Saturday, 10 October 2009

the controversy of self-making games

This is a topic I have been wanting to write about for quite some time, but never quite got around to it, because it's a heavy topic that makes me think a lot. I'd have to really sit down to think about it from various angles, and to organise my thoughts, before posting this blog post. Of course, the main reason I want to write about it is because I do this - I self make games which are designed by other people (here's a link to when I last wrote about this), and I play these self-made copies. Is this right or wrong?

Self-made R-Eco. It's quite a clever and quick game with a unique twist. I quite like it. But somehow I don't play it a lot. Probably because it's a short game.

First, there are different ways to define what's right and what's wrong. Legally right and morally right are different. The latter will probably have different interpretations, depending on your background, your culture, your world view. Let's start from the legal viewpoint. If I'm making a copy to play with my own friends, and not making a business profit out of it, I think this is not against any law. If I don't freely (as in "without care", not "free of charge") share the tools, equipment and techniques that I use for making a home-made game, I think I'm not breaking any law. Based on my limited understanding, the line is crossed only if you are making a profit out of it.

I have read on BoardGameGeek a discussion about a version of Bang released commercially in China. The Chinese version has a Romance of the Three Kingdoms theme, and is much richer than the original Bang, with more characters, more powers, weapons, etc. However, from reading the description (I have not played either game), it seems very obvious to me the Chinese version (I forget the name) is obviously based on Bang. And the designer of Bang was never credited, and never received any royalty or fee. To me, this is wrong. But there are some who think differently. I have read that only game rules and artwork are copyrighted, as written / drawn. If you use the same game concepts, or use rewritten rules, it's not illegal, as long as you don't copy the text straight and don't re-use artwork. If so, I guess this Chinese version is not illegal, but I'd say it's wrong, from a moral perspective.

Well, this is one extreme - plagiarism (in my opinion). And it's for commercial use.

How about if it is only for personal use? It can be argued that if you self-make a game, then you are depriving the game designer and the publisher of one sale. If you support the designer / publisher, and think their work should be rewarded, you should buy their game. Why self-make a game and not support the designer / publisher? There can be many reasons:

  1. Try-before-buy: You are not sure whether you'll like the game. You don't have easy access to try it, e.g. a friend's copy, or a shop's demo copy. So you make your own copy and see whether you like the game. For me, I find that more often than not I don't end up buying a copy of the real game. Usually that's because I found that I didn't like the game as much as I had thought I would (e.g. Medici & Strozzi, Felix: the cat in the sack). Or I just don't play the game a lot (e.g. Incan Gold, R-Eco). There are some exceptions, e.g. I eventually got Ra (a gift), Modern Art. Should I feel obliged to buy a real copy of the game if I like it? Or if I like it enough to play it more than X number of times? Even when the home-made copy works just fine?
  2. Cost: In Malaysia, the cost to buy a game (well, at least the type of game that boardgame hobbyists buy) is not cheap to an average Malaysian. If I were an American or European making a living in US Dollars or in Euro, games would be much cheaper. Also I usually buy from overseas, because not all the games that I want to buy are available at local shops or local online shops. So shipping cost is a factor.
  3. Speed: Sometimes I just can't wait. E.g. Ra: the dice game. I can't wait for the next overseas bulk order that I make (usually only 2 or 3 times in a year). I can't wait for the local shop / online retailer to stock the game.
  4. Availability: Sometimes the local retailers do not stock the games I'm interested in. Sometimes I make games because they are out of print, e.g. when I made Ra in 2004, or Traumfabrik / Hollywood Blockbuster.
  5. Retheme: I self-made Traumfabrik using files downloaded from BoardGameGeek which use more modern-day (~1990's) movies and actors / actresses. I quite like that, and I have no interest in getting the Uberplay-published Hollywood Blockbuster which uses cartoonised / humourously tweaked movie, actor and actress names. I am also not interested in the original Traumfabrik with movies from around the 1930's, because I don't know the movies and celebrities from that era.

Would a game designer to happy or upset to find that someone had self-made his game? Will he be happy or proud that a person has gone to such lengths to home-make his game? Or will he be unhappy that he is denied his reward in the form of another copy of his game sold?

En Garde, designed by Reiner Knizia. Knizia's games are often easy to self-make, because often the components are simple and can be made from generic pieces. En Garde is also a quick and clever game, even simpler than R-Eco. Unfortunately filler-like games in my collection always suffer the same fate of not getting played much. I guess if I had a bigger gaming group and frequent game sessions where people trickle in at slightly different times, then fillers would get played more.

I will continue to self-make games. I realise that I'm doing this less and less though, probably because there aren't many games that are easy to self-make that I am interested in. There's no way I'm going to home-make a game like Race for the Galaxy with so many different cards. My tolerance for time spent on self-making a game is also less now. I can't imagine myself spending the kind of time and effort on self-making Ra (200+ tiles) and Traumfabrik now.

Do you think self-making a game is right? Or when is it right and when is it wrong, if such a distinction can be made?


Yehuda said...

As a designer, I would be happy to see people make simple mockups of my game (which might inspire them to buy it, or some future game of mine), or elaborate mockups (which I suspect very few would ever do, but is a great compliment in that they take such time to enjoy it). However, I would not like to see anyone selling elaborate mockups to other people, or giving away large numbers of elaborate mockups.

If you make a mockup, it would be great also to tip the designer/publisher, if possible.


Hiew Chok Sien said...

Thanks Yehuda. It's interesting to get a viewpoint from the game designer perspective.

wankongyew said...

I'm not sure whether to post this comment in Facebook or your original blog, so I'm putting it in both places!

As CK Au noted, I believe that your personal justifications for making a copy of an existing game is irrelevant to whether it's right or wrong to do so. Personally, I couldn't care less about whether it's legally wrong. That depends on the specific legal jurisdiction and in any case, unless you're making money off of it which is an entirely different ballgame, won't lead to any legal action anyway.

Morally however, I believe that it is definitely wrong unless you already own a copy of the game. I'd say that even buying a second-hand copy of the game with broken / missing components puts you in the clear. Otherwise, you should ask permission from the designer to make a copy of the game unless the designer has already made it clear in public statements that he generally doesn't mind this sort of thing.

To respond to Howard Lim's comments, I would like to point out that the situations are not perfectly similar. In cases of software, films and music, the problem is that everyone acknowledges that the value is entirely in the intellectual content while the cost of producing a new physical copy of said content is negligible. In boardgames, while there is value in the game design, the physical components hold value as well and reproducing those components is a non-trivial effort.

In fact, it could be argued that a boardgame is not one but several different pieces of intellectual property. The game design is one, but the art assets and flavor text if any are other aspects. I'd say that wholly copying a game down to reproducing its original art is more wrong than just using the design while fitting in a new theme of your own.

However, Howard Lim is of course correct that some companies take the concept of patents and copyrights too far. The best example of this in the gaming world is probably Wizards of the Coast's patent on all collectible card games and even the card tapping mechanic.

Damien said...

hello there Mr. Hiew Chok Sien,

I couldn't find ur email address, so i decided to write here in the comment box, which i hope u'll notice.

Now, i'm in terrible misery at the moment as i am gradually getting addicted to boardgames.

At the moment, i don't have any board games at all but would like to make a start.

Now my question is, where can i buy board games like yours? here in malaysia?

I know u may be asked thousand of times with question like this, i'm sorry if u feel loathe. If u did mentioned the place that u bought ur board games here in ur blog, then it's ok, u may reply "find in my blog". I really don't wanna trouble u, but i'd really appreciate if u can state where u buy all ur board games.

I can say that u'r the king of board games here in this country, well because i'm just starting to have this hobby, so i'm still new to it, and also because i've come across ur page when trying to look for shops location in google. So, u'r famous i guess, hehe.

i've noticed that u didn't play marvel comics,world of warcraft board games (i'm amazed with board game that uses miniatures, very cool stuff, etc), may i know why? or probably, u've played it before, but didn't write it in ur blog.

Again, forgive me for this lengthy comment, and about my question earlier.Really sorry

Hiew Chok Sien said...

Hi Damien,

In Malaysia, you can buy games online at Squark Games and Imagine Games (search Google and I'm sure you'll find their URLs), and also at Toybox ( I think Comics Corner also sells some games. I also buy overseas, nowadays usually from Canada. Search for Starlit Citadels and

My interest in boardgames is mostly in Eurogames. I do play some games like Marvel Heroes and World of Warcraft, because a good friend and fellow boardgame player likes these and buys these games. So I get to try a wide range of games. I have written about Marvel Heroes before, you can search the side bar of my blog. I haven't played World of Warcraft boardgame though.

Have you visited before? A very good website. Also

Damien said...

Hi there again Mr. Hiew Chok Sien,

thank u very very much for ur reply, i really really appreciate it!!!!!..wasn't expecting u to reply fast as i knw u may be busy.

well...i have to say thank u again, ur reply is very useful to me, and ive learned some new things from u.

i will try to visit all the websites that u stated,again, heaps of thanks!!!..

i don't think i can be a hardcore fans like u though, maybe having 1-5 board games is enough for me. Will try to hunt for the best boardgames alive, for sure will read all ur reviews!!!
Thank u very much Mr. Hiew Chok Sien


Cecrow said...

Surprised to hear that you favour Canada (where I am) as an overseas supplier. We complain all the time about the bad exchange rate markup for games from the US, and I've bought directly from across the border a few times. Maybe I should check out Starlit Citadels myself, and perhaps

Hiew Chok Sien said...

The main reason for preferring Canada to USA is US Postal Service doesn't provide surface mail anymore, so shipping becomes very expensive if I buy from USA. I find the Canadian online retailers' prices quite alright.

Keith Avallone said...

As a sports board game designer, I guess I'm in a unique position. I would probably not like someone creating their own versions of my games, especially since it would likely require a great deal of outright plagiarism. However, when it comes to creating components FOR the games, that's a completely different story! Several of my games, most notably FACE TO THE MAT Pro Wrestling Game and SECOND SEASON Pro Football Game, include instructions on how to create your own players and teams. Or, in the case of FTTM, your own wrestlers. As a result, there are a number of "home brew" cards and sets out there that game people have created and distributed on their own. Yes, it probably takes away from my bottom line(sales), but I feel like it makes up for it in good will and enthusiasm for the games. After all, if someone takes the time to create their own cards, it probably increases the chance that they'll play the game!

Hiew Chok Sien said...

Thank you Keith for sharing your views from a game designer perspective. Indeed creative fan-made content can greatly increase replayability of a game.

Jane said...

It seems to me that after the amount of time invested in making these kind of games yourself, you may as well buy it. So if your willing to put in the work, you deserve a freebie!

Hiew Chok Sien said...

Indeed some of the games that I self-made took a lot of time and effort. I find that if I like a self-made game a lot and play it a lot, I will end up buying a real copy. Probably 80% of the time I will self-make a game, play it a few times, and find that I don't fancy it that much afterall. So self-making a game often turns out to be a way of trying a game before deciding whether to buy it.

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Anonymous said...

What was the name of the Romance of the three kingdoms version of Bang?

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

In Chinese, 三国杀. English name is Killers of the Three Kingdoms. Here's the link.