Startups Battle Over Who Invented Risk-Like War Game First

Many college students (but few others) will recognize the Risk-like game known as Turf that pits thousands of students against each other in a weeks-long online wargame that is similar to the board game Risk, but uses the college campus as the map.

What started off as a for-fun experiment by Yale student Gabe Smedresman in January 2007 resulted in a game that went on for over a month and involved over 3,300 Yale students (more than 25% of the student body).

But now that original game of Turf has spawned two separate and funded startups to push the game as a business. Smedresman joined with Harvard students Andrew Fong, Matt O’Brien, and Hugo Van Vuuren to found Kirkland North, a Y Combinator backed startup (screen shot of their game is above). Meanwhile, a rival company has launched that was founded by some of the players of Smedresman’s original game, called GoCrossCampus.

A New York Times article today written by Brad Stone profiles GoCrossCampus and suggested the founders invented the game and said “The game, a riff on classic territorial-conquest board games like Risk, may be the next Internet phenomenon to emerge from the computers of college students.” There was no mention of Kirkland North or Smedresman’s original work in that article.

Kirland North contacted the NYT, they say, to set the record straight. Stone then wrote a new article on the NYT’s Bits blog with the additional information supplied by Kirkland North.

The Kirkland North guys are obviously irate over what they see as a blatant rip-off of their idea. In a phone conversation, Van Vuuren said that the GoCrossCampus guys are not engineers and had to outsource the development of the game, using Turf as a guide. The code base is inferior, he said, and of the 20 games that have been run on the GoCrossCampus platform, half have had technical failures (GoCrossCampus has not yet responded to my request for comment) (Update: see below). Van Vuuren says their platform is stable and has had no problems in the six games they’ve run since last year. A recent Stanford game, he says, had 2,500 players, with more than 1/3 of undergraduates playing.

And there is yet more drama – the original NYT’s article on GoCrossCampus had a prominent quote from Google product manager Jonathan Rochelle, who “views it as similar to software like Google Calendar and Google Docs — tools that enhance real-world collaboration,” and “Next month, Google will bring GoCrossCampus to its New York office, pitting sales departments against engineering groups over a map of the company’s Manhattan campus.”

But it turns out that Gabe Smedresman is actually a full time Google employee. The fact that Google is planning to run his rivals’ game at their New York office must not sit well with him at all.

Of course, Hasbro, the owners of the original Risk game, will have something to say about the real inventor of the game, so neither company may have much moral ground beneath their feet.

See also our coverage of Kdice, a simple synchronous multiplayer version of Risk.

Update: I spoke to a somewhat bewildered GoCrossCampus co-founder Brad Hargreaves (who’s currently on spring break). He says that the GoCrossCampus code base was developed completely separately from the original Turf game, and that they made repeated offers to Smedresman to join their founding team, which he declined. He also says that at the time they spoke to the New York Times, which was last month, they had no idea Smedresman intended to start his own rival startup. Hargreaves also disputes KirklandNorth’s assertion that the GoCrossCampus founders aren’t engineers – two of the founders are engineers, he says. Finally, Hargreaves says that their technical hiccups were all in the first two games that they ran; all subsequent games, he says, have run smoothly.