There are parts of being a game previewer / game designer that I love. Going to cons (see my recent post about UKGE), seeing what’s new, meeting up with the awesome creative people, having drinks while talking games, playing games…

It’s a fun life. There’s a balance here, like all things, and this post is one of those things I wish I didn’t have to write.

In late May, I received a request to preview a game. In the e-mail, the designer said the game:

“takes it’s inspiration from the mechanics of [another game from 2001]… but with an unrelated backstory, modernized rule-book, different keyword terms and different graphics built from the ground up in order to respect the original game’s IP. I put a lot of work into creating a new world for exploration in the story and came up with improvements upon the [game’s] formula.”

OK, fair enough. Anyone in game design / development knows it’s a fine line between ‘taking inspiration from’ and ‘directly copying’ – but at what point does ‘inspiration’ became ‘copying’? In the words of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in 1964, “I’ll know it when I see it.”  It’s a gray area, though.

The classic example of Cards Against Humanity using the same ‘impress-the-judge’ mechanic as Apples to Apples is sometimes mentioned, and of course it’s the same mechanic at play. You get two very different sets of cards, two very different art styles, and two very different games for two very different groups of people. As such, very few people look at Cards Against Humanity as a copy of Apples to Apples.

In any case, I accepted the game for preview, made a preview video, and published it as agreed on June 6th. I never thought to look up the original game from 2001 for comparison beforehand. After reading an article from AEG’s John Zinser entitled ‘I’LL JUST STEAL IT‘, I found a video review of the original game and was shocked to find a ton of similarities between this game and the original game from 2001. A lot more than just ‘inspiration’ or mechanics was taken here.

I’ve since taken down my preview video and refunded the creator — simply put, I choose to not support games that appear to be copies of other games.

Yes, there are differences between the two games. The art is different, and the rules are different. This isn’t a case of plagiarism. Legally speaking, the creator here is probably in the clear — game mechanics can’t be copyrighted, and elements like a similar layout aren’t copyrightable either — but morally / ethically speaking is a different matter. Just because a game goes out of print doesn’t give anyone else any rights to it — not unless you acquire them in some way.

I have a similar view towards games that add only a veneer of something new to an known game, movie, book, or story. Designers, you can — and should — do better. It doesn’t have to be illegal or punishable to be wrong.

Look at the games that have won the prestigious Spiel Des Jahres. Each of these games has innovated and moved the industry forward, sometimes by taking a known mechanic or element and then adding a great twist. In cases like Dominion (2009’s Spiel Des Jahres winner), you even get a whole new type of game in deck-building.

Want more examples? Look at the Board Game Geek’s top 100 — or 500  — games. The games most highly regarded by the industry’s most passionate gamers are ground-breaking, clever, original, and often selling well. If any of these look like copycats of previously released games, I’d love to hear about it.

With as many games as are coming out these days, there’s going to be some overlap and some similar elements used. That happens, and it’s a question I see in the Facebook groups every once in awhile (‘I just learned my game in playtesting is very similar to another game being published — what do I do?’). ‘Great minds think alike’ goes the saying, and there’s room in the market for similar games.

Despite all the growth in recent years, the board game industry is still a fairly small, tightly-knit industry. We openly share our ideas with playtesters and other designers, trusting them to offer ideas to make a game better. Whatever your role in the world of board games — gamer, publisher, previewer / reviewer — our world is made better by the original ideas, combinations of mechanics, themes, and concepts brought forth by the many, diverse minds in our industry. Copycats have no place in it.