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Where Does Influenced By Become Stealing A Design?

Standing on the shoulders of giants Newton quoteSome time ago I bought a game on Kickstarter. It looked gorgeous. The gameplay seemed somewhat simple, and it was a first time designer self publishing but it looked gorgeous. The shipping was horrible but it did look gorgeous so I decided to buy two copies and hope to recover some of the shipping by selling one.

That is, until I opened the box. Yes, the game was gorgeous, the art top notch. But the game, well, after two plays I realized that either the game hadn’t been playtested enough or it had been playtested in a group that suffered from groupthink about how to play it. For anyone with a smidgen of gamer blood in their veins there was a clear dominant strategy: just keep drawing cards.

But it did look gorgeous. I couldn’t let that go. This was a set of components that kept screaming “mod me, mod me, I’ll promise I’ll be good, just mod me and make me a game!”

So I did.

And it was surprisingly easy. Close to two dozen playtests later there’s the basis for a completely new game. It still uses the same components but there is no dominant strategy what I can see. The mechanics have become more complex, bringing it up to medium weight. The main thing is that the feel of the game has changed. If I removed the gorgeous, gorgeous art I’d think that this was a completely different game – but I’m biased.

I’m biased because I really want this game to fly. It feels like it’s got potential, there’s now an engine building aspect, there’s less randomness and more interaction. A couple of elements that made the dominant strategy dominant are gone, a couple that made other strategies viable are added. The victory conditions are completely overhauled with divergent victory paths (and the possibility of switching between them without too large penalties) and the game now has a game clock so it no longer has any possibility of running into eternity. And there are a couple of sudden death victory conditions that are opposed to the game clock. The setup is completely remade and now drops players right into the middle of the action. The distribution and values of the cards have changed (which made that second copy come in handy – I could playtest with that gorgeous art!). Come to think of it, the only mechanics remaining from the original rules are the fact that you draw cards and place them on the table without ever holding them in your hand.

Feet and ArrowsBut the look of the game, the spread of those gorgeous, gorgeous cards on the table still looks similar.

Maybe a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet, but I’ve removed some of the smell and the thorns and added some eau-de-jeu (that’s a fancy name for that hard core convention stink) so it now smells like pigs in rut (but in a good way).

And yet, it somehow doesn’t feel all right to me.

See, I’ve never developed a game. I’ve done some variants or altered some rules but I have never started with someone else’s design and built upon it. My designs always start with an original idea (original as in “it pops into my head unassisted” not as in “nobody’s done this before”). But here I’m starting with someone else’s design, a design that I perceive as broken, and developing it into a working whole.

I’ve written a little bit about this in the IP-law post, touching on the legalities of the Knizia/Sirlin Flash Duel controversy. In short, there’s nothing that says that you can’t legally lift mechanics or entire rule systems from another game.

I’ve written about the morals of using copyrighted art in your prototypes (summary: I wouldn’t mind if someone else used mine in theirs so I’ll assume that the opposite applies but would understand if someone took offense). But this is the first time I’m faced with the moral issues of building upon someone else’s design.

To me the design is more central than art, especially art used in prototypes. I’d be mightily annoyed if someone used my photos in a production run of a game without checking with me first (I could give them away but just taking them and assuming that it’s all right would irritate me). But if someone took one of my designs and repackaged it as their own without changing a thing I’d be outright angry.

Khaaaan!That happens to me all the time – and it’s all my fault: “Look at this here great design I’ve got – what? Is that already a game? Khaaaaaaan!” I get angry when that happens, angry at myself for not knowing the market, angry at myself for not getting the job done sooner, angry at the work I’ve put in that is now worthless.

And perhaps that’s the crux of the matter: me putting in work that is now worthless, that something I perceived as being valuable no longer has any value.

In a way that’s similar to having your work critiqued, especially if the critic is ungentle with her comments. You see something that you’ve put effort into, something that you’re probably proud of, being taken down a notch or two (or thirty if you’ve made a major blunder).

And in a way that’s what I’m doing here: I’m taking this gorgeous game that someone is proud of and butchering it in order to make a new one. And while it might be legal (I wouldn’t use the same art if I’d ever try to get it published) it doesn’t feel all that friendly to me.

Probably it’s only my own imagination and sense of justice that’s in the way. I mean, just look at all the deckbuilders out there, at all the worker placement games, at all the Puerto Rico clones, 1830: Railways And Robber Barons clones, wargame-of-the-week clones. Designing a game is building upon the shoulders of giants. It’s iterative development at its best. It’s stealing with finesse, paining over that Picasso by numbers in order to display your roses on canvas and hoping that others will see it as original, perhaps even seeing it that way yourself. At least that’s what I hope it is. Perhaps it’s only the fact that I’m using bits (i.e. the cards) from a single game, whereas I usually scavenge bits from lots of different games when I design. I don’t know, and that bothers me.

What do you think? Does this sound right to you?

Dreams of Futures Past Book Cover


  • Is the original game well reviewed? Perhaps the creator qould be interested in licensing or doing a deal.

    As an exercise I think it’s perfectly reasonable to do what you have done. The Act of Creation is the act of building on previous things.

    • Filip Wiltgren

      No, that game was a stinker. It came, it went and the people who played it got therapy.

  • You designed a game: if the difference in game mechanisms is as thorough as you have said, you did far more than simply “develop” the original game. The fact that it used components from a different game is irrelevant. How many original games have been designed for a standard deck of playing cards? Hundreds? Thousands? I see no moral issue here.

    From a legal standpoint, of course, using the original game’s artwork would be a violation of copyright. So make a new prototype without that artwork and start looking into getting it published!

    • Filip Wiltgren

      That’s about my view of it as well. But then there’s the part that asks “where does the line actually go?” I’m not quite sure of that one – if you’d take a game and remove a mechanic, would it still be original work? How bout when you mash two games up, and then you run afoul of the whole “let’s include mechanics under copyright” fight going on right now.

      But as a believer in creative commons and shared development I’ll go with “run with your idea and worry later” 😉

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