Sneaking Around Adaptation
It isn’t often that a board game lets me play a video game as “research.” Not that I usually need the excuse. Please, would somebody design Deus Ex: The Board Game. I’m already reinstalling it.
The first clue to David Thompson and Roger Tankersley’s Sniper Elite is that subtitle. You don’t put “The Board Game” on your game unless you’re adapting some other source material. In this case, I knew the material well: Sniper Elite, a video game franchise that’s sophisticated enough to have multiple entries, but trashy enough to have a zombie army spinoff and a slow-mo cam that X-rays enemy bodies while your bullets penetrate and shatter their brains, lungs, and testicles. Don’t fret. They’re Nazis.
Never mind that the principal violence is done to the player’s soul. I’ve now spent twenty-five hours playing Sniper Elite 5, which translates to perhaps twenty minutes of kill-cams in aggregate. My life is not richer for having viewed these snippets, although I’d be lying if I didn’t confess my professional satisfaction for every combination ghost kill / sound mask / eyeball shot that left some Wehrmacht draftee puddling into the grass and his companions none the wiser.
But before we get into Sniper Elite, and what The Board Game does to adapt it, we first need to talk about adaptation itself.
What is an adaptation? I reached out to a friend with an actual degree in adaptation studies. She responded with a long definition about intertext and audience expectations. Not bad for a field that only has room for forty careers in the whole world.
But the joy is in the journey, so let’s back up. What is an adaptation? I think most of us could probably come up with the general idea. An adaptation is about moving a story from one medium to another, right? Simple but serviceable! The problem is that stories undergo such movements all the time, and not all of them are adaptations. First of all, there’s the question of what constitutes a medium. Literature to film, obviously. Graphic novel to stage play, duh. But what about movie to television series? Podcast to audiobook? The delineations start to get fuzzy. Forge deeper into that gray area and we start to ask tougher questions. What about Japanese cinema to American cinema? Does The Magnificent Seven adapt Seven Samurai, or is it a remake? Or something else? Because if you ask me, the American version is a bastardization.
I get it. Definitions can be funny things. Or infuriating things. They’re more useful for binding subjects together than peeling them apart.
Still, I also get where my friend is coming from when she sidesteps the easy definition. Just because a story bounces between mediums — just because it’s “intertext” — doesn’t mean it qualifies as an adaptation. It could be a remake. Often, its goal is to poke fun at the original, whether by parodying it or offering its own pastiche. Other times, its goal is distillative, whether into an entirely different art form, as in ekphrasis, or by reduction into a synopsis. As someone who’s done a whole lot of translation work, I can’t tell you how often laypeople assume that translation is as easy as swapping out one set of words for another. In reality, all translation is also an act of imagination and simplification.
What, then, is an adaptation?
According to my friend, adaptation is the processing of carrying something between mediums while accounting for the audience’s appreciation of the original work. In this sense, the definition of media adaptation is the same as that of biological adaptation. Much like an organism, the adapted story becomes better suited to a new environment while remaining as recognizable as possible. In other words, it allows the story to operate within the limits of the receiving medium while still trying to minimize the drawbacks of those limitations.
Board games have a spotty record here. I’ve written previously about Sean Sweigart, the lead designer at Gale Force Nine until he passed away in 2016, and his ability to adapt television to board games. His adaptations included Homeland, Star Trek, Firefly, Sons of Anarchy, and Spartacus. In every case, rather than slavishly reproduce a work’s narrative, he tended to take an aesthetic or holistic approach. Although many players would be drawn to the board game thanks to their familiarity with the original work, he seems to have realized that nobody actually wanted to walk through a step-by-step reenactment of the scenarios and character interactions found in the series he adapted. That’s why I consider them adaptations: although Sweigart’s completed crafts were markedly different from the original works that inspired them, they were nearly always as faithful as possible within the medium’s limitations. They emphasized settings and systems, because that’s what board games do well. Far better than they do characters and plotlines, anyway.
Not every board game adaptation exhibits this much sense. To give one example, Die Hard: The Nakatomi Heist Board Game attempted to adapt Die Hard by walking players through the exact story beats that defined John McClane’s historic defeat of the Hans Gruber gang in 1976. Players were asked to scrounge for weapons and radios, crawl through ventilation ducts, run across shattered glass, save hostages by herding them with machinegun fire, and eventually push Hans out the thirtieth-story window.
It was a total snooze.
Why? Two reasons. The first is that it adhered to one of the medium’s limitations without working to minimize it. While one player adopted the role of John McClane, the others were asked to play as the terrorists. This isn’t a problem in and of itself. Rather, the troublesome part was that the terrorist players couldn’t well be asked to spend most of the game waiting around. Instead, the game had them spend most of their energy on a hacking minigame that had little to do with the state of the main board. The result was a rupture in the story’s internal logic. On one side, the McClane player worked to further their storyline. On the other, the terrorists threw countless bodies at McClane in an attempt to slow him down so they could break into the Nakatomi Corporation vault. None of the thieves in the original film seemed keen to throw away their lives, transforming the conflict into a distortion of funhouse mirror proportions: McClane’s goal was “progress” rather than survival, and the terrorists were speed bumps rather than characters.
Worse, none of this cut to the heart of what made Die Hard so riveting. By providing a clear path to the McClane character, the outcome of each scene was all but set in stone. There was none of the panic or improvisation that gave the story its edge. In this context, a more faithful board game adaptation would have emphasized the need to adapt to changing circumstances. McClane should have focused on movement, concealment, and survival, while the terrorists spent their energy searching for ways to find or entrap him. Crucially, much of Die Hard’s tension arose from fog of war. Neither side was ever certain where the other side currently was or what they were trying to accomplish.
In other words, it should have been a hidden movement game. Which is exactly what Sniper Elite: The Board Game happens to be.
Hidden movement is an appropriate backdrop for Sniper Elite: The Board Game. For a game called “Sniper Elite,” Sniper Elite 5 contains a great deal of activity other than sniping. Or, in my case, behaving much like an elite anything. Early on, before the game’s system of gradual unlocks permit you to add silencers to your weapons, it’s more a game of movement and patience than one of wind direction and bullet drop. Your character, lovingly named Sniperboy if all the cutscenes I skipped are anything to go by, spends most of his time hiding in tall grass, hiding around corners, or hiding slightly beyond the vision cone of the famously nearsighted Wehrmacht. Once or twice I tried to get through a mission by sniping nobody at all. This was invariably harder than meticulously dismantling the Wehrmacht one body at a time, usually by waiting for a plane to fly overhead or an artillery piece to fire, and then using the corresponding roar to muffle the sound of a gunshot into somebody’s cranium. Or, on occasion, by stabbing them. Okay, mostly by stabbing them. My knife saw more action than my rifle.
I’ve always had a soft spot for games that let me creep into places that would be otherwise off-limits, possibly a commentary on how stridently I obey guardrails in real life. Sniper Elite has always reveled in those verboten spaces, and this latest entry provides a few standouts. Its most enthralling maps are best described as “rectangular,” open and traversable but still driving you forward to accomplish some objective. By extension, its blandest maps are perfectly square, usually resulting in Sniperboy backtracking through areas he’s already cleared of danger.
Crucially, it’s invested in selling that danger’s sensations without any of its realities. I’m not only speaking about the fact that this is a video game, complete with resurrection lingering a single keystroke away, although we’ll return to that in a moment. Rather, its danger is carefully measured out by predictability and shortsightedness. To put it bluntly, your enemies are absolute doofuses. They aren’t quite as myopic as the enemies in some other stealth games, especially the rival snipers and troops with binoculars. Those jerks can spot you a fair distance off. But they’ll walk gormlessly toward any luring whistle, patrol the same routes no matter how many childhood friends stop appearing along their path, and gawk in surprise for a moment after sighting you. It’s enough of an opening to draw your pistol and squeeze the trigger. The result is an inverse difficulty curve that peaks around the third mission and slopes downward for the remainder of the game. As you become more acclimated to Sniper Elite 5’s systems, tools, and enemy responses, the steady introduction of tougher foes and more tangled sightlines can’t keep pace. Eventually, the tethers snap entirely. Where my earliest plays were tentative and anxious, before long I was deliberately triggering alarms for some challenge. At least then there was a chance of a soldier sniffing out my position and calling for reinforcements.
The Board Game version of Sniper Elite begins with the enemies already on alert. There are two sides: Sniperboy, whose task is to infiltrate some off-limits space and accomplish two objectives; and the Germans, who know an opposing saboteur is among them and must either wound him twice or delay his progress long enough that he retreats. Their playspaces are also asymmetrical, with the Germans operating in the open while the Sniper player sketches his route onto a dry-erase replica of the board.
On one level, this might seem similar to how Die Hard: The Nakatomi Heist Board Game cast its players in separate roles. Here, however, both sides are given natural goals to pursue. Hidden movement games typically give their searchers numerical superiority, but Sniper Elite takes that even further. The Germans have three squads of soldiers, all staffed by one officer and two underlings, each assigned a single zone of the map where they can utilize sweeps and other special abilities. Played well, they’ll likely identify the Sniper’s general area with relative ease.
Actually defeating the Sniper is another matter, as their numerical advantage is offset by total incompetence. Much as in the video game, soldiers can walk right past the Sniper without noticing him crouched in the bushes or shadows. Or standing in the middle of the street, but whatever, it’s an abstraction. To shoot him, the Germans need to declare an attack on his space, an act of deduction and chance that becomes almost comical when a procession of frightened Nazis empty their magazines into empty hallways, car lots, warehouses, sub pens, and every other square inch of negative space that’s devoid of a sniper. As an emulation of putzy video game artificial intelligence it’s perfectly accurate, even as it raises bellyaches from anyone who wonders how their secret military installation came to be staffed with the grandpawaffen.
But while the Germans have the advantage of numbers and a more immediately violent goal, it’s the Sniper who will likely kill a score of enemy combatants. This is the game’s starkest departure from most hidden movement games, where the sneaky team is often capable of stunning or delaying their opposition, but not able to sweep them off the board entirely. Here, the Germans must take care lest their manpower become too depleted.
This is also one of the ways the board game most readily adapts the video game, albeit within the limitations of the medium. Sniperboy doesn’t carry a knife — not without the benefit of an item card, anyway — but he can snipe enemies both near and far by drawing chits from a bag to determine whether he’s hit his target, missed, or given away his location. Much like the cinematic kill-cam from the video game, these draws pause the regular action and pull the observer’s focus inward. Or the observers’ focus, since the Germans are also invested in the outcome.
In other words, this:
The bag adds an element of risk right out of Sniper Elite. Just as your shots are affected by any number of factors, from environmental issues like wind, distance, and terrain to tangible questions of bullet penetration and enemy helmets, this allows your Sniper to be lethal without eliminating the downsides of deploying that lethality. In the video game, your character’s worst screw-ups are often the result of deciding to snipe or stab an enemy under unfavorable circumstances. The same goes for the board game.
Except there’s one major departure to consider, and it has everything to do with how we think about adaptation.
Earlier, I mentioned being able to load the game. Sniper Elite 5 is always saving your game state, both automatically and whenever you hit a certain key. Loading a save is as easy as straightening your finger. While playing, enemy alerts can be used to your advantage. Like proper goosesteppers, enemy soldiers will run directly toward that truck you just exploded, even if you don’t happen to be anywhere nearby. Once in a while, however, these alerts don’t work as intended. Soldiers magically zero in on your location. Reinforcements clutter the map. This isn’t always game-breaking, but it can be, even to the point of crashing when too many directives are pulling enemy troops in conflicting directions at once.
It can be amusing to poke fun at repetitive patrols and legally blind enemies, but those repetitions are also what make stealth games like Sniper Elite 5 work in the first place. Sniperboy’s whistle, for example, alerts a nearby soldier, but only partially. That soldier will now walk toward the whistle’s location, allowing you to get the drop on them. Whistling isn’t always safe. If you cause a ruckus near too many enemies, they might all converge on your position. But your whistle is consistent: it will always lure a lone enemy to your position. That’s a necessary part of the design. If there was no telling whether your whistle would lure an enemy or have them immediately sound the alarm, you’d either never whistle or you’d save-scum until the whistle had the desired effect. Whether we’re talking about headshots landing guaranteed kills, explosive timers never going off too early, or whistles drawing enemy attention, consistency is key.
By the very nature of putting thinking opponents into the jackboots of its Nazi searchers, Sniper Elite: The Board Game is not consistent. True, certain behaviors are bound by rules. Sniperboy can move up to one space silently, while sprinting two or three spaces will alert nearby enemies. One of his possible item cards, a thrown rock, will always lure a nearby enemy to a desired space. But there’s no artificial foolishness to exploit. While the individual soldier has moved thanks to the rock’s clatter, the player above them will never conclude “it must’ve been rats” and return to their patrol. The same goes for the sniping bag. The bag captures the uncertainty of a difficult shot, while entirely failing to capture the certainty of learned skill.
The result is an adaptation with imperatives in tension. It evokes the video game protagonist’s sneakiness, his lethality, his capacity to slip into guarded places. It evokes the frailty of Nazi security as expressed in video games. As a twist of irony, it even reproduces the frailty of the video game’s simulation, albeit without that simulation’s safeguards — the reproducibility of enemy behaviors and the possibility of a quick-load to eliminate errors. When things go wrong, there’s a finality to the situation.
The consequences of this finality are sharply felt by the Sniper. Taking your first wound almost guarantees taking your second. Making too much noise during a shot, a question of chance over skill, may rapidly scuttle the entire session. Certain abilities, like the medic’s ability to negate a troop’s death entirely, are devastatingly powerful.
In the language of adaptation, Thompson and Tankersley aptly identified a whole range of Sniper Elite’s crucial elements and found ways to faithfully adapt them to this medium. But they didn’t identify all of its crucial elements. They left out the ability to recover from mistakes. It’s no surprise that the best map of the entire collection is the one with the most ground to cover. The Sniper needs that breathing room.
This omission doesn’t sink Sniper Elite: The Board Game entirely, but it does put a few armor-piercing rounds through its engine block. I’ve witnessed tense games of cat and mouse that had both sides eager to see the result of every move, every draw, and every search. I’ve also witnessed sessions that concluded after only a few minutes because the Germans zeroed in on an accidentally outed Sniper with startling efficiency.
Contrast this with Mind MGMT, a hidden movement game and one of last year’s finest titles. There, the hunted agent is given multiple chances to slip out of danger at the last moment. There, the hunted player makes multiple moves before the opposition is “alerted.” That’s just a start. They also have the benefit of special moves that can only be triggered once or twice, defensive information the searchers must gather before they can capture the agent, and an alternate win condition that allows the agent to change course midstream. These provide much-needed safeguards for the game’s most difficult role. It’s easy to see how some of them could have been ported into Sniper Elite. Perhaps Sniperboy has an adrenaline rush after taking his first wound, letting him travel farther or massacre any nearby searchers. Perhaps he has access to his video game counterpart’s agility, letting him take shortcuts not available to the Germans. Perhaps he recalls his ability to whistle. Who knows.
In any case, Sniper Elite: The Board Game shows just how difficult adaptation can be. Here, a pair of experienced designers have pegged their source material’s spirit almost perfectly, only to miss a subtler but no less important mechanical detail. The result is fascinating but imperfect, exciting but wobbly.
Which, in a way, makes it a faithful reproduction after all. And with 100% fewer slo-mo kill-cams. What a time to be alive.
This article was originally published on Patreon! Supporters receive early access to deep-dive pieces into design and critique. My next piece, on adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft in board games, is already available! You can read it right here.
Complimentary copies of Sniper Elite and its expansion were provided.