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The Rise Of IP-Driven Tabletop Games

IP (Intellectual Property) driven tabletop games are a relatively new development.  Or, in the very least, their ubiquity is relatively new – and growing!

Within the absolutely astounding abundance of board games and tabletop games on the market, there are a growing number either based on existing IPs (as opposed to being an all original title) or that have an IP as a veneer.  So I’ve been pondering this prominence and I want to think aloud during the course of this post and invite comments in our Boarderlands Facebook Group!

IPs As Veneers

I really think the veneers were what first got me turning my gears.  The idea is simple:  Take an already successful gaming property like Monopoly or Munchkin or Yahtzee and skin it with a popular intellectual property like Super Mario, Dragonball Z, TMNT, X-Men, etc.  Its genius from a marketing standpoint; no doubt!

In some cases, it greases the wheels of a gaming property that might otherwise have lost significant momentum.  However, games do not have to have fallen by the wayside in order to benefit from the IP veneer.  Sometimes gaming companies acquire and apply IPs to still-hot gaming titles to further boost sales!

I’d be remiss to fail to consider this tactic as targeting collectors.  Games with an IP at all could fit snuggly into any avid fan’s collection of that IP’s memorabilia, for sure!

IPs as Foundations

In other cases, the IPs serve as the basis for new games.  They inspire wholly new games with unique mechanics – all smacking of the flavor of whatever property graces their boxes and determines the aesthetics of its components.

These differ greatly from the veneers.  Its like comparing Dragon Ball Z Monopoly to Dragon Ball Z: Perfect Cell Dice Game.  The former plays very much like its progenitor only with borrowed aesthetics and terminology.   The latter, however, was designed from the ground up from an acquired IP license for a dice and tile game (you can read our review and interview with designer Chris Bryan).

Leveraging IPs For Sales Success

Here is where my questions begin.  I’m assuming that acquiring licenses for IPs costs the game developers money either on the front end (purchasing the rights outright), the back end (percentage of sales), or both.  And their prevalence seems to imply success!

I don’t mean to present a false dichotomy or too narrow a perspective on the role of IPs in board gaming or tabletop gaming, but it seems like they would serve (predominantly) one of two (and possibly both) purposes.  I also do not believe the following broad categories are mutually exclusive; i.e. if its target market falls under #1, it could also mine those folks represented in #2 and vice versa.

1.  Targeting Existing Gamers

It may well be the case that game developers, designers, and marketers are leveraging IPs to target existing members of the gaming market and community.  I’m one such person, and I can tell you with absolute certainty that as I stroll through my FLGS perusing game titles, my eyes are 1000% drawn to properties I have a long history with.  Nostalgia is a powerful drug!

I also confess that I am much less likely to research reviews and whatnot of gaming titles whose IPs are attractive to me than I am original titles.  Its like that IP lowers the bar a bit, you know?  Thats not, of course, to say that the games are of lower quality by any means!  It is to say that I’ll give a bit more grace to a game based on a beloved franchise than I will one that isn’t.

This approach is somewhat limiting though…There are sales, yes, but the potential for market growth has to be diminished somewhat if you’re drawing from an established well instead of digging a new one.  The plus side is that sales seem less risky, right?

2.  Targeting Non-Gamers

Alternatively, the goal behind acquiring IPs at whatever price might be to attract new gamers.  The hope thereby would be growing the market as opposed to further tapping the wallets and shelving space of those already well established within it.

This could make some sense to me.  It would be like fishing for the impulse buy, right?  You might not play many board games, but you might also seriously consider snagging one simply because it has Rick and Morty on the box.  

But this raises a follow up question: Is the IP meant to be the on ramp to board gaming, and if so does it onboard at entry level when it comes to mechanics intentionally, or trust that the market is smart enough to sort out whatever they find in the box that grabbed their attention?  Here at Nerds on Earth, we make a distinction between traffic on NoE (people finding their way here via a Google search, reading the one article, and never paying us any mind again) and growing an audience (folks who regularly tune in and raise our site visit floor).  Surely gaming companies are after something similar, no?

I played an IP-based game recently with someone who had no gaming experience past Monopoly.  I questioned him some afterwards with this post in mind, and he confessed that while the IP had his full attention and interest, he’s not sure he could have easily picked up gameplay without me there as a guide.  At the same time, he admitted that the experience has piqued his curiosity in more complex board games in general and he’d be interested in playing (and possibly purchasing) more.

So mission accomplished, right?

IPs Are Lovely

Regardless of the reason behind the rise of IP-driven games, I love ’em!  I’d be super interested in learning more about the finances involved:

  • How much does it cost to acquire an IP? (Knowing full well some would cost significantly more than others)
  • Is acquiring the IP a safe bet?  In other words: Do companies always recoup the investment required to purchase the license?

But their magic lies in pre-existing love!  When you see a character or franchise that you adore on a box, you’re at least going to take a second look.  There’s at least a small chance that you’ll even consider purchasing it without investing any time in sorting out what kind of game it is or how good it is.  Those things are secondary at the time of purchase and only become of primary importance after you’ve given it a go at home.

Luckily, there are some absolutely fantastic IP-based games out there (I personally think IDW Games is performing exceptionally well on this front!), so while you might indeed come to the table because of a theme…you’ll stay because of the joy that is tabletop gaming.