I’m sure that all halfway dedicated videogamers will be aware of the concept of shovelware. This is generally low quality software, churned out for quantity rather than quality, with no real though having gone into it beyond a simple theme or property designed to appeal to a less informed audience. Think of the sort of crap that gets released alongside a blockbuster movie like Spiderman, any number of generic titles on the Wii or pretty much every game for the Kinect. I know my console references are dated, but I’ve not owned a console in a while…
When it comes to tabletop games, you could argue that any number of shovelware games are released every year as movie tie-ins or children’s games, but I’m discounting these entirely as they do not really fall into the scope of ‘hobby’ games and would never really be considered by anyone actually involved in the hobby. I think the true shovelware titles of the tabletop hobby are the reskins or rethemes that we see churned out, one after the other, of smaller, cheaper, relatively successful games.
Before I start, there are definitely good reskins out there. Take Star Trek: Catan as an example. It’s a good game that adapts to the theme well and adds a few little quirks (such as the use of character cards) to a good system.
When I consider games as shovelware, I’m thinking more of the constant reskins and re-releases of card games like Munchkin, by Steve Jackson Games, and Fluxx, by Looney Labs.
Love it or hate it, and there is a lot of hate out there for this title, Munchkin is a success. To give some context, Steve Jackson Games are quite upfront about their business and lay out quite clearly where Munchkin fits into their business. In 2013 they had a gross income of $8.8 million. Taking out the money raised by the OGRE Kickstarter, that leaves a little under $8 million, with Munchkin accounting for 75% of this figure. Simply put, Steve Jackson Games, despite their various other properties such as OGRE, Chez Geek, Zombie Dice and the venerable GURPS, is the Munchkin company. And this is fine. It keeps the company going and subsidises their other work, which is great, I suppose.
But it does wear on a bit. Here is a selection of Munchkin rethemes. I am focusing here on the different themes, with full core sets in blue and smaller boosters in red. I have left out expansions packs that merely build on an already established theme, but these are available as well.
- Munchkin Deluxe
- Munchkin Penny Arcade
- Munchkin Skullkickers
- Munchkin The Guild
- Munchkin Naughty and Nice
- Munchkin Easter Eggs
- Star Munchkin
- Munchkin Fu
- Munchkin Bites
- Super Munchkin
- Munchkin Impossible
- Munchkin Cthulhu
- The Good, the Bad, and the Munchkin
- Munchkin Booty
- Munchkin Zombies
- Munchkin Axe Cop
- Munchkin Conan
- Munchkin Apocalypse
- Munchkin Quest
- Munchkin Pathfinder
Much Munchkin! Oh, and don’t forget the recent edition of Munchkin, based on the cartoon series, Adventure Time. I know I’ve been critical thus far, but this one is actually a little bit tempting…
This edition is also one of the few that are not illustrated by John Kovalic (of Dork Tower fame) and it instead uses art from the series itself. This is a good call branding-wise as it will naturally appeal more to Adventure Time fans, all the better to expand the Munchkin fanbase.
As new games go, Steve Jackson Games is playing it very safe, re-releasing what is essentially the same game with a revamped theme and miniscule tweak every so often. Very little real design work needs to go into each edition, and there is certainly little to no innovation from one set to another. Sounds like shovelware to me!
I do love that Adventure Time D6, though. Could I get that separately?
Whilst I can, with the right group, play Munchkin quite happily, I find Fluxx infuriating. The game does not have a single, defined set of rules. Instead, the rules and victory conditions change constantly throughout the game. This just pisses me off massively. I like to know where I stand and do not cope well with the rug just being pulled out from under me like that. I know a lot of people who like this game, but it’s just not for me.
Much like Munchkin, this game has been reskinned and re-released ad nauseum with editions such as:
- Stoner Fluxx
- Family Fluxx/Fluxx Jr.
- Zombie Fluxx
- Monty Python Fluxx
- Martian Fluxx
- Pirate Fluxx
- Star Fluxx
- Oz Fluxx
- Cthulhu Fluxx
- Fluxx: The Boardgame
- Monster Fluxx
- Regular Show Fluxx
- Cartoon Network Fluxx
- Holiday Fluxx
- Christian Fluxx
- Jewish Fluxx
Holy Fluxx! As with Munchkin, some thought goes into adapting the game slightly to match the theme, but there is little innovation from edition to edition. I have played the Monty Python, Cthulhu and Adventure TIme editions and, whilst they are actually quite cleverly tied to their themes, they are still fundamentally and undeniably the same game. Again, edition after edition is churned out, each targeted at a specific audience or fandom.
Considering the success of these games, it’s clear that people do want them, but how many want them for actual game and not just for the theme? I know that the group I have played Monty Python Fluxx with are less interested in the rules and the game than in yelling Monty Python quotes with each card played, and that is fine. It’s great! It’s a shared social experience, and that is what gaming is all about, after all.
The third game I want to talk about is Love Letter. This is actually the best game of the three in terms of actual gameplay.
Love Letter is a very simple game with very few components. The entire game consists of just 16 game cards, some cubes or other tokens to keep score, a couple of reference cards and a rulesheet. It all fits into a cool little drawstring bag. The rules are very straightforward and the whole thing can be picked up very quickly. AEG describe their game:
Love Letter is a game of risk, deduction, and luck, for 2–4 players. Designed by Seiji Kanai, the game features incredibly simple rules that create dynamic and exciting player interactions. Players attempt to deliver their love letter into the Princess’s hands while keeping other players’ letters away. Powerful cards lead to early gains, but make you a target. Rely on weaker cards for too long and your letter may be tossed in the fire!
They go on to give a rundown of current and future releases in the Love Letter line. With so few components to adapt, the game is easy to retheme and put out as another new product:
- Love Letter Tempest Edition is part of a series of games based on AEG’s Tempest setting.
- Love Letter Kanai Factory Edition is a limited release and features the charming art and graphics from the original game first published in Japan.
- Love Letter Legend of the Five Rings is based on AEG’s original Love Letter rules and features the compelling art and characters of the L5R universe.
- Love Letter Wedding Edition is an edition of the game that features new art and components to make it the perfect gift for your wedding guests or party.
- Munchkin Loot Letter is the wild and wacky combination of Love Letter and Steve Jackson Game’s Munchkin! Can you be the first to get the Loot? All the fast fun of Love Letter without all that icky kiss stuff.
- Letters to Santa is a Christmas-themed edition of Love Letter. Can you get your letter to Santa to fulfil all your Christmas wishes?
- Love Letter: Batman Edition puts you in the role of the Dark Knight as you rid the villains from the streets of Gotham City!
- Love Letter: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies sends you on a quest to reclaim the Arkenstone, but beware the machinations of Smaug the Dragon!
- Love Letter: Adventure Time challenges you to pull Princess Bubblegum away from her lab long enough to find love.
- Archer: Once You Go Blackmail… puts you in the heart of Archness, using the Love Letter engine to play a game of intrigue and cunning… and likely a lot of phrasing.
So, we have a relatively simple game that takes very little work to adapt to a new theme. The publishes (AEG) have taken advantage of this to release various different version of the game with different themes and licenses. The game is so small, cheap and simple that people would not, in my mind, grudge buying more than one version of the game, and thus profoundly similar products do not necessarily have to cannibalise the sales of other such products.
I am left with several questions. Does this whole situation do service to the hobby? Does this advance the hobby in any way, or does it actively hurt it? Do the rethemes and licensed properties bring fans into tabletop gaming, or does the success of these games discourage innovation by showing the money that is to be made by rehashing an old game over and over? Are these unique and worthwhile products, or are they merely shovelware?