Black Friday weekend 2017, I bought a copy of Pandemic Legacy Season 1 from Amazon UK for £39.99.
For a game with an RRP of £65 and which normally retails somewhere in the £50s, that’s a good deal – but not really something out of the realms of what you’d expect for Black Friday.
It was a technically a Christmas present from my wife, so didn’t get opened until the very end of December.
The game was fun, as we’d expected, but the component quality was a bit poor.
For one thing, the sticker sheets were really badly punched – either you’d peel a stick, and the corner would tear as it tried to bring the sticker next to it along for the ride, or else the backing would come away with the sticker, leaving a hole in the sheet, and a sticker that was really hard to peel.
The Legacy deck, which drives the changes over the course of the campaign, was back-to-front, and with the cards in reverse order.
The disease cubes, which are plastic in this day and age (my copy of Pandemic is old enough to have wooden cubes) had sharp corners, often with bits of excess plastic hanging off.
As we opened the Legacy boxes, there were various new tokens – I won’t spoil what they all do, but it was noticeable that most of them were printed in quite a wonky fashion (certainly not centred, in some cases bits of the design actually stuck off the end of the token and on to the punchboard), and they generally weren’t perforated well, meaning they were hard to pop out, and often left trails of ripped paper.
I wondered whether it was to do with the fact that this was a Legacy game – components being done on the cheap because they weren’t going to get used that much (and because by the time you got to those components, you were going to be too invested in the campaign to return the game). I was certainly going to flag it up as a negative in any reviews/articles I did.
Then, as I was browsing Board Game Geek, I happened to stumble across this thread – “Asmodee Execs on Counterfeiting: 70% of some games counterfeit.”
I’ll talk a bit more about the article below (or you can just click the link and read it), but the main gist reading the article, and the BGG commentary was this –
- More and more fakes are coming out of China.
- Some of them are remarkably convincing.
- Fakes are mostly an issue on the most popular/high volume titles
- Small unknown retailers are a common place to find dodgy copies, but so are third party sellers through Amazon or other reputable sites.
You don’t need to be a genius to figure out my next thought: was my copy a fake?
I went on to the Pandemic Legacy Forums, described the situation, and was pointed to this thread. A whole host of people who had bought from Amazon 3rd party sellers at the end of last year, and found themselves with bootleg copies. Specifically, I found a post from a guy who had photographed his fake copy alongside the matching components from the real replacement he received. Mine looked exactly like the ones on the left – it was a fake.
I was shocked. More shocked, I think, than I realised at first. In a long time spent gaming, this just wasn’t something I’d ever encountered before.
The first thing I did was to contact Amazon. I spoke to someone in Customer Service, who advised me to return the game, and that they would issue a refund. On one level, that was fine, but it was a slightly disappointment insofar as knowing that I wasn’t going to be able to but a replacement copy for the same price. The Amazon rep assured me that if the investigation team agreed it was a fake, they would provide me with a replacement at the same price, with Amazon taking the hit on the difference.
When to return?
For a ‘normal’ game, it would have been as simple as putting this in the post the next day. For Pandemic Legacy though, there were significant campaign implications.
Part of me wanted to rush through to the end of the campaign. Obviously, I wouldn’t normally ‘finish’ a legacy game then return it, but knowing I’d been sold a fake, I was much less concerned about this than I would otherwise be.
That said, I didn’t know how much the “investigation team” would know about the game – if it came back with all the boxes and windows open, would they refuse to refund/replace, even though it was a fake?
As I mentioned above, I was hoping for a full refund straight away, but with the possibility of a replacement copy coming later (assuming the Amazon investigation confirmed it was a fake). Should I meticulously record every detail of the campaign so far? Or should I write this campaign off, and start a new one if I ever found myself in possession of a proper copy in the future.
In the end, I decided to play a few more sessions, but not to go all the way into November/ December.
Return to Sender
I dropped the box off at a local newsagent who take parcels for Amazon’s designated courier. It took 2 days for them to collect the parcel, followed by another 6 where the parcel was simply “in network for return” before it finally reached Amazon.
The following day I got my refund.
By this time, I was fairly well-reconciled to the idea of getting my money back. I’m glad to have sampled Legacy, but ultimately this was never going to have the legs of its standalone cousins and, having essentially got a dozen games of it for free, I was quite happy to call it a day at that point.
Questioning the Nature of Reality
I want to return though, to the broader question of counterfeit games.
I play a lot of board games, including a lot of new games. The same week I opened Pandemic Legacy, I also started playing Rising Tide.
Side-by-side, the differences in component quality are obvious, Legacy was clearly a fake. However, it simply never occurred to me that someone would fake something that complex, with that many moving parts. I saw it as shoddy, but not as fake.
The consensus (so far as there is one) online seems to be that these are probably “3rd shift prints” – i.e. the factory who made the real games, is already set up with all the images/moulds etc, and makes another batch. However for this batch, they use cheaper quality materials, they aren’t bothered with any extra time-consuming activities (like spinning to round and smooth the corners), and they’re using moulds etc that are knackered after having made however-many-thousand real copies first. I can’t prove any of that, but it seems the most likely explanation for how something with this many different bits could be faked.
Now, obviously there are people out there who are more observant than me, or more suspicious, but how many people will have received something like this who aren’t Board Game experts, and will simply assume that this is the standard of things.
The interview on Board Game Geek was with Christian Petersen and Steve Horvath, who are the CEO and CMO of Asmodee North America, the company who now own Fantasy Flight, Z-Man, Days of Wonder, as well as the Catan series formerly owned by Mayfair Games. They also own Esdevium who were historically the main UK distributor for Board Games (since the start of 2018, they now trade as Asmodee UK).
They describe the problem as possibly “Existential” for hobby gaming, estimating a loss of $5-10 million per year, and saying that up to 70% of online sales for some games last year may be fakes.
Some of the issues are obvious – it’s illegal to make fake games, and it means that money isn’t going to the designers and publishers who most of us are relying on to create the next batch or great games we all want to play.
Some hadn’t struck me, but are pretty obvious once mentioned – health and safety, quality control. If Ned starts sucking a component from an authentic game, there’s a whole load of legislation which has been followed to make sure it’s not covered in lead-based paint etc, etc. chances are that the knock-off copies are rather less concerned with this.
Fraudulent Chickens? Or Over-priced Eggs?
One point that the Asmodee execs made in their interview was that the cheap counterfeit games make life difficult for people selling the authentic ones. Unsurprisingly, you can sell Chinese knock-offs for a lot less than it costs to make a living selling the real things.
For Asmodee, it’s pretty clear that the bad guys are the ones selling the bootleg games, and the victims are the people trying to sell at ‘normal’ prices. After all £55 for a big modern board-game rammed full of nice components seems pretty reasonable until someone else offers you one for £30, right?
There was a surprising amount of dissent in the forums, people who wanted to paint Asmodee as the villains. The main source of this discontent seems to be something called the MAP – Minimum Advertised Price.
Essentially, you aren’t allowed to sell an Asmodee game online below a certain threshold. (I think it’s typically RRP -20%) the stated intention of this policy is to stop online retailers from undercutting the bricks-and-mortar LGS to the point where they cease to be viable. However, it’s generated a lot of anger from people who historically bought the vast majority of their games online during sales, and rarely paid anything above RRP -30%. These people argue that game piracy is the symptom, and that the cause is Asmodee forcing prices up. Essentially, they say the guy asking £55 is ripping you off. Beyond that, there were people saying that Asmodee are in fact responsible for the rise of piracy by creating a window in which the counterfeiters can operate – before, when everyone could discount to shift surplus stock, or simply as a loss-leader, counterfeiting wasn’t economically worthwhile, but now –the argument goes – they know that the legit product will never fall beneath a certain threshold, and that gives them space to operate in.
So who’s right? Is that even a question that’s possible to answer?
Board Games certainly cost a lot more than they used to. I think that’s fairly clear.
This can happen in a number of ways – for one thing, many new titles cost more than old ones: Pandemic Legacy Season 1 – RRP £64.99, Pandemic Legacy Season 2 – RRP £81.99. At the same time, the same game over time will gradually increase in cost. I don’t have access to the RRP of a brand new copy of Ticket to Ride over the past decade, but I’d be fairly confident that it wasn’t the £40 ish it is now when it first came out.
Selling bigger and bigger games, with more and more components to gamers with bigger appetites is one way of explain inflation. Raw materials increasing in costs is another.
Most games are made in China, and given how many more of them there are than 10 or 20 years ago, it seems fairly likely that Chinese factories can charge more to the companies wanting their services, simply because of demand.
For UK customers, the long-term decline of the Pound against the Dollar (or the Euro) is another big factor – Sterling and Dollar prices tend to be a lot closer number-wise than they used to be.
Keeping it personal
I can’t comment with any authority on why other people do the things they do, but I guess I can take a look at myself.
I don’t approve of counterfeit games. I don’t want them in this hobby. I’m not going to be letting Ned anywhere near most of my games for a while, because he’d chew the components, and that’s going to be bad for him and the game.
However, as a father, I want to know that if there ever is an accident, the thing he gets his grubby mitts on is compliant with all that safety legislation, and isn’t made from sharp-edged lead.
As a gamer, I want gamers who design cool games to make enough money doing so that they keep bringing out more new games.
That said, I’m not a fan of spending more money than I have to. If I’d thought about it, I could have remembered that Z-Man are now part of Asmodee, and worked out that they couldn’t be selling Pandemic Legacy for £40. Instead, I saw a deal and I took it.
I want value from my games. But that needs to be tempered with realism. It’s quite rare that I get new games from anywhere besides Games Quest or the FLGS, but when I do, I need to be extra-careful.
For anyone who buys games from Amazon more frequently, I’d recommend keeping an eye out. If you spot an offer, especially from a 3rd-party seller that seems too good to be true, stop to consider the possibility that maybe it is. I’ve seen plenty of comments along the line of “I don’t care about the reduced quality if it’s so much cheaper” – I’d just ask you to think about the wider cost.
I would love for games to be cheaper than they are, and I don’t doubt that Asmodee is making healthy profits. However, my desire to shave a bit off of those profits in my favour is less than my desire to make sure we keep fake games out of this hobby.
If you find a fake, please report it. It is, after all, a criminal offence, and you could potentially be getting something dangerous.