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Fantasy Flight Games vs. Puffin Software

Can you copyright a game mechanic or a game system?

Fantasy Flight Games thinks so. For those unfamiliar with the tawdry world of boardgames–

Richard Borg created a game system called Commands and Colors. He has used this system with colored units, cards, and board sections to great success in games such as Commands & Colors: Ancients and its numerous expansions (which I own and love), Memoir ’44 (which I can’t stand), Battle Cry, a Civil War game which I never played, and the highly popular BattleLore and its numerous expansions which took the C&C idea and created a terribly boring and generic fantasy world around it. FFG acquired the rights to BattleLore and made a Game of Thrones version of it which was decent enough. Even Barnes sort of liked it.

C&C: Ancients remains the king of this genre, for my money. And it cost a hell of a lot of my money to buy all of the add ons.

So anyway, this iPad thing. It’s proving popular, eh? Well, a small outfit called Puffin Software took the C&C design idea, created a game called Viking Lords around it and slapped it up for sale for the iPad–which you can buy right now in the App Store. Puffin actually approached FFG about making a BLore game and FFG seemingly ignored them.

From what I can tell there is no use of anything specifically related to BattleLore or C&C outside of the game’s mechanics, which are clearly “borrowed” (read: stolen) from C&C. Colored units, card play which allows you to move units in a certain area, etc.

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Fantasy Flight is none too pleased.

You can read about all of this here — as a user on Boardgamegeek interviewed Johannes Päivinen of Puffin Software and when asked about how some people are “upset” that Viking Lords uses what is essentially the C&C mechanics, Päivinen responds with: “Get over it.” He’s basically saying that you can’t copyright a game mechanic.

That apparently irked FFG’s Christian Petersen who then jumped in the thread waving legal documents.

I have no idea if FFG has a leg to stand on, but I’d like to find out. How many computer and console games do this? Borrowing or outright stealing a game mechanic is…well damn it’s just how we do things, isn’t it? Even boardgames — we see games released all the time that are clearly “inspired” by Game X and from what I can tell Viking Lords takes a design idea and builds its own unique game around it.

The end game, for me anyway, is that I’m now off to buy Viking Lords.

And — if FFG would wake up and smell the cash flow, the company would start cranking out iPad versions (and not just announce them only to see them vanish into development ether) of their games because people would buy them over a knock off any day.

Or they could spend money going to court.

Bill Abner

Bill has been writing about games for the past 16 years for such outlets as Computer Games Magazine, GameSpy, The Escapist, GameShark, and Crispy Gamer. He will continue to do so until his wife tells him to get a real job.

16 thoughts to “Fantasy Flight Games vs. Puffin Software”

  1. The history of the gaming industry is almost *built* on clones. Name me any significant and popular game and I can find you at least 3 that ripped it off totally.

    Usually the speed at which these clones die is directly related to how closely they clone the original idea.

    Unless, as you say, they get the jump on the original on a new platform. Really all I’m getting from this is that if FFG thinks there’s revenue to be lost on the iPad they should get cracking on iPad versions.

  2. This reminds me of the Desktop Dungeons vs. League of Epic Heroes debacle a few months back. That only ended when the LoEH developer decided to concede rather than take things down a legal route, so I have no idea which way it would end up going.

    Definitely an unethical move, stealing someone else’s work, but I don’t know if there’s any actual law-breaking going on.

  3. So this isn’t a comment related to the article so much as that screenshot makes me want to play that game. Too bad I don’t have an iPad or iPhone. Booo. Stop putting these cool strategy games on them. Also released them for PC. Booooo.

    Outside of that the idea of copyrighting a mechanic is an interesting question. Can Bungie sue people for using their control scheme? I wouldn’t think so. Maybe if someone stole code from a game, but otherwise imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

  4. If this flies then Wizards of the Coast, the current owner of Dungeons and Dragons, has a preposterous amount of money to reap from almost the entire games industry.

  5. The general view on copyright is that you can’t copyright ideas, which include game mechanics. And it’s a damn good thing too, because if you could we would have about six board games, and they’d all be 80 years old and owned by one company.

    You can copywrigyt the EXPRESSION of those ideas of course; that’s text like any other. So no copying rule books. But if you can rewrite it in your own words, with your own art, more power to you. Witness the iPhone dominion clone, Battle of Grundabar (or however it’s spelled).

    I am not a lawyer, but I’d say that FFG has pretty much no legal leg to stand on.

  6. Really dopey move on FFG’s part. Puffin has my money in case they actually end up needing to fight this. I’ve certainly given far too much to FFG already, but at least they have it should anyone they’ve “ripped off” ever come after them.

    edit: Reading through that thread, the FFG guy’s behavior is pretty much what you would expect from a big company, knowing full well it has no legal leg to stand on, hoping that it can intimidate the little guy into conceding the fight. Gross.

  7. I wish FFG would just leave it alone. The best thing about this article is that you linked to a page where Christian Peterson basically says they are releasing offical versions of some games in the coming weeks. There are a few I would buy for sure, Twilight Imperium, Tide of Iron… They can certianly have my money. I will buy copies if they are available and the longer FFG waits the less money they will make, also going public on this dispute is not the best move.

    But that’s Christian Peterson for ya. He is a passionate CEO and can show up in forums just seeming emotional and really pissy. I imagine it hurts his business more then anything else.

    Personally I just think it’s funny.

  8. How much of a leg FFG has to stand on depends on how exactly and explicitly the gameplay mechanic was copied. I know someone already brought up Wizards of the Coast and D&D – it’s actually a pretty good example. Nobody has really tested the laws in this instance.

    Actually, a similar thing happened in the development of the original Fallout – it was originally supposed to use Steve Jackson’s GURPS system (yes, I know, redundant in the same way an ATM Machine is redundant) – and most of its development was done with that GURPS system in place. Then Jackson saw the little drawings that were next to stats and perks and no longer wanted GURPS to be used in Fallout, so instead of fighting, Interplay just invented a new system (SPECIAL).

    I’m not familiar with Commands and Colors, though, so I don’t know how explicitly and exactly its mechanics are copied. Obviously FFG could probably make money by partnering with Puffin than by suing them, but then again not everyone behaves rationally all the time.

  9. I guess it depends on how much paperwork FFG has to back up the claim of infringement. The WotC example seems like a good place to start.

    WotC has actual patents on very specific on mechanics for trading card games. If you are fantastically bored, here is a link where you can read the actual patent. The easiest example out of this is the idea of ‘tapping’ a resource. Now, obviously there are other TCGs that came out after Magic, but they all use a similar mechanic. However, they use other terminology, like depleting (Spoils), attaching (Pokemon), etc.

    Aping mechanics is nothing new, but I suppose how they are treated in each game is what matters.

    I dunno, not a lawyer.

  10. All this does is make me want to buy Viking Lords. I dont follow boardgame news like this, I just like playing th egames, but that FFG guy comes off like a real asshole/bully, even IF he’s legally right, which I do not know.

    Guy needs a class in PR.

  11. This is pretty typical, petty behavior from a company that’s gotten too big for its britches run by a CEO who does silly things like shout down critics in public forums (see discussion at BGG for the Warhammer Fantasy RPG, or on F:AT when he’s come after me personally). This is simply an intimidation tactic, game mechanics can’t be patented and if they could then FFG themselves would be in deep shit for appropriating any number of them from past games.

    The irony of this is that in 2008, I posted a news item to Fortress: Ameritrash announcing the “Winter 2008″ release of several IOS and XBLA/PSN FFG titles, being developed with a company called Red Rooster. They never materialized. Now, this guy is saying he took what was more or less a Battlelore IOS game to FFG and they weren’t interested…which makes sense, given that FFG most likely bought Battlelore from DoW simply to keep a competing product off the market with no intent of actually supporting or developing it further beyond a perfunctory level.

    These days, FFG is more busy figuring out how to sell partially complete products to its “we’ll buy anything” fanbase and monetizing Arkham Horror into the ground than they are being an innovative, progressive company like they once were, 2004-2008.

    Now, we’re supposedly going to see FFG make a big announcement about something IOS related. I wonder if it will be scheduled for a 2008 release?

  12. Of course, game designers borrow from each other. Mark Herman transplanted the event-based storytelling elements from Ambush! to Lock and Load. Every card-driven theater-level wargame is, arguably, a knock-off of We The People.

    But who owns the intellectual property rights that Puffin Software is accused of violating? C&C:A is a GMT Game, not an FFG title. Battlelore, which is an FFG title, is basically the same game, with all the Lore stuff piled on top of it. So, I guess Battlelore and Viking Lords share the same core mechanics as C&C:A, but the real one-to-one comparison is C&C:A and VL.

    Obviously, FFG isn’t suing GMT over C&C:A, or the recent Napoleonics version. Nor are they suing Milton Bradley over Battle Cry.

    The fulcrum around which this lawsuit may be turning isn’t FFG, but Richard Borg. I wasn’t aware that he licensed the core mechanics to different game companies like FFG and GMT, but who knows. I sure don’t. I can certainly understand if Borg was upset about the possible infringement, looked for a game company with deep enough pockets to pursue a lawsuit. FFG certainly has a bigger bank account than GMT.

    (Which raises another question: Is Borg getting royalties from Battles Of Westeros, another FFG title that is pretty similar to the Borg-series games? If not, why isn’t he suing FFG over that?)

    However, the whole issue may be moot. From what little I understand about intellectual property law, you put your rights in jeopardy if you don’t challenge infringements. Unfortunately, another game company did infringe it, and as far as I know, Milton Bradley, GMT, and FFG did not stop them from publishing it. The title in question is Vive l’Empereur, which is very, very close to Battle Cry, with a few key changes. If that company got away with doing a Battle Cry-like boardgame, what’s stopping someone from publishing another game, in any medium, that resembles C&C:A and other games based on the Borg system?

  13. At least in this humble boardgamer’s opinion. And a lawsuit against a little software company that isn’t going to threaten sales of a game that FFG doesn’t own? Or the iOS version of the game they do own? Not endearing me any more to FFG.

    I’m liking Victory Point Games more and more every day.Maybe it’s just me, but no matter how great the “sculpts” for the plastic miniatures that breed like white mice in any FFG game’s box, that box is going to stay in the closet if the game is mediocre. A great game with lower production values, like my original copy of OGRE, will stay in my collection indefinitely.

  14. My interest in FFG has been flagging for a while and the fact that Christian Petersen himself has taken on a personal “vendetta” against me doesn’t exatly encourage me to continue covering or writnig about their games. I’m pretty much done with supporting FFG at all not only due to petty crap like this, but also the exact points you raise. Their more recent games look and feel impressive until you actually dig into them, and then there’s layers of clunk and bloat. Their games are literally made to be expensive and overproduced by design, and now almost all of their games are being created to sell expansions or fuel further investment in product lines. So the games are often incomplete, or have material deliberately removed to put in a later release.

    So yeah, they still have some very talented and creative folks working for them, but at this point they’re about on par with GW in terms of losing sight of what made them grat. All they need now is to start charging $15 for a bag of dirt and issue some C&D letters and they practically will be GW.

  15. Mark Herman designed We the People. Mark Walker is responsible for Lock ‘n Load.

    I think that FFG’s lawsuit would be very unlikely to succeed if properly defended, but if you can’t defend a lawsuit for financial reasons, then the point is moot.

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