New Manitoulin Island board game challenges players, teaches history

MANITOULIN—Manitoulin Island can now boast it has its own clever board game, ‘Back in the Day on Manitoulin Island’ thanks to the perseverance of collaborators Marion Seabrook of Mindemoya and Richard Edwards of Kagawong.

The game—with myriad pieces and cards—is off the press and interested people (guaranteed there will be a lot of them) will have the opportunity to visit Ms. Seabrook at her home (which is also the same location at Jack’s Farm Museum, across from Island Animal Hospital in Mindemoya) this Saturday, September 3 from 1 to 4 pm and at Mr. Edwards’ Studio, fittingly called Edwards’ Studio (located on the top floor of the Old Mill Building on Kagawong’s waterfront) also from 1 to 4 pm this Sunday, September 4.

Both Ms. Seabrook and Mr. Edwards will be at each venue this weekend and will explain how the game is played.

But how the game came into being is just as interesting. Mr. Edwards and Ms. Seabrook are veteran collaborators in a number of the “cross-pollination” projects (visual artists working with writers) that have grown out of the fruitful minds of Margo Little, president of the Manitoulin Writers’ Circle, and Nicole Weppler, curator of the Gore Bay Museum.

The board game was their third, and most ambitious, collaboration although the epic project began innocently enough. The theme of the 2010 cross-pollination project was “A Tour in Time” but when Ms. Weppler passed this information on to Mr. Edwards and Ms. Seabrook they both happened to take note of an old steamer trunk on display at the museum in Gore Bay. Both artists had the same thought, “we have to do something with, or around, this,” they told The Expositor on Sunday in an interview in Ms. Seabrook’s spacious workroom.

The antique steamer trunk led to the initial thought, “how did people get to Manitoulin?” and then the idea of a board game began to evolve with its focus Manitoulin Island and its period 1870 to 1899, the era of the greatest influx of settlers of European descent following the 1862 Manitoulin Treaty that set aside lands for First Nation Reserves, created townships and laid the grounds for the surveying of the land within the townships for settlement, almost exclusively by farmers.

In keeping with the rigors and perils of early settlement, each player receives one “homestead” card. There are question cards and, as pioneer settlers dealt through a land agent (often the Indian Agent) to buy land, in every match someone is designated as “Land Agent” who, according to the rule book “administers items and plays the game,” also distributing to each participant in a given session the game’s elements that include: one playing piece (a sort of small pawn) and homestead marker in the same colour, one homestead card, five land cards, 12 shinplasters (this is the currency of the game and is based on paper money with a value of 25 cents that was part of Canada’s currency system until it was phased out in the 1930s).

Other of the game’s elements (that are used by all players) include a sturdy game board, a set of nearly 100 post cards of various historic views of Manitoulin, nearly all based on actual post cards. (Each card is numbered and corresponds to a square on the “road” that follows the game-based map of Manitoulin and includes all of her communities, post and present. There is a question book, and participant’s fortunes rise and fall as they answer the questions that are posed by the Land Agent. The questions are based on the squares one’s market may fall on and its corresponding postcard photo. There are also land cards and fortune cards and all of this will make sense when you get a copy of the game or attend one of the open house events this weekend.

The game, in its infancy, was on display at last fall’s Gore Bay Museum Cross Pollination event, but it had a long way to go “to get the bugs ironed out.”

The original game was much more basic and had a “trivial pursuit” feel, Mr. Edwards explained, noting that when they played this version with some friends of Ms. Seabrook’s who were visiting, their comment was that “it’s fine, but why would we play it again?”

Mr. Seabrook and Mr. Edwards said they realized then that they would have to add many more dimensions in order to keep the game current, with new information and challenges so people would want to play it again and again.

Mr. Edwards said they were told by board game insiders that “to get a new game figured out, you have to play it 1,000 times,” to determine what touches need to be added or taken away. The pair haven’t quite reached the 1,000 mark but Ms. Seabrook said her sister and brother-in-law Joanne and Jim Smith have played it more than anyone and have been very helpful in the development process.

The game has been pared down to a manageable size from the vast amount of lore that Ms. Seabrook accumulated but, as both Ms. Seabrook and Mr. Edwards note, much of the game’s charm derives from conversations that inevitably develop during play because someone knows (and wants to tell) a story similar or parallel to one of the questions in the guide, either from the same area of Manitoulin or from the same era but from another part of Ontario or Canada (and this happened several times during this interview, as a matter of fact).
The games come attractively packaged in canvas bags (the same grade of canvas that an artist would paint on, Mr. Edwards observes) that were all sewn by My Ol’ Blues in Gore Bay.

The name of the game and a stylized sailboat are stenciled on the bag by Mr. Edwards son, who designed and cut the stencil and is a student at the Ontario College of Art and Design.

The printing of the paper pieces, (including the shinplasters, which have a currency-like feel) was handled by O.J. Graphix, Espanola’s printer, who also looked after having the game boards printed on sturdy double-walled Cora-Plast).

Mr. Edwards said although the object was to produce the games on or as close to Manitoulin as possible, the playing pieces (that resemble miniature pawns from a chess game) had to be sourced in Nova Scotia.

The first 50 games that the pair ordered are nearly all sold but they plan on having a second run of 50 available for this weekend’s open houses. The games sell at $95, which is almost what the games cost to produce.

They are, however, colourful, durable and, above all, interesting and bound to engender new stories among the players.

Ms. Seabrook, a retired teacher, observes that the games could easily be used in schools to teach local history.

The games will be available for purchase from Ms. Seabrook at her home in Mindemoya and from Mr. Edwards at his studio in Kagawong