Next up in my week of failure: My non-starter career as a map designer.
So, I like me some board games. A big welcome one in my house is Ticket to Ride, which is fun for people who are not big-time gamers (like most of the people I know, am related to, and live with).
TtR, as the cool kids call it, is a “route building” game, where players collect matching sets of cards to claim lengths of train track, thus connecting cities on a U.S. map and earning points. It’s a popular and influential game in the industry; it’s easy to play, with just enough decision making that it’s one of the pillars of the modern gaming era for the way it widened the appeal of board games to more and more casual players. It has spawned variants with European and Switzerland maps, so clearly it has a broad reach. My family likes this one, and I was content to play it and nothing more.
And then its publisher, a company called Days of Wonder, announced an open contest to create a map. The winner would get his custom map included in a planned map set, as well as a cool 10 grand in his pocket. Even without the money, I’m pretty sure this was going to be a hotly contested contest, because gamers are people with big ideas, and there’s not a one of us who doesn’t think he can draw up an awesome map for a game like this.
And so I did. I took it seriously. I daydreamed, I doodled, I output, I playtested. As I told my wife: “I don’t have a reasonable expectation of winning; but I have a reasonable expectation of being considered.” I entered the contest in April of this year … and I never heard so much as a toot-toot again. If my entry ever achieved the status of considered, it’s cold comfort now.
But you guys, it was gonna be so cool! First I considered the setting: What’s the kind of unique and exotic place one would want to see if you wanted a new Ticket to Ride experience? Historical settings came to mind, like the Old West or maybe the famous roads of ancient Rome. Then I hit upon an idea that I thought was gold (and which I now have assumed everyone else had, too): set the map in a fictional place!
As fun as it would be to imagine Frodo hopping the 3:10 to Mordor in Middle Earth, there remains the little problem of copyright. Which means sticking to fictional works in the public domain. Which covers many (but not all) books before 1923. What realm in those old books is rich enough to support a map of train-linked locations? Maybe the Oz books by Frank L. Baum … but then I reasoned, why choose just one location? Why not link all of the famous cities of literature in a mythical mishmash? That sounded like fun.
So I developed Ticket to Ride: Library. Entire genres of books would be divided into “countries” separated by mountains and rivers that required tunnels or ferries to link. To support the library theme, I brainstormed for a wide representation of the kinds of sections you’d find in a library, from obvious fictional realms to historical. For this last one, it felt a bit daft to link imaginary lands with real ones, but I settled on historical locations that exuded a bookish quality, from lost cities we can explore only in books (Pompeii and Roanoke Colony) to places best identified with legends and tales (Nottingham and Man in the Iron Mask‘s Chateau d’If).
I spent a full day in the library consulting the Dictionary of Imaginary Places. A great read even when you’re not designing a game.
A fat list of cities in hand, I sat down with some pencils and sketched something out. I used the same distribution of track colors and lengths as the original U.S. map, just to ensure I was starting from a place of balance. Here’s what I came up with.
So I put it to the computer. Using my hack-y Adobe Illustrator skills, I began to plot out this mix-and-match world. I quickly discovered that starting with a gridless sheet of paper was the biggest fiction of all, as I had given myself absolutely no quality control over fitting these pieces and parts together. Many things had to change on the fly, all while maintaining a playable balance of route lengths and colors.
When I was ready, I had Kinko’s output this map on 30 x 20 poster paper. Now we were working with a map at 100% of size, and it was time to playtest.
After dutiful testing, I recognized there were some rough patches. Some areas of the maps had too many long routes, and there weren’t enough short routes or “work arounds” for blockades by other players. I went back and played with it some more. Here’s where I ended before finally determining this map was not going to get called up to the big leagues:
By now, I renamed the game Ticket to Ride: Athenaeum, because I wanted to make it feel a bit more like a game, a little more playful. Athenaeum connotes an entire temple of learning (yet doesn’t sound quite so dry as that). I envisioned a game supplement that would act as a primer for the place-name origins, some of which are kind of obscure. (Did you know the “Cold Lairs,” are where the monkeys took the kidnapped Mowgli in The Jungle Book? What a sad-sounding place for such a primo Louis Prima tune.)
Here’s how I described it in the official entry (click to make readable):
I even suggested this game could licensed to a bookseller like Powell’s or B&N. “Consider the possibilities,” I wrote, “of TtR: Tattered Cover, or even TtR: Audible!”
According to contest rules, my entry had to fly forth without the actual map. If I could sell it on the entry form, they’d ask to see the rest. So to ensure it got opened and regarded, I gave it a snazzy jacket to grab the intern’s attention as he plodded through the buckets of mail:
The gaming masses may never be able to play my version, but at least I have my own little home grown kit I can make my children play any time I want. “All aboard, kids! Daddy’s got to make use of his investment of the time and money that went into his failed game design!”