Earlier this year, Battleship arrived and transformed an 80-year-old guessing game with a naval combat theme into a Transformers-esque alien invasion movie. Every few months, we're threatened with the possibility of a Monopoly movie, which (last we heard) had mutated into some kind of sci-fi/fantasy take on buying up Atlantic City property. Go ahead and insert an obligatory "What's next? Hungry Hungry Hippos?" joke here.
It's hard to get excited about any of these proposed board game adaptations (sometimes the result of studios valuing a recognizable name over a great story, but that's a subject for another article). How do you bring something like Monopoly to the screen? Battleship answered that question: you don't. In order to make it work, you have to completely change the spirit of the game, creating characters and story where none were meant to exist. "Brand Name" board games will never make for an interesting movie.
That's not to say that there aren't board games out there ripe for cinematic interpretation. In fact, there are plenty of games that offer truly rich and exciting experiences, games that somehow craft stories more dramatic than many movies. If Hollywood insists on making board games into movies, it actually has plenty of great options.
The Game: Based on H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos, players control a team of investigators exploring the strange and dangerous town of Arkham, Massachusetts during the Roaring '20s. The players work together against the game itself, whose ingenious design forces the team to confront threats both manageable (evil cultists!) to unimaginable (inter-dimensional space gods!). It's a deeply complicated, but hugely rewarding, experience -- victories are so rare and the punishment the game throws at you so severe that every little victory feels amazing… but you ultimately tend to get crushed by otherworldly forces in the end. Lovecraft wouldn't have it any other way.
The Movie: Imagine the aesthetics and attention to period detail seen in something like HBO's Boardwalk Empire. Now add portals to other dimensions, gangsters firing tommy guns at giant spiders and monsters that can drive characters insane in seconds. Every game of Arkham Horror oozes menace and atmosphere and since players are forced to band together against a game that's doing its damnedest to wipe them out, every round becomes a tale of heroes fighting against overwhelming odds. Lovecraft has proven difficult to adapt in the past, but perhaps the key to bringing his world to the screen is this game, which takes the author's concepts and filters them into an action-horror story. This could be the next great horror franchise.
Settlers of Catan
The Game: You and your fellow players represent struggling communities on the lush island of Catan. You will build roads. You will gather and trade supplies. You will attempt to coexist. You will fail to coexist. You will do everything you can to become the most powerful force on the island. You and your fellow players will take this seemingly gentle Euro-style game and transform it into the most dirty and cutthroat game imaginable. It will be glorious.
The Movie: If you look at the basic mechanics of Settlers of Catan, there seems to be about as much story potential as a game of Monopoly, meaning none at all. However, this game has one thing going for it that most mainstream games don't: a genuine sense of place and a central concept that is about is primal as you can get. Imagine an epic tale of settlers looking for a second chance on an uninhabited island. Imagine them initially working together and growing stronger.
Imagine our cast of characters ultimately turning on each other, plotting each other's downfall as the ways of the old world invade the new. This is the "plot" of the average game of Catan… and it's the template for a terrific movie. Heck, this "plotless" game even inspired an epic novel adaptation in its native Germany. Get on it, Hollywood!
Fury of Dracula
The Game: Set 10 years after the events of Bram Stoker's Dracula, Fury of Dracula serves as a sequel to the classic novel. Count Dracula has returned and plans to raise a new army of vampires to take over the world. The only people standing in his way are those who survived the last battle with him: Professor Van Helsing, Mina Harker, Lord Godalming and John Seward. One player takes control of Dracula and four others control the hunters as everyone engages in a literal cat-and-mouse game. Dracula moves using a deck of cards, keeping his location hidden at all times. The hunters can spread out across Europe, using their superior numbers to suss out the evil vampire. Naturally, the hunted frequently becomes the hunter. You will rarely have a more tense experience playing a board game. Just keep your sweaty palms off the board.
The Movie: This one's a no-brainer. People have been making Dracula movies for the better part of a century now and filmmakers are always looking for new ways to explore this horror icon. Instead of taking him to modern times or sending him to space, why not make a story that's a direct sequel to the original tale that everyone knows by heart? Why not make a Dracula movie where the humans are hunting him and not vice versa? Think of it as a horror-tinged manhunt film, taking place across a turn-of-the-century industrial Europe that is just about ready to stop believing in the supernatural. Why hasn't anyone made this yet?
The Game: This one's a bit of a cheat, but it's too good to not bring up here. Durance isn't a board game, but a tabletop RPG. Like the creator's previous game, the wonderfully deranged Fiasco, Durance is all about improvisation and world-building, with absolutely no attention paid to stats or leveling up. Unlike Fiasco, Durance doesn't attempt to re-create your favorite movies -- it forces you to create specific, layered and totally original science fiction stories. The basic premise remains the same every time (you and your buddies represent both the criminals and the authorities in a penal colony on a distant planet), but the nature of your location and the people who inhabit it are up to you, with the game's improv-based structure ensuring that it's just about impossible to have a bad idea.
The Movie: If screenwriters and producers sat down and played a game of Fiasco or Durance and just transformed their session into a movie, we'd have a lot of great movies. Quite simply, there are no games better for getting your creative juices flowing. Durance's central premise though, is inherently cinematic and cries for adaptation. A science fiction film that explores the power struggle between prisoners and those who control them on a planet light-years from Earth is about as epic as it gets. All you need to do to make it work is flip through the game manual and pick the details that sound good.
Betrayal at House on the Hill
The Game: As its title suggests, Betrayal at House on the Hill is a throwback to 1950s horror B-movies, with players controlling a team tasked with exploring a haunted house. The modular game board is built from random tiles as players get deeper into the house, meaning that the game changes radically with every play and the exact layout of the house can never be predicted. Halfway through the game, an event is triggered and one member of the group betrays the others. Both groups must then follow a random scenario to finish the game, with the traitor now working against the others. The big twist is sometimes traditional (the traitor is a psychopath who wants to kill the others) and sometimes it's downright bonkers (aliens invade the house!), so every game ends up being a wonderful and random genre exercise.
The Movie: Remember Clue, the surprisingly good 1985 film that took a popular board game's basic murder-mystery concept and transformed it into an ensemble-driven screwball comedy? That should serve as a template for a movie adaptation of Betrayal at House on the Hill. A movie version could even play with the game's penchant for jumping between genres at the drop of a hat. Why not make a goofy haunted-house movie that has mummies and demons and vampires and aliens? Give the project to a master genre manipulator like Edgar Wright and watch the next Ghostbusters get made.
Shadows Over Camelot
The Game: A fully cooperative game, Shadows Over Camelot replaces player opposition by forcing everyone to work together against increasingly overwhelming odds. Everyone plays as a knight of King Arthur's Round Table and must coordinate their efforts to repel invading armies, retrieve Excalibur, track down the Holy Grail and other pressing concerns. Ignoring a problem will only make it worse, but trying to solve a problem can take you away from other pressing concerns, which grow more dire in your absence. To make it all worse, one member of the group may be a traitor, quietly working to undermine the efforts of the team (shades of the incredible Battlestar Galactica board game).
The Movie: Isn't it about time someone made a new King Arthur movie? Enough said, really.
Chaos in the Old World
The Game: Although set in the Warhammer universe (which is another can of worms altogether), Chaos in the Old World is a game that's completely approachable for the uninitiated… as long as they're down with some pitch-black concepts. Each player takes on the role of an evil god (god of war, god of corruption, etc.) and each must work to gain the most followers and spread the most darkness across the land, crushing whatever pesky humans stand in their way. There are plenty of strategy games with similar structures and gameplay, but this is one of the few that lets you play an all-powerful deity with a taste for wanton destruction.
The Movie: Once again, the Warhammer connection may be a roadblock to ever bringing this concept to the big screen, but imagine the possibilities! Think of the Clash of the Titans remake, but remove all of the Sam Worthington nonsense and focus entirely on the scheming of the all-powerful gods and their lust for power. This is the kind of movie that would feature epic battles, giant monsters and just about everything else that will inspire 11-year-old boys the world over before giving them nightmares that last late into their teens. Is their an audience for a meaner, nastier Lord of the Rings? Who knows… but it sounds terrific.
Cosmic Encounter and Twilight Imperium
The Games: Although they couldn't be more different in execution, Cosmic Encounter and Twilight Imperium are both, at their core, about the exact same thing. Players take control of an alien race with specific skills and attributes and proceed to war on each other, taking control of planets, making alliances, wheeling and dealing and generally causing all kinds of galactic mayhem. Cosmic Encounter is simple, casual and layered with tongue-in-cheek humor. Twilight Imperium has a complicated mythology (recounted in great detail in the thick instruction book), requires six hours to finish and will push your tabletop skills to the limits. Despite their differences, both give players the chance to create an epic space opera on their coffee table.
The Movies: Every studio is looking for the next Star Wars. Well, look no further. Cosmic Encounter feels ripe for an edgy animated movie in the vein of of Wall-E or How to Train Your Dragon and the sheer number of available alien races (over 100 if you factor in the game's many expansions) will make for a colorful cast of amazing, varied alien creatures. Meanwhile, Twilight Imperium's detailed, meticulous universe is like a sci-fi riff on the fall of the Roman Empire -- it's dark, exciting stuff and the amount of backstabbing and brutal warfare in an average game makes it feel like Game of Thrones in space. Now that's a pitch.