There’s been some news about game mechanics not being protected by copyright. (Thanks, Problem Machine!) It’s curious to me, because I thought that game mechanics were patented. And then, not very often, because we want more games, not fewer, even if they have similarities.

One of the most egregious examples of a game mechanic patent is the arrow in Crazy Taxi (which points you where to go) patented by Sega, which they defended in courts and why Sega is regarded by game developers as a petty, spiteful, insecure company we don’t like much.

Similarly, Wizards of the Coast patented the collectable card game and the Tap first used in Magic, the Gathering.

I’m not very interested in developing CCGs (though I should be. It’s a super-effective, if unethical, way to manipulate people into paying you lots of money.) But I am interested in the Tap, considering that it is a modest improvement of what are otherwise obvious game mechanics. Supposedly, obviousness precludes a patent, but there are many IP ideas that are patented and enforced on the unfortunate truth that big companies have lots of money to spend on litigation and small companies do not.

Soo… the Tap.

The Tap is a fancy mechanic for saying once per turn you may…[do a thing]. In Fleet & Federation, for example the Ship’s Doctor could, once per turn, prevent a person from dying. Similarly, the Chief Engineer could, once per turn, prevent the ship from exploding. Both were really thankful abilities to have when someone went the way of Redshirts, or the ship was getting blasted to debris.

For the sake of today’s discussion, we’ll say we want a card that delivers a Slice of Cake to the Queen. Her majesty is a fair ruler, but gets cranky without her Cake, and it is harder to achieve hypothetical victory in our hypothetical game when the Queen goes hypothetically cakeless. The card we have in play assures that she gets her Cake once per turn, (player willing) which is hypothetically a good thing. In MtG the card would read: ↷: Put a Slice of Cake counter on Target Queen.. (You’ll have to imagine here that is the trademarked MtG Tap symbol.) In our hypothetical game it would say Once per turn, you may Serve a Slice of Cake to the Queen.

The Tap does slightly more than once per turn you may…. MtG is a game about manipulating game effects to create results greater than the sum of their parts (sometimes even including self-perpetuating recursions!) and so it breaks the mechanic down into a number of components that can be affected:

The card has a defined ability, in this case, to Serve a Slice of Cake to the Queen.

The Queen doesn’t get all the cake she wants, but only when the player wants her to have it, and then once per turn. Hence it needs to be activated by the player, by paying the cost. We’ll call this an Action. No Action, no Cake for the Queen, unhappy Queen. Without an action, though, the card doesn’t help much for the Queen’s cakeless state, so…

The card also can generate an Action, triggered by the player, an ability reset at the beginning of the turn. MtG features an Untap Phase at the beginning of a player’s turn in which all his cards untap. The implication of this is that every card can generate an action. Actions don’t accumulate, nor can they be transferred from one card to another. (But see below!)

As a matter of convention, a card that has been expended to produce an action is turned sideways. Some people use other means to indicate an expended (tapped) state (e.g. stones of a designated type placed on the card).

All this for Once per turn you may… just so the Queen can get some Cake.

All these delineated conventions get useful once you have other cards that interact with each of them. For instance:

A card ability that can be activated by tapping other cards. (Tap any other service card to Fire the Cannon)

A card ability that can untap cards you’ve already tapped. (Discard a card to Untap a service card. The Queen gets two Slices of Cake today!)

Cards that depend on cards like the one above. (This card doesn’t Untap during the Untap Phase.)

Cards that depend on card states. (Each player draws a card for every Untapped service card they own.)

And so on… These can get pretty durned useful for creating a game that focuses on card interaction. And without such cardplay, Once per turn you may… works just fine.

Now the patent is registered as one big-giant object. I don’t know if a tapping-style mechanic used independently of a CCG is protected (or WoTC would feel the need to defend their patent because of one). Some interpretations of this patent are that it only protects CCGs that have enough of these mechanics to be considered too similar. The state of IP law in the US is so obtuse that it’s possible that patent lawyers and judges don’t know, and a ruling may entirely depend on what judge makes the ruling. My efforts may also be saved by the goodwill of WoTC. It takes a lot to make a game and WOTC is a house of designers that knows this, that if I’m left to make my games, and they’re adequately unique, then what I don’t have to pay back, I get to pay forward.

That is to say, if the nice people at WoTC will allow me to see further by standing on their shoulders, I’ll be more inclined to let others see further on mine.

Because, you know, the Queen needs her Cake.

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