I just got back from Gen Con, the annual gaming convention in Indianapolis. I’m a casual gamer when it comes to RPGs—I like storyline, I like character, and I like hanging out with people, but I really hate rules and prefer them to be invisible and simple. On the other hand, when it comes to board games, I am an absolute fiend. I love all kinds, from political strategy to Trivial Pursuit to complicated role-playing hybrids based on movies and TV. My favorite RPG hybrid is A Touch of Evil, from Flying Frog Productions (and no, they’re not paying me; I just really dig the game). It has all the elements I appreciate: collaborative play, storyline, characters, and rules that are complicated enough to be a challenge but simple enough that they quickly become invisible once you master them. There are a lot of similar games out there, but most of them are needlessly complicated and often based too heavily on their source properties. The other cool things about ATOE are that it’s an all-original setting and premise, it comes with a soundtrack album, and the company is constantly putting out expansions, all of which enhance the game without breaking your budget.
Thinking about ATOE in particular got me interested in the idea of turning something I’ve written into a game, or simply writing a game from scratch. The pitfall of the former, however, is that it should still be a fun game unto itself regardless of its ties to its source material. A board game I really dig is actually based on Star Trek, and I’m barely interested in any variations of that property. But I like the game because it pings all the same things I like about ATOE: it’s straightforward, character-driven, and collaborative. (Side note: it has fun playing pieces. I also like games with lots of little moving parts, tokens, and weirdly-shaped pawns, and all my favorites tend to have those elements. I think I just like playing with toys without having to call it that.)
So as I contemplate what it would mean to write and design a game based on my writing, I would need to investigate how to let players in who are both unfamiliar with the source material, potentially reluctant/beginner gamers in general, while also being challenging enough to satisfy the more serious gamers. One concept a lot of the board/RPG hybrids employ is multiple layers of rules based on the level of your players, as well as using expansion packs to enhance existing rules.
Game production itself can be as basic or as complicated as you want to get. Some of the most complex games use only decks of cards or a small set of dice, whereas some of the simplest have twenty-pound boxes full of accoutrements. You’ll probably want to stay small and simple to start, gradually expanding as you play test.
And play test you must. Get friends together, teach them the rules, and get feedback from them, fix what doesn’t work and add more of what does.
Look at your game as an additional piece of promo for your source work, if it’s a spinoff, but do treat it as its own property, too. This isn’t merely advertising. A good tie-in game should be relevant and engaging in its own right.