Maintaining the Creative Edge

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boardgame creation

If you are like me, designing games is an enjoyable activity, or at least preferable to doing your taxes (somewhere on Accounting subreddit, a user is cursing my name). I started a game company to design games.

The whole initiative to publish came out of a desire to control all elements of game design. Like most designers looking to self-publish, you will find that you spend a lot less time designing games and a lot more time pouring on all the factors that go into turning an idea into a physical product. Some of these factors include but are not limited to: marketing, manufacturing, collaboration with artists, taxes and banging my head against a wall trying to learn Excel.

Me + Excel


From a personal development standpoint, deciding to self-publish is the right decision. From an enjoyment at creating games standpoint, I find myself going obscene lengths of time without working on game designs.

The trouble is that while going through all the trouble of launching a game, you find yourself having become disconnected from the game design community because…well you haven’t designed games in a while. Your creative edge when it comes to game design has become blunt.

I eventually stumbled across a solution that effectively maintains my abilities as a game designer while still respecting the time limitations I am under.

The solution is the 24 hour game design challenge. The challenge is simple: create a game in 24 hours. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but it has to be playable and the first draft of the rules need to be complete.

There are numerous game design sites hosting challenges with real prizes if you are inclined to share your ideas. Sites such as Board Game Geek post monthly 24 hour contests and The Game Crafter has a variety of design contests as well. You even stand to win a prize to boot, so why not give it a shot?

The 24 hour contest is important not only because it forces you to work quickly and avoid the humming and hawing of game design, but through thematic restrictions that are frequently incorporated into the challenges as well. Stipulating that must design a game with a Gothic theme for example can push you out of your farming (in my case) comfort zone and require that I design in a totally new way.

You can add an additional level of challenge through an idea generator like Boardgamizer. The device is great and throws a theme, mechanic, and victory condition at you along with an option constraint that forces you to design in all sorts of crazy ways.

Try out one of the above 24 hour challenges, dedicate a few hours (or a sleepless night) to pounding out a game. Whether the game is terrific or terrible is irrelevant, the point is that we are flexing our game design muscles, which is why we got into this industry in the first place.

Print and Play Explained in 10 Questions

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Hello aspiring game designers,

The information below is a compilation of information I wish I knew 6 months ago when I began creating my first Print and Play (PnP) game. I am not a graphic designer and this is by no means a comprehensive how-to guide for creating files. It is my hope however, that this guide will help you decide when and why to design a PnP as well as help you avoid some common formatting and design pitfalls.

What the heck is a print-and-play?

A Print-and-Play is a digital file containing all the components of a board game. The file can be shared with enthusiastic players to allow them to print, assemble, and play your game without having to buy a professionally manufactured version.

But I am trying to sell my game, why would I want to let others play my game without giving me money?

There are several reasons for game designers and publishers to use a PnP:

  1. Make additional money

Selling a PnP copy of your game online for a fraction of a retail copy is a way to make money from consumers unwilling or unable to purchase a manufactured copy of the game.* When pricing a PnP, prices are typically low given that customers pay additional costs printing the game. PnP games rarely sell for more than $5 (excluding pen and paper RPG games), but it is still money that you may not otherwise have.

  1. Obtaining Kickstarter/Crowdfunding Pledges

If you are running a crowdfunding campaign for your game, a low level pledge offering a PnP can be a great way to generate pledges. More backers is always a good thing and a PnP is a great way to get people to commit to your campaign and still feel they are receiving a reward without having to worry about shipping a physical object. With all the momentum and excitement of the campaign, they may even bump their pledge levels as the campaign progresses. From my observations, most reward levels for a PnP are between $1 and $5.

  1. Promoting a game

Giving away your PnP for free can be a great promotional tool. Offering the file to reviewers, distributors, publishers, and even the general public can pique their interest and gain support for your project. Offering a PnP also builds credibility as a new game designer, showing the world that you have taken steps to make the game and are not just showcasing the ideas on a napkin.

Debate exists over whether giving out free copies of the PnP will hinder or enhance your sales. I personally cannot speak to this as I did not provide a free version of my PnP, but I recommend that you read James Mathe’s in-depth analysis of the impact giving away a free PnP had on his Kickstarter as well as the counterpoints offered in the comments of his article.

Finally, you have the option of giving away an incomplete version of the PnP for free and offering a finished or higher resolution version as a Kickstarter reward or online sale. That is not to say the free version is unplayable, just that it is missing some artwork or has been formatted in black and white or low resolution. For an example of this, Teale Fristoe offered up both a free and purchasable version for his Kickstarter: Birds of a Feather.

Now you’ve got me excited to make a Print-and-Play. How do I make one?

Now we enter the nitty-gritty of design. Like all creative endeavours, there is no end to debate over best practices. The formatting strategies below are based on my experience creating a PnP for my Kickstarter campaign and the copious amount of trial and error that ensued. Though admittedly, I did not implement all of the strategies listed below. If I create another PnP, this is the information I’d want to know.

What format to use?

I prefer a PDF file. It protects the files from being tampered with and more importantly, maintains the proportions of the images when printing. Users will require Adobe PDF reader to access the file, but it is free and available here. Microsoft Word and Adobe Photoshop both allow for the creation of PDF files and both offer free trials to assist you in creating the files. The majority of print shops are capable of reading and modifying adobe files. If they do not have the software, this would be a big red flag for me to print the game elsewhere.

Another strategy is to save the rules and each component as separate files for faster loading. While I do advocate having your game rules posted online as a separate file, I find creating a separate file for each component creates issues for some printers attempting to print double-sided pages across multiple files simultaneously. Keep all of the components together for easier printing.

When posting the rules online, have the text for the rulebook portion of the PnP formatted into a single column so that smartphones and tablets can simply scroll up and down to access all of the materials. Of course, users will not necessarily be accessing the PnP regularly on their phones, but to quickly check rules, the single column of text is very helpful.

What type of Paper?

Two topics are included here, the first being the type of paper/materials gamers will use to print your game. Paper quality is a decision that players need to make and will be determined by the quality of PnP they are looking to produce. I recommend throwing novice game printers a bone by including a recommended GSM or the components used in the final game version of the game.

The second issue has to do with the fact that the dimensions of printer paper are different around the world. In North America, US letter is the standard size and measures 215.9mm x 279mm (8.5” x 11”). Many other countries use A4 paper measuring 210 x 279 mm (8.27” x 11.69”)

What it boils down to is that US Letter is wider and A4 is longer.

When making a PnP, ensure that your game fits the smaller dimensions of both formats, with the width of A4 and the length of US Letter. That way, the PnP will not have its portions distorted or cut-off regardless of whether it is printed on A4 or US Letter. This uses more paper, but will satisfy most audiences and avoids having to create multiple versions of the PnP.

What about Ink?

A full-colour version of the PnP is a must to show off your game in all its glory, but many price conscious players will look for ways to save money. Some game designers offer a black and white, low ink version to reduce the cost of printing. Designers may even remove all the artwork and just leave the bare bones essentials to reduce cost. A stripped down version is a good way to ensure a wide price gap between the PnP and the retail version, particularly if your game has a low retail cost to begin with.

How about resolution?

When it comes to resolution (how detailed the images are based on the number of dots per inch), the community is split. Supporters of a low resolution PnP (around 150 DPI) state that many printers can’t produce a noticeable difference in quality at higher DPI level and that the file sizes are much smaller. Supporters of higher resolution files (300 DPI) argue it looks nicer and that file size does not matter. The jury is still out on this one, so you will have to make a choice. Of course, if you have the time you can also offer both formats, such as a low resolution version for free and then a high resolution version at a cost or a Kickstarter pledge.

Cool, so how do arrange the images…I always hated Rubik’s cubes?

If possible, have a digital designer do this for you. I was fortunate enough to have a digital designer with a history in print layout, so he just went to town.

If you happen to be a one man/woman show or just don’t have a digital designer, grab yourself a trial version of an image editing software such as Adobe Photoshop/Illustrator/InDesign and remember the following principles:

  1. Keep all cards flush against one another. Leave no blank space in between as this will reduce the number of cuts you have to make. Also, be sure to leave some bleed room around where the cuts are supposed to be made. Bleed room is a space where the background image is consistent and does not change (such as a solid colour or a continuous pattern), which helps to hide any imperfect cuts.

    Note the shared colour and pattern reduces the visibility of imperfect cuts between the indicator markings on the side
    Note the shared colour and pattern reduces the visibility of imperfect cuts between the indicator markings on the side
  2. Place the backs of cards/components on the next page of the PnP. I prefer having them formatted for duplex printing, though from speaking with designers there will always be someone whose printer is unable to print the components properly. I stuck with duplex printing, but if your audience is up in arms, another printer layout may be appropriate.
  3. Keep the cuts for all components square/rectangular whenever possible, even if the manufactured version of the game offers alternative shapes. Cutting anything other than a straight line consistently requires special equipment sold at craft stores or the ability to wield scissors with the steadiness of a member of the bomb squad. Make it easy for players and avoid irregularly shaped components whenever possible.
  4. Avoid placing cut lines across the page. Full or even dotted indicator lines highlight imperfect cuts by showcasing little bits of line on the sides of game components. Instead, use short indicator lines along the page edges for players to line up their cuts. If players really want cut lines, they can use a ruler and draw a line between the indicator marks.

Some argue for indicator lines around oddly shaped components, but as mentioned above, it is better to keep components square whenever possible. The only situation where indicator lines are necessary are if you are trying to save space and cram different game components onto the same page, making the edge indicators interfere with one another. In this case, cut lines are necessary, but make sure that the line colour does not blend in with the components (I recommend black or white depending on the component’s colour)

Note the obnoxious dotted lines. For Crop Cycle we crammed the tokens on the same page as cards. Due to the edge indicators being marked for cutting the cards, we had to use dotted lines
Note the obnoxious dotted lines. For Crop Cycle we crammed the tokens on the same page as cards. Due to the edge indicators being marked for cutting the cards, we had to use dotted lines

Great, I made my Print and Play; now how do I distribute it?

There are lots of ways to distribute a PnP while still limiting access to only certain users. If you are looking to sell the file, there are numerous online stores that are available if you don’t feel like hosting the file yourself. Two popular examples are the War Game Vault and The Game Crafter, though certainly other outlets exist. The appeal of these sites is that they shoulder the hosting cost and offer a turn-key solution as well as exposure in exchange for a portion of the sales.

If you are looking to upload and distribute the file yourself, Drop Box and Google Drive are both popular avenues that allow you to share the PnP through a link. I personally prefer Google Drive as it does not require a login like Drop Box, but for my Kickstarter I offered the PnP through both so supporters had their choice.

How did you learn all this?

Lots of trial and error, discussions with my digital designer Daniel Prairie and a supportive online community. Thank you for the feedback from Board Game Geek and this Facebook community of game designers.

Additional readings

This Board Game Geek post is a huge resource for DIY gamers looking for techniques to fabricate all manner of game components as well as an exhaustive list of free PnP games!

James Mathe’s Analysis on the effects of a freely distributed PnP on his Kickstarter sales and a counterpoint argument by Seth Hiatt of Mayday Games

*There is debate in the industry over whether selling PnP games will reduce retail sales, but I have yet to find a comprehensive survey of the industry on the overall impact offering a PnP has on final sales numbers.

Simple Thoughts on Signs

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The first board game convention I attended, I did not even think about bringing a sign. After all, the convention had a schedule and numbered tables to indicate where games were being played; why did I need to provide a sign? Admittedly, I was naive thinking that the convention organizers should hold any responsibility in getting my game played. After all, as a game creator you are your game’s salesman and it is up to you to hook people on your game.

From the experience I learned 2 important lessons:

  1. Not all gamers read the schedule
  2. An appealing sign pushes browsing gamers into playing your game

Since that lackluster day of sitting alone at my gaming table, I have learned a few important points that are shared below.

Banners and Free-standing Signs

My local university print shop.
My local university print shop.

The type of sign you use will depend on the convention you are attending. For conventions where a full-size table is given, a large banner to hang off the edge is an effective option, though they can be expensive. If you choose to go with a banner, shop around at local stores and you may find a better deal than online printer. I found competitive pricing at a local university print-shop and saved even more on not having to pay shipping.

If floor space is in plentiful supply, you may also consider a free-standing sign, though again you will want to shop around for a cost effective solution. Building your own stand to hang the sign on is also a viable strategy. A guide to building a free-standing sign post out of PVC can be found here.

Table Signs

A simple table sign on 8.5 x 11
A simple table sign on 8.5 x 11″ card stock.

Regardless of the convention specifics, I always bring along small table signs printed on Letter paper. When folded lengthwise, they should have your game on one side and your company (if applicable) on the other. They stand on their own, are portable, and are handy regardless of the table size. I get mine printed on cardstock so they don’t get crushed when I put them in my bag (a crinkled sign does not exude professionalism).

Whether to get them printed on Matte or Glossy card stock is a personal preference. I prefer Matte because it generates less glare from room lights that can obscure the sign

Another lesson I learned the hard way is to always bring more copies of signs than you need.

You can and will lose signs at conventions.

Consider the following scenarios when deciding how many copies of your sign to print:

  1. You have poor memory and misplace the sign
  2. Another attendee misplaces the sign for you (i.e. steals it)
  3. An attendee handles your sign while in the process of consuming Cheetos
  4. The sign gets soaked by a Blade-runner level downpour on your way to the convention
  5. A teething toddler gnaws on your tasty (and somewhat toxic) sign
  6. An ill child decided to reproduce the sum total of the day’s caloric intake on your sign

Any and all of the above can happen so print more signs than you need. That way, when you spot a child happily consuming your sign while the absent-minded parent looks on with pride, you can simply smile and nod, producing a new sign from your bag.

The “Back in 15” Sign

The reverse of my Table Sign.
The reverse of my Table Sign.

I am bad for having to make last-minute dashes to the bathroom after consuming coffee at regular intervals. During one such experience, I returned to a small note small note stating “WHERE WERE YOU? Creator was not here so we went to another game”. Do yourself a favor and have small sign to throw down when you have to dart away for food, the bathroom, or to argue with your phone provider about last month’s bill. I write mine on the inside of my table signs and then just turn them inside out when I have to leave.

To recap:

  • Signs attract people to your game, even in schedule-heavy conventions
  • Banners and free-standing signs are great, but check if your convention will allow them
  • Use small table-sized signs at all conventions
  • Bring back-up signs in case the first ones become unusable
  • Create a “Back in 15 minutes sign” for those moments of inconvenience

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