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Following Trademark Conflict, Knizia Says Farewell to Ingenious and Introduces AXIO

W. Eric Martin
United States
North Carolina
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Board Game Designer
In November 2016, designer Reiner Knizia tweeted this:

Few people noticed the tweet, including me (despite the BGG Twitter account following him), but Knizia überfan László Molnár did notice and asked: "Why the rename?"

Rename indeed for if you visit online gaming site Triqqy, you will discover a listing for AXIO Hexagonal, the rules of which will be familiar to anyone who's played Knizia's award-winning game Ingenious, which debuted to great acclaim in 2004 from German publisher KOSMOS under the name Einfach Genial and which in all likelihood would have taken home the Spiel des Jahres award that year if Ticket to Ride hadn't hit the market in the same timeframe.

So why the rename? Because of this trademark filing in September 2016 by Sophisticated Games:

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Yes, while we might think of KOSMOS as the originating publisher of Ingenious, the actual publisher of origin (contractually speaking) is Sophisticated Games as Knizia had signed a license with them for the game design, and Sophisticated Games subsequently licensed the game to KOSMOS and other publishers. The trademark on its own was not the problem, though. As Knizia told me via Skype, "I had a very good relationship with Sophisticated Games for a long time. Then came a demand that if I wanted to use the name 'Ingenious' for my game, I should pay Sophisticated Games a royalty. Sometimes trademarks are registered by the publisher and sometimes by the designer, but to have this used in an internal relationship is outrageous. To register the trademark without my knowledge is not very nice."

I asked Robert Hyde, managing director at Sophisticated Games, about this claim for royalty payments, and he answered: "I cannot discuss any confidential matters between Sophisticated Games and Dr. Knizia with a third party. I am sure you will understand that." (Editor's note: I've added a follow-up note from Hyde at the bottom of this post that he sent after publication. —WEM)

As for the filing of the trademark itself, Hyde explained that "Sophisticated Games has long held the UK trademark on Ingenious and the filing of a US mark in addition is just an extension of that process concurrent with our moving to a different distribution partner in the USA as from January 1st this year." Fantasy Flight Games was the most recent publisher of Ingenious in the U.S., with an edition released in 2012, but Thames & Kosmos — the North American branch of KOSMOS — has announced a new edition of the game due out in the U.S. in 2017 with a new graphic design and a new plastic game board.

Board Game: Ingenious
Hyde added, "NB: Sophisticated Games owns the exclusive publishing rights to the Ingenious family of games in all countries and languages, regardless of trademarks, and has done so since first publication in 2004. The game was first published under the name of Mensa back then, but we subsequently changed it to Ingenious."

Knizia confirms that the game was originally named Mensa following its design — and an edition was released under that name (or Mensa Connections, depending on whether you view that secondary word as part of the title) in 2004 by Sophisticated Games. KOSMOS didn't think the Mensa organization had enough of a following in Germany to merit using that name, so the publisher brainstormed new names and ended up with "Einfach Genial", with that name coming courtesy of a television program with the same name that has run on television network MDR since 1996. It's from "Einfach Genial" that most of the other names (Ingenious, Genial, Genius, Helt genialt!, Просто гениально, インジーニアス, etc.) under which this design has been published originate.

How did Sophisticated Games end up with the ability to trademark Ingenious? Knizia explained to me that while his contracts normally detail the use of a name, his first contract with SG was for Lord of the Rings, his ground-breaking cooperative game based on the fantasy series from J. R. R. Tolkien, and since that design was for a licensed title with a well-known name, Knizia had no say over the game title in that contract. When he later signed with SG for Mensa, apparently they used a similar contract, so once again the issue of the name was left out of his hands.

However the name originated, Knizia says that the idea of paying a royalty to use it "is immoral and damaging for the business", the reverse of the normal relationship between publisher and author. "I'm not going to promote a situation in which I lose ownership," he says, "so as far as I can, I'll rename the games. Electronically I've already done that, with Triqqy and with other outlets." (United Soft Media still lists Ingenious as being available for Windows, iOS, and Android devices.)

While Hyde claims exclusive board game publishing rights to the Ingenious family of games, Knizia says that he has "the rights back for some of the games in the family", and he plans to get them to market under the new AXIO brand when possible. Why the name "AXIO"? "It was important to find a name that isn't an insult in any language," Knizia jokes. "More importantly, we want something which can stand globally that isn't too complicated as well as something that represents the spirit of the family." While he can't vouch for the insult-free nature of "AXIO", Knizia makes a case for it letter by letter, with each of them being fundamentally simple and akin to the symbols in the game: a triangle, a cross, a line, and a circle. What's more, he could file a trademark on it himself. "It's not going to go step on anyone else's toes."

As best as he could, Knizia says that he's tried to put a positive spin on this development. "This family of games is published under seventeen different names. In our global world, that's not always the best approach to promote a brand. Now that we're moving to one name, and the only name I'll promote, it will become easier to promote the brand. I'll develop the brand and add new games to the family." Knizia has already debuted AXIO Octagonal on Triqqy, with gameplay being nearly identical to Ingenious/AXIO Hexagonal except that the game board is octagonal, the domino-shaped tiles feature one or two of eight symbols (instead of six), and the maximum score for a symbol is 13, with players receiving a bonus turn when a symbol reaches that level.

"The point is you can be angry about it or disappointed about it, but that doesn't help," says Knizia. "It's a great family of games. In the long run, the game will be there and merge to this [new] name. To take this opportunity to grow the brand, I have developed a new flagship title for AXIO and that will be shown by Pegasus Spiele" at the Spielwarenmesse game fair in Nürnberg, Germany in February 2017. Knizia explains that AXIO plays similarly to the original design, but is "more modern and more accessible", with a 3D element to the gameplay. "I see Pegasus as my lead partner for AXIO. They will carry it not only in Germany but worldwide, and as new games are added to the brand, they will be added by Pegasus."

Knizia stresses that he has no grievance with KOSMOS or any other publisher of Ingenious: "This was not done at KOSMOS' initiative. They are good partners." As for Sophisticated Games, Knizia says, "My intention is not to wash their laundry in the public. My main purpose is to explain what I'm doing and why I'm doing it. I will accept [this situation], but I will not promote it."

He adds, "The wonderful thing about our industry is that we do cooperate on games and share ideas. Sometimes it's a tough business, but it's an honest, fair business, and because everyone knows one another, the black sheep are identified quickly..."

From gallery of Photodump


Update, Monday, Jan. 30: Christian Beiersdorf, managing director of Spiele-Autoren-Zunft (the German game designer association commonly abbreviated SAZ), has issued the following statement on this topic:

World renowned game designer Dr. Reiner Knizia, a member of the Game Designers Association, informed us that he will continue the family of games known by titles such as EINFACH GENIAL or INGENIOUS under the new brand name AXIO. This is motivated by a legal dispute with Sophisticated Games in England, the licensor of some of his publishing rights, who have registered the former title for themselves and from whom Kosmos, and its software publisher USM, have sublicensed the German language rights.

The dispute mainly arises from Sophisticated Games' demands towards the designer to pay licence fees if he wanted to use the former title in publishing forms which are not covered by their licence agreement. Dr. Reiner Knizia perceives this demand as an "immoral and business damaging reversal of the usual Licensor-Licensee relationship". He strictly rejects any licence payments to his publisher in relation to the use of his own game.

The Game Designers Association (SAZ) equally condemns such demands. Such examples highlight the importance for authors to include respective clauses in their licence agreements. The title of a game — irrespective of whether it originates from the designer or from the publisher — should always be, and remain, an integral part of the game, as long as the title is not based on third-party rights (e.g. movie, book or character licences) or part of a series title of the publisher. This is particularly important if the publisher only licences partial publishing rights — restricted by territory or publishing form.

The change of the brand name will be accompanied by the addition of a new game to the family. The new flagship game of the AXIO series will be published by Pegasus Spiele and will be exhibited for the first time on the Nuremberg Toy Fair.

Update, Tuesday, Jan. 31: After the publication of this article, Robert Hyde, managing director at Sophisticated Games, sent me the following statement regarding this situation:

When BGG asked us last Friday to comment on some statements made by Reiner Knizia in a skype interview they had conducted with him, we said that that we did not comment on confidential contractual matters between us and our authors. We believe this to be a sound business principle as well as a legal obligation. So we were surprised to read the contents of this interview which you published yesterday.

The actual facts of the matter (but we will not disclose any contractual matters) are these:

1. The dispute regarding our asking Mr Knizia for a royalty concerns an app not a board game.

2. The app is Ingenious, which USM in Munich and ourselves in partnership have developed over the last seven years involving a considerable investment.

3. Last autumn we decided to withdraw from being a partner in the app because we judged that this was not our core business and that three royalty mouths to feed (Sophisticated Games, USM and Reiner Knizia) was probably one too many given the need for future investment in the app.

4. Therefore we decided to gift our share in this venture to Reiner. Not sell, even though we had invested a great deal of money in the app….gift. In good faith. The sole condition we attached was that he would only use the name Ingenious under license from us and pay us a nominal royalty. I think we all understand the meaning of “nominal”. We were not looking for any financial reward, but we were looking to safeguard our investment in the brand Ingenious.

5. What BGG readers were not told by RK was that the original board game was commissioned by Sophisticated Games from Reiner Knizia, the parameters of which were prescribed by us to be an abstract game to go with the brand of Mensa which we had previously acquired for use in boardgames. NB: The majority of games that we create are commissions. Lord of the Rings, Beowulf, The Hobbit and Ingenious. All of these are games that we commissioned from Reiner Knizia.

6. We invented the name Ingenious (after we had had little success with selling the game as Mensa) and we have vigorously promoted the game and the name- and its variants- throughout the world for over 12 years and made it the success that it now is.

7. We registered the trademark in the UK 6 years ago to protect the game from being copied by others. Trademarks are not infallible ways of protecting authors and publishers from copiers …..but they do help. Our filing of a US copyright in September was a part of the same process. We were asked by our new distributors whether we had protected the name Ingenious in the USA. It turned out that our last partner had not filed this protection, so we went ahead and filed. Following this filing and at the time that Mr Knizia was clearly objecting to our claims that we owned the brand for the app, we had eminent IP law firms on both sides of the Atlantic investigate our claim that we own the brand. They both agreed 100% with our own opinion in this matter. Mr Knizia has previously been shown the relevant parts of this written opinion.

I am sorry if the above will disappoint those parties wishing to see some kind of anti-author conspiracy, but as Mr Knizia knows, as he has been kind enough to point this out to us on many occasions over the years, we are a very transparent and pro author company and we have always, always, acted in good faith with him, and with the many other high profile games designers and leading board game publishers with whom we have worked over the last 19 years.
I had asked United Soft Media whether the "Ingenious" name would remain in use for its programs, and Michaela Schultheis with USM responded as follows: "Due to ongoing discussions and negotiations about the topic, at the moment we cannot publicly comment any further than Robert Hyde has already done this morning. However we'd like to stress the fact that we've successfully been working with all parties involved for years now and hope that the current situation can be resolved for the benefit of all parties."
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