IV. Commentary on Board Game Add-ons: Spin-offs

(Photo credits: Eric Martin@BGG)

This is the fourth and final article in a series focused on board game additions. To read the other articles in the series, click on the link below:

I: A commentary on board game add-ons – Promos

II. A commentary on board game add-ons – Modules

III. A commentary on board game add-ons – Expansions

Spin-offs aren’t exactly additions to a game but more like branding of a theme or mechanism of a beloved product. Spin-offs are stand alone products that can be played without any association from its predecessor. In general, you don’t really need to know the parent game to play a spin-off product, but having an idea of what the parent game is might make the spin-off more enjoyable. In fact, the whole purpose of a spin-off is to capitalize on the success of the parent game by capturing a built in audience that is ravenous for a sequel. This is why we have Fast and Furious 7 and why we will likely see Vin Diesel in Fast and Furious 20 trying to save his grandson. There is a risk for spin-offs: because the original game is beloved, the bar is usually set quite high for subsequent spin-offs. If the game is not close to or exceed the quality of the original design, you can be sure to hear from the most vocal fan base. In some cases, the bar is set so high that a spin-off might be a victim of its own success. Nonetheless, companies realize the value of branding and will try to push spin-offs as long as there is a market for it.

In general, spin-offs are associated to the parent game either via theme, mechanism or both. Azul is the most recent poster boy for successfully spawning sequels that mirror its design in both theme and mechanism. Since Azul won the SDJ in 2018, it has generated quite a buzz and has captured at least a dozen other awards from various countries. As expected, Kiesling quickly designed several spin-offs for Azul, starting with Stained Glass of Sintra and more recently, Summer Pavilion. Both sequels to Azul uses the same tile-drafting mechanism and share similar design choices but with variation to the boards used for tile placement, the sequence of placement and scoring opportunities. Both sequels are more complex than the parent game with some folks enjoying the complexity while others preferring the simplicity of the original game. Regardless, both games have been well-received by the community even though there are distinct preferences among gamers. I think there is still quite an appetite for Azul and I expect Kiesling to churn out more spin-offs, expansions and promos in the coming years.

Like Azul, Reiner Knizia’s Keltis/Lost Cities family of games also shares a link in both theme and mechanism. First published as Lost Cities the card game for 2 players, Keltis adapted the core mechanisms of Lost Cities and repackaged it into a Celtic themed game for up to 4 players. The game was also titled Lost Cities: The Board Game in the North American market. This game won Knizia an SDJ award in 2008 and shortly after, many spin-offs of the Keltis/Lost Cities theme emerged. The central mechanism for these game is the collection of different suits of cards in ascending (or sometimes descending) order. This mechanism is very reminiscent of the computer game solitaire. Knizia took this simple mechanism, attached different ways of drafting cards or scoring and spawned different games in the series. At last count, there are at least a dozen spin-offs with each stand alone game sharing a similar theme or iconography to either Lost Cities or Keltis. One of my favorites in this series is Keltis Oracle which features the same ascending/descending card play mechanism to drive the movement of your token on the score board. By playing cards of a particular suit, one can jump around from location to location collecting various board elements for scoring. The game may look and feel like Keltis, but is a completely different game. Apart from Oracle, we have Keltis the Card Game, Dice Game, Keltis: Or which is an online only spin-off, Keltis Mitbringspiel, Lost Cities: Rivals, Lost Cities: To Go, and several more. To be fair, probably not every game is a commercial success, but most Keltis/Lost Cities spin-offs have their fans and I dare say that this series of games is one of Knizia’s finest achievements for which he is widely recognized for. Other designers who have done well for spin-offs in this category include Matt Leacock for his Pandemic and (Legacy, Iberia, Cthulhu, Rome, etc.) and Forbidden (Island, Desert and Sky) series, Grzegorz Rejchtman for Ubongo, Vlaada Chavtil for Codename series and more.

Unlike Azul or Keltis, some games that belong to a series are linked mainly through designer choice and branding where the theme or mechanism are not as strongly tied to a parent product. This is the case for the Key series by Richard Breese. Following the seminal release of Keywood, the first “Key” game in the series, most of the subsequent releases include “Key” in their titles: Key Harvest, Keythedral, Key Flower, Keyper, Key Market, etc. The release of Keywood was relatively subdued and I think it is safe to say it wasn’t a commercial hit when first published. The most popular game in the Key series is undoubtedly Key Flower which is a more recent publication. Some games in the series while popular, remain tough to find, such as Key Market. I would argue that mechanistically, there are some similarities between each game but they all play differently and the core mechanisms are not nearly as identical as with Azul or Keltis. I suppose the theme that ties the games together is that they all happen within Keydom. The illustrations for game components are also consistent between games as is the graphics and box cover art. Keeping the designs within a familiar context or theme is a smart move as people are more likely to remember your body of work in its entirety. There is no doubt Richard Breese’s name will be remembered because of his Key games. Other designers in this category of spin-offs include Friedemann Friese for Power Grid (Factory Manager). Publishers can also tie together a family of games using different gimmicks. For example, Ystari publishes games with the letters “Ys” embedded in most of their titles (Ys, Caylus, Mykerinos, Assyria, Amyitis, Yspahan, Meteoryods, Metropolys, etc.). Of course there are also thematic spin-offs based on commercial properties such as Star Wars, Marvel Universe or other movie-themed franchises.

Finally, there is a much broader category of games linked through a shared mechanism. Strictly speaking, these games cannot really be considered as spin-offs because game mechanisms cannot be patented and thus, available for everyone to integrate into their own game design. That said, there are a few mechanisms founded or popularized by specific designers that it is hard not to link the designer with the mechanism. The one that comes to mind often is Richard Borg’s Command and Color card-driven battle system which powers board games that focus on battle field conflicts. The asymmetric battle field is often chaotic, opportunistic and the system really captures the battle field dynamics in a very streamlined and elegant way. It is not hard to fall in love with the system if you are a fan of 2-player conflict-oriented board games. Using this Command and Colors system, Borg’s name has appeared on C&C Ancients, Battlelore, Memoir 44′, Samurai Battles, Red Alert and countless more. While it is not clear to me if Borg was the first to develop this card-driven battle system or whether it is a derivative of an earlier design, it is without doubt that the C&C will be forever linked to Borg’s name . That the game is also embraced by many non-wargamers is a testament to the flexibility and simplicity of the system. There are many games or unofficial families of games that fall in this category of “spin-offs”. For example, the Mask Trilogy of games from Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling features the Action Point mechanism (Java, Tikal and Mexica), the rondel mechanism is mostly linked with Mac Gerdts (Imperial, Navegador, Hamburgum, Concordia, etc.), Reiner Knizia is the undisputed champion of auctions (Modern Art, Traumfabrik, etc.) and many more.

There is a certain comfort in familiarity and spin-offs feed on that desire to find what is most comforting. We love certain types of games and for some people, the more the merrier is a good mantra. For someone who already loves Azul, sequels to Azul will be highly sought after. On the flip side, folks who dislike a certain theme or mechanism is unlikely to seek out the spin-off products. This means that the fan base must be large enough to encourage designers to stick with a winning formula. Personally, I am more a fan of mechanisms and so tend to follow designers that I enjoy. More often designers will continue to incorporate or tweak a successful mechanism for their future designs. If I enjoy a particular designer, I would certainly keep tabs on their future output. A cohesive theme matters less for me and certainly, a variable theme keeps things fresh. I cannot deny that keeping things consistent also appeals to the collector side of me. Regardless of my preferences, spin-offs are popular for a reason and they will remain a permanent fixture in the board gaming world.


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