Saturday, October 06, 2007

To retheme or not to retheme, that is the question

It is not an uncommon practise for games to be reissued in a rethemed version. Usually with only minor differences, if any, from the original apart from the theme. Sometimes there may be quite a few changes or additions compared to the original, but does that just make it a "second edition" or does it require the retheming?

Here's a few:
Schotten Totten to Battle Line
Revolution to Atlanteon (OK only one entry)
Tycoon to El Capitan
Dune to Twilight Imperium Universe Dune?

There are some rethemings that seem sensible or reasonable. In some cases the original version is out of print, so the opportunity exists, or possibly the original artwork is no longer available so it is going to be recreated anyway.

In the case of Schotten Totten and Battle Line both versions have been in and out print, but certainly when we bought our version of Schotten Totten both games were in print. Our copy of Schotten Totten includes the tactics cards, so there is very little difference between the two games apart from Battle Line's apparent homage to This is Spinal Tap by making the cards go just that one higher than Schotten Totten. Unfortunately this is one of the games that the lovely Melissa has not done a rules translation for, so I cannot confirm the tactics cards are exactly the same in function, but I believe that they are.

Why then change it from wild Scots in the Highlands to ancient warriors?

In this case I the the answer can be found by looking at the new publisher GMT Games and their main market. They are primarily a wargame company and thus the majority of their customers will be interested in wargames. The retheming would make the game much more marketable to their customers.

In the case of Revolution to Atlanteon I am not aware of any changes other than the theme. The theme has changed from Revolutionary Paris to Undersea Kingdoms. I think this is another case of the new publisher, Fantasy Flight Games in this case, targeting the theme to their customer base. Is it an accurate assumption or are the publishers guilty of dumbing down their own customers? Since they didn't sell both versions I suppose we will never know. Interestingly enough FFG let Senator out of the door with its historical, as opposed to science fiction, theme.

A case mentioned here at Gone Gaming recently is Tycoon to El Capitan. I played Tycoon for the first time only a few weeks ago and enjoyed it. The theme worked well for me - I thought that the cost of travel being so high because you are a tycoon flying around in your own personal jet with your potentially large entourage, so it does cost a lot of money to relocate from one city to another. Corporate tycoons must be out of flavour now, because El Capitan has shifted it to Tom Vasel's most reviled theme, Mediterranean trading ports. Sure this fits in thematically with more of the games released over the last ten years, but was it really necessary to change it? Will the sales be that much better than a straight Tycoon Second Edition would have been?

Dune to Twilight Imperium Universe Dune? is an interesting case. As far as I understand it, Dune is no longer licensed. If it was relicensed it could be reprinted, or a second edition released. The retheming is the outcome that would occur if nothing changed with the licensing situation.

Now I must admit that I have never played Dune, mainly because I have not had the opportunity. My personal feeling though is that theme is very important to this game. The Dune universe through the books has quite a history and people associate with that. Sure you could retheme it and technically have the same game or possibly an even better one, but would it be as engaging without sandworms and spice (even if they are just cardboard chits)? I doubt it.

Going from Schotten Totten to Battle Line is no great loss and there was no great investment with the Highland theme, but I can see that in going from Dune to something else there definitely would be a loss of investment for people familiar with the original. For people with no knowledge of the original it probably wouldn't make much difference, but would the new be as engrossing as the original was because of the history?

It sort of reminds me a little of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy film. A very nice film if you knew nothing about the books or the radio show. However if you had listened to the radio show time and time again and read the books, the first twenty minutes of the film was excellent and the rest was, to put it politely, not.

For some things you just have to ask yourself, why did they change that?

Mmm meeples taste like...


huzonfirst said...

Fraser, when I track games, I always treat rethemings as different games, because theme is so important to so many of us that it can definitely affect ones enjoyment of the design. I'm relatively theme agnostic, but even I am not immune: I MUCH prefer Showmanager (with what I find an attractive theme) to Atlantic Star (which, to me, has a boring and nonsensical theme), despite the fact that the games are close to identical. Despite the cavalier way many publishers treat it, theme really does matter.

As you point out, most of these rethemings have to do with target audiences. The switch from Tycoon to El Capitan, for instance, is due to the antipathy that most Europeans have for business games (no doubt a contributing factor in Tycoon's relative anonymity). I also like the original theme, although I'm not nearly as willing to accept the cost of the plane tickets, your entourage theory notwithstanding. Maybe the best way to interpret this is that the players are all Donald Trump clones, with egos to match, and making a profit isn't nearly as important as beating all our competitors. Still, it's a bit of a stretch, but one I'm happy enough ignoring.

I'm sure FFG would have used the original theme for Dune if they could have, but the Herbert estate had no interest in licensing the product. I also think this will be a tough game to retheme, but this is an unpredictable process, so you never know. I was surprised to hear Eon designer Peter Olotka state that Dune itself was a retheming! The design was based on something very different (Arthurian legends maybe, I forget) and when AH approached them with the Dune idea, they just switched things around. And yet, the ties to the Dune themes are so close, you could swear that the game was expressly created with them in mind. So with any luck, the new theme will also be seamless, although it will be hard for those who have played the original not to continue to think of things in terms of the Dune universe.

Pawnstar said...

I have to say, I quite like the prospect of El Capitan. But it isn't so much the theme that grabs me; it's more the fact they have upped it to seat five.

Really; I've tried the original with five and while it worked it felt it needed a touch of tweaking. So while the rethemed version is not top of my list, I am extremely interested (and would not be surprised if I end up buying it).