Sunday, March 10, 2013

Making a Board Game, Part I

Hey there, folks. J here to let you know about something that maybe crosses the line from fun, nerdy craft and into mild mental illness: designing your own board game. It's not like we're living in a golden age of board games, with fun and exciting games released every month, and new ones being written, winning awards, and getting translated into English every year. Sometimes, you have to take that DIY aesthetic one step further: I looked at the world, didn't see something I wanted, and decided to make it myself. What's the worst thing that could happen?

You'll Need:
  • Paper and cardstock
  • Thin cardboard (the ubiquitous Cheez-It box over here)
  • Foamcore
  • Spray adhesive
  • Card sleeves
  • An assortment of dice, beads, and parts from lesser games
  • A box to hide it all in
  • A printer, cutting tools, rulers or straight edges

[Disclaimer: On no level am I suggesting that you violate someone's copyright and print out a complete copy of someone else's intellectual property and cut out the middle man on board gaming. I offer this information for like-minded individuals who might want a hand producing more durable pieces for private collections and prototyping purposes.] 

To be clear, I'm not going to start with the philosophy of game design and the thought process that lead to this particular game just yet. There are literally entire books on that as a subject, and while I am more than willing to discuss them with you (particularly if you want to fund an independent board game), now just isn't the time for it. Maybe later, if there's a clamor for it. No, for now, we'll be discussing the actual production of a test model. Say, if you wanted to make parts for a play test copy of someone else's game... Or pieces for something of your own.

In the past, I've used these same techniques for small character sheets or tokens for roleplaying and war games, additional pieces for adventure games like HeroQuest or Pirates of the Spanish Main, things like that. Sculpting your own miniatures or 3D printing all your needed pieces would be fun, but either incredibly time-consuming or cheating. (And, depending on the game, actually illegal.) We won't be talking about mold-making or re-casting on this one, so no worries there.

There's already a write-up on this topic on WikiHow, but it pretty much completely leaves out how to actually do any of the steps described, so I'm here to fill in some gaps. Once I had a version of the rules I liked, I started playing with the needed elements of the game: Cards and tokens. I initially drafted some cards in Publisher (though any word processor or graphic program will do, so long as you can define sizes) and printed them double-sided on cardstock and cut them out on our paper cutter. I took the extra step of using a papercraft punch of A's and filleting the corners off to a perfect quarter circle. It was sexy, professional, and a complete waste.

This is what "sexy" looks like to nerds.
Shortly into our first playtest, notes were being made directly on the cards. This would warrant re-making the cards every time and the cardstock budget would eventually become an issue. Double-sided color printing was simply not going to be a practice I could keep up throughout the whole endeavor. As a result, the simpler approach was to print everything single-sided on regular paper, cut on the cutter, and slipped into cheap card sleeves. (Those say they're for baseball cards, but I'll bet the market's more a fan of Magic than Mariners.) You can find those sleeves lots of places, but the easiest for me to find them was a board game and card shop. A pack of "penny sleeves" (as they're known among card people) is exactly that: $1 for 100. They're disposable, compared to the sturdier ones sold for tournament decks. Not that, uh, I know anything about that. Moving on!

Once you have your two-sided printing sorted, it lets you keep some blanks on hand cheaply to add during your playtest process and makes shuffling less of a chore. You never appreciate the satin finish of professional playing cards more than when you run smack into cheap cardstock cards. Similarly, paper tokens are the absolute worst for board games. They are too easy to destroy, don't pick up easily, and rarely hide what's printed on the other side convincingly. So it's on to a more permanent solution: cardboard tokens. If you have an industrial printer that you can feed cardboard into, go ahead and do that. For everyone else, it's a bit more of a process.

I print the fronts and backs of my tokens on cardstock even though they'll end up on cardboard because I think they'll be a little more durable and it makes trimming and shaping the printed parts a little easier during assembly. If you are a real pro, you can lay out your tokens sheets as mirror images of each other, with plenty of "bleed" (printed run off) to account for slight differences in printing and assembly so you can lay a full sheet of paper on each side, cut them out and everything lines up like magic. My experiences with this process have been a little less than perfect, so I do my tokens in small clumps: six or so tokens of the same kind with a similar back for the other side. It also means I can pick out the prime real estate on my sheet of cardboard (which in its previous life as a Cheez-It or cereal box might have gotten pretty beat up).

Once so trimmed, spray the back of your paper with spray adhesive in an area with good ventilation. I believe I've mentioned before that I hold my paper with a dedicated pair of needle-nose pliers to keep my hands from getting all gluey. Once glued, smooth the paper down on your card board and trim to shape. From there, it should be easier to spray the printed token backs and square it up with the cardboard rectangle. I prefer to attach the business end of the token (the game info side) to the printed side of the cardboard and the backs to the inner brown side of the cardboard. This way, you can't remember if the UPC peeking through your paper means you're looking at the such-and-such bonus. Cardstock helps fix this problem, as does using matteboard or something that doesn't have a printed surface on one side, but I know I'm going to make a couple copies of this game, so cheaper is better for a prototype piece that may only get used a few times before it gets written out of the game.

The excess on the back is the bleed I trim off for borderless tokens.
For the board itself, I printed two sheets of cardstock with the board halves (sized in a graphic program) and trimmed the edges that needed to touch. On a wide-format 11x17 printer I would have been fine, but alas A & I don't have such a beast. So I cut a piece of foamcore to 11"x16.5" and cut almost the whole way through the foamcore board to leave the back piece of paper intact so I can fold the board in half to put it in a box. Few things bring it home that you're working on a board game like having a board that folds down the middle just like every game you played growing up.

Without this, it's just a "-game."
For all the bits and bobs that you can print on cardboard (or need 50 of and do not wish to cut out), begin by raiding your hobby supplies. Colored plastic pony beads provide the bulk of my little greeblies, and a few different copies of RISK provided the remainder. Consider also those glass gaming stones (or their cheaper hobby store cousins, the decorative glass gem) or plastic pirate coins from a dollar store. Army men can stand in for miniatures and some gaming stores sell bags of painted wooden meeples or plastic zombies for use in a variety of games. Think simple and cheap for a prototype, as you never know what elements will make it all the way through. Raid other games and pull whatever you think you won't miss for the playtesting duration. (I own four copies of RISK, so I remain confident I can make it work if I'm missing even a whole army's worth)

When it's all said and done, my prototype currently uses over 60 cards, a dozen dice, well over a hundred plastic and wooden bits in six different colors and a few dozen printed tokens. Total cost? A couple bucks in foamcore and card sleeves. Including spray adhesive and paper costs I already incurred by living my hobby lifestyle, I still have a unique board game experience for under the retail cost of a new game. Now just to knuckle down for the hours and hours of playtesting it'll take to make sure someone else wants to put up with it*.

Future installments will cover creating your own artwork, negotiating the difficulties of playtesting, and how to move forward with producing the game... As soon as I figure out how to do that.

*Speaking of which, if you are interested in being among the playtesters of my game, Cabal, contact me via the With Our Powers Combined Facebook page. I'll hook you up with further information. There's totally a thank you in the rulebook in it for you!

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