One of the more interesting ongoing debates in board games is about originality and copying. It’s most recently in the news thanks to two developments: Oink Games’ Twitter complaints about Ted Alspach, Bezier Games and Werewords (and Alspach’s response in an Opinionated Gamers post, and Oink’s response to that response), and an article from Erik Twice calling GwentCondottiere under a different name.”

This seems unlikely to lead to legal issues in either case, especially considering the federal court decision in last year’s Bang! vs. Legend of the Three Kingdoms lawsuit that LOTK (which was very much just a reskinned Bang! with a different setting) “did not infringe any of the protectable elements of Bang!”, which reinforced that mechanics and rules cannot receive copyright protection (and that even the elements of the characters in that case were not copyrightable). And Oink in particular has already said “we all know that the rules of a game are not protected by any copyright.”

So it’s not really a question of if designers and publishers can copy, as it seems they can copy most things from someone else’s board game (apart from, say, art) without legal consequences. But there’s a worthwhile discussion to be had on questions like “Should designers and publishers copy others’ mechanics? If so, how?” and “How should gamers view the resulting games?” There are going to be a wide range of answers to that, but mine is “it depends.”

At first, the easy reaction to have is “No copying, ever!” There’s some merit to that reaction. Designing board games is a long and hard process, with many good ones often requiring years of playtesting and refining, and the financial rewards aren’t great for most designers (or even most smaller publishers). There are only a few people who have “game designer” as a full-time job, and there are many more who pour countless hours of passion into it for not a lot of money in return. If everything could and should be completely copied, that return likely gets even worse, and that likely leads to less talented people making games. Rewarding people for their work and their art is a good goal.

But at the same time, there are perils to be found in the no copying stance, especially if you draw that line too tightly. Many of the great games we have today take key mechanics from older games and innovate on them. If “worker placement” was copyrightable, for example, we’d all be stuck playing Caylus and nothing else.

Plenty of good games take from their predecessors and build on them (cue Newton’s “standing on the shoulders of giants,” which itself borrows from Bernard of Chartres), and series’ like Shannon Appelcine’s are particularly useful in tracing the evolution of different mechanics such as role selection, tile layingtrain games, and deckbuilding. But if “don’t copy” applied to basic mechanics, we’d have very few games to play. Board Game Geek lists 84 different categories, and many of those are based on theme (or other factors, such as “Is it an expansion?”) rather than mechanics, but even at the broadest, having 84 games available versus the 91,340 in their database seems problematic.

Of course, we’ve already established that designers and publishers can generally copy whatever they want mechanics-wise, so the world isn’t going to be restricted to 84 games. But this ties into the discussion of “If you don’t like copying, what do you do about it?” Possibilities include voting with your time (not playing a game), your wallet (not buying it), or your voice (criticizing it), and all of those can have an impact. It’s worth thinking about the target, though; is it something that’s actually ripping someone else off, or something that’s innovating on what came before?

There’s no easy answer to this, and probably no universal one either. What’s fair innovation and what’s a ripoff may feel different to different people. For me, there are four primary criteria in deciding if I think a game that clearly builds on another game is worth supporting or worth criticizing.

1. Are there changes that are more than surface-level? I don’t think it’s particularly fair to say “Well, your game was about Vikings; my game with the same mechanics is about space, so it’s fine.” That seems to be legal, at least going by the Bang versus Legends of the Three Kingdoms decision (the latter game even took the characters’ abilities, but not their names or appearances), but it’s not something I want to support; this feels like taking someone else’s hard work of design and playtesting and just slapping fresh paint on it and calling it your own.

Of course, this is different when it’s a retheme from the same designer and publisher; there are often good reasons for that (generally to try and broaden a game’s appeal), and it’s the same people benefiting from it. (That gets more complicated if you get into a designer retheming and tweaking one of their games for a different publisher, which has happened, is sometimes messy, and is its own discussion.) It’s also different if it’s something  within an established series (such as GMT’s COIN games, or the 18XX line). But both of those series involve significantly more than surface-level changes for each new entry.

2. Are the changes well-thought-out? Did work go into this new game? Granted, this is more a question of gameplay than it is of fairness, and gameplay is quite subjective. However, this is a worthwhile consideration for one particular reason; following point 1 above alone would mean you’d be fine with Designer X taking Designer Y’s game and throwing in a bunch of random changes without thought or testing to prove it’s “different.” If it’s clear X has put a lot of thought and work into their own game and come up with something good, that’s an easier sell for me than “It’s Y’s game, but a little different.”

3. What was the starting point? This is one that’s not even going to be known for most people unless the designer talks about it (in a designer diary, or materials associated with the game), and their own comments should obviously be considered for bias. But “I had this idea for a game about X, and it later struck me that mechanism Y from game Z might be a good fit” is always more interesting to me than “I want to change what I don’t like about game Z.” And not even all “I want to change game Z” efforts are always bad; that’s led to plenty of solid fan expansions and variants, and even some decent games (say, for example, the Battlestar Galactica to BSG Express to Dark Moon pathway, which appears to follow those lines). But, as with the above point, I’m more inclined to support something that feels like an original idea while innovating off of or merges other mechanics than something that feels like “It’s Game Z, but fixed.”

4. Is the original designer given fair credit? This is also a pretty small thing, especially as said credit is usually in the rulebooks and not everyone who’s going to play the game reads them, but it can be a good one. Acknowledging where some of your key concepts or inspirations come from is always nice to see. And this can also provide an opportunity for you to discuss where you went from there (point #3). By contrast, ignoring or providing minimal credit is a bad sign.

So, let’s talk about an example of how this has worked for me in practice. That would be Daniel Berger’s Hands In The Sea (pictured at top), which makes it very clear it’s “inspired by” Martin Wallace’s A Few Acres Of Snow (so credit for point #4); that’s acknowledged in the rulebook, in the companion guide, and as the first sentence of the game description on Kickstarter  (plus later in the description on Board Game Geek). Thus, they’re clearly not trying to hide the similarities. The Kickstarter description goes on to talk about the new elements, though (point #1), and in practice, those new elements are massive.

I own and love both games, but I think there’s a good case that Hands in the Sea is the better (or at least, more refined) one. (Dan Thurot has made a strong argument to that effect as well.) It seems to get rid of some particular problems with A Few Acres Of Snow, such as the one particular “Halifax Hammer” strategy and some completely useless locations, and it adds some excellent elements, including naval battles, ongoing strategy cards, combined-arms battle bonuses, interesting takes on supply lines, and maybe most notably, end-of-round scoring and events. It also matches its theme very well, and a lot of work clearly went into testing and balancing it. So that’s a win on points #1 and #2.

Point #3 may be the smallest one, but Hands in the Sea succeeds there too. Berger discusses in the companion guide how he started with the First Punic War idea (and took inspiration from some other games on the subject), tried alternate mechanisms, and then found the deck-building war game concept in A Few Acres Of Snow and thought it would be perfect with some tweaks. It also talks about how he met Wallace and discussed this with him, and it shows the work he put into the game (point #2). It further helped sell me on this being a game worth buying, playing and supporting, not one worth criticizing for borrowing from others.

It should be noted that there are also some potential benefits to the original designers from this kind of building on their previous creations. This has been perhaps particularly true in the deck-building world, which is generally seen as starting with Dominion. Yes, some of the many other deck-builders out there may be bought instead of Dominion, but much of the talk while playing many of those games is how they compare to their predecessor. And, with new gamers entering the hobby all the time, many may play TrainsThunderstoneAscension, Star Realms, or any of the various licensed deck-building games first, enjoy them, and get curious about where they came from, which may lead to them checking out the old standard (which is selling just fine, and continuing to crank out expansions).

Deck-building is now a familiar mechanic, which bodes well for Dominion, and it might not have become quite as prominent if Dominion had been the only game allowed to use it. In fact, A Few Acres of Snow is very definitely a take on Dominion with substantial advancements of its own (read Appelcine’s comparison of the two games here), so it in turn benefited from building on others’ designs. And it could benefit from deck-building wargames becoming more common; Wallace himself has explored the idea further with Mythtopia and the upcoming A Handful of Stars, and GMT’s recent Time Of Crisis seems to use some of those mechanisms as well. Getting more people familiar with these kinds of games can carry at least some benefits for all of them.

So, what does that all mean for the Insider/Werewords and Gwent/Condottiere controversies we started this post with? Well, it’s hard to comment in too much detail on those ones without having played them, but that Erik Twice article definitely raises concerns about Gwent being just a reskinned Condottiere., which would violate my criteria, and probably make me less interested in buying or playing it. I’d be interested to see if there’s been more designer comment on it, but it’s notable that even BGG tags it as a reimplementation.

The Insider/Werewords controversy seems a little more complicated, with both games tracing their lineage back to 20 Questions, Bézier Games’ Ted Alspach arguing that he had the idea before seeing Insider, tried to license Insider with his proposed changes and didn’t receive a response, and that his game wound up being significantly different anyway, and Oink saying that his practices still seem unfair. It seems like something where people are going to wind up on both sides, and probably the best way to really judge it is for neutral parties who have played both to comment on just how different they are.

In my mind, the larger takeaway should be that copying elements isn’t always good and isn’t always bad. If you’re copying someone else’s game wholesale and just putting new art on it, that’s problematic, and while it probably can’t be stopped legally, there’s some merit in criticizing that decision or choosing not to support it. But saying “no copying of any kind” would drastically restrict game design, and that’s not a good outcome either. The answer’s somewhere in the middle, and it may be different for different gamers. In any rate, it’s an interesting conversation to have, and one that raises some good philosophical questions about what’s innovative and what’s worthwhile.

Thoughts? Leave them in the comments below, or hit me up on Twitter or by e-mail.


One thought on “Where should the copying/innovating line be drawn in board games?

  1. Excellent take, Andrew. I agree especially with the notion that acknowledging your inspirations goes a tremendous way toward fostering goodwill. Hands in the Sea as an explicit reworking of the system from A Few Acres of Snow is forgivable (even laudable) specifically because Daniel Berger was so upfront about what he was trying to do. He was respectful of his origins. It also helped that he playtested the crap out of the thing.

    Our hobby has always been iterative. Even “tired” mechanisms like roll-and-move have come a long way from Backgammon and Monopoly to Zimby Mojo, and I’d much rather be deck-building via Time of Crisis or Cry Havoc than Dominion. I wouldn’t have it any other way. But there are absolutely opportunities to be tactful about borrowing influences, and designers would be well-advised to take advantage of them.

    Liked by 1 person

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