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[Polygon] Counterfeiters have gone from handbags to board games, and they’re getting faster

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Jan 18, 2024, 11:13:28 AMJan 18

Counterfeiters have gone from handbags to board games, and they’re
getting faster

Small publishers are stuck playing an international game of whack-a-mole
By Charlie Hall Jan 18, 2024, 9:00am EST

Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a
journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and
spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Everything was going right for Wonderbow co-founder Laia Gonzalez. Her
small publishing company’s latest project, a board game called Kelp, had
wildly exceeded expectations and was closing in on its final
crowdfunding total of more than $1.5 million. Delivery was scheduled for
October 2024, so there was plenty of time to begin finalizing the game’s
components and coordinating with a manufacturer for production. Hoping
for a little extra dose of dopamine, Gonzalez did a quick Google search
to see if anyone in the vast and turbulent sea of tabletop influencers
was particularly hyped about her company’s game. But instead of a new
video of someone sitting in front of an overstuffed Ikea shelving unit,
she was surprised to find Kelp already up for sale on Amazon. She,
Wonderbow, and game designer Carl Robinson had become the latest victims
of board game counterfeiters.

“We had 12 listings [on Amazon] by then,” Gonzalez told Polygon in a
recent interview. “One of those had 400-plus sales.”

She sprang into action, alerting Amazon of the fraud. After days of
back-and-forth, the dozen or so illegal listings that she’d found were
finally taken down. Thirty-six more showed up overnight. The
counterfeiters also expanded their efforts to Google Shopping and other
online marketplaces, with more listings always seeming to pop up even as
Gonzalez reported them. It was like a game of Whac-A-Mole. Soon she was
sending off a series of emails politely asking a startup eBay competitor
run out of a Florida office park to delist a product that was clearly
someone infringing on her company’s copyright.

That’s when the customer service complaints began to roll in.
A collection of cards, dice, and mahjong tiles from a counterfeit
version of Kelp, a new board game.

“They literally sent us an email saying, ‘We received the game. It looks
great, but the manual is missing,’” Gonzalez recalled. “‘Also, there is
a Lego shark in it. Could you please send us a real mini?’”

Over the last few decades, as brick-and-mortar retail has struggled and
online shopping has become the norm, an entire ecosystem of counterfeit
merchandise sellers has sprung up to prey on unwary consumers. Now,
after years spent moving illicit shoes, hot handbags, and poorly made
electronics, they’ve begun targeting board games.

The problem is only getting worse. Polygon reached out to nearly a dozen
publishers in the tabletop industry. All but one that responded to our
request said that they and their customers had been the victim of a
similar kind of fraud.

“The main concern other than revenue for me is reputational damage,”
wrote Nathan McNair, co-owner of Pandasaurus Games, in an email. “The
counterfeits are often very poor quality. There was a Machi Koro
counterfeit that didn’t have the plastic coins in them, but had Wingspan
dice and plastic gems. So I suppose whoever made that was also
counterfeiting Wingspan.”
A selection of tokens in plastic trays, with cards filled with bird art
along the sideboard.

How do these counterfeits get made? It’s easy enough to find popular
board games on store shelves these days, including at big-box stores
like Target and Walmart, and online with Amazon and on eBay. Those cards
and game boards are scanned at a high resolution, becoming the raw
material for knockoffs. Some industrious counterfeiters, like those that
targeted Kelp, hunt down game images from crowdfunding campaigns, likely
using images shared on Kickstarter, YouTube, and Instagram to cobble
together their own version for sale. Tabletop Simulator, a popular
online platform used to demo new games virtually, is another popular
vector for attack.

“The weird side effect of all of this is that people trust Amazon as a
place to purchase board games less and less, driving a great deal of
business to our website,” wrote Patrick Leder, founder of Leder Games,
which also has its own digital storefront where it sells its products
directly. But the counterfeit trend also impacts those same struggling
local game stores fighting an uphill battle against the likes of Amazon.
A selection of pawns from Oath, including the wooden Chancellor. The art
on the cards and playing mat is bright and cheerful, with fantasy
creatures and woodland creatures intermixed.

“We want [local brick-and-mortar shops] to survive and thrive,” Leder
said, “and these deep discounts on low-quality versions hurt them as
well. Going forward, we may have to have talks about how much of our
prototypes we can make public to avoid counterfeits before release.”

That kind of secrecy has clearly been integrated into plans made by
Jamey Stegmaier, owner of Stonemaier games. His two most recent
releases, the asymmetrical strategy game Apiary and the highly
anticipated sequel to Wingspan, titled Wyrmspan, were revealed to the
world less than a month before they went on sale — directly through his
own website. He said his own, more established brand has had success in
moving its back catalog to Amazon’s Transparency program, which provides
a scannable code on products it ships that helps verify authenticity.
But it’s not free, and for newer publishers like Wonderbow that are
trying to get funding for games that don’t exist yet, it might not be
financially possible.

“We don’t have a good solution for counterfeits on other marketplaces,”
Stegmaier wrote to Polygon in an email. “[And] even if we include
components that are difficult to replicate, the customer doesn’t know
until they’ve already purchased the product, as counterfeiters can use
photos of the real game on their online listings.

“It’s hard to say at this point how much it’s impacting our business,”
he added, “but I do know there are lost sales and plenty of customer
confusion and frustration.”

For Gonzalez, whose Kelp is still on target for the promised shipping
window of October this year, the most important next step is education —
both for existing fans of board games, and for the mass market more broadly.

“We need to educate people more on the concept of crowdfunding,”
Gonzalez said. “Quality pictures, a great video, a [Tabletop Simulator]
mod, and a published rulebook are key to a crowdfunding campaign. [...]
We believe people deserve the chance to get to know our games beforehand
as best they can. This won’t prevent counterfeits, but we don’t want to
risk losing our community for not releasing enough information beforehand.”

She’s currently working to connect her hard-won contacts at Amazon with
someone at Kickstarter for a high-level conversation. Maybe with a
little more communication, they can help make things better for board
game publishers going forward and help push counterfeiters even further
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