Image: Battle Line Box Cover
In a world of cynicism and hard financial realities, it's a rare and beautiful thing to come across a story where love wins. Yet here I sit with a fresh new game in my hands, from the Netherlands with love.
Roland MacDonald runs a design studio called Roland's Revenge, designing art for both digital and tabletop games. As a personal project, he decided to re-illustrate Battle Line, which is a classic game by legendary board game designer, Reiner Knizia. "I do love this game," said MacDonald. "It is a piece of design perfection."
It's a two player game that combines skill and luck, and sits neatly in your board game collection as a nice two-player game you can play with a significant other. The two opposing players are generals who prepare their troops in formations to battle the other player.
The game was originally published in 2000 by GMT, and is still a beloved game: it ranks as 162nd overall on BoardGameGeek. But the one thing that is hard to love is the artwork.
When MacDonald first saw the game he said, "I want that game but I am not paying money for something that ugly." So he started this project of love.
An excellent board game doesn't always need excellent artwork (see: Innovation, first ed.) but beauty and design almost always improve a game.
Roland MacDonald's art is an immense improvement. He brought the era of battle forward from antiquity to the medieval, and covered each card, edge-to-edge, with exquisite artwork. Knights and squires and halberdsmen now do battle.
Instead of making suits and colours generic, he customised every colour of every card in every suit, adding subtle iconography to make the game colour-blind friendly. Thoughtful design touches made Battle Line more intuitive to learn and easier to play, as well as sumptuous to look at while your opponent is deliberating.
Then he contacted the original publisher, GMT. They were not interested in republishing the game or updating their version. His design work sat in a drawer, beautiful but unused, and unappreciated except by some friends on the internet.
But, the internet. In the board game industry and the board game hobby, one website rules them all: BoardGameGeek. Players, publishers, designers and artists like Roland all inhabit this space, and behind the dated front page are tens of thousands of forums and discussions, reviews, suggestions for house rules and fan art.
Roland put up progress reports of his artwork so that at least some few fans of the game could appreciate the art.
As it turns out the right people were paying attention. Associates of Reiner Knizia reached out and soon Roland found himself with an offer he couldn't refuse: a limited licence to publish the game. They would let him publish 100 copies for himself to sell and distribute.
In board game publishing, here are all sorts of legalities involved with licensing and publishing which means some games never get re-published, no matter how deserving they are. This was very much a once-in-a-lifetime offer.
That doesn't mean it was easy. "I did it for the love, I cannot recommend anyone does it for the money," says McDonald. No-one gets into designing and publishing board games for the money.
But for love of the game, MacDonald flung himself into a whirlwind adventure of publishing. Handling paper and print stock and packaging. Dealing with printers, manufacturers, warehouses and distribution. He printed 100 copies and released them in January 2017.
The edition sold out in three days, receiving not a little attention. After a great response, he gained permission to publish a second and final edition, releasing 400 copies in June 2017 via his website.
Unsurprisingly, the second edition of Roland MacDonald's Battle Line sold out in short order, but not before your faithful author got his hands on a copy.
Your chances of finding a copy of Battle Line are slim — I ain't selling my for love or money — although you might have some luck in the second-hand market a little while from now.
However, to see more of Roland's handiwork, look out for Ruthless, a pirate-themed deckbuilding game coming out in early 2018, which was not only illustrated, but also written and designed by Roland. Initial reports are promising — look out for reviews after Essen in late October.