With players increasingly at risk of shoddy-quality and even dangerous versions of their favourite titles, we look into the dark world of tabletop forgery
“About eight months ago we started to get all of these customer services requests. People picking up the phone saying, 'Hi, I bought a Ticket to Ride from Amazon, the cards are all rubbish, I'm missing five black trains and the board doesn't lay flat.'”
At first, Steve Buckmaster says, it was assumed that the copies of Days of Wonder’s iconic train game were normal outliers from the production process. Esdevium (now Asmodee UK), the dominant UK distributor of which Buckmaster is MD, began to send out replacement parts for the incomplete sets, as it would with any other game missing pieces. Still, something didn’t sit quite right – a feeling reinforced by the growing number of complaints about a title usually known for its high standard of quality.
Three or four months later, overwhelmed by requests, Esdevium decided to look into the matter. It seemed that one of its most popular games had fallen prey to cheap forgeries being sold online via third-party sellers, with unsuspecting buyers unaware that their copy was an unofficial fake.
Very quickly, it became clear that it was an issue far beyond Ticket to Ride. Sales of some of the industry’s biggest games have become flooded by fakes as part of what Buckmaster describes as an “endemic” counterfeiting problem. Especially at risk are titles that had become staple games for introducing new players to hobby gaming because of their accessible gameplay and simple components – factors that now made them easier to duplicate.
“Games that have relatively simple card components in particular – Dominion being a great example – where it's just printing cards, it's relatively straightforward for someone to counterfeit,” Buckmaster says. “They need the print files and the ability to make cards – which most factories will have – then they just need to make boxes and plastic inserts, which again most factories will be able to do. Off they go on their merry way making a counterfeit version of the game. So I think the criteria for a target to counterfeit is that the game has got to be a relative perennial.
“What we would consider the stable gateway games of this industry – Ticket to Ride, Catan, Pandemic, Dominion – have a good level of sales, yet they come from relatively small publishers that are going to struggle to be able to take the action required to try and get counterfeiters shut down. It's a real challenge for our time.”
Partly to blame for the surge in forgeries is gaming’s boom in mainstream popularity over the last few years, with multi-million-dollar Kickstarters and consistently rising sales attracting both genuine and illegitimate attempts to cash in on the golden age of the tabletop. The biggest enabling factor has been the internet; while crowdfunding has made it easier than ever before for creators to find a global audience for their otherwise niche projects, the online removal of worldwide barriers has turned counterfeiting into an international issue.
“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.
Although the full extent to which counterfeits are pervading the market remains currently unclear due to some companies refusing to release their data, Asmodee’s internal figures suggest that up to 60% of all online sales for some games are now fakes.
“We’re able to do a bunch of data analysis online and we can also compare year-over-year numbers and look at the sellers actually selling the product,” Petersen explains. “A product like – just as an example – 7 Wonders may have been affected more than 60%.”
“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 monetise 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.”
Scott Tepper of Dominion, Race for the Galaxy and Roll for the Galaxy outlet Rio Grande Games echoes that the overall scale of counterfeiting is still being looked into by the publisher, but suggests less of an impact on its affected games.
“We are still investigating the extent to which the recent counterfeit Dominions reached the US market,” he says. “In comparison with our total sales, the percentage of counterfeits that we believe have recently appeared is a small percentage of our total sales.”
Wizards of the Coast, the Hasbro-owned publisher responsible for Dungeons & Dragons, Magic: The Gathering and wargame studio Avalon Hill, concurs that it has experienced counterfeiting, but adds that – at least from what it has seen –fake games still remain the exception.
“Wizards of the Coast strives to provide its fans with the highest quality products and gaming experiences, so we take counterfeiting very seriously,” a representative for the company tells us. “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.”
"We can only guess at the harm end users are exposing themselves to."
The targeting of gateway games by counterfeiters is particularly troublesome for publishers and distributors because of the players most likely to end up with a fake in their collection. There’s a good chance that committed gamers already own several of the entry-level titles affected, or will see notices put out via social media, websites and newsletters concerning possible fakes. But a standard consumer picking up a hobby-grade game for the first time, or planning to give one as a gift, won’t necessarily be on the lookout.
“What we're really worried about is somebody who's possibly new to board games and, rightly so, going for something like Ticket to Ride, Pandemic or Catan as their first or second board game purchase,” Buckmaster says. “They go online, buy the cheapest, get a counterfeit copy and go, 'Ergh, this was a poor gaming experience,' because they were missing components or the rules weren't right because they'd been counterfeited or just having that bad first experience.
“We are more concerned about the, dare I say it, mums and families; people that are new to board gaming in general being caught out by this. For hardcore alpha gamers that are buying a mixture of games on Kickstarter and on release and all that sort of stuff, they're probably safe at this moment in time.”
“If a counterfeit game happens to be the first game that person has ever played, it could leave a bad taste in their mouth and keep them from trying other games in this great hobby of ours,” agrees Panda’s Lee.
It’s not only players who can be put off gaming by dodgy copies. With many designers making a living through royalties earned on sales of their games, as with any artist, having their work copied without compensation can drastically impact their living.
“Counterfeits cause damage on several levels,” says Tepper. “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.”
“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,” agrees 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.
“Whether or not the end consumer cares about whether a game designer gets their royalty on games, they've put their heart and soul into something, they created a game that's going to be fantastic,” Buckmaster adds. “They're obviously being cheated out of their income, which is the royalties they make on selling games. Which I suppose also impacts their ability to continue to develop games and do stuff.”
In the most extreme of cases, fake board games can even pose a risk to the health of players by bypassing universal safety checks
“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 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.”
Buckmaster presents a specific example of one game aimed at children that had been found to lack the quality control of the official product: speedy symbol-matching title Dobble.
“We don't even know if the counterfeit Dobble game can be played properly because it's quite a mathematical game. It's not enough to sit there and have some cards with symbols on, you actually have to have the exact right mix and it has to be a certain way. We have seen the counterfeit tins deform; we don't know if they've been tested for harmful elements. As a genuine manufacturer, there's quite strict safety testing that you have to do on your product to ensure it's in no way going to be harmful.”
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.”
On the left is a genuine copy of Dominion: Second Edition – on the right is a fake. Can you spot the difference?
The majority of publishers we spoke to pointed the finger at Amazon’s third-party Marketplace and ‘Fulfilled by Amazon’ programme – where third-party stock is stored and sent out of Amazon warehouses – for allowing online stores to freely offer illegitimate copies of games, which are often misunderstood by buyers to be vouched for by the retail giant.
Buckmaster says that, in certain cases, direct sales of some Esdevium games through Amazon have been reduced by up to 80% of their usual level when a seller of counterfeits manages to get the ‘buy box’ – making them the default choice for customers that land on the page and hit the ‘Add to Basket’ button without checking who they’re purchasing from.
“The way that Amazon is structured, most consumers make the assumption that if it's fulfilled by Amazon, it must be fine – this is unfortunately not always the case,” he says.
Although Amazon does remove counterfeit sellers when flagged up by lawyers working on behalf of bigger studios, one major publisher that wished to remain anonymous told us that Amazon had been ‘difficult’ and ‘slow’ to work with on the matter, allegedly taking up to a week to shut down some stores and going so far as to reinstate multiple third-party sellers accused of offering counterfeit games when the claims had been contested. Multiple sources said that counterfeit sellers they had identified had later resurfaced under the guise of a different store, allowing them to simply sell the products under a different name. This reportedly even caused Amazon’s own sales of at least one popular game to ‘tank’, a source close to the matter said.
“Amazon prohibits the sale of inauthentic and fraudulent products,” an Amazon spokesperson told Tabletop Gaming in a statement. “We remove items in violation of our policies as soon as we become aware of them and block bad actors suspected of engaging in illegal behaviour, such as counterfeit. If merchants sell counterfeit goods, we may immediately suspend or terminate their selling privileges and destroy inventory in our fulfilment centres without reimbursement. In addition, if we determine that a seller account has been used to engage in fraud or other illegal activity, remittances and payments may be withheld. The sale of counterfeit goods can also lead to legal action by rights holders and civil and criminal penalties.
“We are constantly innovating on behalf of our customers and working with manufacturers, content owners, vendors and sellers to improve the ways we detect and prevent counterfeit products from reaching our marketplace. We work hard on this issue every day because we know that our customers trust that they are buying authentic products when they shop on Amazon.co.uk. This is why we stand behind the products sold on our site with our A-to-Z Guarantee. We also encourage anyone who has a product authenticity concern to notify us, and we will investigate it thoroughly and take any appropriate actions.”
Amazon does require that Marketplace sellers offer a return policy equal to or better than its own 30-day rule and offer replacements for products found to not be as advertised within a “reasonable time”.
“As much as we've been struggling with Amazon, there is an element of accountability with Amazon where you can go back and go: 'Look, I think I've got something counterfeit,'” Buckmaster says.
That’s not the case with another online retail giant alleged to be offering fake board games for sale: auction site eBay, which Buckmaster calls “a dog-eat-dog marketplace, basically”. Under the platform’s rules, sellers are not required to offer a returns policy, but eBay does offer a Money Back Guarantee to reimburse users who receive an item that fails to match its listing description.
“Counterfeits are illegal and not welcome on any of eBay’s sites,” a spokesperson for eBay told us. “eBay is fully committed to combating the sale of counterfeit goods and has consistently been the Internet industry leader in working to stop the online sale of counterfeit goods. eBay runs several anti-counterfeit initiatives including the Verified Rights Owner Program (VeRO), and is continually introducing new proactive measures to combat the global trade in counterfeits.”
Some counterfeit games appear under different names, such as this Splendor clone The Stone Merchant, while others try to replicate the game's original packaging, as with this fake copy of Sushi Go!
As tabletop gaming grows and matures further, it’s all but certain that counterfeiting will continue. Petersen describes the problem as like an endless game of whack-a-mole, while Buckmaster says the number of games finding their way into the mainstream and hunger for popular titles means there’s no shortage of targets for forgers.
“I think the problem will continue, even if we can get some games cleaned up,” he says. “Let's say, for example, we manage to close down the problem on Dixit; my gut feeling is they might go onto something like Forbidden Island instead. They'll just choose another stable product that's always ranked highly on Amazon and go start counterfeiting that product, as well.'
However, steps are being taken to try and combat the number of fakes finding their way into players’ hands. Last summer, Ad Magic and Breaking Games partnered with security and authentication specialist De la Rue to place custom 3D holograms on the companies’ games as proof of their genuineness. Other publishers and manufacturers have stepped up their own efforts to educate fans about the telltale signs of potential fakes and work more closely with retailers and distributors to react to suspect online stores.
“Raising public awareness, reporting counterfeit sellers, and not supporting illegally produced games are a few ways we can combat this epidemic,” predicts Panda CEO Michael Lee. “As games become more complex and advanced from a production standpoint, the harder it will be for counterfeiters to keep up.”
Ultimately, though, it seems that the best way to avoid ending up with a counterfeit in your collection comes back to age-old advice.
“If a deal looks too good to be true, it probably is,” Buckmaster says. “I know in this day and age a lot of people will want to buy the cheapest online offer, but it’s always worth checking the source; if in doubt, buy from a brick-and-mortar store where you can actually see what you are buying”
“Buy games from the actual game maker sites – or from authorised and reputable retailers – never purchase games from unknown sites or pop-up ads,” advises Spiro.
“It seems that people generally buy from the third-party sellers based on price, so if the price is too good to be true, it likely is,” Tepper says. “If you are going to buy from a third-party seller, read their feedback comments. The third-party resellers that we caught selling counterfeit Dominions had multiple instances of feedback regarding counterfeit products. So either people are either not checking these comments or they are willing to roll the dice for a ‘good deal’. You get what you pay for.”
This article originally appeared in the January 2018 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here – or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.