Formal Ferret Games

Gil Hova designs, publishes, and plays board games

Category: Game design mistakes

Some thoughts for designers who are worried that someone will steal their game idea

If there’s one question new designers relentlessly ask, it’s this: “What if someone steals my game idea?”

I’ve answered this before. But it seems to come up so frequently, I’ll write it here.

No one.

Is going.

To steal.

Your idea.

For a board game.

Tom Jolly summed it up really well:

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.

Let me add some thoughts to this:

1) There’s four examples of alleged IP theft in board games that I can think of off the top of my head (note the word alleged there):

The last two examples aren’t even clear-cut examples: the first one is in the lawyers’ hands, and the second one has been the subject of several heated arguments about whether it was theft or legitimate adaptation. Nevertheless, in both of them, the party allegedly stolen from has felt strongly enough about it to express their opinions publicly, so I’ll include them here.

These four examples have something in common: the games they allegedly stole from were all published, and were all quite successful. Even the least successful example, Knizia’s En Garde, sold enough copies to earn a couple of reprints.

None of these examples involve an unpublished prototype, in any stage of its development.

2) So, here’s a thought experiment: pretend that, for some reason, you want someone to steal your game. You take out ads. You bomb social media. You hold demos. You try to spread word of your juicy, steal-able game out to as many people as you can.

There is a word for this: marketing. And it’s freaking hard. It will take a lot of money and effort before you get even one designer to try to copy your game.

The truth is, there are so many of us designers nowadays, it’s tougher and tougher to even be legitimately heard. So the thought of getting your half-done proto ripped off by another designer because you blogged about it? Man, I’d love to have that kind of social reach!

3) Let’s say someone does steal your idea for a game. But it’s just an idea, and one night the thief has a great thought to make the game better. He spends six months working on it. Meanwhile, one day in the shower, you have an incredible idea of your own that will improve your game. You spend six months working on it.

Believe me, your idea and his ideas are going to be completely different, maybe different enough that your games will be quite distinguishable on the marketplace.

There’s a competition at the Gathering of Friends where a bunch of designers get the same set of bits and a theme, and they’re challenged to make a game out of it. And the games they come up with are all completely different. Like, not even close to each other.

An idea is not a game. People don’t play ideas for games, they play games. And it’s an enormous amount of work from idea to game. No one wants to play an idea.

4) What if someone posts about a game that’s similar to a game I’m working on, but his is further along? It’s happened to me. I’m working on a game with a TV-network theme called Prime Time, and one day, I heard that someone started a Kickstarter for their TV-network themed game called Prime Time. But the gameplay for our games? Totally different. Mine is a tense economic strategy game with drafting of scarce supplies; his is a deckbuilder.

Another example: one idea I’ve always wanted to do is a futuristic sports game that wouldn’t be a war sport; it’d just be an existing sport, like baseball or hockey, but with cyborgs and robots slowly creeping in. I tried it from all sorts of angles, but could never get it to work. Then one day, my friend Mike Fitzgerald shows me his game that Eagle just picked up: Baseball Highlights 2045 . Pretty much exactly what I had in mind (although his actually had, you know, actually-playtested mechanisms).

My reaction? A little jealousy, but mostly relief. He had executed my idea much, much better than I ever did. It was done, and I didn’t have to do any work to do it. Thanks Mike!

5) This is a tiny business, and you can’t really make millions of dollars from it, unless you are lucky and work really hard. I can think of three successful publishers who still have day jobs, and two other successful publishers who only just quit their day jobs. They’re all pretty much single-man operations.

The psychopaths who will take any means to make a fortune? They’re all playing the financial industry, the pharmaceutical industry, and any other business with multimillion-dollar potential.

If someone is in the board game business, it’s not necessarily because he or she is a business savant. But it is absolutely because he or she loves board games.

6) The relatively small size of the business means it’s an echo chamber. There’s gossip, there’s chatter, there’s news. If someone claims to have had their game stolen (and again, this doesn’t happen to prototypes or unsuccessful games, and only rarely happens to the most successful games), everyone knows about it.

I’ll close by saying what I always say: Before you worry about someone stealing your game, come up with a game worth stealing.

That part is unbelievably hard, trust me.

Game design mistakes 5: Your game idea sucks, part two (Game design vs. software development)

I’ve been reading a lot about software development, and there are a lot of new techniques out there that have some creepy parallels to board game design.

With the old-school “Waterfall” software development technique, the developers would get their requirements from the project stakehoders, and retreat into their offices or cubicles. Several months later, they emerged with the program.

A diagram of the Waterfall model

A diagram of the Waterfall model

You can imagine typical issues with this model. Maybe the stakeholders would catch glimpses of the project as it’s being put together, and maybe they can occasionally offer some input. But for the most part, the development process isn’t something they have control over. So if and when the software came up buggy and/or short of spec, they’d have to call a new project to fix the problems with the old project.

Newer methodologies have established themselves since then. These methodologies are more iterative than the Waterfall technique.

A diagram of the Iterative model

A diagram of the Iterative model

These processes emphasize constant communication between the project stakeholders and the developers. Every few weeks, the stakeholders get a version of the project that’s as functional as possible. They provide their input, and the developers include that input in the next version.

Board game designers: does this look familiar at all?

It turns out that software development and board game design are very similar. Just replace “project stakeholders” with “game players,” and you have a pretty good model of how the game design process goes. You come up with a playable version of the game, let it get torn apart by the playtesters, and adapt their feedback into the next version of the game.

So, how does this relate to how your game idea sucks?

Lots of game designers have an idea, and insist on sticking to that idea even after playtesters insist that the idea is holding back the game. Let’s say you have an idea for a wargame that includes dart-throwing as a combat resolution mechanism. Your playtesters love everything about the game except the dart-throwing.

So what do you do? Do you re-jigger the dart-throwing? Do you adapt the other mechanisms so the dart-throwing fits better?

New designers tend to stick to their original ideas. If their muses gave them this idea of a dart-throwing wargame, then dammit, that’s going to be what they put out.

But more seasoned designers will realize that if they removed the dart-throwing and replaced it with something the playtesters enjoyed, s/he would wind up with a fun game.

This sort of thing is impossible without the iterative technique. Most of the actual work in game design isn’t spent sketching ideas or backstory into a notebook. It’s spent getting the game on the table and seeing how it breaks. Then, after you figure out ways to fix those problems, you get it back out on the table and try to break it again.

Every time you sit down with your playtesters, listen to them. That’s not the same thing as “implement everything they say,” because sometimes they’ll suggest a radical change when a minor tweak will solve the same problem. But if a lot of playtesters complain about the same thing, look for the root cause of the problem they’re talking about, and try to solve it as simply and elegantly as possible.

One other thing: some designers put a lot of sweat into flavor text and backstory. Save yourself heartache: save flavor text and backstory to the very end of the game design process. If you spend a couple of weeks writing the history of a desert region where your game is set, and then realize it’s better set on a coastline, then you’ll have to redo the backstory. Instead, finish the game first and then write the backstory.

I have to tread carefully again here, because some designers are inspired by backstory, and they’ll work on a game’s narrative to help flesh out game mechanisms. If that’s how you work, then be careful about spending too much time on developing the game world instead of the game. People would rather play a fun abstract game than a dull but well-themed game.

If you design games as an excuse to write backstory, then you may want to consider putting the game aside and just writing a book. You may find it a more direct route to realizing your vision.

As a game designer, you have no obligation to your original idea. Remember: Your game idea sucks, but the finished game it will spawn is going to rule!

Your only obligation is to give people fun games to play. If playtesting leads you to a radical design change that would make the game significantly more fun, but would cut the game off from its original inspiration, do it! Make the change.

At worst, if you still feel obligated to the original idea, you can always start again, with what you learned last time. Maybe that dart-throwing wargame’s problem was the wargame part. Maybe you should split the design into two different games, a wargame and a lighter dart-throwing game with a war theme. Now you’re sticking to your original inspiration, and you have two exciting games you’re working on!

Game design mistakes 4: The myth of the gorgeous prototype

I won’t pretend to be an old hat at this game design business. For crying out loud, I’m not even published yet.

I also have to be a little careful here, because muses work in different ways. This post will say as much about me as it will about what I think is a very common game design mistake, especially among first-time designers.

I’ve seen it a couple of times now. Someone shows up to a game design group for the first time. He brings out his baby, and I mean his baby. I’m talking a lavishly-produced proto, with slobberingly-beautiful bits.  Custom wood pieces.  Everything handpainted.  That sort of thing.

And then we play the game, and it’s awful.  Miserable.  Completely un-fun.

What went wrong? Well, sometimes it comes out that the game hasn’t really been played all that much.  Just two or three times, and the designer is still in the early stages of collecting feedback.

I’m not against gorgeous prototypes.  I’ve played some very good unpublished games with bits to die for.  But when you put out a nice-looking prototype on the table, you’re telling your group that you have a game that’s close to done.  People will expect it to be fun, and when it comes out that you’re still quite early in the process, it’ll throw them for a loop.

Even more importantly, why spend a week making the perfect board if, after two plays, you decide to use modular tiles instead?  Why get quotes over print-on-demand cards if, after two more plays, you decide to ditch cards and go with dice instead?

Early prototypes are special.  They’re “raw.”  They’re in this weird quantum state of being a game and not being a game at the same time, because while they hold the promise and potential of being fun, they are almost always not fun to play.

You have to be guerilla at this time.  Don’t spend a lot of time on the components.  Use a database, spreadsheet, or even a mail merge to create cards on regular pieces of paper that you can slice with a guillotine and sleeve in ordinary Magic sleeves.  They don’t look good, but hey, you’re going to be changing each card at least 3 times in the next few weeks.  Why spend any more time on it than you have to?

Your board doesn’t have to be anything spectacular.  As a playtester, if I know that this is an early-stage proto, I’m fine with playing with pennies on a pencil sketch on looseleaf paper.  At this stage, it’s all about capturing your inspiration and figuring out what to do with it.

This is where I have to be careful.  Some of you out there work a little differently.  Some designers are inspired by game bits.  They need their prototypes to be at a certain level of quality.  That’s why they’re doing all this; part of the enjoyment, for them, is the aesthetic value of a nice-looking game.

Hey, there’s nothing wrong with that.  A muse is a muse.  But be aware of the limitations of an early game design.  Try to strike a balance between making a proto that will keep your interest and one that will distract your attention from the critical early-stage, high-level questions.

Here are questions you shouldn’t be asking yourself during your first playtest:

  • How much will it cost to mass-produce this game?
  • How should the player pawns be shaped?
  • Should the cards be glossy or matte?

Here are questions you should be asking yourself during your first playtest:

  • Is this game fun?
  • Where is the fun?
  • Is there more fun in Phase X than Phase Y?  If so, is Phase Y absolutely necessary?

You see where I’m going with this?  During the early playtest, don’t worry about low-level issues like component quality.  Concern yourself with high-level issues, like what the game’s actually going to look like.

Let the game flow.  You may find that playtests will point you in a different direction than you originally intended.  Like, the only fun part of your epic Civ game is the Phase 3 auction.  In that case, maybe you should crop the rest of the game out, and work on a light/middleweight auction game instead?

If you ask the wrong questions too early, and bind yourself to your components, you won’t be able to respond rapidly to these sorts of developments.  You’re the game designer.  You have full control over where the design goes.  Be as flexible as possible early on, and you’ll find less resistance on your way to a good, fun game.

Game design mistakes 3: End it already

Have you ever played a game that just won’t end? Just as you think it can’t possibly go on any longer, it does?

We’ve all played childhood games of Monopoly where your big brother has all the money, and it’s just a matter of time until the last few hangers-on go broke. It’s a process that can last hours, and it’s excruciating, especially if you made the unfortunate decision to play with Free Parking.



Monopoly has nothing forcing its endgame. It can theoretically go on forever. Munchkin, another game I always seem to bring up when I have to drag out an example of a crummy game, is also guilty of this. Recall that a player wins a game of Munchkin when he reaches Level 10. But since players can go down levels as well as up them, the game can theoretically go on forever.

To me, one sign of a well-made board game is that the game never overstays its welcome. I might give Munchkin a lot of flak, but the truth is that I might actually enjoy it if it took ten to twenty minutes to play. I’ve seen games of Munchkin drag on for hours, no exaggeration, and I’d rather have dental surgery than go through that experience again.

Making sure your game ends is a solid way to ensure that it never overstays its welcome. So how can you do this?

  • Set the game up to last a specific number of rounds. For example, The Princes of Florence always lasts seven rounds, never more or less. Agricola is always 14 rounds.
  • Set the game up to last a maximum number of rounds, but allow some rounds to be skipped. In Traders of Genoa, there’s a die roll at the beginning of each turn that could result in a round being skipped. This adds a good uncertainty to the game, because players have to weigh whether or not the game will end before they can fully execute their plans.
  • Base the endgame condition on something that will never reverse. Settlers of Catan ends when one player reaches 10 VP, and no player can ever lose VP. Puerto Rico ends when one player fills his building track, or when there aren’t enough colonists or VP in supply when players need them; buildings can’t be destroyed, and colonists or VP never return to supply.  Ticket to Ride ends when one player runs low on trains, and players will never get more trains into their supply.

All of these rules ensure that these games have a consistent and enjoyable play time. When a game doesn’t, it risks overstaying its welcome.

Ninja Burger

Ninja Burger

Let’s look at a game with a length problem. I played a lot of take-that games when I started seriously gaming. One of them was Ninja Burger, a game with a great premise (ninjas delivering burgers in 30 minutes or less, or they commit seppuku).

Unfortunately, this light dice-rolling game could take almost 2 excruciating hours to play. Players win by having the most Honor Points. In typical Steve Jackson fashion, players can gain or lose Honor, so nothing forces the game to end.

At that point in my gaming development, I was starting to realize that something was wrong. But my group at the time enjoyed take-that games, so I tried to fix the problem.

I came up with a “limited honor” variant for Ninja Burger, in which only a fixed amount of Honor Points are available at the start of the game, and lost Honor Points are permanently removed from the game. Once we started playing this way, games would run no longer than 30 minutes. Much better for a light dice-rolling game!

So how long should your game be? It depends. If it’s a light filler game, then less than 30 minutes. An intermediate strategy game should be 1 hour, a heavier strategy game can run 2 hours, and a dense epic can run for days, provided you don’t own cats.

If you’re a designer and your game seems to falter partway through, take a look at the game length. Sometimes shorter is better.

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

“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.