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Behind the scenes at the British Library

14 September 2023

Designing a Board Game Using the Collection's Images | User Stories

Dave Clarke user story image resize

Dave Clarke is a board game designer and the founder of Sinister Fish Games, a tabletop gaming publisher based in Lincoln. He used the British Library’s digital database (Images Online) to create the board game Great Scott!

I’d never considered being a game designer. It was an accident that worked out. It’s great, because you actually get to make a product that brings joy to people, and that’s hard to beat. Everything I’ve managed to do has been because of Great Scott! And I wouldn’t have been able to make Great Scott! without the British Library. 

When it all started, I was a web designer, but I’d been into gaming since I was a kid. It came to my attention that there was a renaissance happening in the world of board games, accelerated by Kickstarter. Kickstarter is an online platform where people can present an idea – for a game, an art book, an album, anything – and have it funded by the end user. 


You can design board games for free

It’s absolutely perfect for board games, because you can design board games for free (other than time), with bits of paper and a couple of dice. One person can do it. You can force your friends and family to sit and play-test it with you until you think you've got something. I’ve always been very keen on that punk rock DIY thing. When I was younger, I was in punk bands, where you record your own music and arrange your own tours – not because you have a desire to be successful at it; you just do it because you like it. 

I didn't really expect Great Scott! to be a massive success. I think my funding goal was about £5,000, which was what I figured I needed to have the game manufactured and shipped. We ended up making about £9,000 on Kickstarter. I had spent so much time researching everything that I needed to know, and designing the game, that it ended up being a financial loss. But it gave me just enough credibility to be able to do the next thing, which was a collaboration with someone else. I got very lucky with that, and that allowed me to quit my day job. 


The British Library collection was perfect

I needed artwork for the cards in the game, but I can’t draw, and I had no money to pay an artist. I was looking for a database of public domain art that was expansive enough to cover a massively wide variety of subjects. The British Library collection was absolutely perfect; I wouldn’t have been able to make the game without it. The idea of a historical game was actually suggested by what was available. 

Great Scott! is set in this kind of quaint, Victorian England. The players become inventors who are vying for the favour of Queen Victoria, so that they can become the royal inventor. It was inspired by my interest in steampunk, and my early obsession with films based on novels by Jules Verne: Journey to the Centre of the Earth; all that kind of stuff. 

The gameplay is based on combining words and phrases to make something funny. It’s like Consequences, the game where you’re given a prompt, you write a phrase and you fold the piece of paper over and hand it to someone else – then you unfold it and read them out. You’re creating these ridiculous situations. I’d always found that amusing, so I thought maybe I could make a game where you combine random elements. The theme that occurred to me was crazy Victorian inventions. 


The best part of the game is reading out your silly invention

I wanted the game to be as simple as possible: easy to learn, so a family could sit and play. I conscripted a bunch of my friends to help. We went round in circles for probably the best part of a year, coming up with all these different ways of playing the cards, and in the end we went back to the very first idea, more or less – because the best part of the game was getting to the end and reading out your silly invention and telling people about, for example, your deluxe duck-deployed donkey detonator. 

It’s the absolutely ridiculous Pythonesque combinations that amuse me. I think the game was successful because I managed to connect with enough people who have a stupid sense of humour like mine. 

After Great Scott!, I approached a guy who was posting images of his game online as he developed it. The game was called Villagers: it just looked really cute. He was a Norwegian designer called Haakon Hoel Gaarder. I approached him, and we chatted for about a year, and then he said, okay, you can publish my game; I think I’d rather concentrate on design. The year after that, we launched it on Kickstarter, and it was a crazy success. It’s still the 11th most backed UK Kickstarter of all time, within all categories, not just board games. So we were off to the races. I’ve done three games with Haakon now, and we’re about to do a fourth. 


Board games have been around for thousands of years

Board games are social: you’re interacting with real people, and I think we need that. People are discovering that you don’t have to be a stereotypical nerd to enjoy a board game. There are a lot of very light, easy-to-learn games that can really enhance a social gathering. 

As I was going through the British Library database, I started a couple of folders of images that sparked ideas that I knew I wouldn’t use for Great Scott! I might go back to them one day. I had the idea of doing a game about Victorian explorers, because in the database there's all this amazing artwork from explorers’ journals; these fabulous landscapes. 

To me, the British Library is about preserving history: it’s an important archive of knowledge and creativity. Board games have been around for thousands of years. It's a very human thing to want to do. They’ve discovered Roman and Egyptian and Viking board games: people have always sat together and played games and we probably always will. 


As told to Lucy Peters