Oct 3 2013

Hey Gabe.

(In response to this blog.)

A couple years ago I launched my first board game. It was a success with Kickstarter and the critics, but not the marketplace. These are the lessons I learned from that first experience. It’s what I keep reminding myself as I test the next batch of prototypes.

This is what I’ve got to say, one first-time-and-out-the-other-side designer to you, in the middle of your first time. This isn’t the masterclass. It’s not the stuff that’ll make all the difference once you have the basics down. It is the basics. The stuff you want someone to tell you first.

The Most Important Thing


You’re a veteran of many games, and odds are, your instinct is to make a Gamer’s Game: Something rich and deep with layers of nuance that are revealed play after play. Games that anybody can master in five minutes rarely hold your interest.

The thing is, it’s really, really hard to write a game like that in a way that new players will get into. Especially coming at this with a background of computer games, where the mechanics are handled for you. And roleplaying games, where having a shelf of books with bonus mechanics to dive into when you’re ready is a plus. For board and card game, engaging with the mechanics is the play. If a player can load that ruleset into their head without confusion, they’ll enjoy their first play and come back for more.

So be merciless. Trim elements from your game until you find the minimal heart of that sparks the fun, with every other element set to the side. Once you’ve found that, you can start putting the trimmed elements back in, one at a time. You’ll see which ones give you the most bang for your buck, and which ones are the stumbling blocks for new players.

You can always make it more complex in an expansion. There will be game mechanics that you love, but that new players stumble on. Those can come back later, once your player has mastered the core game and they’re hungry for more. With your audience, you won’t even have to wait: You can bundle expansions as stretch rewards that your Kickstarter campaign is sure to hit.

Brace Yourself

Your game is already more complex than you know. The coming step – making your game ready to play without you there to teach it – is going to rub your nose in it. Be ready, ‘cause the next section of development can be a slog if you don’t force it to stay fun.

First off, writing everything down is going to point out every assumption you made about what the players already knew, and how much harder it is to explain things in a one-size-fits-all rulebook. The silver lining is, when you’re not there, the players don’t get to interrupt you for explaining things. You get to set the training down in Your Ideal Way.

Part two of why this step wants to be a slog is the criticism. Starting from “We couldn’t understand it” and working your way up to “There’s a contradiction on page 7”, this step is all about reacting to negative feedback. Not inherently fun.

Turns out, writing a game down well is nearly as much work as inventing the game in the first place.

Rules You Can Break

One you should, one you shouldn’t.

The Rulebook Should Take As Much Work As The Game

Or for you, maybe not.

You can hand this one off to a pro. Normally a new designer starting out would be stuck with this step, but you’ve already got the industry contacts that developer-publishers will line up to polish your game and get the publishing contract.

Taking critique on your writing is hard when it’s your game, your baby. But hand it off to another developer and it’s a job with problems to be solved. They don’t have your emotional investment, and they’ve leveled up from doing this many times before. Of course, they’ll want a cut. A big one. But you’ve got leverage to negotiate with and having someone else handle the steps going forward will free you up to get back to design.

The Printing Cost Should Be 15-20% of the MSRP

That’s the rule of thumb for the hobby game industry. There’s so much more to say about this, but that’s the short version. What you need to know as a designer is that every part adds up. Every card, every punchboard, every die-cut-pattern, every bit. Once you’ve written your own game, you might start to marvel at the economy of components that hit games are made with.

There’s a couple ways you can estimate the costs of your game.

The first step, either way, is to figure out exactly what parts have to be made. Clear off a table. Unbox your prototype completely and set it into piles: board, cards, tokens, wooden/plastic parts. Write down that list. Remember the other parts that aren’t in your playtest kit yet: The rulebook and box liner. And the box.

Step two, version one: Find a game in your collection with nearly identical or slightly more components. Your MSRP will be about the same as its.

Step two, version two: Fire off a letter to a printer with your parts list, and ask for a quote request in two versions: 2,000 and 5,000 copies printed. 2,000 is a normal size first-print for a hobby game, to test market reception. 5,000 is a healthy size reprint for a game that the market has picked up.

For a first print quote request, I’d recommend Ludofact of Germany. They’re great about breaking the print quote down by parts, showing you what is adding to the cost of your game. And they’ve printed more than half the Spiel des Jahres winning games of the last 30 years: They’re proven veterans.

With a quote like that in hand, you can go back and take a second serious look at which parts of your game are the core, and what parts are delivering the most fun in the space remaining.

Now the 15-20% rule is one you can break: With your audience and the interest you’ve built blogging about this game for more than a year, your game should Kickstart strong enough to justify a 5,000+ copy print run immediately. That’ll lower your per-copy-cost below what a publisher could normally plan around.

Also, the 15-20% rule is built on the economics of selling publisher to distributor to brick&mortar merchant. (Optional extra step: Add “fulfillment house” in between publisher and distributor.) For your Kickstarted batch, you’re selling direct to the customer. Your leftover profit margin is much higher. You’ll be tempted to expand the game back to it’s full original version, with all the stuff you had to cut.


That margin is your bankroll for keeping your game in print, and adding stretch rewards for your backers. These bonus rewards can be expansions for later buyers, or convention giveaways, or other promo items. You’ve made it this far with the core game simple. Keep it simple! If you build the core game to the point that the economics only work with a 5,000 copy print run and direct-sales-to-buyers, then you’ll have a devil of a time keeping it in print after the KS campaign is done. You’ll also be no friend to the hobby stores that you’d like to carry your game. If your economics still work with 2,000 copy print runs, your bases are covered for most any future.

So that’s it: Tabletop Game Design for Publishing, the Going From Alpha To Beta, What I Wish Someone Had Told Me.

No, wait, one last rule. The most important one.

Keep having fun. As long as you’re still having fun, you’ll keep at it ‘til it’s right. As long as you keep having fun, you’ll take a 20 on your roll.

Keep up the good work.

Aug 14 2013

Shanghai Magicraft – Tour Report Pull Note

By request of the business, I’ve pulled the report on Shanghai Magicraft’s factory from the tour reports. There wasn’t anything scandalous in it. The owner just said that he’d rather have a report on his new facilities after he expanded his business.

Jun 10 2013

3D Printing for Games, Part 2

Part 2a: Alternatives to FDM : The Formlabs Form 1

When the patents ran out on FDM-style 3D printing, there was a rush of little companies and hobbyists that moved into the space. They brought the costs down fast, and they’ve been competing and cooperating ever since to improve the technology.

But FDM isn’t the only 3D printing technique out there, and some of the alternatives have some real advantages. However, most of the other 3D printing techniques are out of reach for the average game designer. Most of these techniques are still under patent protection, and available only as machines costing in the neighborhood of $100,000. Or they have been picked up by a much smaller section of the hobby market and aren’t as well developed in the open source community: It’ll take far more dedication and expertise to put one together on the cheap.

There are two 3D printing developments that hold great promise for board game prototyping that you should have an eye on:

1) Formlabs soon-to-arrive Form 1 printer, which uses SLA (Stereolithography) rather than FDM techniques, and is expected to be available for ~3,300$ in August of this year.

The Formlabs printer looks very promising, though with only videos of prototypes to judge from, it’s all speculation at this point. In theory (and from the videos), their new, affordable SLA style printer should open up higher resolution, more reliable 3D printing to the masses. It’ll still be slow, use expensive materials to print, and require some (less?) hand-work after the print to clean up. But SLA can produce smooth models where FDM leaves lines, sometimes gaps, on the model that are visible to the naked eye.

I’m also keeping an eye on Formlabs to see if they make it at all. After the close of the Kickstarter campaign that funded their first line of printers, they got slapped with a lawsuit from the 600 pound gorilla of the 3D printing industry: 3D Systems.

3D Systems claims that Formlabs made use of some of their not-yet-expired patents in making the Form1 printer. I’m not in a position to judge the merits of that claim, but I do make strong objection to one thing 3D Systems did in pursuing the suit. They not only sued Formlabs, but Kickstarter as well. That’s just evil. Attacking a company that has enabled so much progress is already an immoral move. Holding them responsible for evaluating the Intellectual Property standing of anyone who applies to run a crowdfunding campaign could kill the whole industry, if a judge lets it happen.

Will Formlabs survive their lawsuit from 3D Systems? Is there any merit to it, or is it just an attempt to stifle an up-and-coming competitor that charges 1/30th the price for a printer that 3D Systems does? I’ll be keeping my eyes on the case for the answers to those questions.

Part 2b: Alternatives to FDM : Shapeways.com

Shapeways is a 3D printing shop that will print most any 3D technique for you, for the right price. You don’t have to worry about the technical details. You just upload a model, choose your material from a list, and pay a pretty penny. Some weeks later, the completed print shows up in the mail.

Shapeways is available now. They’ve been in the industry for years, in fact. They make 3D printing as painless as it can be, as long as you don’t mind paying one-off prices for high-tech products. (Read: Not Cheap.) And as long as you don’t mind your print job being in a couple-week-deep queue before it gets printed, and then taking a few days more in the mail.

They can print in plastic, metal, or more exotic materials. You don’t need to know anything about 3D printing to use them. You just upload a model file and give them your credit card number, and you’re off.

As ouch-not-cheap as Shapeways is, the price is fair. We’re dealing with new technologies and one-off jobs here. Their cost in skilled labor and keeping up with technology is nothing to deride. And if you want to go it yourself with your own home printer after seeing their prices, calculate the break-even price on how much you’d have to print to make it worthwhile. Include the cost of your time, the cost of the plastic (which is surprisingly expensive) and the cost of your time to learn and maintain the printer. These are bleeding-edge devices that require some TLC to keep in working order. You may find that Shapeways is a better deal than they look at first glance.

Part 2c: Alternatives to FDM : The Fringe of the 3D Printing World

There are MANY other ways to print in 3D.

You can have a bed of powdered material, and then harden it into the shape you want, one layer at a time countless ways:

… you can harden a bed of metal by welding (actually, sintering) it together with a laser. This technique is called “SLS” (Selective Laser Sintering) and it’s a much beloved technique among high-tech artists. The cost per piece keeps it out of the hands of most of the rest of us.

…. you can harden a bed of concrete or plaster of paris by simply wetting it in the desired shape. One hobbyist at this years Make: Hardware Innovation Workshop was showing off a 3D printer made on this design using a hacked inkjet cartridge to deliver the water on target!

… you can have a 3D printer lay down epoxy onto a bed of powdered stone to create faux-granite. The D-Shape printer proposes to do this at the scale of whole buildings: You’d assemble the printer atop the foundation of a new house. A week or two later, drain off the leftover powdered stone leaving the walls, stairways, and electrical conduits of a building standing at the center, ready to be wired, windowed, and finished.

… you can fuse sugar into a solid model with a heat gun; essentially an industrial strength hair dryer. The “CandyFab” does this. Or you can do a similar technique in glass: One artist at last year’s Burning Man used sunlight, redirected and concentrated with mirrors and lenses, to melt sand into primitive glass 3D models.

Once you start to wrap your head around the core ideas of 3D printing, and break it down to its component parts: A material to be fused, a way of fusing it, and computer control of the fusing process, the number of ways the idea can be remixed are limitless. For now, FDM, with its syringe of molten plastic, is what’s available at hobbyist prices. But the horizon looks promising indeed.

The 3D Print and Play industry is just starting. Hobbyists who have 3D printers want things to print, and we’re starting to see some games to fill that gap. The game designer provides the 3D models files and the rules. The hobbyist downloads them and prints them off at home.

Pocket Tactics got some headlines for this recently:

Also, if you’re in the market for a 3D printer right now, pardon me a moment while I pimp my friends:

Type A Machines won Best-In-Class for their “Series 1” printer in Make: magazine’s special-issue rounding up 3D printers. It’s be hard to go wrong with them for budgets between one and two thousand dollars. On top of that, they just got an Editor’s Choice blue ribbon at MakerFaire this last weekend for their newest model. (Not even on the website yet: Last Saturday was the big reveal.)

I’m biased, because their office is the next door down from mine and because they’re incredibly nice, smart people.


Jun 10 2013

3D Printing for Games

Part 1: Should I 3D Print My Game

The short answer: For a prototype? Maybe! For mass market? Nooooo…..

With current costs and technology, 3D printers for a mass-market board game aren’t even close to practical.

The current kind of 3D printer you can buy completed or as a kit for under $2,000 is an “FDM” printer. It builds up plastic models in layers, laying down a single thread of plastic to slowly build up shapes. It’s an awesome tech with many uses, but it has several major limitations that make it useless for mass producing a game, or most anything else:

a) The cost of the plastic is very high: ~40$/kg Home filament makers like the “Filastruder” may bring this drastically down in the coming year.

b) The resolution is visible to the naked eye, and requires fine tuning to optimize, including retuning with each new roll of plastic loaded.

c) The prints are slow. A single chess pawn might take 15 to 30 minutes to print on a typical FDM printer. That’s a full day to print a single chess set. Conventional injection molding machines could turn out hundreds or thousands of sets in a day.

d) Hand labor is still needed to clean up many shapes of print after the fact. If your shape has an overhang in it, there needs to be a support “raft” under the overhang that you trim away after the print is done. FDM printers can’t lay down shapes floating in open air: They have to lay the shape down onto something. Say you want to make a model of a man pointing off into the distance, his arm straight out? You’ll click the “support” box on in your printer software so it can build a raft under the outstretched arm, and then you’ll trim it off by hand when the print is done.

Slight overhangs are fine: Anything up to ~ a 45 degree angle the printer can build on the layer before. But a sharp overhang demands a raft, and that means hand labor to fix up after the print is done.

e) FDM printers need frequent maintenance to unjam the extruder heads, etc.

For these and other reasons, injection molding for plastic components, with its high up-front cost will likely remain the technology of choice for the foreseeable future.

How long is the foreseeable future? Like, at LEAST 6 months. 😉

FDM printing is an awesome technology, but it has its limitations to be aware of. For now, it’s best for prototyping components and making sure your models look good, balance right, play right, etc. As expensive as the tooling costs for injection molding are, it gets the job done for mass production. FDM printing might be appropriate 10 to 50 sets for beta testing or an extremely limited release. But even then, you might be better served by using off-the-shelf & repurposed components.

Feb 25 2011

Thornhenge LLC is an Oakland California based company that makes games. Our first game is “Lyssan”, a strategy boardgame for 2 to 4 players. Check it out at Lyssan.com.

And thanks for stopping by!