The strategy board game Feudal, first published in 1967 by 3M, is essentially chess on a map. Like chess, the pieces move on a grid, but there are a few additional pieces (like an archer) and the grid contains some terrain elements which restrict movement. Before the game begins each player can also place an immovable "castle" anywhere on his side of the board in a way which takes advantage of the terrain.

When I was a teenager, my friend Bill Lortz and I used to play this game, and became quite adept at exploiting the terrain in surprising ways. Eventually, we began to wish that we could make our own board, a bigger board with more interesting terrain variations. It then occurred to us that our board could be fully three dimensional, with canyons and plateaus and bridges and winding mountain paths.

We had limited resources, so decided to make the game out of inexpensive particle board. Although particle board is relatively easy to cut and drill holes into, it's also rather heavy. Our board, which was something like three feet wide by six feet long with mountains that rose a foot above the canyon floor, soon became almost too heavy to lift. We set up on a picnic table in my basement and made liberal use of my father's circular saw. Soon there was sawdust and scraps of wood everywhere.

But before we could start sawing, we had to have a map, and that was actually the heart of our little project. Here, for comparison, is the original Feudal game board. Impassable mountains are in dark green and the striped squares indicate rough terrain (which the faster-moving mounted pieces may not cross).

Bill and I spent many rainy afternoons sketching out our own design. We got some big sheets of butcher paper so we could draw to scale. The idea was to create a topographical map with each gradation equal to the thickness of our particle boards. Each board would be cut to follow the elevation lines, and the boards would then be glued together to form canyons, lakes, and mountains.

The central challenge was to incorporate as many dramatic features as possible while maintaining a balance between the two halves of the board, so that players would not come to favor one side or the other. We created new innovations like "golden paths" that would speed movement of the king, and made sure that both sides had the same amount of gold. We thought of clever ways to enhance the presentaion of features like lakes and forests without impeding the free movement of pieces. And we expanded the rules.

The more we worked on the map, the more real it became to us, and we began to daydream about the all the fun we would have then the board was finally ready to receive its first pieces. We each secretly began planning ways of exploiting the map: the guarding of bridges, the secreting away of forces in hidden mountain passages, dramatic charges across the central plain, ingenious placement of castles on pinacles or islands. This led to ever more delicate negotiations over the precise shape and properties of each feature. After much happy work, we finally settled on the following map (click to see a larger view):

We then set to work cutting wood and at first made good progress. We completed the canyon and "lonely mountain"; both turned out beautifully. But the construction was more tedious and time-consuming than we had expected and, gradually, we started to lose interest. It also became clear that even if we finished the thing, it would be almost too heavy to move. And the particle board was already starting to crumble at the edges.

In the final analysis, I think the real joy of this project was in the making of the map. Once that was done, the rest was anti-climatic. And no object of wood, however polished, could begin to approach our sweet imagination.

For many years pieces of the board floated about the basement, much to my parents' annoyance. Gradually, they all disappeared. I also lost track of the map, and forgot about it for more than a decade. Occasionally, when visiting home, I would look for it to no avail. When my mother finally sold the house after my father's death, I asked her to keep an eye out as she scoured it clean. It was only at the last moment that she uncovered it, stuffed on a shelf in the back of a closet.

I then scanned it in pieces to assemble a digital copy which is now preserved here for the ages. Someday I would like to recreate this small world as a virtual reality and fly through it on imaginary wings. I even have the faint hope that someone will find it here and be inspired to create an electronic version of the game using this map. Until then it will remain a stage without actors and the only surviving remnant of a glorious dream.