Factory Tours

Want to make games? Understanding how the actual physical parts are manufactured can only help. You’ll have a better idea what can be done, and why some things are more expensive. You know what parts you should think twice about, play-value vs. dollar-cost, before letting them stay in a design.

Also, it helps to know who you can partner with, and have some idea who to include on the quote round for each game.


  1. Individual Factory Reviews
  2. My Approach to Reviews
  3. Working Conditions in China
  4. What Can These Factories Do?

Individual Factory Reviews

These are the five companies I got to tour:

Those are links. Go ahead and click them. Or read the general notes below, first.

All these reviews come from the Summer of 2013, when I took a month in China. While there, I asked publisher friends which factories they wanted to see toured and reported on. Six names came back: the five I got to tour, plus Whatz Games of Shanghai. Whatz stated early on that they’d only be able to show me around if their current job completed ahead of schedule, as the client they were currently printing for had extra secrecy requirements. That didn’t happen.

My Approach To Reviews

My goal is to provide you with an insight into these different printers, especially if you’re a game publisher. I want to give you useful information when choosing who to include on the quote round for your next game. To that end, I wanted to highlight the unique strengths, as best I could tell, of each company. I also made sure to point out at least one thing you’d want to take extra care with, with each one, even the companies I especially liked. No one was allowed to get a perfectly glowing review. That was the plan from the start: Everyone got their strengths highlighted, and at least one weakness flagged.

All the reviews were held for publication until all five tours were complete. I didn’t want the businesses who came later to have an unfair advantage of knowing what I paid attention to when they were leading my tour. Each business got to see a password-protected preview of their review, and make comments or corrections, prior to publication. Longer responses appear at the end of the articles, separate from my observations.

I also offered each company the chance to pull any pictures from the reviews that might violate client confidentiality. None did. In some cases, I wrote the publishing companies directly, getting their blessing before showing their games being printed.

All tours were arranged in advance. It was just me asking questions and taking pictures; no fact-checkers came behind me to check out what I’d been told.

Working Conditions

Let’s talk about my prejudices going into these tours. I printed my first game in China, with Panda. I’d pulled all the games out of my own play collection whose print quality impressed me, and dug up the printer names for as many of them as I could ferret out. Panda came up repeatedly, along with a handful of others, and Panda won the quote round, for their responsiveness as much as for their price.

Now, I love the radio show “This American Life”. A few months after I inked the deal with Panda, T.A.L. repeated a story from Mike Daisy about inhumane conditions at Chinese computer factories. And then I didn’t sleep so well. Were conditions at game factories like they were at the electronic factories that Mike Daisy was reporting on? How could I find out? Not long after, T.A.L. retracted the story, saying they’d been had. On further investigation, Mike Daisy had been caught making up all the key bits of his story.

My game printing went ahead. People came up to me at GenCon, PAX and Essen, and told me that Lyssan was their favorite project that they’d ever backed on Kickstarter, and how beautiful the game was. But I knew I had to get to China, and see the factories for myself. I had to know who treated their workers well, who didn’t, and who I wanted to be in bed with business-wise.

Get to the Point

What I saw were, I believe, reasonable conditions. Out of five factories, I didn’t see a one that I would call a sweatshop. Now, I toured during the hottest summer in the history of the world, and not all of the factories had air conditioning, but they had high ceilings and plenty of ventilation. Which is to say that those factories were as (un)comfortable as the high school I went to, growing up in Alabama. Or as comfortable as some factories in the U.S., still.

Also, China is pretty laid back about dress code. There were plenty of guys with their shirts off, and girls in short skirts, keeping cool as best you could expect. And despite the demands of the pre-convention season, nobody was being pushed to work especially hard or fast that I saw. Everything looked pretty reasonable. Some folks looked bummed out by the daily grind, and others looked happy to be working alongside their friends.

The other hot-button I had an eye out for was child labor. In touring five factories, I saw hundreds of workers. I saw one child. I’d guess she was 12. And the first thing I have to tell you is that she looked really, really happy.

Maybe I’m being optimistic, but my gut instinct is that I didn’t stumble into a case of child labor. I think I was looking at someone’s kid sister who they’d brought in to keep her from being bored at home during summer vacation. A guy, maybe her older brother, was in the chair next to her. He didn’t look like a boss. And she didn’t look like she was anything less than thrilled to be playing with the big kids. She was comfortable. She wasn’t near anything I’d call dangerous machinery. All she was doing was stacking up game boards. I’d only been studying Mandarin Chinese for the last three months, so I didn’t know enough to ask her directly, and I didn’t see an effective way to investigate further. I didn’t see a way I was going to get a more trustworthy story than her smile.

Want to talk about it, and get some questions answered? EMail me: sam (at) thornhenge (dot) com. We’ll set up a time to talk directly, on Skype, or at a convention. I’d rather have this conversation face to face than on forums online. If you want to know more, write me and we’ll talk.

What Can These Factories Do?

First off, not a single factory does every part of every game you could dream up in-house. For exotic parts, they’ll all be sourcing some game bits from other specialist businesses.

The most common rig in the larger factories was to have one or more offset printers capable of turning out thousands high-quality prints per hour after the print job was tuned and locked in. They’d also have the machinery to laminate those prints onto game boxes and punchboards, and the die cutters to turn those boards into boxes and token sheets. Also, most larger factories had equipment to fold and bind (rule)books from prints. Finally, every factory I toured had one or more assembly lines that could be repurposed for a variety of tasks, including final assembly of a game from its myriad components.

Typically, wooden and plastic parts were sourced from allied businesses, as was anything more exotic. Most factories had the capacity to double-cut decks of cards. Single-cut cards are cheaper and faster to make however, so many of the factories would outsource card printing to specialists, even when they had the capability to print decks in-house.

In many cases, these businesses would sub-contract with allies when business was overflowing. Even if you contract with one printer, it’s possible that parts of the job will be shopped out to an ally, even if your game contains no exotic components.

Take Me Back to the Individual Reviews