Your Turn – making imaginary board games

Board games – actually all games – have always had a strong fascination to me. Part of it must be their inherent symbolism: codified conflict, trade and cooperation in a wild variety of themes and styles. We have been playing them for at least 5000 years (personally I suspect a lot longer).
Games are simulations. Games flex the strategic part of our intellect, teach us about morals and laws and (certainly the last century) indulge our imagination. They entertain, they bring us together. There are so many apparent parallels between games and human behaviour.

I’ve made some pieces on imaginary games before (for instance: Ziqqurat) but never as structured as the ones I made for “Your Turn”. These 20 tiny imaginary board games were made as my third series for the Utrecht “Pakje Kunst” dispenser (I did “21 Reliquaries” & “Liber Viginti” before). As a small aside: the “Pakje Kunst” project is really interesting. Using modded cigarette carton dispensers to distribute random small pieces of art. Read more about it here.

So why make a bunch of imaginary board games? Where the rules are incomprehensible and playing pieces might be incomplete? Games that because of their tiny size seem hardly playable at all? Kinda pointless, right? Yes. And that’s exactly the point; very often this is how I feel when dealing with other people. What exactly are the rules? Why do we do the things we do? What’s the goal?

With this in mind I started work on these 20 tiny boxes. I had a bunch of decisions to make: physical size, names, style, elements.

Physical size
This was an easy one – the Pakje Kunst dispensers only handle a standard cigarette carton, so the maximum size of any piece is 62 x 93 x 28 mm. With this in mind I decided upon a box size of 53 mm wide, 82 mm long and 20 mm high. Making the design for a flat box with a separate lid was very easy with the help of the templatemaker website.

All games have names. So for mine I needed to come up with a list of 20 names that “sounded” right. After a bunch of random Google, Wikipedia and solo brainstorming I came up with these:

Rodeodendron, Sliders ‘n Bumpers, Champion Pioneer, Strange King, Donkeees, Quiva, Eternal Prince, Quadrille, Cordax, Endowment, Baronets and Peons, Barouche, Unrequited, Hearts’ Folly, Oyster and Octopus, Desperation, Mooncalf, Dan-de-Dong, Tears and Woe, Devotives.

Next to names for each game, I needed some rules. But these had to be imaginary as well. So I found a short rule summary for “snakes and ladders” and the install instructions for some software, mashed them together and edited out any significant terms. I ended up with the following:

For 1 to N Players/AGES 1+ 
This delightful game is simple and easy to play, even for children who can't read. Fun pictures help understand the rewards of doing good deeds as and the consequences of naughty ones. 

1. Download the package. Accept the default settings, in particular the default installation directory.
2. On some versions an error dialog will give you the option to reinstall with the correct settings - you should agree and proceed.
3. Once this is done, creating a shortcut on your desktop will make your life easier.

Position the gameboard so all the players can easily move from square to square. Everyone chooses a pawn to play. Any extra pawns are out of play. Chosen pawns start off the board near square #1. Now get ready for the fun! 

Take a peek at the gameboard. Players' pawns will move back and forth across the board, following upward - starting at a square and moving right toward a square, then up to a square and left toward a square, etc. 
Of course, you can also move up and sometimes go down, too. More about that later. 

Everyone spins the spinner. The player with the highest number goes first. Play proceeds to the left. 

On your turn, spin the spinner and move your pawn, square by square. For example, on your first turn, if you spin, move to a square on the board. Once you move your pawn, your turn is over. NOTE: Two or more pawns may be on the same space at the same time.

The first player to reach a square wins the game. You can get there 2 ways:
1. Land there by exact count. If your spin would take you past a square, don't move. Try again on your next turn.
2. Climb there by ending your move on a square.

I pasted these “rules” into Google Translate and converted them into about a dozen languages that I personally don’t speak: Esperanto, Hindi, Ukrainian, Arabic, etc.
They were then printed on flimsy paper in a font and colour that makes them very hard to read, even if you’re a native speaker.

I wanted these games to look like very cheap, mass produced products. So I picked lurid, bright colours, cheap plastic playing pieces and flimsy paper where necessary. These are the games you might pick up in a dusty souvenir shop in a rundown tourist destination. Or forgotten on a shelf in the non-food section of a foreign supermarket. To give them a slightly surrealist twist (which goes well with the nonsensical names and incomprehensible boards) I chose 19th century engravings for the box illustrations.
I found these illustrations on line. I looked for public domain, free standing, black and white engravings. Preferably those with a slightly weird vibe (I think I succeeded in most of them).
The images were intuitively combined with the titles. Frames, border decorations and fonts were picked from a preselected bunch of variants. This way I made the box designs.
The game boards needed to fit into the tiny boxes but I didn’t want them to be too small. So I opted for boards that folded in two or three. There are 4 different board shapes: oval, rectangular, hexagon and long. I then made up the layout for each game using grids and courses of circles, squares and hexagons.
I turned the box and board designs into PDF files and then printed them in black and white at a copy shop.

The mass produced look I was going for meant that colours needed to be flat, untextured and preferably badly registered (these games were not made on state-of-the-art offset equipment after all). Alcohol markers worked fine for this and the inks bleeding into each other made it look just the right kind of crappy.

No board game is complete without a bunch of pieces, markers, pawns, dice, tokens, etc. Of course there’s a box marked “game pieces” in my studio already – as I have used these in several pieces in the past. But the selection was a little sparse. So I raided the thrift shops, hobby stores and internet for tiny dice, beads, plastic markers, etc.

In closing
Assembling the boards and boxes, colouring everything and filling the games with a (random but semi-sensible) collection of pieces was a lot of work, but the end result really made me happy. The games look as intended, they are intriguing and intricate. Each of the twenty games is unique but they clearly belong to a series.
It occurred to me they are all two-player games. That was not intended, but it probably means something.
I’d love it if one of these games ends up with you. And if it does, give it some thought. Maybe come up with your own rules. And why not get in touch? After all; now it’s Your Turn.

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Misja van Laatum Art