Writing Effective Adaptations, Part 1

Comicpalooza was a few weekends ago here in Houston.  I seized the opportunity to approach several comic book creators, discussing with each an opportunity for game tie-ins to their comics.  The idea of having a new way to market their property excited several of these creators and we arranged to discuss these ideas further after the con.

Why seek these meetings?  Why write adaptations at all?  With a rewarding day job and no particular desire to abandon it for the life of a full-time designer, I am free to pursue any project that interests me.  Why specifically seek to attach my name to comic books, television shows or movies? Why not stick to proven game design ground–the politics of medieval Italy, trade in the Mediterranean sea, castle construction? Why should any designer take the risk of writing a game adaptation?

The answer lies in the summer of 2003. Kevin Horovitz and I were hanging out and generally shooting the breeze. Kevin noted that an excellent opportunity for game design to move forward was lying on the ground, waiting to be picked up.  He pointed out that many American games of the time were endowed with highly marketable themes but mediocre (or worse) game design.  German games by contrast had superior design but  mediocre (or worse) themes.  How wonderful would it be for someone to put modern designers together with marketable themes.  Such games might change the public image of games for the coming generation.  This idea has been floating around my head ever since.

Kevin’s dream has begun coming true.  Today we have designers like Brian Yu, and Rob Daviau who have actively promoted good tie-in design through works like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Batman: Gotham City Mystery.  Today we have solid tie-ins like Star Trek Catan and Game of Thrones.

But for each Star Wars: Epic Duels or Spartacus, we still have hundreds of thin paste-ups with no ambition greater than cashing in.  These are the muggers of the game market, assaulting the buying public with a famous theme and disappearing with their cash, leaving them disappointed and sour to our beloved hobby.

So how do we do it right?  How do we go about creating the Spy vs Spy Boardgame rather than the Full House Boardgame?

Having written a few of tie-in games and worked with a few different IP holders, here are some starting thoughts.  Like many other topics, it is one to which we will be returning.


What To Adapt?

There are a huge number of properties in the world. You could easily spend the rest of your design career writing them. How should you select the right one? Before approaching any creator, three major potentials should be considered: (1) Can the fan base win? (2) Can the creator win?(3) Can you win?

The Fan Base Wins

The ideal property has an enthusiastic fan base. Offer those fans a new experience with the characters they love. Give them a new way to engage with those characters. Let them feel the setting. Let them be the characters. Achieve this and they will eagerly support your product.  If so, the fan base wins.



The Creator Wins

Many creators now work for themselves rather than for any large publishing firm.  They believe in their artistic vision and are willing to take the risk and bring their vision to the world.  Can your design create a new way to reach their fans?  Might fans of your work come check out the creator’s work? Will the added revenue stream helps keep them in the black, able to continue doing the work they love. If so, the creator wins.


You Win

Just like the creators, most of us game designers work for ourselves.  Very few do it for the money.  We know the joy a fun game can bring. One of the greatest rewards for a game designer is seeing players that joy. Can this property bring new players to your vision? Does this property give you the opportunity to expand your catalogue? To write the type of game you’ve always wanted? To push your favorite type of game into new thematic territory?  If so, the you win.


Fan base wins. The creator wins.  You win.  These are the reasons to seek before pursuing an adaptation. Next time, we begin discussing the actual process of creating an adaptation.

What do you feel is most important quality for an adaptation? What’s your favorite adaptation? Have you written one? How did you go about it?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress and follow this blog.  You keep reading. I’ll keep writing.


8 thoughts on “Writing Effective Adaptations, Part 1

  1. Carl Klutzke says:

    Several years ago when I went to the Game Developers Conference, I met some folks from Disney Interactive who were tasked with making computer games from Disney’s IP. They really wanted to do good work, but their management just wanted them to crank out something fast, because they knew the game would get bought whether it was good or not. They were some very frustrated people.

  2. One of my favorite adaptations is Battlestar Galactica. I know this game can be polarizing and there are quite a few detracting opinions on it. I sometimes find the game length to be… too much, but there are a lot of reasons that this is the best adaptation I’ve seen on the market.

    The reason this adaptation is awesome is that it’s dripping with theme:
    #1 Characterization – Perhaps the best part of this game is playing your favorite, or most hated characters. Each character has skills they are good at that match their onscreen character. Each has an ability that parallel’s their personality and a ‘once per game’ ability that matches a crucial decision they’ve made on the show. They even have drawbacks that match character flaws.

    #2 Experience – This whole game feels like being on the show. You’re always one turn away from a harrowing crisis. Your battlestar limps along as your foodstuffs and water dwindle. You struggle to protect the fleet from Cylon Raiders. You use political intrigue and nukes to try and buy time. You never have enough time for everything so you must make sacrifices. All the while you’re trying to figure out who the cylons are and stop them from causing even more trouble. It’s a tense game that matches the doom-y tone of the show perfectly.

    #3 Components – The components in this game are gorgeous. From the standees representing the characters, to the thick cardboard basestars, and the tiny plastic ships. All of them make you feel like your watching a battle for the fate of the human race. Even the board is awesome, with a matte finish, dials, and a giant Battlestar Galactica at the center.

    More than that it’s a well crafted game. It’s hard to win, for everyone, not just the humans. The cylons must be very subversive to not be caught. The humans are always combatting one crisis after another. Like any good co-op each loss feels as epic as each win. “we could have just made it if Jim didn’t tank us at the end”, “If only we had used the jump drive on that last turn”, etc.

    The fans are happy with it, the gamers are happy with it, and I would imagine the project creators and designers also loved it based on how many expansions they made after the initial release. Everyone wins.

  3. Carl Klutzke says:

    My friends and I were very disappointed that the Firefly board game (uncleverly titled “Firefly: The Game”, as if to prevent that there should ever be another) was competitive rather than co-op. It’s not just that we’re co-op freaks (we kind of are), it’s that the spirit of that show was about a group of people forced by circumstances to live together and work together. Just putting the game in the show’s setting is like saying that checkers is a variant of chess because they use the same board. I’m not saying it’s a bad game in its own right (I’ve played it once and it was okay), I’m saying it’s the wrong game for that source material.

  4. Carl Klutzke says:

    The various flavors of Fluxx have been an interesting exercise in adapting other material. Monty Python Fluxx is an enjoyable licensed adaptation of its source material (assuming you enjoy Fluxx). Star Fluxx manages to cobble an adaptation together that is clearly drawn from multiple sources without being licensed from any of them.

  5. I actually was pleasantly surprised by the Firefly board game. I thought it had enough personality of the series while still being a playable game for people who haven’t seen the show. I’m actually getting kind of bored by co-op games overall so it hit a sweet spot for me and I’m glad it wasn’t a co-op.

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