At some point in time, every game designer who’s been around for awhile has to deal with non-disclosure agreements, either because he or she is submitting a design or play-testing a design, to protect both parties involved. And, most people wonder, “What can I do if the company steals my design?” My answer to that is; not much.

  • Copyright protects the text and images in the game; it does nothing about the mechanics, so it’s pretty easy to rewrite a game with a different theme.
  • Trademark offers you no protection at all for the mechanics of the game.
  • There’s patent protection, which is almost entirely limited to just the mechanics of the game, but you have to come up with a minimum of around $2000 (often much more) to patent a game, and since 95% or more game designs never see publication, this is a ridiculous risk. Even if you patent it, you have to be willing and able to protect that patent in court, and have the money to do so.

But rest at ease; for the same reason it’s hard to protect a game, it’s also not worth the trouble to a game company to steal a game. Most companies have a backlog of games they want to publish; stealing your wonderful idea is not only not worth their time, but it’s also not worth the trouble and expense a pissed-off submitter is likely to cause. There are exceptions; there are always exceptions, but these are very, very rare and not worth losing sleep over.

However, in some cases it still looks like a company stole your game. Having been in the business a few years, I’ve found this to be almost inevitable as a natural evolution of parallel (or derivative) design trains. What I mean is, coincidences do happen, and I’ve seen enough of them to know that that is all they are; coincidences. It is incredible to me how often I’ve observed two nearly identical game designs come out within months of one another, and that’s what I’d like to talk about.

In my personal experience, I’ve had two games where this happened. One was called “Knots.” A month before it came out, Rubik’s Tangle came out, independently designed and manufactured. It was a puzzle, mine was a game, so there wasn’t really a “theft” problem here, especially since the designers involved had never met or talked to one another. But the tiles! Each tile had four ropes on it, passing from side-to-side of the 2×2” tiles. Not only were the rope-patterns on the tiles nearly identical, but the way the tiles linked up was the same. They were virtually interchangeable with my Knots game. This was just bizarre. Over 20 years later “Tsuro” came out, essentially duplicating the majority of the game’s graphic layout (both the board size and rope/path tile design) and adding pawns. Did they copy it on purpose? I seriously doubt it. It’s very easy to avoid copying a design. Besides, the basic mechanics of the Tsuro turn it into a completely different game from Knots (a 2-player path building game). Incidentally, you can still buy Knots at the Jolly Games website. Just sayin’.

Years later, I had another incidence occur, this time with a game I’d made, but never published, consisting of cubes with multicolored sides that rolled over on the 5×5 playing board, the object to be that you get your set of cubes adjacent to each other with the same color face up. I was at a garage sale, and I came across some obscure game from Ideal that used exactly the same mechanic. I couldn’t believe it, again. But then…this may have been a natural evolution from the Crazy Cubes puzzle of years ago.

Were either of these “stolen ideas?” Of course not.

Another example is the appearance of Gamesmiths’ Throwing Stones and TSR’s Dragon Dice, the first two collectable dice games, coming out within a month of one another. Was the idea “ripped off” by TSR from Gamesmiths, or vice-versa? No, it was just a natural evolution of games from the CCG arena, the next obvious “collectable game” component. They both independently designed and published the same game concept (though their rules differed considerably).

And yet another example is the creation of Roborally and Robotanks. Once again, Gamesmiths came up with a design (and name, oddly enough) similar in many ways to WotC’s design; the idea was, you use programmed movement cards to move robots across the board. Unfortunately for Gamesmiths, there was a much bigger advertising budget behind Roborally, and it dominated the market. These also came out within months of each other. I’d seen both of them in their playtest form; I knew that nobody stole any ideas from anyone. Unfortunate double-whammy for Gamesmiths, however (Jeff Siadek, designer of these two games, now publishes the highly-rated Battle Stations game).

Another instance occurred while I sat and talked to my good friend Mark at a game convention, discussing game designs. He started talked about a design idea he had, and alarms went off in my head, because I was working on a nearly identical design. I held up my hand before he got into his second sentence, and said, “Wait, I’m working on a similar design, and I think you’re about to describe it to me,” or words to that effect. I then completed his game design description with my version of the design. Ultimately, if I ever published it, I didn’t want him thinking that I’d stolen the idea from him. He was as surprised as I was; both of us had independently designed nearly identical space-combat games.

Another great example was brought to me by Andrea Angiolini, codesigner of the Ulysses boardgame (with Pier Giorgio Paglia) . He commented to me that his game came out in 2001 in Nuremburg, the same time that Odysseus, by Dominic Erhard, came out. Not only were the covers of the game boxes very similar (heroic face over a ship), but in both games, the players played gods moving a single ship around the game board. Talk about convergent designs! Angioline commented, “The two games are quite different in the mechanics, but principles are so close!” He had never even met Erhard.

None of this is surprising to me anymore; game designs, after all, are usually based at some level on existing designs, they’re very derivative, usually with some little tweak added to make them different. Once in a great while, a new paradigm comes along which completely changes the industry, like RPG’s, or CCG’s, resource management or deck building; each new mechanic spawns a thousand children. But the point is that game designs all come from common origins, and themes are usually limited to human experience, so design duplication is inevitable. If someone comes to me and says, “I’ve designed a great game about Asteroid Mining,” I’ll say, “That’s nice. I’ve designed four. Three of them are mediocre, and I own at least two designed and published by other people. What’s so special about yours?”

Bottom line is, if you’re worried about getting your design stolen, you’re probably worrying about nothing.

If a company comes out with a game with the same theme as the one you submitted to them, they were very likely designing it before you ever submitted. If you use game design elements derived from existing games already on the market, then the odds of someone duplicating your design are even higher. The trick is just to design something that’s so off-the-wall and new, that no one else could possible have thought of it yet. Of course, there are a lot of crazy game designers out there, so that might be pretty tough.

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Tom Jolly

Game Designer at Wiz-War, Drakon, Diskwars, Cavetroll, Vortex and More

Electrical engineer, writer, game and puzzle designer. I’ve an interest in physics, space travel, fantasy and science fiction, hiking, bad jokes. I enjoy having a pint or two with friends on occasion, usually with games involved.

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  1. Andrew Schub on April 7, 2014

    Tom, Great article. I don’t think this fear of designing something only to discover it’s already been designed is only found in game makers. As a writer, I’ve lived in fear of someone else coming up with ideas close enough to mine to make me seem like I copied them. I’ve had a few close calls, but nothing I’ve ever had to stop working on…

    I think all creatives fear this, secretly or not.

    • Tom Jolly Author on April 7, 2014

      There’s the flip side to that; sometimes I’ll see a book someone has written using an idea in my “idea pile” and I’ll think, “Well, there’s a project I don’t have to work on…someone did it for me!” And I think of all the time I just saved.

  2. Alex Harkey on April 7, 2014

    Wonderful article Tom, I remember reading your thoughts on the subject years ago and I found it thought provoking then as I do now.

    • Tom Jolly Author on April 7, 2014

      Interesting that you remembered it at all; this is the same article with a few updates. That was back when I wrote it for The Games Journal, which has been defunct for many years.

  3. Luke Laurie on April 7, 2014

    Tom – you forgot to mention the at least superficial resemblance of your current project to Keyflower. I remember seeing your game for the first time and said – “Hey this looks a little like Keyflower.” The look on your face was like, “Oh no, not again!” But of course your game is quite different, but the parallel evolution is visible.

    • Tom Jolly Author on April 7, 2014

      Yeah, I should have remembered that. That, of course, was more “look and feel” than rules similarities. It was weird how close Keyflower was, in appearance, to my prototype. Made me want to switch back to a square grid instead of a hex grid.

  4. Rohloffc on April 8, 2014

    You said, ” 95% or more game designs never see publication”. Was that hyperbole or did you base that off something?

    That number seems fair, and very likely to be accurate. I was just wondering if there was a place I could read more on that topic/issue.

    • Tom Jolly Author on April 8, 2014

      I based it off personal experience. This is a summation of game designs I have on my shelf (a lot) and game designs I’ve actually sold to companies that never went to print, which is probably another 25% of the total. Of course, some of the rejections DID see print eventually, but they were altered by so much, I can’t really call them the same games. I easily have 50 designs on the shelf. Maybe 80% would have been a more accurate figure (and really, Kickstarter might have changed this number…I wrote the article before Kickstarter existed – then again, you have to look at the number of Kickstarter failures). Most of the figure just comes from designs that I haven’t been satisfied with and shelved, or that were rejected after submission and I never resubmitted. For an accurate number, I guess one would have to interview a dozen game designers with at least one sale, and figure out a way to quantify the enormous number of people out there who have designed games with no clue whatsoever about how to get it to market, or no desire to (I get emails every week from the first category).

  5. Eric @ Devious Devices on April 8, 2014

    Thank you for the read, Tom!
    This is a constant fear I and my partner in design have when thinking up new game. At last year’s Metatopia event in NJ, the first panel I attended was called “The Best Ideas To Steal From Other Games” which both worried me and intrigued me before heading in. It turned out to be a lot of insightful discussion on NOT ripping off game ideas and was more focused on how many games use similar mechanics. It really is difficult to come up with new mechanics and there are times where you may really like one specific system of a game so much that you want to design an entirely different one around it. If it is really just a small fraction of the systems used in your game and the rest are very dissimilar, I feel it’s justified to utilize that (and even give credit to the original designer!).
    Of course since I have adopted that mindset, we have had almost no “favorite” mechanics make it passed the first round of design. Go figure 🙂

  6. Zen on April 24, 2014

    Your article may be encouraging to some, but you are glossing over that indeed idea theft does happen in the game industry. Just because you say that people should not worry about it, does not prevent it from happening either. In reality there is little that can be done to stop it.

    • Tom Jolly Author on April 24, 2014

      Quite true; the best way to “protect” a game idea is to get to the market first with it, and dominate (as with, for example, Dominion and MtG, which both spawned dozens of copycats and derivative projects). I can’t think of any actual direct “theft” in my experience, where something is blatantly copied, or I would have mentioned it; generally, something has to be quite successful for someone else to bother cloning it. As you point out, there’s little you can do to stop it; copyright, trademark, and patents do little to regulate or control derivative products, and you have to be able to afford to take someone to court if there is an abuse; rare in the game industry (though WotC, Parker Brothers, and the Settlers folk have spent plenty of time in court protecting their existing products – but they had the bucks to do so).

  7. Derik@Lagniappe on June 25, 2014

    Thanks for the “reassuring” article 🙂 your last comment here about getting to market first and dominating is exactly what I’ve been telling my friends. Great stuff!

  8. Brandon on April 30, 2015

    I had a similar experience at Unpub San Jose last weekend. I met a designer and play tested a game so similar to a project ‘hidden in my vault’ that I brought it the next day just to ensure I wasn’t accused in the future. I imagine with the exponentially growing number of’would be game designers Kickstarter is inviting, coincidence will occur. Thanks for sharing your expertise Tom. If it hasn’t dissuaded you, then there is hope for us all.

    Perhaps someone from the League can share a thought on a related phenomenon. I see an increasing number of attempts at copying when I am at design events. A small (but growing?) number of designers trying to make a game that is so clearly a copy/reskin of an existing game that I worry about their knowledge of IP. Mechanics and themes are certainly going to fall into Tom’s ‘happy coincidence’ category, but I wonder if others have seen this cropping up and have thoughts about it.

    BTW- I cant say I have ever seen one get published, so likely the publishers are sparing the designer from a legal incident..

    • Tom Jolly on April 30, 2015

      Hi, Brandon. The whole phenomena of people copying successful mechanics got talked about (a little) in my other article, “The Next Bid Idea in Games” or whatever the title was – something like that. The tendency for a batch of clones to arise after one success comes out is inevitable in a free market. Really, true in any discipline.

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