In the US, you can patent a method of playing a game. Whereas, in most other countries (e.g. Europe, US, China, India, South Africa, Australia, Brazil and Russia), you should couple your rules with a unique board layout or unique playing pieces.
Nearly every popular board game today was "patented" by:
merely describing the board game elements (e.g. Cluedo, Scrabble, Monopoly (original patent), Sorry and Twister);
merely describing how the game is played (e.g. Pictionary, Battleship and Monopoly (later patent)); or
describing the board game elements and their function in the game (e.g. Mastermind).
Examples of granted board game patents:
GB586817 "Improvements in board games" protects "Apparatus for playing an indoor game including:
a flat board defining: (i) smaller areas, and (ii) subdivisions connecting the smaller areas,
unique movable pieces movable between the smaller areas along the subdivisions,
unique tokens, and
a pack of playing cards containing:
(i) a suit associated with the movable pieces,
(ii) another suit associated with the smaller areas, and
(iii) a third suit associated with the movable tokens."
US2752158 "Game apparatus" protects:
"a flat playing board defining a playing surface divided into small areas that include:
a primary value indicia within the small area, and
a secondary value indicia (having the same value as the primary value indicia) projecting laterally from the small area; and
unique playing pieces sized to cover a small area completely, concealing the primary value indicia but not the secondary value indicia."
MONOPOLY (original patent)
US748626 "Board game" protected "A game-board, provided with:
intervening spaces of different denominations, some of the spaces of the different series corresponding, and distinguished by coloring or other marking, so that the corresponding spaces in the different divisions may be recognised; and
a series of movable pieces having reference to the different divisions upon the board. "
US1903661 "Appliance for playing games" protected "A game apparatus including a game board having:
the marginal edge marked to define a track divided into squares,
each side of the board adjacent the track having a marked outline to receive playing units, and serve as a starting point for each unit,
each side of the board adjacent the track having an additional track extending parallel to one side trackway and at right angles to the adjacent side trackway,
the additional track having plain communication with the right angle portion of the trackway and being divided to form squares and terminating in an enlarged space,
the trackway at each edge of the board further having a supplemental trackway of relatively narrow width and extending throughout a predetermined number of squares of the trackway,
the supplemental trackway providing for a particular playing function in connection with the units reaching the supplemental trackway. "
US3454279 "Apparatus for playing a game wherein the players constitute the game pieces" protected "Game playing apparatus comprising a sheet defining:
a confined playing area,
columns of loci delineated on the playing area, the loci being of such size and spacing as to permit the placing of different portions of the human anatomy on different loci,
different groups of loci being of different colours,
a chance controlled selection device comprising: (i) a spinner board bearing indicia designating different group colours and different portions of the human anatomy, and (ii) a spinner or pointer pivotally mounted centrally on the board and adapted to be spun and then allowed to come to rest to select indicia designating a group colour and a portion of the human anatomy."
US7887058 "Methods of playing drawing games" protected "A method of playing a drawing game comprising:
providing an electronic game system;
playing rounds in order to determine a winner of the drawing game, wherein the successful completion of a predetermined amount of rounds determines the winner of the drawing game;
each round comprising the steps of:
providing a word to a first player;
initiating a timer of the electronic game system;
sketching, by the first player after initiation of the timer, clues to the word by providing sequential inputs on a drawing input device of the electronic game system to create portions of a drawing on a display of the electronic game system while a second player by observing the drawing on the display, attempts to identify the word, wherein the electronic game system begins to erase the portions of the drawing on the display corresponding to the sequential inputs in the order in which the sequential inputs were provided, after a first predetermined time period after initiation of the timer; and
providing an award based on whether the second player correctly identifies the word before the timer runs to a second predetermined time period, after initiation of the timer, wherein the first predetermined time period is less than the second predetermined time period, and wherein the award is used to determine if the round has been successfully completed."
US1988301 "Game board" protected:
"A game board adapted to be positioned upright between two players and provided with two groups of perforations,
an enclosure for a series of the perforations in one of the groups on one face of the board, and arbitrarily positioned by each play for providing an unseen target for the opponent, and
pins adapted to be inserted through the perforations from the opposite side of the board in the playing of the game."
MONOPOLY (later patent):
US2026082 "Board game apparatus" protected:
"A game board with marked spaces providing a continuous path extending about the board, the adjacent spaces on each side of the board forming a group, with the spaces within each group being distinguished by position or colour, and each group differing from the other groups; and
indications of spaces’ occupancy rentals by opponent players, wherein the rentals are increased by acquisition of additional spaces of the same group."
Get a Patent Pending Number in 5 steps:
enter the applicant's name and address;
enter the inventor's name;
upload a document describing your board game elements, rules and method of playing the game; and
Your Patent Pending Number application will be filed with an official Patent Office in a country that is a signatory to the Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property.
Your Patent Pending Number document will be maintained secret by the Patent Office and is not subject to any examination. We also sign a confidentiality undertaking.
Within a business day of filing, we will send you a Patent Pending Number … guaranteed. This official Patent Pending Number is effective in 177 countries (including the EU, US, Russia, China, India, Australia, South Africa, Brazil, …). Upon receipt of the Patent Pending Number, you are free to publish / market / sell your board game, proudly marked "PATENT PENDING".
A Patent Pending Number will reserve your right to file patents in 177 countries for 12 months and, during this period, deter competitors from "copying" your board game.
What to include in the document for upload?
the game board layout;
each playing piece;
the rules of your game; and
how a "round" is played.
Tip: explain how the players, playing pieces (e.g. dice, figurines, tokens, etc), game board and cards "interact".
Finally, include drawings / photographs of your game board, cards and playing pieces.
In 12 months' time, you will need to file a complete patent application ‐ likely, an international / PCT patent application. When doing so, you can revise your description and refine your drawings (i.e. include further game developments since getting your Patent Pending Number). A patent attorney will likely assist in drafting this complete patent specification. But, for now, you are able to take the first step yourself at low cost.