Developing a licensed property into a game is always a challenging task. Not only do you have to make a fun game, you also have to build within the limitations of the property’s canon, meet the approval of your licensor, and satisfy the expectations of the fans themselves. You’ve got to craft authentic experiences which capture the aspects of the property that fans love the most, while at the same time creating new spaces for fun, exciting experiences beyond the story we already know. And, you’ve got to make the game look and feel right in every way you can, from game theme and mechanics to the art, graphic design, and even packaging.
When I sat down to conceive Crafty Games’ newest addition to, and first board game in, our Mistborn line (based on the novel series by Brandon Sanderson), I started with those essential questions. What defines Mistborn in most folks’ eyes and how can this new game remind us what we love about Mistborn while providing a new experience as a game? The end result was Mistborn: House War.
Finding the Theme
The concept of Mistborn: House War is simple: rather than simply letting players relive the first Mistborn novel as the heroes, they are instead are set during the events of that novel as the leaders of Scadrial’s greatest noble Houses. They get to see the House War started by Kelsier and his crew from the other side – while at the same time struggling to manage the the environmental, social, and political upheaval that threatens the Final Empire. And of course, the game incorporates the fan-favorite and unique magic of Allomancy and its users, Mistings and Mistborn, along with familiar characters, quotes, and events that really capture the best parts of the series.
When I pitched the concept to designer Kevin Wilson, he jumped on the idea immediately and ran with it. The result: a game of “frenemies,” where players must both compete to be the winner and cooperate to resolve problems bigger than any one House lets the Final Empire fall into chaos. To that end, they spend resources, cut deals, employ Allomancers, advisors, and mercenaries, and choose when and when not to help each other. Mistborn: House War requires negotiation, strategy, deception and betrayal to win, all while ensuring the outcome is never certain – a perfect encapsulation of the savage and ever-changing world of noble politics in the novels.
Bringing It Together
But having a great game with strong themes is not enough to really make a licensed property sing; you’ve got to make sure the flavor and theme permeate the game throughout. Game mechanics, game components and presentation, play patterns, and flavor text are just a few of the avenues by which one can covertly or overtly demonstrate the property through the game.
For example, rather than putting players in the role of an unidentified House within Mistborn: House War, we instead chose to let them play one of the Final Empire’s five most powerful Houses or the Steel Ministry, all of which are familiar to novel readers. Each House has its own unique set of resources and a number of Personalities (Allomancers and other special individuals) which they gather each turn, the choice of which was informed by the novels and/or established canon whenever possible.
House Lekal, for instance, is noted as owning massive tracts of land and specializing in agriculture, so we reflected that mechanically by giving them 4 total resources – an above-average amount – which are split evenly between Food and Skaa (the laborers and peasants who work the House fields); since there’s no indication the House is strong with Allomancy or shuns outside help, they draw the average number of two Personalities each turn.
These choices directly impact the way House Lekal’s player will engage with the game during play. Having a strong focus on Food and Skaa means other players will seek the House’s assistance in solving Problems involving those resources more often than their rivals, just as they might in the books. Since there are a finite number of tokens for all resources, it’s likely House Lekal will control most if not all of the Food and Skaa economy, which also immediately puts them in competition with other Houses who also gather those types of resources.
To top if off, we chose the best-known member of the family, Jastes Lekal, as the iconic character for the House, and added a little piece of flavor text to help those less familiar with the books to better understand the House theme and “get into character” as quickly as possible. All these seemingly small, simple choices come together to sculpt the player experience in ways that are both subtle and authentic to Brandon Sanderson’s books and world.
Painting the Picture
An equally challenging and important part of a bringing a property to life on the tabletop is the question of illustrating the property itself. Unlike a video game, comic book, or film property, literary works have little to no art or established visuals beyond the words on the page. Great art not only makes the game better, it helps fans to enjoy a cohesive visual experience they can’t get from the books.
One of the great pleasures of making the Mistborn Adventure Game over the last 5 years has been working with my personal friend, and Sanderson’s concept artist, Ben McSweeney, to establish the look and feel of the Final Empire and beyond – vital shovel work that helped up when it came time to build House War.
Still, the board game format makes many other demands you might not consider; while we know what main characters look like, how does the average person look, dress, and act in this world? How are members of different classes, organizations, and Houses visually differentiated? What about the places they live, work, and interact with each other? What do different seasons and times of day look like? Answering these questions and executing a consistent vision can take a licensed game from a pleasant aside to a valuable entry in the property’s canon.
Wrapping It Up
Creating a licensed tabletop game is a tough and sometimes overwhelming enterprise, rife with opportunities for missteps and pitfalls – but the chances for reward are equally great. Whether through art, gameplay, mechanics, respect for the canon, or, most likely, a combination of all four, the best licensed games find a way to create authentic, original experiences that help us fall in love with the property all over again. As any real fan will tell you, that is real magic.
Alex Flagg is co-founder and lead designer at Crafty Games and has worked on a half-dozen licensed games over his 15-year career. Most recently, he has developed Crafty Games’ latest board game, Mistborn: House War, which is now funding on Kickstarter. He lives in Portland, OR, with his wife, two sons, dog, and thousands of pewter miniatures.
All Image Credits: Crafty Games