Small board game publishers harassed by international counterfeiters

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.
Counterfeit copies of Kelp shipped out with repurposed mahjong tiles and a Lego shark, but without a manual or several other vital components needed to actually play the game.
Photo: Wonderbow

“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.
Wingspan includes tokens, plastic trays, and even wooden bird eggs. Over the last few years counterfeiters have tried their hand at reproducing all of it.
Photo: Nicole Carpenter/Polygon

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.
Leder Games’ Oath: Chronicles of Empire and Exile includes a bunch of hard-to-reproduce custom wooden bits.
Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

“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 underground.