Sunday, August 13, 2006

Call for Open Source Board Gaming


Let us thank whatever deity in which we believe that the idea of using cardboard boards within games is in the public domain. So are dice, pawns, and grids. Tracks and spaces. Spinners. Cards. Cards with writing. Turns. The concept of adding pieces and apparatus to games. Of pieces distinguished from each other by physical differences. The use of color to denote each player's forces. The idea of an auction. The mechanics of trading. Negotiation.

How fortunate we are that these were invented before our current age, because we know that if they had been invented today, the first one to come up with "a method of indicating location within a game space by randomizing marked cubes and moving personal markers a number of spaces within marked locations thereof" would have locked up the idea of board games for his or her natural lifespan, plus ninety years.

How long do we have before all new board game ideas become locked up? What ideas have already been lost? What are we losing even as I write this?

If you look at some of the posts I've been posting regarding new patents issued for board and card games, you will find that many basic ideas are becoming locked up, one by one. Anyone with a pea-sized brain or bigger realizes that this isn't protecting inventors or encouraging inventions; it is simply killing innovation.

There are only two ways to fight this. The first is to work together with those groups that are fighting for real patent reform. The second is the preventative strike. Namely, thinking up everything you can and publishing it or patenting it first. In that way, prior art can be established.

And if it can also be proved that any filed patent holder could have known about this prior art, they can be sued for court costs if or when they try to enforce their patents. At least I think so; I'm not a lawyer. Please consult one.

We need a good brainstorming site for open source gaming ideas. One that lists every methodology known, and can establish every combination thereof. Every type of auction, every type of interaction, every marriage between RFID chips, electronics, diodes, lights, computers, and pieces. Now.

And don't forget themes. They get patented, too.


Aside from the above societal benefits of establishing open source game mechanics and themes to ensure that our generation, and future generations, can use them, there are practical benefits to this.

Raph Koster is working on a "Grammar for Gameplay". This is similar to an idea that I had a few years ago. Well, in a different form. I was thinking of a database with every type of piece, mechanic, turn order, player interaction, and so on, so that games could be registered as collections of these components.

The net result would be a way of, just possibly, generating new games.

Oh, Knizia and all of those other game designers will tell you that this won't work. That game design requires the exact right balancing of all forces in order to ensure that the game hangs together well and isn't broken. But that's not really totally true.

Yes, games can be broken by a subtle miscalculated balance. On the other hand, thousands and thousands of variations have also taught us that games can be altered, sometimes even radically, and still be enjoyable and playable.

Go is played on a 19x19 board, but it is also enjoyable on a 15x15 board and an 11x11 board. There are countless variations for checkers movements and pieces capturing rules. Thousands of different types of chess pieces have been invented over the years, many of which simply add enjoyment to the game. (Many of these are now foolishly patented.)

Many games can stand to be stretched or shaped differently, and still be fun to play.

In addition, we have more than twenty thousand games registered in Board Game Geek. More articles about game design have been written in the last ten years than in all previous years combined. We are smart enough now to start building heuristics as to what to look for in game design.

We can then generate new game ideas that haven't yet been done. Maybe out of 10,000 computer inventions, 1000 will look good to our heuristics, 100 will contain ideas of interest, and only 10 will pan out as immediately playable. That's still a shortcut to 10 new games. And the other 90 can lead to new games with some human development.

The ultimate aim is to come up with a good set of rules and mechanics that will work for creating new games, i.e. new game systems. Like d20 uses a set of systems to apply to numerous games, and like Piecepack, Siegestones, and Icehouse provide basic components with which to produce many games, we should be able to find some good sets of rules that work well together in numerous combinations with various components.

Sometimes, the themes to these games will just scream out at us. Sometimes you may be able to slap on just about any theme or leave it as abstract. Either way, a vast untapped resource may be out there, just waiting to be implemented.


Update: And here's a random game generator to illustrate the idea. (Raph again)

Update: I must add a dissenting opinion to such a venture: that the very existence of a list of obvious game procedures could be used to claim that anything not on the list is not obvious.


Sean said...

Great post. I would love to take part in this type of endeavor. The piecepack system works well, but is very abstract (a bit to much for my tastes). I would love to see something that combines more elements of game play and more game mechanics. I had not thought of a database with all of these components, but I can see how it might lend itself nicely to finding a workable set of rules hidden in a "haystack".

Yehuda said...

Ah, if I had more time ...

I started working on a CGI DB app for this once upon a time, but gave up.

You not only have to register the machanics, but also the interaction and order in which they operate. That becomes difficult.


ChristopherA said...

A few comments:

* Patents are for a shorter period of time then you state. For a good summary see my collegue Shannon Appelcline's article on patents.

* I agree that patents are being abused. I think WotC's patent on the "tap" card game mechanic is an egregious example. Someone is even trying to patent storylines

* A concern related to patents is use of trademark law. I know, for instance, that Tarzan and Oz are seriously trademarked in such a fashion as you can't really create any works based on those books, in spite of the fact they are now in the public domain.

* RPGnet is now hosting a wiki where all the game content is Creative Commons licensed. The license we use is attribution required. I added my own complete RPG game system called Basic FANGS there for exactly the reasons you talk about. I encourage you to contribute any game design fundementals there -- they don't have to be only for RPG games.

Yehuda said...

Thanks, Chris. I read Shannon's articles. I also know that patents are for less time than copyrights, but I was sloppy. Sorry if I caused any confusion.

As far as trademark is concerned, it is actually much harder to enforce trademark than copyright or patent, since you have to prove consumer confusion. But many spurious traemark lawsuits do arise every year.

The Wiki looks like a great idea! I will check it out more thoroughly.


Anonymous said...

Check out and gain access to a board game that has been open source since 2001 and relaunched in 2006.

Anonymous said...

Lakeedah is open source, the board graphic and rules are available for download at

Curtis said...

I know this thread has been around for a long time collecting dust, but I stumbled across it just now. I'm trying to start up a community of people who are thinking up free, downloadable board games, and I've set up a website to post and discuss the rules. If anyone's interested, please drop by There's a contact page there to reach me and I'd love to hear comments!