Game design mistakes 2: Your game idea sucks, part one

by Gil Hova

“I have a great idea for a game!”

That’s the phrase that gets us all in trouble.  We have this vision for a fun game, and we want to see it realized. And if it weren’t for these initial inspirations, we wouldn’t have any new games.

But game designers new to the hobby tend to overestimate the value of an idea.  I’m being a little facetious in this blog title, but the point is valuable.  An idea for a game, on its own, is worthless.

It’s an important point.  A lot of new game designers ask how they can protect their idea for a new game.  Some go as far as looking into patents and IP law before seriously playtesting their idea.  Many are hestitant to discuss it with fellow designers, worried that someone will steal their new idea.  Some even ask publishers to sign an NDA (which is a really good way to make sure the publisher never looks at the game).

But the fact is, no experienced publisher is interested in a game idea.  And if you happen to have a rival game designer who is working on exactly the same idea as you, he will most likely design a completely different game.

The fact is, game ideas aren’t worth protecting.  They’re just not valuable enough.  What’s worth protecting is a complete, developed, and playtested game.  One with final art, layout, and a rulebook.  At that point, people have put months and probably years of effort into the game, and that sort of thing deserves to be protected by copyright or trademark.

But that great idea for a game?  It’s going to get stretched, distorted, and beaten into shape over months of playtesting.  That’s a lot of work to get a diamond from what is, frankly, a lump of coal.

The saying I keep hearing is, “before worrying about someone stealing your game, design a game worth stealing.” This is great advice; heed it.  Don’t be afraid to go to internet forums like the BGDF and have people work over your gem.  They’re not going to steal it; more likely, they’re going to beat it up, which is arguably just as difficult.

Am I saying that there is absolutely no chance your game idea will ever be stolen?  Well, no.  There’s no guarantee.  But before you disregard everything I just wrote, consider…

  • The board game industry is really small. If someone actually steals someone else’s game, everyone’s going to know.  It won’t go well.
  • There’s no real advantage to stealing a game idea. That idea still has to be playtested, developed, laid out, and printed.  Why go through all that work for a lawsuit waiting to happen?  If a game company is going to invest all that time, money, and energy, they’re going to do it for a game idea they know won’t come around and bite them in the tail.
  • There isn’t a huge amount of money in board games. There, I said it.  This isn’t the movie industry.  You don’t make millions of dollars of profit in this business, especially as a designer, unless you’re astoundingly successful, and I can count those people on one hand.  That great idea for a game will probably not get you a lot of money unless you really know what you’re doing… in which case, you’ll probably make just enough money to pay for all your work on the game in the first place, and not much more.

    This business is really small, with tiny profit margins.  Anyone in this industry is at least a little idealistic.  If they were in it to make money, they’d be in banking or real estate.

So, your idea is relatively safe.  I’ve heard of companies new to board games taking other people’s ideas, but it never turns out well for them.  You can leave the NDA at home, and remove that textbook on patents from your Amazon shopping cart.