MONOPOLY AND THE HISTORY OF GAME INFLUENCE
(and how this applies to STARLIGHT)
Let me set the scene for you: In 2002, Hasbro sued David Chang over his creation, Ghettopoly, claiming it infringed on their copyright. Chang lost based on this countersuit claiming Hasbro couldn’t own the trademark for Monopoly as it was based on a flawed claim made by its designer, Charles Darrow, who in fact, didn’t design Monopoly, thus making any patent void. Hasbro won because David employed trademarks, artwork, and language from the official Monopoly game that Hasbro owned…and in this situation, Hasbro was right. What Hasbro could not do is claim copyright infringement on the rules. Why?
For that, we need to go back further, all the way to 1879, and a court case with apparently no connection with board games. In Backer v. Selden, a plaintiff developed a new method of bookkeeping and published a book explaining it. When another publisher started selling a book detailing a similar process, the plaintiff’s widow filed suit. The Supreme Court determined that although the book was subject to copyright, the method itself was not. This was later codified in the Copyright Act of 1976, stating that, “In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.” Wow, that was a mouthful. To translate, it meant that you could copyright an idea, an invention, but not a process or a rule, in the same way someone could not copyright a discovery, scientific theory or mathematical method. As an example, you could copyright a medical device, but you couldn’t copyright what it’s meant to cure. All right, we got through that paragraph, so what does that mean?
It means that artwork can be copyrighted, as can storylines, and the design of specific components. The name of the game can also potentially be trademarked. But when someone creates a novel game mechanic, it becomes open season for anyone influenced by those rules.
In 2008, Donald X. Vaccarino created the deckbuilding game Dominion, itself inspired by previous games like Magic The Gathering, where the building of a deck occurred before the game began. Dominion made that aspect the entire game. To be honest, on its own, Dominion is a bit of a slog. There is virtually no player interaction, and the game ends when one of the stacks of purchasable cards is emptied. Players then add up the points within their decks. But what Donald contributed was far more valuable than the game itself. Everyone realized deckbuilding was an excellent idea, one they all could utilize. The subsequent years produced thematically distinct though virtually identical games leading eventually into innovative variations that took the original concept and evolved them to meet new themes. This works identically across the industry for every set of rules.
Although much of the Starlight board game is inventive, its core mechanics are derived from tried and proven ideas that will feel comfortable to experienced players. In September of 2017, Serious Pulp introduced 7th Continent, a game where players explore an ever-expanding landscape by laying down tiles and completing objectives. This progress was pervasive over multiple game sessions with the next game starting where the previous one left off. This idea would later be applied in Awaken Realms’ Tainted Grail, and it has found itself again in Starlight.
Concurrently in 2017, Cephalofair Games launched what would arguably be the greatest game of all time (yes, arguably, some people don’t agree with this). Gloomhaven presented itself as a hex-based tactical combat game with pervasive campaign elements, but even this was not revolutionary, having been seen for decades, all the way back to 1984 with the release of FASA’s Battletech. The legacy elements were borrowed from the first iteration, Risk Legacy, in 2011. Gloomhaven’s popularity was due mostly to its immense scope, though it also introduced a few interesting original elements.
No dice are being rolled in Gloomhaven—player characters nearly always hit. Instead, they draw cards from a modifier deck, often only marginally altering results, though occasionally, significantly affecting them. Starlight employs this mechanic as well but then combines that with die-placement, a mechanic first implemented more than fifteen years ago, though there is some debate on which game developed first. Roma introduced the idea in 2005, but it was not fully realized in all its greatness until Alien Frontiers five years later.
The important takeaway from all this deals with originality; it’s not as essential to develop an entirely novel mechanic as it is to integrate a mechanic, new or not, perfectly into a game. Just because you’re first doesn’t mean your best. As more creators enter the industry, the colossal bouillabaisse of game mechanics and rules grows ever bigger, and everyone can have a seat at the table and serve themselves a bowl.