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Amid flagging sales, video game makers head to board games

Plugged In

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BioShock Infinite: The Siege of Columbia (Credit: Plaid Hat Games)

Times are tough for video game publishers.

Sales are down. Way down. Even buoyed by a couple of high profile, big-selling hits, March’s numbers were down a full 10% compared to last year. The news is full of closings, layoffs, and downsizing; the year’s already seen the piecemeal sale of one once-proud major publisher. Even Electronic Arts, home to powerhouse brands like The Sims and Madden, has been wracked by a wave of layoffs that have left a reported 1,000 jobless -- and rumor has it more are coming.

The reasons are many -- the floundering economy and the long wait for the next generation of consoles certainly haven’t helped -- but whatever the cause, it’s seen publishers turning to other revenue opportunities.

In recent years that’s meant imaginative toy tie-ins, like Activision’s lucrative Skylanders franchise, or perhaps big-budget movies like 2015’s planned Ratchet & Clank. But one of the year’s most interesting juxtapositions of traditional entertainment and the world of video games isn’t either of those -- it’s a board game.

We’re not talking about board games your grandmother would recognize, like Clue and Monopoly (though those, too, continue their perennial popularity). Video game tie-in board games tend to be different. Dripping with game-licensed themes, packed with cool-looking components and rulebooks that run to tens of pages, learning their ins and outs can be an undertaking on the scale of mastering the games themselves. Or bigger.

The genre had a brief spell of popularity in the 80s, with classic-era characters like Mario, Pac-Man, and Donkey Kong all getting their own cardboard adaptations. But when newer, more complex European board games like Settlers of Catan sparked a worldwide renaissance in the tabletop pastime a few years ago, video game adaptations came along for the ride.

In recent years we’ve seen board game treatments of computer and console hits as diverse as online RPG World of Warcraft, timeless shooter Doom, hit pig-smasher Angry Birds, and even casual favorite Bejeweled, which gained a surprisingly authentic board game treatment this year at the hands of Hasbro.

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Bejeweled, the board game (Credit: Hasbro)

Up next? What better than Irrational Games’ Bioshock Infinite, which released in March to both critical and commercial success? A serious, weighty game, lauded by reviewers as among this generation’s best, it’s far from the guns-blazing Rambo action of the Call of Duty or Halo series. Set in 1912, it tells the story of Booker DeWitt, a former Pinkerton agent sent to rescue captive Elizabeth from the floating city of Columbia, while two warring factions vie to recapture the pair.

While Bioshock Infinite the video game may not support multiplayer, thanks to up-and-coming board game publisher Plaid Hat Games, its board game adaptation, dubbed “Bioshock Infinite: The Siege of Columbia,” certainly will.

Board games ain’t video games, and Plaid Hat hasn’t fallen into the trap of trying to ape the electronic version’s gameplay too closely. So rather than focusing on the small-scale, personal journey of Booker and Elizabeth, the game gives its players the big picture, five-thousand foot view, and control of the factions battling to control Columbia.

We asked Plaid Hat Games’ Colby Dauch why.

“Revisiting [the video game] seems unnecessary,” he told Yahoo! Games. “We don't have the same tools video games have at their disposal, and not everything a video game does can transfer over to a board game well.“

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Game card for BioShock Infinite board game (Credit: Plaid Hat Games)

All the same, the two creations aren’t completely separate, either in their inception or their gameplay. The board game team worked closely with Irrational throughout the game’s design process, playing the video game long before the rest of us got our grubby hands on it. And while you and your opponents’ forces struggle for dominance around the city, Booker and Elizabeth play their parts too, roaming the city and leaving havoc in their wake.

“Fans of the video game will recognize some of the events,” Dauch said, “but we also generalize more in the board game and go down alternate paths -- things that could have happened -- in an effort to tell a different story and also not spoil the video game's story line.”

Releasing late summer and priced at $85, its cost is at the high end of normal for the new wave of serious board games, although discounts are available if you pre-order.

Will it turn around the fortunes of the beleaguered video game industry? Not on its own. Statistics on the sales of board games aren’t public, but dollar figures for the entire board game industry -- including perennial big-sellers like Monopoly, Apples to Apples, and Ticket to Ride -- are easily outnumbered ten or fifteen to one by video game revenue.

But it’s not hard to see a significant proportion of Bioshock Infinite purchasers -- which look set to approach 4.5 million by the end of the year -- being tempted at the prospect of taking another trip into Columbia.

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