Hasbro gives classic detective game new characters, weapons, rooms, and suck

>> Saturday, August 23, 2008

So the announcement is that Hasbro, the gaming industry's equivalent of the Borg (your diversity will be assimilated and will service us) has announced that they're overhauling Clue, aka Cluedo, the classic 60-year old game of mystery, deduction, and juvenile single entendres about what various colorfully-named characters were doing with each other and assorted household objects in the many rooms of Boddy Mansion.

The point of the new edition is purportedly to "update" the game's image by making the characters younger and giving them trendier jobs. Because clearly that's what's sorely missing from the game's theme and ambiance--when I think of Edwardian manor-house murders, I inevitably wonder why there aren't more football players and video game designers. This is what people mean when they claim Agatha Christie couldn't write three-dimensional characters to save her life. Sure, Murder On The Orient Express is an okay locked-room mystery (and yes, I know it takes place on a train and not in a country manor, duh), but think of how much better it would have been if one of the characters had been a hip, urban token black guy "African-American 'with all the ins.'"

Oh, also they're apparently adding new rules. Because if there's one thing a new generation of board gamers that Hasbro obviously believes lacks the imagination and attention span to get into a game set a century ago needs, it's more cards to play.

But before you groan and get upset--which I think is a natural reaction--let's talk about what this really is all about. See, Hasbro probably doesn't want you to remember this, but they've done this before. There was Master Detective and the VCR Mystery Game and a few dozen versions for wee children that replaced poor Mr. Boddy being violently done in with missing puppies and similarly innocuous scenarios. They've added weapons and taken them away again, doubled the size of the board and then halved it again, tied the game into various hot franchises (e.g. The Simpsons) and let the licenses lapse, added gimicky battery-powered doohickies and stripped the game to its essential pieces and shoved them into an "old-fashioned" tin box. (Actually, the tin box is quite nice; I have it.) All to spur interest in a reliably-selling title--"reliably selling" meaning "beloved classic" or "slow seller" depending on variables like whether you're a grandparent or a gaming company, or which financial quarter you're in.

What this means is--and I could be wrong, but if I were placing a bet, here's my prediction--what this means is that eventually Clue will be back to the six original characters, the six old-timey weapons, and familiar nine rooms. It will be called "Classic Clue" or something like that, and it will have a fancier-than-normal box and "updated retro" art and cost twice as much as most games for about a year before dropping down to a routine $9.95 or whatever games retail for in 2010 or 2012.

So why is Hasbro announcing a revamp that will "replace" the current game?

The problem for the gaming industry is that it's a worse-than-flat business model. This is why things like collectible card games and miniatures games create a cracklike addiction in gaming companies and not just players.

See, let's say you like playing games, like me. And your friends do, too. One of your friends buys a game. The game is awesome. Everyone loves playing it. So do you go out and buy a copy, and do all of your other friends get copies too?

Probably not. If you're like most people with most games, what you do is go over to the one person's house, or you invite him over a lot and tell him to bring Game Of Awesome with him. With the exception of faddish games (take the Trivial Pursuit craze of the '80s) or old classics like Monopoly, gaming companies pretty much get to sell one game for every half-dozen players they have. And once a group of players actually has the game, that's the only unit that will be sold to that cluster--it's not like most people are going to go buy a replacement Monopoly set every six months.

If you can't sell supplements, expansions, bonus packs and the like, you're going to have to keep a tight belt and expect pretty slow growth (if any) as a gaming company. And the industry is littered with the wrecked husks of companies that went out of business, sold out to competitors, or cut themselves down to mere haunted shadows of their former ambitions. It's not an unusual story at all to hear that one of the biggest game companies of a long-past decade now consists of one guy in his basement filling orders on eBay. Even former giants like Parker Brothers, Milton Bradley and Avalon Hill are now nothing more than trade dress (all three "companies"--at one point the three biggest gaming companies in the United States and fierce rivals--are now nothing more than brand names for Hasbro product lines).

So here's Hasbro's game (ha, that was a good one): they're telling you that Clue as you knew it is about to cease to exist. This may prompt you to buy a copy while it's still available--and notwithstanding the crass manipulation, that may be a good idea if you need a new copy of the game and can't stomach "Jack Mustard" (ha-ha, another good one; no, I know it isn't). Then there will be the new edition, and maybe you'll get a copy of that at some point for your kid or nephew or niece or in-laws, or even for yourself. And then when "Classic Clue" hits the shelves in five years or whatever, maybe you'll buy that too. It's kind of like when DC Comic convinced all the non-comics readers they were really killing Superman and the Big Issue would be worth owning someday--they weren't ever really going to get rid of their Most Important Character, and the "Death Of Superman" issue generally isn't worth piss (certain runs of the issue in mint condition are exceptions to the rule); Hasbro is kind of hoping they can trick you into buying two or maybe even three copies of Clue because they know (just as well as anyone) that you only need one for your whole family and/or five closest friends.

Anyway, that's where I'd bet this is going. If I'm wrong... if I'm wrong, I'll always have my tin box.



An obligatory disclosure: do I sound like someone who's ever been obsessed by Clue? Does Professor Plum always go last? Clue was one of my favorite boardgames throughout childhood, and retains a place in my heart for all its faults. If that jaundices my view of Hasbro's latest ploy, so be it.

5 comments:

Janiece Murphy Saturday, August 23, 2008 at 10:25:00 AM EDT  

Eric, I loved "Clue," also.

And get off my lawn!

MWT Saturday, August 23, 2008 at 4:42:00 PM EDT  

Yep, loved Clue as a kid. My siblings and I would go to the library and play theirs all the time. When we ran out of the official notepads we just started using blank bits of paper, and I think invented our own rules.

Heh. Board Game companies made very little, if any, money off us due to the local library. ;)

Matt Warnock Tuesday, August 26, 2008 at 1:13:00 PM EDT  

Clue is a great game and needs no updating. It's one of my wife's favorites, which is why we have three versions at home (original flavor, Simpons, and Master Detective (which isn't even ours, my wife kind of "permanently borrowed" it from a friend)).

An update of the game isn't going to entice me to buy it again, especially if the rules are being changed. I can understand the Hasbro's position, but are they running the risk of aggravating an established audience more than they're going to draw in a new audience?

Eric Tuesday, August 26, 2008 at 5:32:00 PM EDT  

I can understand the Hasbro's position, but are they running the risk of aggravating an established audience more than they're going to draw in a new audience?

Ask Hasbro subsidiary Wizards Of The Coast about the divided reaction to Fourth Edition Dungeons And Dragons. :-)

That's sort of business-as-usual for the gaming industry generally, and Hasbro particularly. And they mostly can get away with it, especially with a general-interest game like Clue. After all, the majority of consumers are non-gamers or casual gamers--someone buying a boardgame for their nephews or a game they remember liking as a kid 10-40 years ago won't know about rules changes until they've opened the box (shrink-wrap's been torn off, sucker!). Some "fluff" changes, like the identities of game characters or room names, are also likely to be missed by someone who's essentially buying the front of the box.

And then there's the offsetting fact that hard-core gamers will frequently suck it up to get their fix in. (Witness, by way of an exhibit, the number of roleplayers who will bitch about D&D 4E before, during and after purchase.) Even hardcore boardgamers (there are such people) will often settle just to get their fix.

Matt Warnock Wednesday, August 27, 2008 at 7:28:00 AM EDT  

Oh boy, I haven't played a game of D&D since just after third edition came out. I can totally understand what you're saying about multiple editions of a game and tweaking it here and there. We're casual gamers at best and we still have three versions of Clue, five versions of Uno, two of Sorry, and 7 or so Munchkin sets/expansions (which is all just the same thing really and the reason I stopped looking for expansions).

I remember when it was a big deal that TSR was getting bought out by Wizards of the Coast.

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