Bamboo Bash Backstory and Backlash?
For those who may not have heard yet, Imperial Publishing is planning to re-launch a game on Kickstarter called Bamboo Bash. We have found the game to be caught up in a bit of drama though and wanted to clear the air on some details regarding this game, its history and our efforts to ensure it is both legally and ethically presented. While we felt we had been doing this, it is clear we haven't done a good enough job in presenting this game. So here we go.
Firstly, no true understanding of this game can be understood without recognizing the history that Seth Hiatt, the owner of Imperial Publishing, has with our sister company, Mayday Games. For some of that history including Mayday's relationship with Korea Board Games (KBG) and a game called Tok Tok Wodman (or Click Clack Lumberjack as the newer version came to be known as) you'll need to check out Mayday's blog post HERE. In a nutshell, Mayday was partly owned by Seth Hiatt through out the majority of the time that KBG sold copies of its games to Mayday for distribution. No licensing agreement, royalties payment agreement or distribution agreement was ever entered into by Mayday Games at the insistence of KBG and when that relationship ended in August of 2019, that ended all ties to KBG for that game. Seth also started this company in 2018 and development on Bamboo Bash began in late 2019.
Imperial Games contracted with a board game designer in late 2019 to develop Bamboo Bash. He normally goes games outside of the dexterity genre and wished to remain anonymous for now. Here is a somewhat redacted email from the designer about how progress was going from earlier in 2020:
Development continued in early 2020 and by March 2020 we had sent the details of the game out to factories for RFQ (Request for Quote) numbers to several factories and to start thinking about developing the molds for the game. We also started reaching out to major reviewers and industry content creators about getting them advanced copies for a possible June 2020 launch on Kickstarter. The actual development process and back-and-forth with the factory took longer than expected and by July 2020 we were getting closer, but had several issues to address, such as the paw being so pointy from the initial development that we were worried it would hurt children. This was from the factory we were working with for example:
Of course we did go with a "fatter" paw to smooth out the pointy bits. By July 24 we had our first samples, but ran into problems when the outer pieces fit TOO WELL into the inner core and wouldn't slide out when hit:
We had to go through several versions of the pieces to thicken them up several times to add weight and to adjust the texture of the surface of the pieces so they would slide well but not TOO fast so all of them wouldn't just fall off too easily. We won't bother you with all the details, but it wasn't until December of 2020 that things finally got put together and close to the (more final) product.
The main point of this is that the game was a year in development during which time we adjusted the engineering of the pieces and tested the game extensively. We are also still in the process of finishing the rulebook and have some nice rules adjustments for the game that we are planning on revealing soon.
On Tuesday February 23, 2021 we launched a Kickstarter for the game at noon Eastern time. Unfortunately that same day several HUGE projects also launched (Tiny Epic Dungeons, and the new Batman solo player game to name a couple). We normally see 50% or more of our backers coming from organic traffic from Kickstarter, but after 3 hours of being up we only had 80 backers and just one of them browsed to the project from Kickstarter. We also had many reports of people searching for the game by name and not being able to find it during that time and Kickstarter support confirmed that the website was under a lot of stress and not working properly during that time. Here is where our backers were coming from, almost all of it from direct marketing efforts:
Compare the chart of where our funding was coming from for this project versus our last project (Red Outpost):
Notice only 23% pledged via "Kickstarter" means, the green pie piece, for Bamboo Bash.
67% of our Red Outpost pledges came from Kickstarter organic traffic versus just 23% for Bamboo Bash. Clearly something wasn't going right. If our blue pie piece from Bamboo Bash ($1,093) was 5% of pledges as it was with Red Outpost that would mean we would have expected total pledges to be over $18,000 after 3 hours rather than just over $1,700. (Because $1,093/x = $8,349/$139,146, solve for X)
Rather than settle for a mediocre campaign we cancelled it and sought feedback from backers and others. One main take-away was that while the project and game looked appealing, that in the end we were offering a $22.95 MSRP game for $20 + about $7-10 shipping, so who would want to back it if they could just get the same game for less when it came to retail. There were also no Kickstarter Exclusives or Stretch Rewards to excite people or give them a really compelling reason to back the game. We are coming back to Kickstarter soon and have taken this lesson to heart. We have some very interesting stretch rewards and are going to unveil more of the rulebook "reveals" we had planned for the project in the form of stretch goals. You can check out those planned goals and the re-launch strategy over at the Kickstarter HERE. As the graphics and things get made for the contents of the Deluxe Kickstarter Edition and the Stretch rewards it will get more interesting, but in broad strokes here is our draft version of the stretch rewards and game changes we have planned:
We will be dropping the price of the base pledge to $17 or $18, and offering a DELUXE TIN EDITION for $25, and an ALL-IN GAMEPLAY version with 20x20 inch playmat for just $30. We believe this new project will do much better and as backers discover the details of the expanded gameplay and Kickstarter Limited Exclusivity content, that the project will be much better for it.
Later the same day we cancelled the project there began to be some controversy surrounding the game, most of it due to the original designer of Tok Tok Woodman tweeting that it was a very sad day for him:
You can refer to the Mayday Blog Post regarding their relationship with Justin and later Korea Board Games as reference in the first paragraph above, and yes Seth Hiatt is the current owner of both Mayday Games and Imperial Publishing. And of course any designer would be sad to see the image above from a reviewer actively saying the game they had designed was "dead to me" and that they preferred a new game. In fact the reviewer in question takes the position that while he gave Toc Toc Woodman an unfavorable review that he gives Bamboo Bash a favorable review. That alone would justify Justin's tweet of a "sad day" and is perfectly understandable.
While Mr. Oh (or anyone else for that matter) has never taken the stance that making Bamboo Bash would somehow infringe on his design or intellectual property in any way, he asked people to not support our new game. He further expressed concerns that a "very similar game" would be bad for him, also perfectly understandable.
We know legally no game can copyright board game mechanics and in fact there is an enlightening American Bar Association article on it (here) which states in part:
The principle laid down in Baker v. Selden was later codified in the Copyright Act of 1976, which says clearly: “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.”6 Thus, the idea-expression dichotomy that is fundamental to copyright law can be traced back to Baker v. Selden.
Therefore, the systems or processes that make up the core of a game—generally referred to as the “game mechanics”—are not subject to copyright, even though the written rules, game board, card artwork, and other elements—often referred to as the “theme” of the game—may be. Game mechanics can be as simple as “roll dice and move a token along a track,” or far more complex. Regardless of the complexity or originality of a given game’s systems and processes, its game mechanics will likely not be protected by copyright.
This is the main reason a shopper looking at games in a mass market store will likely find a Jenga game right along side several "definitely not Jenga" games that are essentially the same game. Another interesting read about board game mechanics can be found HERE.
But what about ethics?
Ethically/morally everyone in the world could have a different opinion on what is ethically ok in terms of copying the mechanics from another game. Certainly if it is your own design you are going to have an interest in erring on the side of not allowing anyone to use anything even closely resembling your work. Others who have played games that derived from previous works may feel the current IP laws are correct and that not stifling creativity and allowing for more competition among games is best.
The "mechanics" of board games from BoardGameGeek.com for example lists less than 200 total different "Mechanics" to describe a board game, yet there are well over 50,000 unique games listed on the site. Here is a partial list from BGG's site:
Indeed, it is very rare to do what Justin Oh seems to have done with Toc Toc Woodman, invent an all-new mechanic of "tapping on a tower" to score points. But should his game be the only one to ever use such a mechanic without his express consent? Legally the answer is clearly no, but ethically the board game industry has typically answered with a resounding "it depends." It really depends on just how different the game is as to whether or not the consumers will accept it. We are trying to stay far, far away from the specific rules regarding how the game is played and how the scoring and player interactions are done with Bamboo Bash to stay far from that ethical line. So what is truly different? It is in those differences that we believe the true ethics of using the same mechanism as TTW are born out.
Some of the physical differences include:
- Click Clack Lumberjack (CCL) consists of 9 narrow, flat pieces while Bamboo Bash (BB) has just 7 tall, narrow pieces, so that even though there are two less stacks in the height, BB is actually about 25% taller.
- The CCL core pieces are heavier by far and hollow/open on both sides while the BB core pieces are lighter weight but filled in on one side to allow the Panda mini to sit on top of any piece during gameplay. The engineering of both types of pieces took a lot of trial and error and the resulting pieces are actually quite different as CCL's relies more on weight for the tension among the pieces while BB's pieces rely more on texture.
- CCL has some grub stickers included to add a fun luck as an element of the game while BB has external leaf pieces for bonus points.
- The way the pieces lock in place to the center core is also different, see photo below.
For most modern gamers, the game's rules and method of play are KEY. Lots of games use "deck building" from Dominion but the rules and interaction with the players makes games like Thunderstone different from Dominion on ways besides just artwork.
In Bamboo Bash, each player gets up to 3 hits with the panda paw and must stop hitting when any hit results in pieces falling off the structure. TTW rules, in contrast, allow each player 2 hits and players may score points on both hits. This rule difference makes the strategy in approaching each game very different because players have no incentive to knock anything off on the first or 2nd hit with Bamboo Bash, during most of our playtests it resulted in players “setting up” their third piece for a big pay-off, or at least hitting much more conservatively until the third hit. This results in strategic decisions about how/where to hit and the resulting choices are markedly different from TTW.
Also, rather than grub stickers under the bark which are scored like in Click Clack Lumberjack (CCL) players score bonus points for the outer leaf pieces at the end of the game. This eliminates luck from Bamboo Bash and results in all players targeting specific areas of the structure first rather than just hitting the structure at random and hoping for some lucky bonus points. Most points scored in Bamboo Bash are the result of planning and methodical decisions rather than luck.
The introduction of the Panda mini on the top of the structure also acts as an added deterrent against knocking off middle pieces, the first player to knock off a middle piece will not only lose points for the middle piece, but will be disqualified from a +4 point bonus at the end of the game for most leaf pieces collected. We have found in playtesting that groups take care to not tap too aggressively to start the game because of this extra dis-incentive. Further, younger players seem to take extra care because they often want to "help the Panda" and care more about that then the points.
Additionally we have a cooperative element to the game's end planned which we believe will allow players who already know they are behind to engage longer and create tension for a group win. We have several other rules in development and are planning to reveal more of that with the Kickstarter launch. As with most Kickstarter projects we want to create some excitement with our backers and give them a reason to be involved in the campaign and come back to find out more.
Why This Game?
If you review some of the more popular mechanics or games that have similar mechanics, you see many such instances of a game basically being "copied" with a simple re-theme and perhaps some very minor rule changes. Cards Against Humanity is basically Apples to Apples but rethemed for adult audiences, Secret Hitler is a re-theme of the Resistance which in turn was really just a re-theme of Werewolf. How many games have sprung up that rely on "worker placement" or "area control" or "drafting" or "deck-building"? If there have been so many examples of this in our industry then why is this one sparking outrage?
Perhaps it is because the act of "tapping a tower" is so visceral/mechanical and obvious that any game that uses that mechanic at its core (also no pun intended), must immediately be branded a "copy" of Justin's original game? Perhaps it is because this is the first non-Justin-Oh game with this mechanic? Or perhaps it is because of the prior relationship Mayday Games (our sister company) had distributing TTW from 2011 until 2019. None of these factors should come into play when making your own decision about the "ethics" of making this game. We believe the core argument isn't the legal one, no one is saying it isn't legal, but rather the ethical one. For us the ethical argument hangs on how different does this game play from Justin's original? We hope you will suspend judgement until the game is released and see for yourself and then let us know in the comments section below if you don't agree with the majority of reviewers who have already come out and given opinions on the game, though not yet in final form.
We did not set up to "rip-off" Justin's game and certainly would not have gone to the trouble/expense of paying a designer royalties and going through more than a year's worth of development if we just wanted to just knock-off a game.
So where do we stand? We wanted to be transparent about the existing relationship from our owner and Justin's game, so we added this to the first Kickstarter and it will stay in the relaunch as well:
But we also want to go a step further. Because Justin has assigned his rights to Korea Board Games we have reached out to KBG to try to work out an agreement with them in some form. We would love to have Justin's support and hope our game is different enough from his that he won't feel threatened by its release. While Justin didn't have any direct contribution to our game's development, we would like to recognize him in the credits for the game as his break-through game was a big influence and one key element of the game is the mechanic of tapping a tower. Whether KBG ever replies to our emails in this matter or not, we will be sure to reference to his excellent game and fully disclose that it was an influence to the development of this game. We wish Justin all the best and hope to hear from him or KBG soon, we believe the world is big enough for more than one "tap a tower" game in the industry and we want to reach an amicable resolution to even the perception of impropriety.
Will other games come to the market that use the "tap a tower" mechanic? As surely as Animal Upon Animal, Princess and the Pea, Beasts of Balance, Tuki, Meeple Circus and a host of other games use the "stacking things for points" mechanic. We look forward to the next "hitting things" dexterity game invention and hope for more ground-breaking designs that take successful elements of previous games and innovate to create something new for us all to play.