Everyone has licensed games. Nowadays there are licensed games for practically everything, and they are getting better. Gone are the days when licensed games were highlighted by such gems as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Heroes in a Halfshell Card Game, X-Men: Crisis in the Danger Room, Batman: The Animated Series 3-D Board Game, Star Trek The Next Generation: Game of the Galaxies, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Pizza Power Game. It used to be hard to find a licensed game that was any good, but no longer. There are no shortage of good options. Spoilers: this list does not include Battlestar Galactica by design… I can’t stand it! Sorry, BSG fans!
Top 10 Licensed Board Games
10. Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle (review)
Starting off the list is one of several deck-building games. This one, based on Harry Potter, is a cooperative game for 2-4 players (a 5th is possible with the second expansion). What this game does that caught my eye right away is it takes a page (pun intended) from the books and has a set-up for each of the seven books in the series, which become progressively more complex and difficult. Book 1 is very simple, and not too difficult, while book 7 has multiple tasks it asks of you and more obstacles in your way to defeat the forces of Lord Voldemort. The gameplay can get a little long in the later books, and sometimes you can really get walloped. The game is very thematic though, and when you successfully build a powerful deck, the results are incredibly fun.
9. Disney: Villainous (review)
This was my introduction to asymmetric games. It is pretty simple, and true rules nerds will bristle at some of the ambiguities, but the game is fun and it is so thematic. Five expansions in and there are 21 different villains you can play as, with all of them feeling like they fit their scheme from their respective movies. The breadth of different win conditions is pretty impressive when you consider that each villain has the same basic actions to get there. The system has proved versatile enough to be able to branch out into both Marvel and Star Wars iterations (all hail Disney, the lords of our entertainment). One of the three versions is compatible with one another, as Marvel and Star Wars have slight differences appropriate to their themes, though they all share the same basic rules. That’s a bit of a downside, as playing Thanos against Darth Vader and Maleficent would be really fun. However, the unique feel of all three makes the differences in the theme worth it.
8. Tea Dragon Society Card Game
Another deck-building game (I might be partial), but with just about the simplest rules I have found in the genre. The game is based on a comic of the same name featuring the eponymous tea dragons, named appropriately things like Jasmine, Ginseng, and Earl Grey (hot!). The gameplay is quick, and the card art is downright adorable. Some probably would find it to be too simple for a deck-building game (you don’t have a hand, you simply play cards from the top of your deck to your “hold”), but to me it feels just right for the source material, which is one of the keys to a licensed game for me.
7. Dungeons and Dragons: Attack Wing
When told there was a miniatures game using the “Flight Path” rules on this list, most people might assume I picked the X-Wing Miniatures game, and it is easy to see why. Of the games using this basic rules framework, it was the most popular (though my most-played is Star Trek: Attack Wing). I think the best, however, is the one that probably sold the least: Dungeons & Dragons: Attack Wing. The rules were the most intricate. The multiple levels of play between ground and air created strategies that aren’t present in the other titles. Had the price point (or system fatigue?) not driven down sales, and the game had lasted longer, it had great potential.
6. G.I. Joe Deck-Building Game (review)
In the last few years, licensed games have been blessed by a partnership between Renegade and Hasbro, with several really good games resulting from the deal, across several of Hasbro’s brands. I enjoy what they’ve done across the board, but the first entry to make this list is the deck-building game for G.I. Joe. Like many franchises, G.I. Joe really struggled to get a quality board game. No more. This cooperative game is both challenging and engaging. It captures the spirit of the franchise really well, and has a lot of replay value. The system is pretty expandable. So far, it has received two expansions with a third on the way, crossing over with its sibling franchise at Hasbro: Transformers.
5. Lord of the Rings: The Duel
I’m going to guess most people haven’t heard of this one. It is a great little two-player game with Gandalf facing off against the Balrog at the Bridge of Khaza-dûm. The gameplay is simple, but can be strategic. Each card play represents an attack and a counterattack that your opponent needs to answer. A buildable punchboard replica of the bridge helps you track your dominance (or failure) over the course of three rounds. It is a quick to set up and play game, and I think it flew under the radar quite a bit. Worth checking out.
4. Transformers Deck-Building Game (review)
This deck-building game is more than meets the eye… *ducks rotten tomatoes* Seriously though, like a lot of IPs on this list, a really good game eluded Transformers for a long time. It had the Transformers TCG, but that ended very abruptly. This picked up the mantle. It is a really good game, and an interesting take on the genre. What really makes this one stand out among deck-building games is the concept of the Matrix. Rather than a line-up of cards that you can purchase similar to Ascension, or a predetermined set up like Dominion, the cards you can add to your deck are facedown in a grid (or Matrix), and you have to move around this small board to uncover them, defeat enemies and acquire cards to improve your deck. It feels pretty thematic, capturing the ongoing battle between the Autobots and Decepticons. After three expansions (and another on the way), there are myriad options for modes of play, which makes it easy to find a way to play that suits your preference.
3. Lords of Waterdeep (review)
Nearing the top of the list is a nicely thematic take on the Forgotten Realms city of Waterdeep. This worker placement game has parties of fighters, rogues, wizards, and clerics completing quests. It has hidden lords engaging in intrigue. It feels like its setting, and games often come down to the final scoring phase after a lot of back-and-forth over the eight rounds. Thematically and mechanically it is well-designed, and engaging. Hard to believe it is over 10 years old at this point. I consider it one of the classics now.
The grand-daddy of dungeon crawlers. Yes, it technically belongs on this list because the original setting was licensed from Games Workshop! The recent reprint has eschewed the Warhammer connections for legal reasons, but I’m still going to count it. I feel the oft-derided simplicity of this game in comparison to its modern successors is its greatest strength. It lacks the sheer complexity of a game like Gloomhaven, but that makes it approachable, and easily modifiable if you so choose. I would take that simplicity over the complex direction the genre has gone any day. The future once looked grim for ever seeing HeroQuest reprinted, but that’s turned around in the last couple of years and brand new expansions are being made for this classic.
1. Heroes of the Grid/Mission Critical (review)
And, of course, topping the list is… licensed Monopoly. Just kidding! This is a bit of a hybrid entry. Power Rangers: Heroes of the Grid came out in 2019, and has been successful enough to warrant over 20 expansions in less than four years. That success got its rules rebranded as the “Guardian System” with the release of the fully compatible G.I. Joe: Mission Critical. As fully cooperative games at their core, they have a lot of interesting team-based decisions to be made from team-building, to deploying your resources in order to best keep the situation under control, to the best cards/abilities to use when during battle. Sometimes, strategizing as a team takes up most of a battle, talking through options before an “ah ha” moment when you see what you want to do (and possibly fail spectacularly!). This great gameplay is enhanced by high-quality components, in particular the sizable miniatures that are the games’ hallmark. Add in near infinite combinations from a hugely expandable system, and this one is hard to beat.