Legends of the Three Kingdoms

Now That’s a Rules Lawyer! The Curious Case of a Copycat Card Game

Geek Culture Tabletop Games

I’ve known to be a bit of a rules lawyer myself when playing tabletop games, but that’s just a nickname for somebody who’s nit-picky about following the game rules to the letter. Here’s a recent example of some real rules lawyering that involves some games I’m actually familiar with.

Bang
Playing Bang! with my cousins, circa 2006.

First, some background information is in order. Bang! is a pretty popular card game from Da Vinci Games inspired by spaghetti westerns—you’ve got a sheriff, some outlaws, and a renegade, and whole lot of bullets. Each player gets a role, as well as a character that gives them special abilities, and the gameplay involves figuring out who’s on your team and eliminating the others. It was one of the games I played a lot when I was first getting into gaming, and despite a few flaws I always really enjoyed the mix of hidden roles and clever card play.

Two years ago, when I made a trip to Taiwan with my kids, I spent some time seeking out tabletop games, and particularly whether there were any games being produced by Chinese or Taiwanese developers. I did discover several games that seemed to be rethemed versions of existing games—almost always with Romance of the Three Kingdoms pasted on as the theme. This included a version of Bang! called 3 Kingdoms Kill, which was obviously a clone of the original. I couldn’t help myself: I picked up a copy, figuring it was a curiosity, something that would never make it out of Asia.

3 Kingdoms Kill
My copy of 3 Kingdoms Kill, which is nearly identical to Bang! in gameplay. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

I will note there are a few differences: if you’re the Prince (the Sheriff equivalent) you do have some abilities tied to which of the three kingdoms you rule. And all of the weapons, in addition to extending your range, have special abilities, whereas in the original game only the Volcanic introduces extra abilities. But otherwise the game is nearly identical. Card effects are copied over from those in the original game; character abilities are the same; the game even uses the poker deck symbols on the cards.

I haven’t played my copy of 3 Kingdoms Kill at all. It’s entirely in Chinese, and suffers from the same issue that the original players had with Bang! in English. It requires extensive translation to play, and I’ve got Bang! anyway. It’s mostly a curiosity that I have on my shelf, a souvenir of my adventure in Taiwan’s tabletop scene.

While I was in Taiwan, I did chat with a gamestore employee (I can’t remember which one now) who told me the story of 3 Kingdoms Kill. Apparently, some ex-pats living in China wanted to play Bang! with their Chinese friends. But Bang! is pretty difficult to play if you don’t read English: many of the cards have a lot of text on them, and knowing how the powers work is crucial to succeeding at the game. So at first they just pasted on translations—and then they decided to retheme it, with some tweaks to the rules.

And then (insert movie montage here) somehow it got published by Yoka Games. Now, in China and Taiwan there’s all sorts of piracy. Knockoff fashion, movies, toys, and gadgets are common. Most of the time you’ll know it’s a fake, but sometimes it’s hard to tell. But this is a different situation. There was, at the time, no Chinese version of Bang!, so if you wanted to play the game, you had to hack together your own version. Or you could buy this game, from a Chinese publisher—and chances are, you might not even know that Bang! even existed. I figured it would never make it out of Asia.

Ziko Games
Ziko Games at Gen Con 2014. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

Well, it turns out that two years ago Yoka Games did publish an English edition, calling it Legends of the Three Kingdoms. It’s distributed in the US by ZiKo Games, a company based in Dallas. I saw them exhibiting this year at Gen Con, in fact.

One of the things Yoka Games does is that a lot of the expansions come with trinkets. It’s not exactly the sort of thing I see a lot in US tabletop gaming, but it fits pretty well with Chinese culture. For instance, you can buy a new weapon card to add to your game, along with a little metal replica of that weapon. (You can see the ZiKo Games rep showing off a sword in the photo above.)

There are several expansions available for Legends of the Three Kingdoms, and I don’t know how much these have changed from the Bang! expansions. I suppose it’s possible that Yoka Games went in its own direction and developed its expansions independently, though it’s just as likely that they simply took the expansions and rethemed those as well. (I do know that some of the expansions are more like booster packs, so you may get powerful, randomly-inserted cards as well.)

Legends of the Three Kingdoms
As seen at Gen Con 2014: Legends of the Three Kingdoms, in English. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

Okay, so back to the rules lawyering. Da Vinci Games applied for an injunction late last year, trying to stop sales of Legends of the Three Kingdoms on the grounds that it’s a copy of Bang!. On August 8, US District Judge Lee Rosenthal denied the injunction, but also denied the motion to dismiss based on copyright claims, and then granted the dismissal on claims to unfair competition and unjust enrichment. [Sorry, my original phrasing was backwards on this.] You can read the memorandum and opinion here.

Although it may seem like a pretty dry legal document, I ended up reading the whole thing. For one, I thought it was fascinating to see Rosenthal’s descriptions of Bang!—basically she had to explain how the game works, and she did a pretty good job of encapsulating it. I wonder whether she plays games herself, and if not, how long it took to explain the details of playing two card games so she could judge whether any of the claims had merit. In any case, I think she makes a good case for having an actual lawyer write game rules.

It was also entertaining to see Rosenthal’s description of Triple Town (while citing another case involving a clone of a game). Other references include Tetris, backgammon, and even bridge.

Ultimately, though, board game mechanics are not protected by copyright. You can copyright the particular expression of them—that is, the images, the exact text on the cards and the rulebook—but not the way the game works. What’s odd, though, is that the game’s mechanics are, in my opinion, what really makes a game. Theme, images, fancy components may be integral to the player’s experience of the game, but the mechanic is at the core. For me, ultimately a game is about the play, not the physical appearance, even if appearance and component quality matters. So the fact that mechanics cannot be protected seems like bad news for game designers.

On the other hand, you could argue that game design necessarily depends on building on top of other mechanics. If somebody could copyright “roll-and-move” as a mechanic, where would we be? Well, okay, maybe we’d be better off. But how about deck-building? Donald Vaccarino invented the idea of the deck-building mechanic in Dominion, and that has gone on to inspire countless variations on the idea. It’s one of my favorite mechanics, and I’m glad to see it being used so widely. If copyright law protected that, we may never have seen Thunderstone or Valley of the Kings or Star Realms. (On a similar note, Cards Against Humanity would never have been possible if not for the core mechanic from Apples to Apples.)

The problem with Legends of the Three Kingdoms, at least in its initial form, is that it wasn’t just taking a core mechanic from Bang! and applying it in a different way. It was, in fact, lifting almost the entire game wholesale and copying it, with a new theme. That seems less defensible to me—if not according to copyright law, then at least according to Wheaton’s Law.

I’m all in favor of new games and interesting ways to use existing mechanics. Certainly many companies take their own existing games and retheme them, and that’s fine. But I think, as gamers, we should probably be more aware of supporting clones that do not add or change things significantly to the original game. Game designers are a friendly bunch—for the most part, I think they want to see other game designers succeed. But nobody likes to feel like they’ve been ripped off, and I think a little more communication and asking for permission could go a long way toward promoting the hobby in a way that benefits everyone.

Remember, folks: just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s cool. Design responsibly.

Thanks to Eric Martin of BoardGameGeek for the tip!

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17 thoughts on “Now That’s a Rules Lawyer! The Curious Case of a Copycat Card Game

  1. The issue becomes the designers and the companies that own and sell the games being buttheads about other people’s ideas. No one wants to be ripped off true but then again no one is ever interested in hearing someone else’s ideas about their game. A simple reach out from the player to the company would have made it possible for that expat player to become the middle man for making the game a chinese version and expanding “bang” into a new market. Instead the player unable to figure out how to contact the company and we all know most likely ignored if he did went on to make his own version. I applaud him for doing so as do ALL the people who bought the game. As a game creator myself, I would jump on the chance to expand my games into other languages and markets and if i was ripped off I would contact that company to insure that MY NAME is ono their packaging as the creator more than to try and stop them from making it or making money off of it. Piracy will happen. Lets just be happy that mimicry being the greatest form of flattery our ideas will outlive us and our names.

    1. except that bang was available in china and taiwan before that….and there is a chinese edition (traditional chinese, but it was available), and even if a store sold the english version, there would be a small printed rules booklet in chinese anyways
      the claim they made that they couldn’t play it in chinese simply wasn’t true(besides, it wasn’t what they claimed when they first released SGS, they claimed that they designed it from scratch)

      1. Another issue is that DaVinci might not have wanted to or thought of translated Bang! From a spaghetti western themed game to a Romance of the Three Kingdoms theme.

        Developers should be willing to retheme their games based on regional tastes if they want their products to be successful in these new markets. The Wild West theme probably just isn’t as popular in China.

        This has happened in the video game industry with some success (see Crash Bandicoot) – Disney has been doing the same thing recently with their theme parks. Rather than a straight copying of the US parks, they include many themes more popular to Chinese tastes.

        That said, I personally don’t agree with the blatent ripoff of Bang! By Ziko – it would have been better for them to have reached out to DiVinci to use the mechanisms much in the same way WizKids reached out to Fantasy Flight to use their action-selection mechanism from Xwings miniatures for their Star Trek game.

  2. In your article you state that the judge, “granted the claims to unfair competition and unjust enrichment.” Per page 23 of the opinion, this is incorrect. Those two claims were denied, however the copyright claim was granted due to, ” substantial similarity between the characters and roles in Bang! and the corresponding characters and roles in LOTK.”

    Thanks for pointing this case out! It will be very interesting to see what happens with this, largely because of WotC’s case against Cryptozoic Entertainment re: their Hex game.

  3. As a librarian and gamer, this is very interesting. The “variations on a theme” idea has yielded some good material: Battlestar Galactica to BSG Express to Dark Moon, Pandemic to Forbidden Island to [d0x3d!]. But that doesn’t cover the problem of reskinning or retheming games (the endless versions of Monopoly, for example, or possibly San Juan/Race for the Galaxy). Only a court can decide if a game is a substantial change from the original, and that only comes up when the original author sues….

    1. In the case of Pandemic and Forbidden Island, that’s actually the same game designer, so it’s re-use and not copying. [dox3d!] I haven’t heard of, though. But you’re right. Variations on a theme are to be welcomed. Simple reskinning is less interesting. But what is substantial enough? That’s a question that’s much harder to answer.

  4. As an aspiring game designer I have looked into the notion of protecting my intellectual property. I am by no means a lawyer. If you want to protect your mechanics, or lets say the processes involved in playing the game, you have to define them and apply for a Patent, not a Copyright. But the general consensus I have come across is patenting is an expensive process and you will still have to hire lawyers to defend your patent, so your fancy new mechanic better make you a lot of money. Also if a judge decides your mechanic is similar to something that already exists, they will invalidate the patent all together and everything you spent is wasted.

    I came across this link:Copyright Registration of Games
    http://www.copyright.gov/fls/fl108.html

    You can also do a Google patent search for cardgame and find several examples of patented card games.

  5. Terrific read! This subject has come up a lot this year: Earlier on, there was quite a bit of hubbub among board gamers and designers when WotC sued Cryptozoic over Hex. It’s difficult to say where the line is drawn between inspiration and a clone. I know both Trains and Tanto Cuore get a lot of flak for being Dominion clones, but both add their own unique mechanics to the deck-building concept that I think separate them.

  6. I *am* a lawyer, and one who has several small game developers as clients. It is true that, traditionally, game rules are protected only by patents. (You might be aware that Wizards of the Coast has patented the rules for Magic: the Gathering. Similarly, Nintendo got a patent for Dr. Mario.) That’s because both trademark and copyright protection does not extend to functional aspects of a game (or anything else, for that matter). And yes, patents can be hard to get, and are usually rather expensive. Patents definitely aren’t for everyone.

    But there is an emerging trend of offering copyright protection to more than just artwork and text. Personally, I don’t like it. It goes against over a century of fundamental copyright doctrines. I was especially pained by this court’s citation to the awful Tetris Holding v. Xio Interactive case. Now, I feel bad that some people might get screwed otherwise, but I don’t think that it’s worth it to change the rules like that. http://www.cardozoaelj.com/2013/12/23/tetris-holding-v-xio-interactive-isnt-as-great-a-case-as-video-game-developers-think-it-is . On the other hand, I appreciate the rather even-handed treatment that the judge gave to the facts and the law in this case. I’m curious to see how this will turn out.

  7. … and I think a little more communication and asking for permission could go a long way toward promoting the hobby in a way that benefits everyone.

    .

    If asked, should Dominion have denied Thunderstone from existing or Apples to Apples denied Cards Against Humanity from existing? Would you be okay with that decisision?

    1. There’s a difference between taking a mechanic from a game and incorporating it into another game, as Thunderstone did with Dominion. If we couldn’t borrow game mechanics to create new games, the world of gaming would be much poorer for it. But it’s another to take a game and change almost nothing but the “skin,” which is what happened in the case of Bang and Legend of the Three Kingdoms. And, in my opinion, is fairly close to what happened with Apples to Apples and Cards Against Humanity, though in that case the experience of gameplay is significantly different from the original game.

  8. actually, bang had been available in taiwan for years, and most stores that sell it would include a chinese translation anyways. its known as one of the four most popular games in taiwan, one of the 3c1b (citadel, carcassonne, catan, and bang)
    also, yoka is created by the “designer” of SGS (three kingdom kill), yes, the guy claimed to have designed the game from scratch when they first launched and had only recently admitted that they did take some ideas from bang (although thats a very lenient way to use some…)
    the worst part about yoka is that they would paint games as clones if it was similar to SGS (they tried to paint bang as a clone at first, but people soon found out that bang was released a couple years ahead of SGS)
    yoka had also encouraged their player base to go to forums for games like 英雄殺 (Hero Kill) and harass the users of said forums for supporting a game that is a clone (even though Hero Kill had more new features to it compared to SGS than SGS compared to Bang….)
    yoka also created a subdivision that focus on making clones, all games except one published by that subdivision had been clones, and unfortunately they never admitted to it
    the games they bought distribution rights to, they claim to be designed by them, like ascension or ubango (it’s actually sad, almost a tenth of the gamers playing ascension in china think that the game was actually designed by yoka despite shitty translations)

    the expansions you mentioned for SGS are generally just characters, there are more character cards than there are cards in the actual playing deck if you have all the expansions and all the promos, there is only one expansion that included extra cards, of which they added two new types of attack, two new “spell” cards, and one type of basic card
    in their expansions they would generally have one of two “special” cards, which will entice completionists to purchase multiple packs of the same expansion
    one of the worst things they did was their promo cards which were bundled with their board game magazine (about 40% of the contents being SGS, 40% being female cosplayer photos, 5% being male cosplayer photos, 10% advertisement, and 5% on other games…but yes, they call themselves a board game magazine…)

    there are some good games designed in china/taiwan
    you should check out

    Asteriated Grail, its an awesome game, must try if you can read mandarin
    Inception, based off the movie, not sure if they had the rights to do so, but the game is pretty original
    The Message, based off of another movie, again, not sure if they had the rights, but the game is good
    轟隆森林, its an action selection game, much like puerto rico, except it also has workers so you must have active workers to take part in any action, but you will need to feed your workers or risk losing points
    Silver Lion, it is a chit and counter war game, set in the three kingdoms era, the system is pretty neat, but the core system may be taken from another game (command chits are placed into a draw bag, and you pull chits out to determine activation order, turn might end before all chits are drawn, remaining chits are left in the bag for the next turn)

    these are some of the games by taiwanese/chinese developers that i really enjoy, you should check them out if you want to

    1. if you want to see some good games by taiwanese/chinese developers
      Moaideas has some really good games (at least one had been reviewed by dice tower, and i am pretty sure boardgamegeektv had reviewed another one)

      *for some reason this last part was missing

      1. Thanks for that—not living in Taiwan or China, I was relying on publication dates that I could find, and didn’t realize that Bang was available translated that far back. I did mention Inception, in my original post a couple years ago about looking at games in Taiwan, and thought it was funny that the person I spoke to just assumed that the company must have had the rights to the game, which I seriously doubt. I’m curious about the game, but I would guess it’s unlikely to see publication in English under its current name.

        I do have Pyramid Raiders by Moaideas, and I liked the fact that they had (1) an original game idea, as far as I could tell, and (2) that their rulebook and box was designed so that English-speaking players would be able to use it without having it translated from Mandarin. That said, it’s still very hard to find in the US, which is a shame.

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