Writing Effective Adaptations, Part 3

Adapting other media into tabletop games can be quite rewarding if done well.  Trying to do it well has its pitfalls as well:

Carl Klutzke related this story in the comments section: “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.”

Gentle reader, it would be nice to reassure you that these poor designers were in an unusual situation. There isn’t. A similar experience arose while I was dealing with a certain IP.  They were eager to see their characters and setting on game shelves but expected no more than a couple of weeks design time.  Rushing the product to market, to cash in and get out, seemed to be their only goal.  Since my desire was to create lasting products, I withdrew.  Carl’s tale of these poor souls implies to me that it was wise to do everything possible can to avoid falling into their situation.

So how does the modern game designer go about creating a quality adaptation?  Here is my process.  It may not work exactly right for you but should demonstrate a framework you can adapt it to fit your process.



Go To School

Learn all the characters, learn its tone, its pace, its structure.  Immersing oneself in the property is a common game designer technique.

TagonRuns.pngWhen developing a game for Howard Tayler’s Schlock Mercenary, I went back to the comic’s archives.  I read every episode.  At my side sat my trusty design journal, steadily filling with notes on characters, plots, recurrent themes, tone.

Then I read them again.  And again, always looking for details I may have missed.


The Game Emerges

You have a large vocabulary of game types and game mechanisms.  You have an encyclopedic knowledge of the source material.  Send your brain to swim through all that knowledge.  Let mechanism and theme, plot and type swirl together in your mind.  Look for the big picture. Allow the details to remain blurry.  From this interplay of ideas, your designer’s eye will see game potentials emerge.

After my second reading of Schlock Mercenary, I saw that stories were usually mission-based.  My game would need to have a mission-based structure.  Players would likely want to play their favorite characters from the comic.  Could this game be fully cooperative?  The mercenary team Tagon’s Toughs was filled with practitioners of enlightened self-interest–How about partially cooperative?

In the end, three different treatments of Schlock Mercenary were written.



The Proposal

Armed with a good general plan for your treatment of the game, it is time to run this plan past the creators.  You will need them behind it–talking your work up, promoting the game, building anticipation among his or her fans.  Besides, there’s little sense in putting hours into developing a design the IP holder rejects.

My publisher and I discussed the the three different treatments and selected one as having the best potential.  From there, I created a three-page proposal.  This proposal covered the game’s core engagement and showed a component concepts.  Clip art pulled from the Schlock Mercenary website was all we needed to convey the general idea.




Supported by the creator’s blessing, launch into the development process.  Create, test, edit, test more, create more, test more.

Ideally, you will find test groups that are already familiar with the source material. Alternatively, persuade your test group to become familiar with the source material.  If neither are possible, proceed anyway.  It will be a bit more difficult but so long as you keep service of the source in mind, you will still be on course.

We tested the game twice a week for a year, constantly making adjustments.  We deliberated over its best and worst features.  We deliberated over the best parts of the Schlock story to focus on and which parts to shift into the background.  

After that year of development, we had a game in which every mechanism worked exactly as intended.  We had a game in which every major part of the Schlock Mercenary universe was features.  

Unfortunately, we also had a game which was rote, repetitive, and lacking in drama. We had a bad game.



Contingency Plans

Part of any successful artist’s process is the ability to learn from mistakes.  Some ideas simply don’t work.  We all have them.  We all find ourselves facing a problem that is completely unsolvable.  Be reassured that you are among good company.  Remember Albert Einstein’s assertion that 99% of his ideas were bad.  Accept that your best solution will sometimes be to back up and attack the problem from a completely different angle.

Howard Tayler and I were scheduled for a progress meeting at Gen Con.  At that meeting, I had the uncomfortable responsibility of sharing with him what I have already shared with you–that the game wasn’t fun.  He didn’t want his name on it and neither did I.

This could have been the end of the story.  It isn’t.  I went on to tell Howard about a skirmish system I’d been developing–the TacDice System–which was testing particularly well.  We discussed making the Schlock Mercenary game more compact, of focusing the game around the dramatic (and frequently ridiculous) fight sequences of his comic.  We played a skirmish using my proto and Howard enjoyed it.  We had a new plan and went to work from there.

When Schlock Mercenary: Capital Offensive released, both critics and fans received it positively.  We had succeeded in serving Mr. Tayler’s property faithfully and in making a good game.


And then I approached the great team at Greater Than Games about our interest in creating a similar TacDice game for their excellent Sentinels of the Multiverse property and Sentinel Tactics was born.


The road to success is a toll road.  Our failures are the toll.  Accept them and keep always moving forward.



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.



Adaptation Case Study: Schlock Mercenary

A popular game design topic is adaptation.  What is the best way to create a game about an existing property.  The game design threads on BoardGameGeek and pretty much every major thread on the Board Game Designer’s Forum have posts on this topic.

I intend to write a full series covering adaptations soon.  Until then, here is one case study.  It follows the creation of the Schlock Mercenary board game from start to finish.


An Innocuous Question

Hotel rooms at gaming conventions are purely utilitarian.  They are storage units with beds.  A place to stash your latest purchases. A place for a shower. A place to catch a bit of sleep between games. Comfort and leisure simply don’t enter into it.  And since less money spent there equals more money for games, it’s common to share a room.

Walter Hunt and I were splitting the bills at a convention in April 2008 when he asked that innocent question, “Are you familiar with the web comic Schlock Mercenary?

I wasn’t.  Walter was introducing me to Howard Tayler’s rich universe, starring a broad cast of amusing sociopaths and villains only marginally more disagreeable.  Adventure! Humor! Epic space adventure told three panels at a time.  I was hooked and knew this would be a great setting for a game.

Howard was also open to the idea of a tie-in for his comic.  Two months of research into his comic along with extensive note-taking and Howard received a preliminary proposal for Schlock Mercenary: The Board Game.  The design was underway.


Work Begins

The next year was spent playtesting, developing and polishing that game.  It was a huge sweeping epic of a game.  Schlock Mercenary: The Board Game spanned all the events of the first book Schlock Mercenary: The Tub of Happiness. Future expansions would tie to each book in the series while the core game focused on Tagon’s Toughs at its beginning. Their first adventures.  The entire cast.  Missions on the ground, missions in space, diplomatic missions and science missions.  Players could team up or oppose one another.  They could interrupt one another’s turns with plot twists and events.

Schlock Player Mat

Sounds great, doesn’t it?  It wasn’t.

Every mechanism worked as it was intended.  And despite every effort, it was dull and mechanical.  The play time was too long.  Turns were anticlimactic.  I consulted with designers outside my regular group while my home playtest team helped me beat on it with a stick.  When Howard and I met at Gen Con 2010, he got the news.  This was not a game either of us wanted to attach our name to.


Get Knocked Down; Get Back Up

There is a lesson here for every aspiring designer. Sometimes, no matter how hard you work on a design, it simply will not come together.  It’s okay.  We all have those designs.  Believe in yourself and keep at it.

XDS at GoFMy wife Debra wisely asserts that any time you raise an issue you should also have a solution waiting to offer. It happened that there was a second prototype I’d been working on–TacDice–a skirmish-level minis game that was testing well.  TacDice was testing with superhero and Star Wars figurines while deliberately keeping the theme open-ended.  Schlock Mercenary needed a game.  TacDice needed a theme.  It was a match made in the proverbial.

Howard and I spent the next hour going over this game and discussing how it might be implemented as a Schlock Mercenary game.  Howard gave the okay and it was back to the workbench for Kevin…


The Second Try

One year later–Gen Con 2011–Howard and I met again, this time to play a game worthy of Schlock Mercenary.  Fast, intense play. Character-specific attributes and powers. Extra gadgets and weapons. Oodles and oodles of dice!  It was this play Howard relates in the KickStarter video.  He gave the go-ahead. Nich Vitek and Living Worlds Games became the publisher.  Since Howard was creating all-new original art for the game and Living Worlds Games was the publisher for 1955: The War of Espionage, there was no doubt this would be another great-looking game.

We continued playtesting the game extensively.  New scenarios were created and tested.  Existing scenarios streamlined. Characters rebalanced. Rules blind tested and polished.

Closing Thoughts

Three years of effort paid off.  Out of the ashes of a failed design came a great one.  Creating the game was hard but satisfying work. I hope that its story has given you insight into the process.
Would you like to know more about designing adaptations?  What’s your favorite adaptation? Why?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create and account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.