Retheming a Game
Why would a designer retheme an already published board game? For the purposes of this discussion, I will be ignoring fan-made, PNP rethemes of board games. Here are some possibilities:
The Game is in the Public Domain
The game already exists in the public domain, so a designer decides to retheme it and make a new game out of rules and mechanics that already exist. After all, these older games are up for grabs for anyone willing to put in the effort. The card game Rummy (which may have originated in Mexico or China in the nineteenth century) is just a copyright free set of rules that can be applied to a standard deck of playing cards. There is nothing to really monetize there unless you can add a spin to it and make it fresh and more engaging. One example is Mike Fitzgerald’s Mystery Rummy series. These customized decks combine the traditional Rummy with elements of mystery solving, allowing players to play Victims, Suspects, Scenes, and Evidence-melds. Another game using the Rummy mechanic is Rummikub, which uses tiles instead of cards. Though not exactly a retheming, it does take an existing public domain game and repackages it in a way that is more engaging then a regular deck of cards. Another example is 15th Century Chess, which has been redone as Chinese Chess, Laser Chess and 4-Player Chess.
The Game’s original IP is no longer available
In 1979 Eon released Dune, a game based on Frank Herbert’s space opera. In Dune players play one of the factions wrestling for control of the spice planet. Each organization has special powers that bends a rule of the game. On their turn players move on the map of the world, picking up spice while avoiding giant sandworms, sandstorms and the other players’ armies. After the first print run it was never rereleased due to legal issues concerning licensing of Herbert’s IP. Fantasy Flight Games bought the rights to reuse the mechanics, but could no longer set it on the sand world of Dune. Instead they transported it to the Twilight Imperium universe, republishing it in 2012 as Rex: Final Days of an Empire. Instead of avoiding sandstorms, players must seek shelter from the massive Sol warships executing a deadly bombardment of the continent-sized Mecatol City. It may be difficult for people to obtain the 40-year out-of-print Dune game, but they can still buy Rex for new on Amazon.
Retheme to Legally Bypass the Game’s original IP
Some game publishers may bypass (some would say unethically) a game’s original IP by retheming their version to such an extent that they can successfully defend their product in court. In 2002 Emiliano Sciarra published the Spaghetti Western themed card game Bang! In the game each player randomly receives a Character card that gives them special abilities, and a secret role card that determines their goal: the Sheriff, the Deputy, the Outlaw or the Renegade. On their turn players can play action cards to harm another character (Bang!, Dynamite) or protect their character (Missed!, Beer). Then in 2007 the Chinese game designer KayaK (Huang Kai) published the card game Legends of the Three Kingdoms, based off the Chinese classical novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms. In this game each player randomly receives a Hero card that gives them special abilities, and a secret role card that determines their goal: the Monarch, the Minister, the Rebel or the Turncoat. On their turn players can play action cards to harm another character (Strike) or protect their character (Dodge!, Peach). In 2014 the creators of Bang!—DaVinci—sued Ziko Games for these similarities. DaVinci included with its brief in support of its preliminary injunction application a chart identifying 64 similarities between the two games. But ultimately the court ruled in favour of Ziko Games and dismissed the case in 2016. In the end board game mechanics are not protected by copyright laws.
Retheme to appeal to other Demographics or lead players to other versions of the same Game
In 2012 game designer Seiji Kanai released the minimalist card game—only 16 cards!—Love Letter. The premise of the original game was to deliver a love letter to the Princess with the assistance of relatives and acquaintances. There are 8 card types, each having a different effect when played. Players start with 1 card held secret, and on their turn they draw a second card from the deck. The player must choose which card to play, and process the effect of that card. The game is played over multiple rounds, with the round ending with either the deck running out, so that the player holding the highest-value card wins, or all players are eliminated except one, who then wins. In 2014 AEG published a second version of the game named Love Letter: Legend of the Five Rings. This new theme employs the fictional setting evoking East Asian cultures and was used in collectable card games and role playing games. So this rethemed version could appeal to gamers who enjoyed the Legend of the Five Rings games—who otherwise would not buy a game called Love Letter—plus people who already owned the original game might buy this copy as well. This version was quickly followed by Love Letter: Wedding Edition (made specifically for wedding receptions), Munchkin Loot Letter, Letters to Santa and Love Letter: Batman. As of this writing there have been 25 versions of Love Letter published, in addition to translations of the original game.
The Original Theme is out of date, or is in some way is no longer suited for the current time period
Sometimes when a game has gone out of print and you want to republish it, you find that the original theme is no longer relevant or may be unappealing for the times. In 2013 Victory Point Games published my first board game: a solitaire game called Infection: Humanity’s Last Gasp. In the game, you are the director of the Department of Plague Control (DPC) field office in New York City. You make the decisions about what parts of the virus to study, which personnel to hire and what equipment to purchase. The game used simple mechanics in a multitude of combinations to create engaging gameplay as you try to eliminate a mutating virus. Components included event, lab personnel and equipment cards; molecules and protein tokens; and one much hated, tiny 6-side die. The game went out of print about 3 years ago, and while I tried to come up with a 2-player version of the virus game, it was difficult to capture the drama and energy of the solitaire game.
And then the pandemic hit.
At this point it seemed there was no way a publisher would want to try to republish a board game about a desperate group of scientists struggling to find a cure for a deadly virus while the death toll climbed into the tens of millions. Then Worthington Publishing reached out to me in September of last year asking if I would be interested in updating and deluxifying my solitaire game. We had a conference call regarding the idea, and in the end we all agreed that we would have to change the theme, since we felt the current one would be a hard sell for the current time period. So it was decided we should retheme the game.
Check out my next blog post regarding all the different themes I thought of that could use the existing rules and mechanics of Infection.