Last fall there was a little dust-up in the gaming world. Stronghold Games announced that they had received the rights from the designer for Merchant of Venus, the classic Avalon Hill title. The reprint was going to be true to the original release, with top-of-the-line components and artwork. Then there was a little wrinkle: Fantasy Flight Games announced that they had received the rights from Hasbro, who now owns Avalon Hill. Essentially, two different companies claimed to have the rights to print the same game.
This is still being resolved somehow, and I'm not here to speculate about when the reprint will come, and from whom. But the dialog that followed the conflicting announcement fascinated me. The fans of the original game exchanged words about who would do a better job of the reprint. This came in equal measures from fans of each company, and a little from people who didn't like one or the other. Stronghold is a newer publisher, but their reprints like Survive and Outpost have been well-received. Both of those releases altered very little about the original titles, and what was altered was made entirely optional. Fantasy Flight, on the other hand, has a reputation for altering the games that they reprint. They don't do it consistently, and when they do it can have mixed results. But they are also responsible for some really great updates to old games. Arkham Horror and Fury of Dracula are both terrific reprints with extensive changes, and in the case of Arkham Horror the game was basically redesigned from the ground up. Words were said, threads were locked, and I can only assume that blood was spilled. In my head, I like to imagine a confrontation involving dancing and switchblades, a la West Side Story.
It begs the question: what makes a good reprint? It's appropriate now, not only because of the Merchant of Venus fracas, but because we are living in an age of reprints. It feels like a month hardly passes when we don't get some announcement regarding an old out-of-print classic that is now getting some kind of super-double-secret-ultra edition. And then the game comes out, and everyone goes over it with a fine-toothed comb to see how it compares to previous editions. In a best case scenario, the game will please both fans of the original and new players alike. This was the case with Cosmic Encounter, which Fantasy Flight has done up very well. Other games like Talisman and Survive have been successful in this regard.
And then you have those games that just land with a dull thud. I think back to Valley Games reprint of Titan, which was much heralded in 2008. But soon after the game was largely in the bargain bin. Titan is an extreme example of course. It's not really the kind of game that gets made at all any more. It's got the two-headed monster that frequently scares off modern gamers: player elimination and a long playtime. Aside from that, it's just a demanding game, and doubtless several people who had heard about the game and looked forward to its release were then disappointed and even repulsed by the old-fashioned nature of the game.
I don't mean to pick on Titan, which from my limited experience I actually enjoy. My understanding is most fans were pleased with the new version. But it does show a real problem that many reprints will face. Sometimes the world just passes by an old game. There are exceptions to this, but game design has changed drastically even in the last 15 years. A game from 1980 faces an uphill climb out the gate. And gamers aren't exactly known for their long memories. The entirety of the Top 10 on Boardgame Geek comes from the past 10 years. Most board gamers are too busy horking down new games to appreciate our roots at all.
In light of that, what's a publisher to do with a reprint? Do you change nothing at all? Some games will be successful just on their own strengths, but a publisher can never be sure of that. So it's understandable that a publisher would make little tweaks here and there. Maybe a little shortening of the game here, a little updated mechanic there. Such changes may infuriate the old guard, but odds are they already own the game anyway. If the game is updated well enough, it could be a big hit. That happened with Arkham Horror to such an extent that barely anyone remembers or even cares about the old Chaosium game from the 1980s.
There seems to be increased scrutiny regarding such changes these days as well. I confess, this mystifies me a little. It feels like it's more because the internet just likes to obsess over stuff than any real interest in the original. Alterations in reprints are nothing new, and several classics have seen many drastic changes come and go over the years. This might create some friendly debate on either side of the aisle, as is the case with Fury of Dracula. But it's rarely a deal-breaker for the company, who has a talked-about game that is successful enough to stay in print regularly.
So what makes an unsuccessful reprint? I don't mean a game that isn't fun, but rather one that fails as a reprint. The one that immediately comes to mind is Fantasy Flight's reprint of DungeonQuest. They recast the game in their proprietary Terrinoth universe and added a completely revamped combat system. The old fans cried foul over the changes, as is understandable. And because the game was positioned alongside much more serious games like Descent and Runewars, fans of those games were a little mystified with the relentlessly goofy DungeonQuest. The game landed with a muffled thud, and has been largely passed by.
Let me be clear: I love FFG's DungeonQuest. It's become one of my favorite fantasy games, actually. But it points to what can make a reprint fail. If you ask me, I don't know if FFG ever really believed in the game that they were printing. It's almost like they printed the game out of obligation rather than affection. Many people (such as myself) liked the new elements, but they did show a lack of basic confidence in the product they were selling. Compare this to their treatment of Talisman, which is now coming up on its seventh expansion. The gameplay there was only updated in small ways, even while modern gamers insisted the game was past it's prime. It seems pretty clear to me: they understood the appeal of Talisman, but never really bought into DungeonQuest. The best reprints come with the full support of the publisher, changes or not. They are given fresh content periodically, and are actively introduced to new gamers.
Reprints are a valuable thing in the hobby. New players want a sense that they are connecting with our shared history as board gamers, and old players want to show to people what it was all about. That can be accomplished whether the original game has been altered or not, but the company needs to be totally committed to the idea that their game has always been great, and will continue to be great in the future.
I got that image from Boardgamegeek.com, user Acid4Blood.
Nate Owens is a frequent contributor to Fortress: Ameritrash. He is also living the glamorous life of a board game essayist through his blog, The Rumpus Room.