I’ve written about a dozen board games, of different sizes and ambitions, in the same 24 years. I’ve been interested in games since childhood, like most people I suppose. But at 18 I read Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game. It was a huge inspiration on so many levels, most of all the very idea of the game he described.
My first adult idea for a game came to me in a dream one night at about age 27, and although I never actually pieced that one together or could even properly recapture it, the art and craft of game-making became a major hobby in my mid-thirties and forties.
Most of these games are pretty close to complete. The three major ones are handcrafted works that we still get down to play occasionally, but I’m not sure anymore how seriously I take them. I’ll publish them one day, maybe, when I get all the little bugs out.
I’ll put them in reverse order, best and most recent to earliest and most incomplete, as far as I can remember exactly when they all emerged.
I recommend the top three…:
The Crusades 1071-1291
This was undoubtedly inspired by Age of Empires, a PC-based medieval strategy-war game, but the board game I eventually made is completely different. I wanted a game with a realistic tactical-strategic-historical take on the Crusades, or just the parts of that period that played out in the strategic theatres of the Eastern Mediterranean. It’s a fascinating and very difficult landscape that is of great significance even today.
The Crusades 1071-1291 is for serious war gaming fans, up to 6 players in allied or combative roles drawn from history. Matches can last for up to three hours or more, at its best if long play over many days is your thing.
Stealth is a variation on Battleships, played with modern stealth fighters and radar probe technology. You have to guess where the enemy are, as per battleships, but you are able to move your pieces and you can probe hidden locations with radar to locate the enemy.
The board as I built it uses magnetic pieces, so you can attempt to detect one enemy piece per turn by calling coordinates and scanning with an induction probe. You can see an enemy piece, which solves one of the basic problems with battleships: people can cheat by not announcing a hit.
Stealth was probably my kids’ favourite game of my invention, so I guess I’m proud of it too.
I’m a great history buff, obviously, and this was my attempt to write an educational board game that actually takes you through history and explores the great opportunities provided by an understanding of history, namely to understand the modern world and maybe solve some of its problems or at least avoid making the same mistakes.
Time Traveller is still unfinished. It has become a huge undertaking, and I would need the resources of a major publishing company to do it justice. It probably can’t be made by hand, by one person alone.
Star Wars Spreadsheet App
I really love Microsoft Excel, a spreadsheet I use for calculations and modelling. You can also draw objects and set rules on objects, so you can use it to write simple games. Being a star wars fan, and especially keen on the 70’s-style graphic animations of computerised status briefings (you know, where they animate a wire-frame model of the death star and show tactical movements of x-wings and tie fighters as brightly coloured icons) – so for about a week I drew up a whole series of battle scenarios and then played them with my kids, also great fans and at that stage still impressed that I could write computer stuff.
Star Wars Spreadsheet App also exists as a boxed set of printed rubber icons and gaming mats that you can play on the floor, so it’s still a board game!
This is a space-bending version of Chinese checkers, where you command a fleet of spaceships navigating intergalactic space and doing combat via bizarre gravitational couplings with other ships, wormholes and black holes.
Cosmic Checkers is quite a challenge to play, not least because motherships’ jumps seem to violate common sense: in fact they bend space as per Einstein’s relativity.
I was in a strange place when I made this game, and I think it contributed to my breakdown, but it’s great fun to play at least once.
This is a complete reworking of a game by Klaus Teuber in the Settlers of Catan mode, but it never made any sense to me so I cut it up, changed everything around, added more ideas and wrote my own rules for it. Klaus will barely recognise it except for the graphics and name. I thank him and gratefully acknowledge his original idea, but this ain’t it, it’s not even a rough copy.
If I ever do publish Starfarers under a new name, I’ll have to contact him and come to a gentlemanly agreement that it is all completely different in the new box, no more his game than one of Woody Guthrie’s songs.
Garden Furniture Wars
This was just a fun thing I used to do with the kids and all their Tonka toys and footballs when the yard got so badly messed up we had to tidy it. It’s really simple, and puts you right in the battlefield with your armies.
As with Round the Table, Garden Furniture Wars is not the sort of game that attracts copyright. So feel free to take it and play it with your kids or Grandkids!
Round the Table
This is a family game in the Tolstoy sense: all unhappy families are different, but we can engage with each other to find solutions. It’s more an idea than a game, all you need is a table and the members of your family to be willing to talk.
Round the Table is so simple I have never even transcribed it from the original back-of-envelope sketch that I kept safe from all those years ago.
This is the one I’m really proud of. It’s completely original and a lot of fun too. I had the idea on our travelling honeymoon, in the back of a minivan going out to look at a volcanic coastline feature of Taveuni in Fiji. We had all been sitting around the big round dive-resort dining table the night before, swapping stories, and it suddenly occurred to me sitting there in the bus that this was a great context for a game: a story-telling game about travelling the world.
From that raw idea, World Traveller took five or six years to put together. The main hook is the imaginative trigger it gives you, the licence to make up completely original stories based on the cards you’ve picked up and the places you’ve been. I have seen people get into such an imaginative space with it that afterwards they say they feel exhilarated, as if they’ve been there and have just come back.
Believe me, this is a board game like no other.
The Lord of the Rings
I’m a Tolkien nut as well – see my Tolkien Screenplay.
The Lord of the Rings was the first major board game I completed, as a gift for a friend. That “first edition” had hand-made playing pieces, nine little figurines of the Fellowship of the Ring, plus three of Saruman, Gollum and the Nazgul Witchking, all complete with weapons and personalities. It was a true work of geek-gaming art, so I hope he still has it.
The rules were admittedly a bit peculiar, involving player control over both the good and evil pieces to use against each other. I’m not sure if it would work as a commercial game. Definitely it’s a bit of an oddity, if you’re into unusual Tolkien tributes.
The pdf is just the box cover – possibly the best painting of Eowyn vs the Nazgul I have ever seen, and there are thousands – plus a pic of how it looks laid out on the table. I’ll leave you to imagine how it’s played. I don’t have an electronic copy of the files anymore, and I won’t scan the booklet just to show you how strange it is!
Mega Chess is a double chess game with a board four times normal size – you get sixteen pawns and as many nobles – double of everything, plus two new pieces based on the extra king and queen : the Prince and Princess, who actually have ALL the move capabilities of a queen and a knight, each.
Mega Chess is a pretty massive game, so the pawns are allowed to take up to two steps throughout, not just in their first move. To add some period flavour you can call them house-carls.
The surviving manuscript allows for realtime play – that is ongoing movement on both sides with no turns. Everyone tells me this is stupid and won’t work (ie they won’t play it that way), but the one time I did, with my brother in-law I think, it was really intense, a mayhem of fun.
Day and Night
This is the dream game I started with, a strange idea with later echoes in Time Traveller – the board is actually a big book with pages that are turned to reveal a new board, alternating between daytime experiences and night-time dreams.
In Day and Night the pages have holes as doorways in them, that players’ pieces can access to move through to the next page without everyone having to pick their pieces up. A great idea, but one that creates unforeseen difficulties, such as that everyone has to be in a door at the same time for the page to turn…as if we all fall asleep and wake up at the same time…I never managed to work out how to do this, and the game lost its way.
Developing the game involved writing down as many dreams as I could remember, find in books or borrow from friends. I explored the reaches of Jung and Freud, surrealism and dada. I discovered Confessions of an English Opium-Eater by Thomas de Quincy. It became my annoying habit to want to talk about people’s dreams. A good friend helped me for a while with all of his dreams, but I think in the end even he just felt weirded out. I’ll have to find some way to get all these written-down dreams into the pdf.
I based the playing pieces on tripartite figures of the psyche: the conscious Identity who struggles to reunite with the subconscious Id and moral Superego, who break away and have their own error-prone motives at night, but by day are part of the players’ everyday identity: like a totem with angel and devil surmounting the man.
I like this game because it is a direct attempt to bring something into the world that I found in a dream. I have still never managed to do this, but here is how I tried.