I owe a lot to board game maps. When I was a kid, I had many more wargaming maps than I had games thanks to the vagaries of yard sales. I also had a drawer in my desk stuffed full of old roadmaps. There was nothing systematic about either collection. I just liked looking at maps. I guess I couldn’t help but become interested in a hobby that was so preoccupied with geography.
When I was first exploring roleplaying games I produced maps by the dozens. Gradually my gaming maps moved digital, and I often used these projects to learn about graphic design. Back at the start of graduate school, I had become enthralled with Phil Eklund’s Lords of the Sierra Madre and, determined both to learn Photoshop and give that game a facelift, I produced a complete redraw of that game’s map.
To my surprise, Phil and others liked this map, and the positive reinforcement was enough to get me to keep going. I made maps for all kinds of games, and, as I graduated from Photoshop to Illustrator, I started taking on a wider variety of projects. Even though my first published game, Pax Pamir, didn’t feature a map, I jumped at the opportunity to provide one when Phil suggested I design something for the rear of Pax Porfirian’s mounted market board.
When I prototype games I usually use the simplest designs I can imagine. The idea is that when you make something spare it’s easy to edit and adjust, and the files stay small and portable. And, if you can keep it grayscale, printing is much, much cheaper. Most of the time these early iterations are pretty ugly, but with An Infamous Traffic I was quite fond of the early drafts:
Because of the size of the counters and the importance of supply chains, it was difficult to draw a classic map with boundaries and natural features. The game clearly demanded something more schematic. I even flirted with keeping things totally minimal.But, I also wanted the map to do a lot of thematic lifting so a skeuomorphic aesthetic was needed.
Skeuomorphic design attempts to replicate real-world objects, often in a non-real-world space. For instance, the calendar icon on a computer screen often looks like a day calendar. Or, when you access your library of digital books on a Kindle there is often a wood texture to make it seem like they are sitting on a shelf. In general, I find this kind of design tacky. It can also leave strange visual non-sequiturs (consider how the 3.5 inch floppy disk has come to mean “save”). But, when you’re designing a game set in a particular historical moment, a little skeuomorphic sensibility can go a long way. So, I started with some paper textures:
Whoa! Already even my highly schematized map looks antique. I’m always shocked at how quickly a few textures can whip a design into form. Now I was faced with a choice: should I keep things abstract? After some thought I decided to meld the two styles and just embrace the anachronism. The danger here was that the design would look cartoonish or just straight up ugly. In order to prevent that I opted to build the design around a nice looking coastline and use some period-accurate Chinese woodcuts for decoration. With the game’s thematic bona fides in place, I could begin filling the map with all of the tables and charts players might desire.
As with any project, there is always the danger of overworking the final product. The best game maps should give readers just enough information to play the game with minimal rules references. Though An Infamous Traffic is not a difficult game and not one that demands much map space, the map design was just a little too large for a single 11x17 sheet. Early on it was clear I would need a second sheet. I decided to use all that extra space to provide players with all of the information they needed to play. Here clarity and thoroughness were prioritized over simplicity, and I added a full bodied legend and the various tables describing how the pieces took their places around the center of play. The result, I think, is something that harkens back to an older school of game design with something like a modern sensibility.