Game on as local woman launches ‘ActiVacation’

Mullingar woman Ursula Kane-Cafferty is adamant that she doesn’t have the ability to see into the future.

Nonetheless, a board game she finished designing just last March turned out to require just a tiny tweak to become a game that fits in magnificently with the world of travel amid the global Covid pandemic.

‘ActiVacation®’, which she designed using just cardboard and crayons has now become a professionally-boxed and finished game in which players attempt to get to the airport for a flight home before lockdown.

While it may be bang on trend for the weird year that 2020 has turned out to be, the genesis of Ursula’s brilliant suitable-for-all-ages game goes way back to the dark days of the recession of 2008.

“While reading a newspaper article at the start of the recession in 2008, about the number of people who could no longer afford to go abroad on holidays, the brainwave began to develop,” says Ursula, a retired nurse who grew up on Dominick Street, where Con’s pub is now located.

It was her first time to encounter the word “staycation” – and it prompted her to begin designing a game in which children and adults could gather around a table and attempt to ‘earn’ a virtual trip around the world.

The cardboard and crayon prototypes were replaced with versions laminated at home by Ursula, and as the game was played with family, friends and then strangers, refining of the concept took place as it became clear what worked and what didn’t work.

Last year, Ursula decided to go for it and get the game launched commercially.

Planning, testing, design and crowd-funding got under way and Ursula was delighted to find a great local graphic designer, Wojciech Lecki of at Rathgowan Wood, who immediately “got” the concept.

At the beginning of March, everything was ready to go into production, when suddenly, the world changed.

“I finished on March 4, and then Covid hit: from March 11, the schools closed,” Ursula recalls.

“I was kind of stymied: everything had come to a sudden halt. But then Wojciech said we should keep going.

“I thought it was out of date: who was going to want to ‘go on holiday’ when in fact everyone was trying to get home?

“So I then changed the ‘aim’ of the game; I just changed words in it and now players are ‘trying to get home’ after a holiday abroad.

“Penalties and document cards were adjusted, words such as masks and visors, temperature checks, travel restriction and social distancing were introduced and the new aim of the game was born.”

ActiVacation has just now gone on sale – but it is a limited edition release, meaning there are just 500 copies available, some of which were pre-bought by people who supported Ursula’s crowd-funding appeal.

All ages

The game has a couple of unique features, a significant one being that people can take part without being players.

“My mother [retired businesswoman Helen Kane] was alive when it was being developed.

“She really wanted to be part of the fun, but she might get too tired if the game was too long, so the ‘Tour Guide’ role was developed and this role allowed her to be important and to be involved, but not to be essential.

“But there soon was competition for that position from the younger children. And as the game evolved, reading the various cards aloud in a nurturing environment helped build their confidence.

“As time went on we discovered, not only is this game fun for children, teenagers and adults alike, but it is educational.

“As well as encouraging children to read aloud, it involves completing a mini-jigsaw of the continents and answering questions regarding the location of capital cities and the identity of flags of various countries worldwide.

“Natural disaster stops introduce awareness of climate change and environmental issues to the game.

“ActiVacation requires a certain balance of ability, luck, knowledge, scruples and money management: it develops bartering and negotiation skills, teaches strategic planning... and just when the player thinks they have it all sown up, disappointment, when they can find themselves reversing away from their final destination at the airport.

“Believe me it is not for the faint-hearted.”

Shift in focus

The shift in focus to designing board games and writing books (see separate story below) represents quite a move away from medicine, which was where Ursula’s career started.

“I was a nurse and midwife,” she reveals, adding that she turned her hand to writing subsequent to the sudden death in 1999 of her husband, Garda Hugh Cafferty, left her widowed as a young woman.

Ursula’s nursing training was undertaken in Drogheda and she qualified there as a midwife before working for a spell in Tullamore and then getting a job in Mullingar hospital.

“After a few years I took leave of absence and I went out to Zambia and worked for a few years in a mission hospital,” she continues.

In 1986, Ursula was seconded from her nursing position at Mullingar hospital to the task of ‘nurse planner’, which meant she was the “users’ advocate” when a new part of the hospital was being built.

After that, her work was largely on the administration side until she retired from the hospital in 2004 to become the main carer for her late mother.

• ActiVacation is available via