The Map that Inspired Metro Maps

I remember my first trip to London and to the mind of a little boy two things stood out the most. Firstly seeing the MI5 building (our secret service offices) and secondly the roar of hot air as the tube trains screeched onto the platforms of the Underground. Who needs the Natural History Museum?

London is full of fabulous sights and sounds and every visitor should try zipping about by tube. I was brought up in Leicester, if you were to point at the centre of a map of England you would be pretty close to putting your finger on my home town. Leicester is a large, ancient and former industrial city. But London it is not. So as a child, going to London really was like going to the big city, it was busier, noisier, taller and had trains that ran underground.

Fast forward several years to my time at college and university and I start to discover my love of modernist design. My first (and currently only) visit to the Bauhaus in Berlin (another terrific underground railway system) was eye opening for me. It was the first time I truly understood phrases such as “Form following function”. I loved every moment of looking around the museum and it’s exhibits. At university I started to explore De Stijl, Fauvism, Minimalism, Constructivism and many other Twentieth Century design and artistic movements.

But how does this relate to Metro Maps? The underground map as we know it was designed by Henry Beck who realised that actually where the lines of the London Underground were was largely irrelevant. His topological maps used only straight horizontal, vertical and 45 degree lines to connect stations. The map we see today is an evolution of his design of nearly 100 years ago. For me Beck’s genius lies in that statement of form following function. It is clear, understandable and you can see your route based on the clearly differentiated lines criss-crossing the river Thames.

When developing Metro Maps I was actually designing a game that involved players taking command of 19th Century sailing ships and drawing trade routes around a map of cards. That idea didn’t really work. But when I started working with long coloured matchsticks connected to similarly coloured circular trade nodes I had an epiphany. I was making a grid of coloured lines and circles just like the tube map.

This new theme worked much better. Randomised pre-defined routes, mechanics built on the limited space offered under London’s streets and the bold iconography of Becks modernist design. This was much more my style.

The London Underground Map is a style icon of the Twentieth Century and Transport for London is rightfully proud and protective of its map. When you get the chance to play Metro Maps and jostle for the win in your own Beck style world, give a thought to the man who first had to wrangle the lines and stations (now 11 lines and 270 stations) of London’s Victorian infrastructure.


3, 2, 1… Play Test!

I completed the first three sessions of formal play testing this week. I wasn’t entirely sure how to approach this, as there are very few people who really go into detail as to how they complete this part of their game design process.

I have a background in marketing so I thought the skills I used and learnt professionally are probably a good place to start. I ran the play test sessions a little like focus groups. I presented participants with a letter that explained exactly what they were taking part in, and contained details about what elements of the game are production quality. I then sat back and carefully watched players set up the game and work out the rules for themselves. Making careful note of things that were confusing and things that were incorrect. At the end of play I gently interviewed them and started a conversation about the game.

Watching other people play a game you have designed is a strange experience. To see how other people interpret the rules you have so carefully crafted and then proceed to find as many ways as possible to break them is both terrifying and hilarious. One play tester quickly spotted a way of totally locking up the game with their first move in totally bizarre incidence of mutually assured destruction. I was aware that statistically this was possible but extremely unlikely. It’s instances like these that improve your game and show how important play testing is.

So if you have aspirations of designing a game this is what I would suggest preparing for your play test sessions.

  • Written introduction – This helps control the information available and the experience of different play test groups.
  • A way of recording observations – I used a note book and pen to record observations, it’s low tech and not intimidating.
  • Questions – Make sure you can start a conversation about your game that starts in an area that you know will be useful to you. Play testers will go off at useful tangents but make sure you get what you need as well.
  • Food – It never hurts to feed and water your play testers, remember that they are giving up their time to help you.
  • Follow up survey – This gives empirical data that you can use to identify trends.