This is all opinion and not Legal Advise
I love print and play games and re-themes but two questions that i ask a lot is.
Is this legal? & is this moral?
These questions lead me to focus on games that have been released as print and play games by there creators but i would like to take a moment to ask the question should we re-theme.
An Example of a Re-themed Game
Check out this Harry Potter re theme of one of the best social deduction games around.
When a group of players decide to re-theme a game nothing can stop them right?
Well, the game was social deduction title Secret Hitler a game that was released as a print and play, which the guys at Crafty Players believed could be improved by replacing the original liberals versus fascists setting in 1930s Germany with the magical world of boy wizard Harry Potter.
I totally agree!
“While I did enjoy the game, we touched on the idea that the inclusion of Hitler and Nazis might immediately create a situation where some people wouldn’t want to play it. Hell, excluding the presence of Hitler in the game, it sort of sounds dull – play a political party member, vote for the president, and pass political policies.” – Crafty Players
Luckily, Secret Hitler creators Mike Boxleitner, Tommy Maranges, Max Temkin and Mac Schubert opted to release the game under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share Alike 4.0 International licence, which essentially means that the title’s rules and design can be remixed and adapted by fans as long as they don’t sell it.
Unlikely Warner Brothers Studios asked the group to take it down understandably.
This is an example of a Trademark & Copyright being used and Warner Brothers Studios didn’t want it used for that purpose.
Should we re-theme?
There are a lot of games that sometimes require a re-theme to reach a broader Audience my gaming group is constantly reminding me that they would actually play wingspan with me if it was a different theme.
These Re-Themes are usually done for personal use but i want to use this post to look at the legal side and the moral side behind this and ask the question if we can do this and what we should think about before we do.
So let us look at a few things and try to work out an answer to this question.
Note: I am not a lawyer and this is not legal but general advice based on some internet research if you have any questions about a real-world scenario you should consider legal advice.
is it Legal?
This is where it gets tough in the example above it was very clear due to the Trademarked content that was being used as part of the re theme but a lot of game mechanics are not covered by this.
In the USA, for example, part of copyright law protects the artwork of the game and the exact text are protected along with a product’s title that is considered part of that exact text. With Trademark law protecting names that uniquely identify a product or service.
However, this does not cover the Mechanisms in the game that are generally used in more than one game eg: shuffling cards or collecting sets. However, there is one exception Magic was the basis for a controversial patent granted to Wizards of the Coast in 1997.
The patent describes several of the game’s concepts such as “tapping” and constructing a play deck by selecting cards from a larger pool. As of 2006, the patent’s legal standing has not been fully challenged in court. (as of 2020)
So artwork can be reproduced and mechanics can be used awesome lets start re-theming!
WAIT THERE BUSTER NOT SO FAST
A Quick Recap
Let’s now have a Quick Recap at the core three legal areas around a game before you get ahead of yourself. Also, remember not a lawyer this is not legal advise.
Copyright – this usually applies to things like text, iconography and artwork.
Copy this and get sued
Trademark – when a firm uses certain words or phrases as a recognisable trading identity (and this applies to packaging and logos too), they can apply for a registered trademark.
Copy this and get sued
Patent – if the game contains a unique and original mechanism not used previously, the designers may apply for a patent, which if granted gives them rights to exclusively use it for a limited period of time. note: a patent does expire causing it to become public domain
Copy this and get sued
So let’s look at this further you are allowed to copy mechanisms. But You’re not allowed to violate trademarks (names, sometimes in-game terms) or copyright (art, the rulebook as written) or violate any current patents.
Ok thats helpful so lets look at an actual example of somebody that re-themed a game but did not copy these three things.
Bang! vs Legend of the Three Kingdoms.
Lets check out the court case between Bang! and Legend of the Three Kingdoms.
Zachary Strebeck discusses this case on his Blog for a better Legal Break down (here) between Yoka Games’ Legends of the Three Kingdoms and DaVinci Editrice’s Bang!, two games with very similar rules and powers.
The themes are nothing alike! and that’s something to know but even going into the case, the two companies agreed on their games’ mechanics being more-or-less alike.
What they disagreed on was whether that was grounds for copyright infringement. DaVinci, (bang!) the company that brought up the case against Yoka Games, ultimately lost the case.
This is actually troubling and gives us the real heart of this issue is copying a game and changing the artwork something you should do?
So really if you are looking to re-theme a game and you are doing everything right you will probably be allowed to do it.
I would encourage you however to keep in mind Wheaton’s Law. Wil Wheaton if you don’t know is a hero in the board game community and founded the popular series tabletop.
The law is simple: “Don’t be a dick.”
Create a free print and play that gives an alternate theme or some custom cards it should be fine for personal use, but you’ll also be pleased to know it’ll end up being more expensive than just buying a copy of the game.
A slight victory for board game designers.
When it comes down to it at the moment board game mechanics are not protected by copyright but players know their games. When somebody rips off a game we all know it.
When you create an awesome retheme and share it with the world you will be celebrated rip off a game and try to sell it well personally you won’t see me buying it.
Because if somethings legal doesn’t mean you should do it ripping off a game is not something that will give you a good reputation with the board game community.
What do you think let us know in the comments below.