Have you ever heard the phrase “If it looks too good to be true, then it probably is.”? This is all too true these days in the world of tabletop gaming. We see all sorts of deals from online sellers promising deals that “won’t be beat”. When the innocent consumer thinks that they are saving a buck, in actuality, they are part of a recent epidemic of counterfeit sales of popular games.
In reality this phrase about deals being “…too good to be true…”, which dates back to an idea as early the biblical old testament, is still just as true today. Online sites like Amazon and Ebay are flooded everyday with individual sellers advertising “brand new” board games at prices that are only a fraction of MSRP (Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price). Many times they are actually part of a global counterfeiting ring. This problem was first noticed when gamers shopping online noticed component quality discrepancies between their game bought online and their friend’s copy bought from their FLGS (Friendly Local Game Store). These weren’t one off, out of the ordinary, indie games either. These were triple A titles like “7 Wonders” from Asmodee, “Ticket to Ride” from Days of Wonder, and “Dominion” from Rio Grande Games.
“Right now we’re dealing with significant counterfeiting coming out of the Far East and no matter what we do, it’s very hard to contain because the internet and online commerce has made it able to reach far and wide and deep and it’s hard to figure out exactly where the nexus of all that stuff is originating,” says Christian T. Petersen, CEO of Asmodee North America, the mega-publisher that owns studios such as Fantasy Flight, Days of Wonder, Z-Man Games, and Plaid Hat.
“We’ve been told that counterfeit games have dramatically increased recently,” observes Richard Lee, COO of major game manufacturer Panda. “We believe that as with any growing industry, once there is enough demand for counterfeiters to produce a reasonable profit, there will attempts to try to illegally monetize that demand. Scanning and printing technology has improved by a large amount and has become much less expensive as well, which has led to more counterfeiting activities.”
The most common problem is that many of these reputable sellers have grown to such a size that it is hard to ensure quality control of the products they allow to be sold. Many third party sellers are allowed to house these counterfeit products in warehouses right next to the legitimate manufacturer’s product. Yet the site will often offer the lowest price product to a customer, trying to “save some money”, when the warehouses are blissfully unaware that they are offering secondhand, illegal merchandise.
While steps are being taken to stop the distribution of pirated material, it is a practice that continues to thrive despite the efforts of studios doing everything in their power to halt the illegal piracy of their products. “Wizards of the Coast strives to provide its fans with the highest quality products and gaming experiences, so we take counterfeiting very seriously,” says a representative for the company. “While we can’t comment on specific anti-counterfeiting tactics or investigations, we can say that we occasionally learn of small quantities of counterfeit Wizards of the Coast games being sold online. When this happens, we investigate. Our investigation team is second-to-none in the gaming industry and works closely with our state, federal, and international law enforcement partners to target and stop counterfeiters.”
Many major companies worry about the loss of sales, some reporting as high as a 60% decrease due to these illegal copies in circulation. In addition to lost wages, some worry on the loss of return customers for other legitimate titles being sold. “Counterfeits cause damage on several levels,” says Scott Tepper of Rio Grande Games. “The designer, who has done considerable work to create an exceptional game, does not receive the deserved royalties for the counterfeit copies. Our distributors, who would normally be receiving income for normal Dominion sales have reduced sales because of low cost counterfeits flooding into the market. Damage is done to our brand when customers receive these inferior knockoffs and think that this low quality is representative of Rio Grande Games and then decide not to try any of the Dominion expansions.”
The issue is not just loss of money for the companies, designers, and publishers who make these games, but for the customers health as well. “The world out there is not entirely aware of the enormous influence of counterfeiters online and how much stuff is actually not authentic and even potentially dangerous,” says Asmodee NA’s Petersen. “Because we do, of course, a lot of testing on all our materials to make sure they’re [safety] compliant, vis-à-vis the poison in plastics, the lead paint on wood and so on and so forth. I can assure you that counterfeiters have no such testing.” Rio Grande’s Tepper offers a similarly frank warning. “The authentic Dominions and expansions are made in our partner factories in the US and in Europe,” he confirms. “We are confident in their quality and safety for our customers. From what we have seen, the counterfeit copies have cheaper card stock for the cards and have inferior card trays which are flimsy and break easily. We can only guess at the harm end users are exposing themselves to from the counterfeit copies as they are not made using the strict standards we use in our games. Perhaps the most damaging impact would be if the counterfeit games, made not to our and US standards, contain dangerous elements that could harm the consumers. Of course, we have control over our products. Thus, the damage done by counterfeits is significant.”
Yet another common issue is the seemingly unstoppable practice of counterfeiters continuing their shady dealings as long as the unsuspecting consumer continues to buy bogus product from online stores. “Buying counterfeits only helps the counterfeiters – and takes money out of the pockets of the hard-working people who are creating the games and products that are being illegally counterfeited,” warns Shari Spiro, CEO of independent publisher Breaking Games and manufacturer Ad Magic, which has produced various games including Kickstarter smash hits Exploding Kittens, Joking Hazard and Cards Against Humanity.
Seemingly the only way to stop these practices from continuing is to educate customers on the dangers of these “buyer beware” deals. “Raising public awareness, reporting counterfeit sellers, and not supporting illegally produced games are a few ways we can combat this epidemic,” predicts Panda’s Lee. “As games become more complex and advanced from a production standpoint, the harder it will be for counterfeiters to keep up.”
Meanwhile, FLGS owners have urged their customers to be wary of these online hazards. “Local game stores buy their products from legitimate distributors who get their products directly from the manufacturers,” says Troy Stegner owner of Zia Comics in Las Cruces, New Mexico. “Buying local not only helps local game stores stay in business, but also gives gamers a space to play with members of their community. You can’t play games face to face on the internet.”
So a good rule to remember is that age old adage “If it looks too good to be true, then it probably is.” If you play local, buy local. One never wants to get a bum deal just to save a couple dollars. Most stores, like your FLGS, will not only give you a hands on demo, but you can walk out with the game right then and there, knowing that you have outfoxed the cheats.
-Trevor L. Cooper
“Swag Sommelier” at Zia Comics
and an Avid Tabletop Gamer