Staff Conference (2018)

"Ever illustrated a board game?"  Er, no.  "That's about to change!"

Published by Richard GoodwinFiled under Illustration

So the boss comes out of a meeting, grinning. "Have you ever illustrated a board game?" he asks. Er, no. "That's about to change!" he laughs.

The idea was to create a game for the upcoming staff conference, which would help people learn about our digital offering (the "New World"). They'd travel around a pirate-infested board a metre square(!), answering questions about things like Facebook followers or what you could do on our web sites. The first idea was for a sepia-tinted pirate map, but that seemed a bit drab and clichéd. So I went online looking for "here be dragons" type maps of the sea, and kept finding fragments of what appeared to be the same map coming up again and again.

After a while I managed to find a large, complete version of the map, the Carta Marina - a map of Scandinavia from the mid 1500s. This gave us a naïve style that could be replicated quickly, a pre-aged but vivid colour palette, and sea monsters a-plenty. Figures on the map could be modified from fishermen and kings into the musicians, form-fillers and house hunters that we needed to people our lands. Trees and hills could be copied, modified, and expanded upon to produce islands, mountain ranges and pirate forts. Steve would yell out "I need more trees!" and a few minutes later be producing InDesign forests.

Although the Carta Marina image was quite large, the lack of resolution meant there was a fair amount of artistic licence required. And the request got a bit more tricky. "I need Mount Rushmore made out of emojis, but in the style of a C16th cartographer!" "I need an Aztec temple! Come on, there must be something from that era you can copy off!" Um, I don't think the Europeans got to the Americas for another hundred years or so...

And as the track around the map was based on a 3D hex grid, some of the game elements became a little more realistic to stand out from the map.

To compliment the board, and make it into a fully working game, there were still a number of elements that needed to be created. The players would roll a standard six-sided die to move, and had to visit every island. On first visiting an island they had to figure out what a customer could expect to do on the corresponding online service - the website, Twitter, automated 'phone line and so on. Individual actions (read news, report a repair, pay rent) were represented by wooden blocks, to signify delivering services to customers. By delivering the blocks to an island, a number of gold coins could be won.

As the player could only go forward, and random being random, we then added risk cards. These would get around the problem of missing an island - they could send the player back to the previous island (to find supplies), forward to the next island, or around the board to specific islands. The cards could also throw up pirate duels, buried treasure, and other fun elements. A second set of cards, with multiple choice questions about how services worked, added another way of collecting coins, either from landing on the question spaces or by re-visiting a completed island.

Pirates - some of the obstacles that the players had to face

I modified a standard card back design to include the risk and question motifs and board colours, but the other side proved to be a pain to implement.

Once all of the actions and questions and multiple choice answers were collected together (a task in itself) there was a sort of mail-merge feature in InDesign to get them on to the cards, but it broke so often that Steve ended up doing most of them "by hand". It was worth it though, the finished items were professionally printed with a proper weight and finish that meant they could be shuffled like real playing cards!

Oversized wooden dice and bags of children's plastic gold doubloons got us pretty close to a finished product, but after weeks of searching we couldn't find ships of the right size and era for players to move around the board. It appears that naval and pirate games are popular in the US, but getting the pieces to the UK in time - or finding ones that had already been shipped over and didn't cost the earth - just wasn't going to happen. Eventually in a bit of lateral thinking I ordered a number of dolls house ships (models of models!). These looked great but weren't very robust or stable. Eventually I carved bases out of small bits of wooden board and glued the ships on, which kept them upright and gave players something to pick up.