I'm juggling with a card game idea based on a popular fantasy universe. The game still has a long way to go yet.

But before I really invest in developing the card game I want to make sure I'm not wasting time and want to verify if I'll be able to develop the card game at all.

The game will use a tree of influence mechanism, where each player can acquire cards and can have those cards control other cards. They can even try to steal cards controlled by other players. The scope of the game is base on the nature of characters of a fantasy universe where there is a lot of back-stabbing, short-term alliances and power mongering.

After thinking about that mechanic I remember playing Illuminati by Steve Jackson. I just want to know if that mechanism is patented.

  • I think this probably belongs over on patents.SE, so I've flagged it for a moderator to take a look.
    – SocioMatt
    Mar 5, 2013 at 16:46
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    @SocioMatt I think this is an area of overlap and the question is probably fine on either SE. Mar 5, 2013 at 16:52
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    I just figured that the question asks whether this is patented, and generally speaking, the users over on patents.SE may be better equipped to answer. Not that we couldn't find the answer; I agree there is overlap.
    – SocioMatt
    Mar 5, 2013 at 16:53
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    @SocioMatt - let's leave it here and try the experiment. Mar 5, 2013 at 17:02
  • Just one tip: if its based on a popular fantasy world, I think you should make sure you have the copyrights for that world.. Mar 9, 2013 at 6:55

2 Answers 2


Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer

This answer* on startups.SE suggests (though doesn't completely confirm) that the mechanisms of a board game cannot be patented (which I suppose explains why we have so many deck-builders, for instance), but you may be at risk of copyright infringement if you go so far as to copy graphics, trademarked characters or names and copy used in the rulebook.

It goes without saying that since you refer to a "popular fantasy universe", you may have more to worry about from them than from Steve Jackson if you intend to use existing characters etc.

Given that, I think that using a mechanism from another game is acceptable.

*The linked question is about an electronic adaptation of a board game, but I believe the answer still applies

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    +1 for the advice 'worry more about copyright than patents'. As I understand it, mechanisms can be patented, but only if they are provably original; cards controlling others almost certainly wouldn't qualify. Mar 6, 2013 at 11:18
  • I believe the only board game related patent is "tapping" for Magic the gathering. Not sure how enforcible it is though.
    – Nick
    Mar 6, 2013 at 12:08
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    @Nick Actually I believe only the actual term "tapping" is restricted in that case. The mechanic appears in many other games, but uses different terms to refer to it (e.g. "exhausting").
    – Johno
    Mar 6, 2013 at 12:54
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    I would agree too... if someone had patented the mechanism 'using Dice for randomness' how manic & complex would board games be?
    – Ian
    Mar 6, 2013 at 12:55
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    Looks like your link has evaporated, unfortunately. Feb 2, 2015 at 4:39

Combining some of the comments to the previous answer, and contrasting the accepted answer, some board and card game mechanics can be patented as well as the content (art, instructions) being copyrighted/trademarked.

There's a fine line to draw, but also a relatively simple rule of thumb. Basically, if you can find an example of a game that uses the mechanic which was documented as being played prior to the ratification of the United States Constitution, then the game and any mechanic it has at that time are not eligible for patent, and you have an excellent case for moving forward with a game using the mechanic, whether you find a filed patent or not.

This "public domain" rule encompasses a lot of the basic mechanics that people know and love:

  • Pretty much every board game involving a regular grid constraining the directions and limits of movement of pieces, regardless of the shape of the spaces or the lines, drawn or implied, connecting them.
  • Maps of real geographic terrain, including pretty much any "projection" of the world as a map (you can't use actual prints from mapmakers - they're copyrighted - but the shape of the earth, and the names of cities, states, provinces, countries, and continents belong to no man or corporate entity)
  • Jumping one piece over another and landing in an adjacent space in line on the other side (draughts, Dai Hasami Shogi, countless others)
  • Capturing a piece by moving into the same space on the board (Chess, countless others)
  • Stacking pieces to indicate rank (draughts)
  • Having various pieces with different roles, movement or capturing rules (Chess, Shogi, draughts variants such as Dablot Prejessne, countless others)

In addition, if a game mechanic was first shown in a game more than 20 years old, and the mechanic was patented, the patent has almost certainly expired and is now in the public domain as well. If it was developed and widely used more than 20 years ago, but never patented, you can generally make the same claim. Until 2011, patent law was based on a doctrine of "first to invent", meaning that if you could prove someone else had the idea first, you could get any patent filed after that date invalidated in court. This is what happened to Apple when it sued Microsoft for infringements of patented design elements of Apple's Mac OS; it turned out that Apple had first gotten the ideas from Xerox, who was therefore the "first to invent" and Apple's patents were void.

However, patents filed since 2011 are based on a "first to file" doctrine, meaning that in order to invalidate a patent, you have to prove the idea was overtly released to the public domain prior to the filing date, and so simply proving someone else thought of it first is insufficient; you must prove that they thought of it and made some overt action releasing the IP for general use. If all of the Apple and Microsoft startup stuff had happened in the last 10 years, and Apple v. Microsoft were to be heard this year, Microsoft would be in a world of hurt because Xerox, who never patented the ideas they let Apple use, would have nothing to say about Apple having filed the patents. So, if it's a relatively novel game mechanic, seen for the first time in a game released in the last couple of years, be very careful.

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