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Designer Diary: Ivor the Engine, or Chuffed to Bits

Anthony Boydell
United Kingdom
Newent. Glos
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Every homo sapiens needs an outbuilding within the curtelage of their property
badge my Shed!
Not very long ago...

Though the books and authors have varied over the years, there has always been a common seam of "old faithfuls" with which to entertain and delight my children at bedtime. I have five children, with a gap of fourteen years between the eldest and the youngest, so there has been a pretty-constant stream of bedtimes to be filled with Julia Donaldson/Alex Scheffler, Shirley Hughes, Harry Potter, Maurice Sendak and — of course — Oliver Postgate & Peter Firmin.

Firmin and Postgate "at work"

Those of you who grew up in the UK between the 1960s and 1980s will almost certainly remember The Clangers (pink pig-mice on a remote moon), Noggin the Nog (Viking saga inspired by the Lewis chessmen), Bagpuss (toys come alive temporarily to fix broken things), Basil Brush (Terry Thomas in fox-form) and/or Ivor the Engine. For the rest of you (outside the UK and/or not of "a certain age"), it's hard to sufficiently express the depth of love and loyalty that these characters and stories stir; they are nostalgic, beautifully realized, witty, occasionally subversive and always charming. Utterly "warm-sunshiny, glass-of-milk-and-a-biscuit, curled-up-on-the-sofa-with-your-favorite-toy" charming!

Ivor is a railway engine that lives and works on the fictional, rural lines in the top left-hand corner of Wales, running errands between towns such as Llangubbin, Tewyn and Llanmad ("damn all" backwards, in homage to Dylan Thomas' Llareggub from Under Milk Wood) and having adventures along the way.

Five minutes of gentle pleasure

Ivor has never been far from my thoughts since making a covert appearance in Paperclip Railways in 2011:

...and, officially, in 2012's Wales-themed Snowdonia. I was working in London at the time and popped in to the offices of Coolabi (an independent, international media group and rights owner that handles all of the Postgate/Firmin property licensing) to see whether I could use Ivor's image on a promo card; I felt so thrilled that a piece of my own imagination was going to be linked, however slightly, to that of my childhood heroes.

Coolabi were welcoming and enthusiastic, and I asked, on a whim, if it might be possible to go one step further and get a license for an entire Ivor game? "No reason why not", they said. "Just get back to us when you have something ready". And that was that.

In early 2013, the fuss around the first edition of Snowdonia was beginning to abate and my thoughts turned, again, to Ivor and what I would do (having been) given half a chance. My first design was a ridiculously-overwrought "dumbing-down" of Snowdonia: worker placement with sheep and cups of tea, component-heavy and far too complex for a family market. Those beloved stories were being crushed under the weight of a graceless Eurogame and it took some very straight talking from long-time Ross-on-Wye confederate Ben "Boffo" Bateson to remove the scales from my eyes!*

After I'd stopped sulking, I popped on the three-hour DVD of the complete (in color) Ivor the Engine TV series and immersed myself in its simple pleasures: the gentle jeopardy of a spoiled hat or a motherless lamb, a lost elephant, choir practice, and the magical-yet-perfectly-ordinary emergence of dragons. Being a Proper Game Designer™, I also scribbled copious notes linking key events and characters to the geography of the Top Left-Hand Corner of Wales; I grouped everything together into location "sets", then let it all percolate for a few days.

Ivor is a hard-working engine and is constantly being badgered by curmudgeonly Stationmaster Dai to get on with his work; many of the adventures are set against taking something from A to B with a diversion occurring in-between. Looking at the list of "jobs", I focused on one particular story in which sheep, stuck in snowdrifts, delayed the delivery of vital supplies to the snowed-in village of Llaniog.

Sheep. Sheep in the way! Sheep, an obstacle, stopping Ivor doing what he needed to do!

Something chimed, then, and I cast my mind back to the mid 1990s when I was working for another government department and at the very beginning stages of my hobby life as a game Designer. During our lunch hour, a group of us working on the same IT project squirreled ourselves away in the corner of the subsidized canteen and "played stuff" – mostly it was prototypes, churned out and mocked up using blank business cards. We were an undemanding, yet enthusiastic, group and none of us had ever heard of "Euro Games". One of the most popular Boydell prototypes was "Ecology", a game I'd put together after reading a Children's Atlas of the Animal World; this nicely-presented educational tome had maps of the world with animals, rare and common, around the outside and arrows showing which animal lived where. In "Ecology" (terrible name, I know), players represented campaigning groups (Friends of the Peace, GreenEarth, etc.) traveling the globe and cleaning up pollution; the map board started off covered in chick peas (representing humanity's muck). As-and-when regions of the map (habitats) were cleared, animals could be returned home for extra points. Pollution collected was points, animals saved were points, and when someone got over a given points threshold the game would end. The animals were in a deck of cards along with events and effects. As you would expect, effects did neat things like take extra pollution off, make you move faster, etc.; animals had their real rarity reflected in the points you gained for taking them back, and the events modeled oil spills, eruptions, governmental interference and other eco-disasters. It had a slightly activist edge to it, dressed up as a family game, but also a naïveté of design borne of inexperience. "Ecology" survived the 1990s intact, enough playtests proving the heart-of-it was robust, and — despite a lack of publishing potential — it remained fully mocked-up and occasionally taken out of the cupboard in the holidays.

Ecology's world, with habitats seeded with pollution at the start

Returning from my wobbly-screened mental stroll down Memory Lane, I realized that if I were to replace "pollution" with "sheep", "animals" with "jobs", and the map of the world with a map of North Wales, then I had a much better place to start for Ivor the Engine. The final touch was combining the job and effect/event cards to provide that all-important tricky decision: "Do I use this card for A or for B?" From that point, the core design was fixed – though, strictly-speaking, it had been fixed (but sleeping) for nearly twenty years.

I mocked up some sample cards using library art, an embryonic board layout, a company bio, and other "misc details" and built a PowerPoint presentation for Coolabi (and, by extension, Peter Firmin). At this point I'd not approached anyone else formally about joint manufacturing or distribution, I was simply exploring possibilities, albeit with a lifetime hero, keeping it as low-key as possible.

Within a couple of weeks I had a response: "Do you want us to talk to Peter, or would you like to show him the prototype yourself?". At this point I think I should hand over to my 2013 blogging self to explain what happened next!

Pitching the game to the man who created Ivor

Outside it was HOT; well, "hot" for the UK at least, with my helpful on-board computer pronouncing 31 degrees. Stopping only for after-tasteful spring water and an expensive biro, I reached my destination "just outside Canterbury" at 1115HRS, pulling up into the square courtyard walled by a barn, a house and a cow-shed. I ding-a-linged the doorbell, but all of the doors were open to the heat and Joan Firmin greeted me with a hearty handshake and smile, calling out to her husband that I had arrived. Peter was in the dining room, a badger's cough distant from the entrance porch in which I stood – I could see him sat at the table occupied with something. He rose, turned and stepped on to the patio with a bearded grin.

At this point, there will be some of you who have picked up the subject of this blog entry but for those not yet in the know I shall include an Internet link:

This is the stuff I grew up with: worlds of wit and charm, beautifully written and realized, that still bring a dewy tear to the eyes of British adults. Oliver Postgate provided the stories and Peter Firmin the art – scenery, cut-paper figures, puppets, props and landscapes. It is Smallfilms' late 1950s and resurrected late 1960s Ivor the Engine series that is the reason for my visit – as I have mentioned in other blogburps – because I have designed a game about him and I want to publish it with his blessing.

The genial octogenarian, now shaking my shaking hand, is the surviving half of that genius duo – the man responsible for me taking up cartooning, the man who has visualized the stories I have read (and am still reading) at bedtime to all of my children. I am not a little trepidacious.

We talk of the wonderful weather, put in an order for drinks, and then I get the first part of a guided tour; the house and outbuildings have been the Firmin family home (Peter, Joan and their six daughters) for 50+ years and the place they constructed and filmed their beloved series' in. Peter is officially retired but his studio – his shed (!) – is still stacked with paper scraps, cuttings, layout sketches, lino and vinyl prints (framed and unframed), rejected pressings and – teasingly – some wonderful works-in-progress (about which I am sworn to secrecy)! Craft knives, paint, balsa wood, model aeroplanes and papier mâché masks, book samples, proofs and pencil shavings. Animation was a diversion for Peter who, after leaving art school had yearnings to be a formal illustrator (woodcuts and the like); glorious happenstance put him and Oliver together and it was no easy job to make their careers from the new "children's TV" market. They experimented, first, with magnetically-moving mice on live television, a Welsh engine (first in monochrome), penguins and wooden puppet folk; later came Viking sagas, psychedelic moon mice and a saggy old cloth cat.

Peter had been distracted in the dining room (see my arrival paragraph) by a box of Pippin magazine cuttings – hundreds of pages of Ivor the Engine in B&W and then full wraparound cover glory. He dismissed the early pages with some disdain – pointing out the odd proportions of the bodies/heads and the simplicity of detail: "not very good" he said; "I think I'd use the word 'charming'", I replied.

The game design has sixty or so cards with illustrations on almost all of them – the stock library I have from the licensing company covers about two-thirds of my needs — so Peter suggested he could (re-)draw from the rest using these magazines to remind him. The fact that he's willing to produce new art for the game – including the map for the board and a new cover – is a fantastic development, brimming with Boydell family cameo possibilities! Peter doesn't have access to the originals (just the faded cheap comic printing) because the publishing company had kept them all; they tried to auction them off in London a few years back and Peter fought to get them back, which he did. He decided to have an Open Day at his home and let locals pop in and pick them up for £50 a pop – denying those naughty dealers and giving us ordinary folk a little piece of British history.

I set the game prototype up and talked Peter and Joan through the mechanisms – not going into too much detail because they both admitted to being "not very good with games"; my presentational focus was, therefore, the trueness of theme and respect for the source.

Oliver Postgate was always the one for games, apparently, coming up with abstracts (for the Noggin The Nog world in particular) including his own rules for Hnefatafl a couple of years before the British Museum posited their own.

Joan nipped off to serve lunch, so Peter and I ambled around the lush, cottage garden and chatted some more: here an acacia, forty foot plus, grown from a seed pod brought back from Zimbabwe by his youngest (the Emily from the Bagpuss series), there an oak tree grown from an acorn planted by their eldest. He showed me a field at the back — gone to wildflower seed — recently bought from a neighbor, now high-grass and uncuttable with his little mower.

Tales of family holidays in Europe, of huge handmade kites and odd German hotels and back to the weather-beaten cast-iron table for pork chops, (freshly-dug) boiled new potatoes and salad fresh from the garden. The shade, and the homemade Elderflower cordial, kept the three of us cool in the hazybaking afternoon; I don't think I could've dreamt a more idyllic setting.

Digesting the simple summer luncheon, Peter showed me the famous barn where all of his and Oliver’s labors were undertaken: now a stock room cum gallery..."that's where Oliver had the camera set up", "here was the Clangers' moon", "Noggin was filmed there" and so on.

Our time was drawing to a close, however, as Joan took their little terrier for a walk around the meadow; Peter and I discussed "next steps" and he dug out a couple of his crafting / make-and-do books for my children (including a model aeroplane book, which he signed, for Arthur). Too soon it was goodbye and the air-con roared in protest against the stifling heat as I crunched along the gravel drive to the main road and I was heading home.

A grand day out by any measure.

So everything was "a goer" and to really "sauce the gateaux", the original artist was willing to do NEW art for the game; how could anyone refuse such an offer? For international readers of this diary, imagine Bill Watterson signing up for new art on a Calvin & Hobbes game or Hergé willing to scribble up some more Tintin! That was the clincher, the deal-maker; add to the mix the later announcement that another Firmin/Postgate classic was making a return to television — The Clangers — and you've got a lot of forty-something men foaming at the beard!

At this point, let me hand over once again to by blogging self:

Collecting the new art for Ivor the Engine

Oh those poor, tired dogs! Lookit them, the soggy barkers, fresh back from the long grass and the snouting:

The weather was gloomier than the summertime when I last crunched up the short driveway to Hill Farm, all honeysuckle and clematis over the fences.

Mr. Firmin shuffled to the door; he beamed me a straggled-bearded smile and offered a crumpled-paper handshake. "Come in", he says, "Joan is off with the dogs down the field." I come in. On the kitchen table is some Bagpuss paraphernalia, and in the dining room, too — great boxes of philatelic envelopes waiting for signing — because next year this most beloved of British children's characters celebrates his fortieth birthday. There's so many of the bloomin' things waiting for autographs that Peter has split the job between himself and his youngest daughter — the famous "Emily" of the story, a little girl who finds lost things and delivers them to the saggy old cloth cat for repair.

We retire to the lounge amongst samples of his children's crafting output and the continual background noise of licensed goods sent over "for your archives": there are books, videos, toys and miniature figures peeping from beside and behind the family photos and the furniture. All at once there is a scampering book-ended by the opening and closing of a latched door and the two canines trot in, happily panting, to join us. Tim is the little one, the other is a guest, and they leap on to the sofa — turn exactly three times in a clockwise circle — and plonk themselves down. I love dogs and I love old "family dogs" like this in particular: gentle, funny and loyal. Tim plays the piano, apparently; Peter trained him (and other dogs before him) to jump up on the stool and bash at the ivory with his front paws (much to the annoyance, sometimes, of grandchildren Chopin or chopsticking to impress the ay-jeds). Joan shakes my one hand with her chilly two: "Gosh, you're warm!" she says, then in to the kitchen for some chocolate cake and tea.

We chat about how the Ivor the Engine game project is going, timings and progress, then he hops up — stiffly (he's in his eighties, for goodness) — and fetches a brown-wrapped, flat parcel: map for the board (oh, goodness), miniatures for the cards that needed new art:

and — Lordy! — something extra for us to use as a limited edition print:

We talk about Clangers: There is a new series (52 episodes) coming in 18 months or so and Peter is an Executive something-or-other, as is Dan Postgate — the son of his Smallfilms partner Oliver. Despite what seemed to have been a long journey and day, Peter enthuses about most of the design proposals: new sets (the old ones were just thrown out and burned when the original filming was done — why would anyone want to keep them?), the new Clangers themselves knitted to an original pattern and the shape of their ears a major agenda item. Peter the-opposite-of-enthuses about some of the more modern tropes of entertainment:

• You can't differentiate male Clangers from female by their clothes (armor or dresses) because that's sexist;
• You can't show characters leaping blindly into holes or stuffing cotton wool in to their ears because of Health & Safety; and,
• Does it always have to be dark in the sky? Children watching in the morning might thinks it's night and get the wrong impression of time...dark in the sky? That'll be "space", then. We chortle, cakey-fingered, as Peter admits to finding the Clangers a little boring — when faced with a time-filling choice, Oliver could add more dialogue (quickly) or spend a week on a more intricate action sequence...mostly preferring the quicker solution!

Lord love them both; these gentlemen made heart-filling, wit-filled, eye-gorgeous dreams for whole generations using jam-jar lids, string, paper and invention.

No committees, no writing teams, no demographics and focus groups; just mischief and practicality.

The family Boydell and a brace of Paulls wait on the platform

...and then we're done. It had only been an hour but time stops when you're having fun (and drinking in every moment). Unless I can tempt Peter to some event(s) when the game comes out in the spring/summer, it may be a while before I get to do this again but it's worth the wait; it's worth its "wait" in gold.

Putting it all together was as pleasurable an experience as one could wish for too: SSG's Charlie Paull (putting in masses of manual labor to prepare the cards for final finessing) and all of the print-ready templating / layouts by the astonishingly prolific Mr. Klemens Franz. And where would we be without proper rules? Probably spending ten hours a day handling BGG forum queries! However, thanks to the electron microscopic attention-to-detail of Messrs Alan Paull and Brett J. Gilbert, even the rulebook is a thing of beauty and a joy forever! Ivor the Engine is a beautiful entity indeed: wood, cardboard, and drenched-to-the-marrow with those classic images.

There you have it, I have come to the end of my story: the long journey of a game design through three decades, finding its way home. Rarely do you get the chance to do something as part of a job of work that gives you such marrow-shaking, soul-cuddling, heart-bursting joy. Chuffed to bits? "Ivor" feeling I'll never enjoy designing anything quite as much as this ever again!

Tony Boydell

*He said: "It sounds terrible, to be honest."
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