In my last post I talked a little bit about an awesome old-school video game adaptation of one of my favorite tv shows. Over the last few months I have been thinking a great deal about what Thomas Leitch (Film Adaptation and Its Discontents: From Gone in the Wind to The Passion of the Christ, 2007) calls “post-literary adaptations” as I put together a project for Intensities: The Journal of Cult Media about board game versions of J.R.R. Tolkein’s fantasy opus The Lord of the Rings and George A. Romero’s 1978 cult film Dawn of the Dead.
My piece, which I am calling “Adaptation and Space: Thematic and Atmospheric Considerations for Board Game Environment Construction,” looks at how the design of a board game’s play environment (and the rules that govern movement through that space) are an important way that game designers can evoke the “feeling” of living through the events of the original text that they are adapting. A tool that goes beyond decorative elements like illustrations on the game box or collectable game pieces, a careful configuring of the game space turns the game system itself into an instrument for creating atmosphere, shaping how players will interact with each other and with their surroundings.
For example, the Dawn of the Dead board game restricts players to a single, very cluttered and crowded game board littered with obstacles and hidden enemies. The board represents the shopping mall from the film. The rules define “winning” as shutting down all access into and out of that single location, rendering players “safe” from their zombie opponents but also trapping them inside. This spatial setup helps to recreate the feelings of claustrophobia and paranoia that permeate the original film.
(Image source: WitchMaster Creations). Interested gamers should note that the game is available for free to print and play from that link (awesome zombie and player character figures and dice not included).
Famed German board game designer Reiner Knizia’s Lord of the Rings, on the other hand, spreads the action across multiple, separate game boards, requiring players to move their tokens across several self-contained maps as they make their way through the game. This design decision recreates the feeling of an “epic journey” as depicted in the novels. In addition, the game uses space to model an internal, spiritual conflict; the corrupting influence of the Ring on its bearer is represented spatially on its own board. Unlike typical board game spaces, this is one in which players do not want to move out from their starting position, as doing so represents falling further and further under the influence of the Ring’s evil power.
The top board pictured here features the “corruption line.” The evil influence of the ring on the soul of its bearer is represented spatially as the character growing ever nearer to the eye of Sauron. The bottom board is one of many “conflict boards” which represents a particular episode and location from the trilogy of novels. These boards are changed out as players progress through the game, moving from location to location on their way to Mordor, where they will destroy the One Ring (Image Source: Fantasy Flight Games).
These two games feature very different board designs that evoke very different strategic (and emotional) responses from players. And in a world where every intellectual property is getting picked up for re-makes, re-boots, re-imaginings, and cross-promotional tie-ins, they set an excellent example for game-makers who want to do more with their game than simply cash-in on a popular brand.