Bored? Nerd? Here are some transport-themed games to play

Cards from the proposed MetRum game. Image: Richard Boreham.

Transport links have been inspiring armchair adventurers since their inception. From Around the World in 80 Days to the Thomas Cook European Timetable, the next best thing to hopping on the fast train to the continent has been daydreaming about it.

Board games inspired by travel fit neatly with this: it’s just a case of a few more armchairs, some friends to daydream with, and port and cheese if you’re really going for it. Think Ticket to Ride, Rivers, Roads and Rails or the map-geek element of Risk.

Obviously we’re three paragraphs into a CityMetric article, so readers will be asking, “Where’s the tube map angle?” and the answer is right here. Metrum is a card game based on the iconic Harry Beck tube map: think rummy for transport nerds. The pack consists of underground stations on various lines, drivers (like jokers) and ghost stations which enable you steal cards from other players. What better way to start a row about the optimal place to change with your friends, or instruct small children in the hierarchy of tube lines (Victoria Line FTW).

Alas, for those of you wanting to rush out and buy a pack, there’s a slight hiccup: it’s not in production yet. Designer Richard Boreham did a Kickstarter campaign before Christmas but unfortunately got held at a red signal at 58 per cent; he’s not sure the pricing model was right, and notes that Kickstarter isn’t the first place people go to looking for board games.

The video promoting the kickstarter.

“I think the appeal is probably more for tourists, actually, people going to the London Transport Museum.” he said. “If you wanted it to sell you’d kind of want it with TfL branding, it would look a bit more official.” Sounds like a great idea, though, so if TfL, or any eccentric millionaires who love transport-themed game evenings are reading do get in touch.

In the absence of funding to produce the cards, he’s working on an electronic version to make available through TableTopia, where board game enthusiasts can play their favourites virtually, rather than plunge back into another Kickstarter. “Going through the hoops of doing social media doesn’t appeal,” he added. “It’s much more interesting for me to go and create the game electronically.” His post on diversity in board games, and how he came to redesign the driver cards, is also well worth a read.

While he works on that, there are plenty of other public transport-themed amusements around. Ravensburger’s Scotland Yard – which won the 1983 Spiel des Jahres, a sort of nerdalicious Oscar for board games – involves the players tracking secret agent Mr X through London, knowing only what mode of transport he has taken. It’s noteworthy not just for its beautiful map of central London but also how hard it is for Mr X to escape.

If it’s a London-centric game you’re looking for, the people behind Smoke: A London Peculiar created Soho!, a game of skill and judgement inspired by the two things this corner of the capital is most famous for: its pubs, and its one-way system. The players are literary magazine editors struggling to round up the articles promised by a “motley bunch of recalcitrant writers”. It even includes Boris bikes as an option for getting from A to B.


Another transport-theme classic is Ticket to Ride. This involves building cross-continental railways networks with grand 19th-Century maps and fiddly little train carriages just the right size to send flying when making post-port emphatic gestures.

It’s more complicated than Scotland Yard – it could be called Settlers of Ca-train, to be honest – but is also great, tactical fun. It also, in the Nordic version, adds further to the fascinating and under-reported “is Estonia Nordic” debate with an emphatic “jah”. And if public transport isn’t your thing, Mille Bornes is the classic French card game where you compete to win a 1000 km road race.

All of these successes show there’s an appetite for transport-based board games, so let’s hope Metrum gets a second wind. In the meantime it’s back to leafing through the collected works of Mark Ovenden, listening to Ewan Campbell and snuggling up under this tube-theme bed linen.

And at the risk of sounding like an inspirational talk about failure, the game’s creator had a good time, and hopes the electronic format will allow fans to play. “For some people it’s the best thing ever, but that group of people is quite small,” he concludes. “Very, very, enthusiastic but also quite small.”

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A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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