingdom. It’s nasty, brutish, short, and fantastic.
Bob Ross: Art of Chill Game
This is a game that exists. You can buy it with money in current year.
Bob Ross episodes have a reputation for being relaxing and chill, so how better to convert that to a game than to have 4 players compete in a race to achieve maximum chill before everyone else? That’s how I relax.
The weirdest thing about this game is the fact that it’s actually mechanically solid. You’ll collect paints, combine them on your palette, use different types of tools to paint along with Bob, learn how to use painting techniques better than everyone else for extra points, and try to whack out as many features as you can before the episode ends and everyone has to start a new painting. And of course, there’s hipster bonuses for finishing those happy little trees before anyone else. It’s positively bizarre and absolutely worth your time.
War. War never changes. Adventure games sure do though, and Fallout is one of the best ones in years.
If you’re familiar with the Fallout universe then you roughly already know how this plays. 1 – 4 players are going to wander around the wasteland, get into fights, gain perks and equipment, and use said perks and equipment to fight more things to advance the plot. The mechanisms are easy to grasp and exploring the wasteland in this fashion is genuinely interesting.
By far the coolest feature of Fallout is the adventure deck. It cribs the Choose Your Own Adventure book system of “if you make X choice go to card Y” in order to create a sprawling web of choices that every player simultaneously affects. There are four scenarios in the box lifted from Fallout 3 and 4 that’ll guide the general plotline, but with sidequests and branching paths give plenty of reason to replay scenarios over and over.
Fallout is a game that creates memorable stories. You’ll remember your ghoul that found a sniper rifle and popped Deathclaw heads from a mile away. You’ll remember exploring a vault and getting roped into the residents’ lottery. You’ll remember pulling a victory out of your ass one turn away from failure. It may not be quite as free-wheeling as the source material but getting to play it alongside your friends makes it a different, yet familiar, experience.
Star Trek Panic!
Do you like Star Trek: TOS? You’ll like this.
I should explain a bit more than that. Star Trek Panic is a cooperative game where players take the role of Enterprise crew members. Your goal is to complete a certain number of missions without ruining the ship. And the game will endlessly attempt to ruin the ship. In standard coop game fashion, every time a player gets something done, the game will take a turn and make things worse. Your group is constantly putting out figurative and literal fires just to keep your jet powered space frisbee together for just one more turn.
Star Trek Panic is particularly notable because it succeeds at creating genuine tension. Unlike some coops where the threats come and go (and the fun scales similarly), STP manages to constantly ratchet up until it culminates in everyone crashing and burning or just barely succeeding. There’s an earned sense of satisfaction to winning at this, and that’s worthy of note.
Sidenote: this game was fun to the point that it made me want to watch original Trek. I’m really glad it did, the show’s great.
Sons of Anarchy: Men of Mayhem
Does anyone even remember Sons of Anarchy? I never watched the show, so I honestly don’t know the kind of impact it had. I hear it started good and then got real stupid, which sounds like a lot of shows. All I know is that somewhere along the line this game got made and it’s an absolute ace.
The premise is simple. You run a bike club. So do the other people at the table. You want to get rich by sending your dudes out to do all the crimes. So do the other people at the table. You’re willing to send anyone who gets in your way to the hospital, or the morgue if it comes to that. You see where I’m going with this.
What makes this one special isn’t what you’re trying to do as much as how you do it. Violence and intimidation can get a lot done, but bribery and a bit of sweet talk will get you further, and usually at less cost. I’d recommend reading this chunk from the rulebook:
Non-binding negotiation is a tricky balance. You’ll never know if someone is really going to honor an agreement or try to leave you in a ditch somewhere, but the ever looming threat of mutually assured dude-murder often works as incentive. You’ll make ridiculous multi-person deals knowing full well that anyone could roll up and pull guns at any moment. I could mix more metaphors and wax poetic, but it’ll all just be variations on me saying that this is a damn good game. It’s also perpetually on sale and you can get it for less than $20, so that’s neat.
There are plenty of other licensed games of note, the above are just some of my favorites. Here are some other notables that you might like even better:
Bioshock Infinite: The Siege of Columbia: Playing as the bad guys is always a fun twist on a licenced game. Even more so when you get into turf wars with other villains. If only that Booker asshole didn’t keep showing up and ruining your plans.
Spartacus: A Game of Blood & Treachery: It’s Spartacus, only more fighting and fewer dongs.
The Godfather: Corleone’s Empire: Someday, and that day may never come, I will call upon you to play a game with me. But until that day, accept this recommendation as a gift now that I’m finally writing articles again.