Profiles in IP Law

A Discussion with Pete Fenlon of Mayfair Games

©2015. Published in Landslide, Vol. 7, No. 4, March/April 2015, by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association or the copyright holder.

Tell us a bit about your background, and how you came to work in your current position.

I’m a military brat, born in Japan and raised in many places on three continents. I attended the University of Virginia, where I studied history and anthropology. After working for two years, I went to the Marshall-Wythe School of Law at the College of William & Mary. While a first-year law student, I founded my first game company, Iron Crown Enterprises (ICE), which published role playing products and other adventure games. We were best known for our “Middle Earth” and “Rolemaster” brands. ICE bought Mayfair Games in 1997. I then became chairman of Mayfair but remained active as ICE’s president. We closed ICE in 2000, and I formed an alternate reality game (ARG) development house—Steel Rain Studio—first devoted to the creation of a viral marketing ARG promoting A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, Steven Spielberg’s 2001 film. Steel Rain combined with the old Kesmai Games crew to form Castle Hill Studios, and I stayed in ARG and other types of software development until 2007. I then returned to Mayfair Games as CEO.

Tell us the history of Mayfair Games.

Mayfair Games was founded in Illinois in 1981, and has become the largest “independent” board and card game manufacturer in the United States. Our highly acclaimed “Catan” brand, also known as The Settlers of Catan and related titles, is one of the best-selling game brands in the world. Mayfair and its license partners have sold over 20 million Catan products, and the brand is still growing. Besides the 70+ titles in our Mayfair series, we also publish Funfair and Lookout brand games.

How does Mayfair acquire the board games it publishes—e.g., designed in-house by employees vs. acquired/licensed direct from designers vs. licensed from other companies?

While we do some in-house design—notably the Catan games created by one of my partners, Klaus Teuber—we are primarily a game developer and publisher. Most designs originate with independent designers and a few design studio partners, such as Studio Giochi, Treefrog Games, etc. With rare exception, we take no unsolicited designs. We also copublish English-language versions of joint publications, partnering with our dozen or so foreign market publisher allies.

What is the typical process for taking a board game from conception/design through publication and distribution? How might that process differ from other creative works?

Games require testing by a wide variety of folks, so we vet prototype designs in our Charlottesville, Virginia, development studio; our Plant City, Florida, sales office; our Ann Arbor, Michigan, community support office; in our two German studios; and/or at our Skokie, Illinois, HQ. Should we select a game, we begin development by deriving feedback from these diverse groups. We may attach a new “story” to the game mechanisms (a.k.a. marrying a new story to the puzzle). Then, we commission art through a network of independent fine artists or, in the case of Lookout Games, we have an in-house artist. All design management and in-house graphic development flow out of our Virginia development studio. Purchasing is managed out of our HQ. Most manufacturing occurs in the United States—rules, box wraps, and boxes in Illinois; cards in Texas; plastic trays in Wisconsin; die-cut playing pieces in Indiana; wood bits in Ohio; etc.—but our dice come from the United Kingdom or Denmark, and specialty plastics come from Hong Kong and the United Kingdom. We manufacture some select products in Asia, others in Germany.

How do you protect your games from clones and knock-offs?

Obviously, we must police our intellectual property, protect our market partners, and support our consumer community. We often work with trade partners, licensees, etc. where appropriate. Most distribution channels offer support, especially in Europe, Oceania, and North America.

What is your experience with fan-made expansions or adjunct materials (e.g., player aids)?

We offer fair and simple licensing to those attempting to create commercial derivatives that might dilute or otherwise harm our intellectual property. Most fans respect this process. Where satire or fair use is in play, we respect their rights. Whatever the case, we endeavor to communicate, listen, and offer practical solutions.

Does Mayfair explore the patentability of any of its board games?

We usually lean on our many trademarks, copyrights, and other intellectual property. We rarely depend on patents. They are expensive, short-lived, and attach to truly novel processes and methods.

What kinds of intellectual property issues do you encounter that you think are unique to board games?

Board games contain packaging, artwork, and text that offer ample opportunities to create legal protection. Our copyright and trademark intellectual property is sturdy stuff. On the other hand, intellectual property protects the manifestation of ideas. You cannot own the underlying idea. There are many ways to creatively skin a game component and reconfigure ideas, so the challenges are great when you’re dealing with a creative and talented core community. Powerful computers, 3D printers, and swift access to uncaring global suppliers complicate things. We see nearly 1,000 games hit market every year as of late, so the white noise is growing and it’s hard to police every niche in every market.

Does Mayfair create, or commission or license the creation of, digital/online versions of its board games? If so, what sorts of issues do you encounter in that regard?

Yes. We license and/or codevelop select digital products. They offer the community good, generally mobile, solo play. For multiplayer games, they offer flexibility in both time and space. Portions of our community will not or cannot practically play analog games. Regarding issues, these games usually require great artificial intelligence (AI), great user interfaces, easy connectivity, simple compact presentation, and solid, dependable client-server communications. Then there is a whole new network of distribution and communities. Marketing, product, and community support make brand development and support challenging without good partners. Still, here is a set of challenges that, when met, offer us wondrous storytelling and brand-building opportunities.

What is your favorite aspect of working in this industry?

Our very curious, creative, and generally kind community of players, designers, developers, and artisans. It’s an industry of interactive storytellers. We love fun and embrace our inner “kid.”

What advice would you give to someone interested in developing board games?

Love what you do, study hard, work harder, persevere, and never forget that our community deserves good content.