Tag Archives: family games

Rejection Week: Trains to (literally) nowhere

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.

First edition map courtesy BoardGameGeek.com

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.

Handmade destination cards, with bitty maps so you can find what you need to connect. There's somethng diabolical about linking Mr. Toad and Dr. Moreau.

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:

Note how you need to build tunnels to places like Atlantis and King Solomon's Mines; meanwhile the differences between some genres are so steep (Juvenile and History, for instance), they are divided by mountains that must be tunneled through. Tunnel rules are borrowed from the Ticket to Ride: Europe.

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:

Note the "Read or Die" tattoo design from the novelty book "The Illustrated Librarian: 12 Temporary Tattoos for Librarians and Booklovers" from Accoutrements.

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!”

Follow ‘Em All!
Rejection Week Day One
Rejection Week Day Two
(Rejection Week Day Three)
Rejection Week Day Four
Rejection Week Day Five


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Forbidden Island: The game everyone everywhere must own. Now.

Run, run, RUN to your Barnes and Noble at once and buy the too-good-to-be-true game Forbidden Island before somebody wakes up and realizes what they’ve done.

There is no reason not to buy this game. Here are some major arguments for getting off your couch now and springing into action:

  1. It’s fun. Well duh. No game worth my recommendation would be anything else. More on this in a moment.
  2. It’s cheap. Fifteen bucks. $15. For a game with this many pretty, pretty components, a less-than-30 price tag is unheard of. Outrageous. It’s worthy of full-on, used-car-commercial promotion: “Low low low prices! How do we do it? I don’t know — it’s just crazy! No wonder they call me Crazy Vinnie!” From the sturdy cardboard cards to the amazing art to the miniatures of priceless artifacts, it’s just astounding how many awesome goodies made it into this tin.

    Go down the contents list: Four fancy "artifact" playing pieces, beautiful and sturdy cardboard tiles, wooden pawns, scads of cards and a nifty sliding-counter tool that measures rising flood waters. Oh, and joy -- that just doesn't show up on film.

  3. It’s easy to find. Every now and again Target surprises me by adding an unusual or hard-to-find game of quality to its wares, but that feels rarer and rarer these days as it descends into a soulless purgatory of Whack-a-Mole rip-offs and creaky Monopoly reskins. Usually, a game of this caliber would have to come from a specialty game store, which are hard enough to find as it is. But Barnes and Noble seems to have put the pedal to the metal on fine gaming recently. Their revamped Games section also carry such gamer’s games as Agricola, Dominion, and Settlers of Catan (about time this stealthy juggernaut reached the shores of mainstream stores).
  4. It’s co-operative. So many games pit me versus you, and that’s fine. But it’s a real gem to find a game that lets everybody in the family work together to defeat the game itself. We dither and dicker and barter about who will do what as tension mounts and the game races to defeat us. This means all ages can play, from my 6 to my 10 to us adults. A rare bird.
  5. It’s easy to learn and quick to play. For some people, those two criteria are deal breakers if unmet, and I’m happy to put to ease the minds of those reluctant gamers who look at rows of pretty components and have visions of a 12-hour Risk marathon. This is nothing of the sort. The rulebook is particularly well-written for getting a game up and running on the fly.

These are reasons enough to buy it. You have my permission to stop reading if you, as I assume, are so filled with the Gaming Spirit you must leap to your feet and flee to B&N. If your knees are a bit sore, or you need to finish your morning coffee, I give you leave to take another minute to contemplate the beauty of the gameplay.

You and your team of explorers have touched down on a mysterious island on the hunt for artifacts from an ancient civilization. But the moment you touch down, an ancient curse causes the island to begin sinking. Can you find the four artifacts and escape on the helicopter before the island swallows you all? Can you?

Early in the game, and already we're missing chunks of island.

The actions you can take on each turn are simple: Move. Give a card to another player. Claim an artifact. “Shore up” one of the island pieces (when a tile begins to sink, you flip it over to reveal a washed-out image; this means that a tile is starting to sink. But you can still keep it from sliding into the abyss, if you are swift!).

After your movements you draw cards that help you collect treasure — but which also might trigger the dreaded “Water Levels Rise” action, wherein the island sinks even further.

Later still in the game, and it's starting to feel a little moist around our ankles.

My kids actually shake with anticipation at this point, as the island creeps closer and closer to swamping us. As we scour the island for treasure cards, we shore up crucial pieces of land to keep them from disappearing. The game can beat you two ways: if the right kind of tiles disappear (the tiles where you can claim an artifact), or if the helicopter pad sinks. As these two types of tiles become imperiled, everyone begins to get antsy.

“We’ve got to save the Temple of the Moon!”

“But I need to give you my treasure card so you can claim the chalice!”

“I know, but the waters are due to rise, and if we lose the temple, the game is over!”

“Maybe we can give the chalice cards to someone else so they can claim it before your turn!”

“No time, I’ll never make it over there! We’ve got to take our chances that the Palace of Tides won’t sink before my turn.”


And so on. But when you win — and it’s been about 50-50 so far when we play — the table breathes a sigh of relief as you board the helicopter with your salvaged booty and take flight.

For $15? That’s more than a great purchase. It’s a required purchase. I require you. Go. Now.

Oldest Boy celebrates our victory by re-enacting our helicopter escape from the island. Note the three upside-down tiles in front of the pink-robed girl, representing the last soggy patches of land on the isle; this one was a nail biter.

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