Designing with Materials in Mind

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I recently listened to an interview with Phil Reed, CEO of Steve Jackson that you can find here.

During the lengthy interview, Phil brings up the concept of designing with material costs in mind. In essence, he argues that when designing a game to start by researching and keeping a running total of the component costs and use this background information to dictate what components to include in a game based on the prince point you are aiming for.

Wow, did I wish I had heard of this before I started designing games!

It seems like a common sense notion, but it is not…at least for me. I did not price out components prior to beginning the game design process. For Crop Cycle, I knew I wanted to make a smaller game than Centaurus (i.e not miniatures, a game board, full-box, etc.), but I did not have an outline for exactly how small the game should be. With no previous games under my belt, I also did not have the background knowledge and experience that Phil Reed and other serial game publishers hold.

In hindsight, if I did it again I would begin with researching the manufacturing. The easiest way to get accurate information is to request a few quotes from manufacturers that provide component breakdowns (Panda Games and Wingo both provide this). Alternatively, ask around in game publishing circles such as the Facebook communities here and here.

What I did instead was use the prices of a print-on-demand service as an estimate for the relative differences in cost. For example, I assumed that the comparative difference in cost between cards and tokens when I approached a manufacturer. I did not ask for quotes until later in the process and failed to realize that the price differences of a Print-on-Demand service can vary wildly from a print-run manufacturer.

To use Crop Cycle as an example, the game uses small tokens to use both indicators and as a means of keeping score. For the prototype, I used Circle Shards from The Game Crafter. The cost was cheap and I naively assumed that the cost would be comparable when speaking with manufacturers.

This was a mistake.

It turned out that die-cut tokens can dramatically increase the cost of a project, particularly as some manufacturers lack the required machinery and will outsource the component to another factory. I would have known this if I asked for quotes from manufacturers at the outset rather than waiting around.

Of course, I am not recommending that you pester manufacturers with every conceivable piece component imaginable, but if you have a few manufacturers in mind, ask them for the component costs of common items such as cards, game boxes, dice, and tokens. Then, when you to sit to thrash out the finer points of your game, you will have a much better idea of the overall cost of manufacturing and whether adding an extra cards or dice will still keep the game within the price range you intend. Remember that the MSRP (price retailers sell the game for) is typically 4-5 times your production cost.

Give it a try. Once you have decided to take the leap from designing game to publishing, get your component costs down and then delve into designing your first foray into the world of publishing.

Additional Reading:

James Mathe, a serial kickstarter creator and experienced game publisher wrote three fantastic articles on speaking with manufacturers and the costs of game design. I recommend you read them all!

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Developer Diary: Card Design and Format

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1What follows is a not so concise summary of our card design up to this point. Please note that the Apples card is in the process of having the image itself revamped. The Posterizing filter left some unsightly colors and pronounced gradient lines on the card image that will be altered in the final version. The focus of this designer diary is to discuss the changes the layout, frame, and text have underwent in the development of Crop Cycle’s cards.

When it comes to designing cards, many games follow a template commonly associated with Magic: The Gathering. The format separates text from the image and focuses on highlighting the text with an opaque box.

Found at:
Found at:

The reason for the popularity of this format is that it works; textboxes ensures the text remains clear and distinct. The textbox can be entirely separate from the image or as a translucent textbox as pictured in the Shadowrun card below. In both cases, the effect is that your rules are highlighted and legible on the playing card.

Found at:
Found at:

For the earliest design of the Crop Cycle cards, this layout was what we intended. As you can see from the image below, the initial Crop Cycle card followed the template of the Magic card, with important information included at the top as we as the bottom half of the card while the image was intended to be placed in the middle.

Crop Cycle during the pre-art days!
Crop Cycle during the pre-art days!

The trouble with this format is that it reduces the real-estate on the card for the image itself. Regardless of whether the textbox is entirely separate from the image or placed in a translucent textbox over the image, the result is reduced space on the card for the image.

At this point, my digital designer and I sat down and began to brainstorm alternative design solutions. An important aspect of Crop Cycle is showcasing agriculture, with the vast majority of the photos taken locally throughout our home province of Manitoba. Though I understand the effectiveness of textboxes and accept that Magic is able to make their images work through design decisions given the space constraints of their card format, I wanted to focus on showing as much of the picture as possible.

Several weeks of research, debate, and caffeine consumption later, we came up with a full-card layout.

Note the difficult to distinguish symbol on the left side of the card.
Note the difficult to distinguish symbol on the left side of the card.

As you can see, the first version of the cards presented a number of challenges. After looking it, we noticed some pretty hefty design problems. The use of season symbols to indicate when to play the crop cards were a good way to reduce text, but failed to stand out against the background. Furthermore, the text was far to small and the lacked any sort of effects to differentiate them from the picture.

Clearly we had plenty of work to do.

Now the symbol on the left is much more visible.
Now the symbol on the left is much more visible.

The 3rd rendition of the cards was a definite improvement. Through the use of a drop-shadow and a black border around the letters, we were able to enhance the title and help it to stand out against the background.

Furthermore, we added a border around the symbols as well as a bevel and a drop-shadow to differentiate it from the image. Given that the season symbol stated when a player could use the card, it was critical that the image stood out.

At this point, we shared the card design with our fellow gamers and the broader public through social media and design forums. Feedback was overwhelming and mixed. The elephant in the room was that we had no textboxes, but while some complained about the lack of textboxes, others appreciated the minimalist design of the cards. Both sides, however, encouraged us to make the text more visible.

From the feedback, we took 4 critical lessons.

  1. The white card text needed to stand out more
  2. The planting season symbols still were a bit difficult to differentiate from the cards
  3. The text and symbols were to spread out across the card and should be collected either near the bottom or the top
  4. The green and blue borders, while relevant to the game in differentiating card types, were a bit on the dull side and could use a texture to liven them up

We clearly had more work to do!

test 2The result of all this feedback was an elegant text design that we are proud of. The lack of a textbox does create a trade-off in readability, but we were able to minimize this through the effective use of drop-shadows, a thick text border and a total of 3 shade gradients. These gradients were individualized in intensity and location to each cards based on the amount of text.

We also made the choice to group all relevant information along the bottom of the card, with card’s title providing the only counterbalance at the top.

Finally, we added a texture resembling a grain bag (in keeping with the agricultural theme) to the border of the cards. We felt this broke up the singular colour of the border without distracting players from the main image itself.

We next turned our attention to finding a way to replace the Harvest text and season with a design that parallels our planting season symbols.

8Early experiments with scythe proved busy and misaligned with the proportions of the Fall symbol. We did like that the Fall “Harvest” text was removed however, allowing for additional space for the card’s image and creating consistency with the use of symbols on when to play the card.

9Our next rendition used a spade as alternative to the scythe and we found the symbol was much more effective. The proportions of the spade were similar to the Fall icon and the tool looked much more defined then the scythe.

The concern then became whether the spade should be proportionally larger or smaller then the Fall symbol. While a larger Fall symbol made the details more visible, we were unhappy with the misalignment of the spade to the Fall symbol created my the difference in size.

10In the above rendition, we decided to compress the Fall symbol and align it with the top of the spade symbol. While there is a slight size mismatch, we found that the alignment made it read easier. This was the initial card design we took to the first Crop Cycle Kickstarter.

12 13

Since the first Kickstarter, we have further refined the cards to address two additional flaws.

  1. Playtesters had difficulty identifying the harvest symbols of opponent’s crops. To remedy this, we increased the size of both symbols, with a size-mismatch remaining and helping the player to differentiate between the two symbols.
  2. Players that were color blind found they were able to differentiate between the planting and harvesting symbols, but struggled to tell the difference the Crop and Utility cards (since renamed Event Cards) due to color being the only difference in the card frames. To remedy this, we added a subtle texture of Leaves and Gears to the Crop and Event cards respectively. Further playtests confirmed that many color-blind player were easily able to differentiate the cards based on their frames

At this point, we are comfortable with the layout of the cards. Final tweak include potentially altering the the spade to something more mechanical such as a Combine or Tractor.

As mentioned at the top of the article, the image of the Apples itself is being redone as well and I will update this article once the image itself has been finished being edited.

Validating Players and Accepting Feedback

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boardtopoI always bring a notepad to conventions. Nothing fancy; purely the Dollar Store variety. This notepad is to record feedback from gamers who stop at my booth (perhaps attracted by a candy dish or hook line).

As a rule, I write down all feedback players provide when playing my game. It doesn’t matter if I agree with it at the time, I write it down.

The reason for meticulous record keeping is two-fold:

  1. Feedback allows for a broader perspective on the game than my own limited perspective as the game’s designer affords
  2. Recording feedback is a sign of respect to my players. It validates their opinions, demonstrating that I value the time and energy they dedicate to improving my game.

The first point goes without saying. As a game designer, I tend to be protective of the game designs I have poured so many hours into and am oblivious to obvious flaws. The selective blindness starts when the game is printed on index cards and only gets worse as I invest more and more time into the game’s development.

That is not to say that all feedback is good. Suggestions that I turn my farming game Crop Cycle into a Mad Max or zombie-themed card games (a la plants v.s zombies) were invariably scrapped, but whenever I notice a recurring suggestion, I take notice. Recurring feedback can be an indicator of deeper problems with the game or a mismatched target market.

Equally if not more important than the feedback itself is that the act of recording the opinions empowers players. They are no longer passive gamers, but co-creators, helping to shape and mould the game into the final product they want to play.

That does not mean that on reflection, all of their suggestions will be incorporated (design by committee rarely yields stellar results), but it helps convention attendees kind enough to stop off at your booth feel they are part of a game’s creation and not just another face in a crowded exhibition hall.

Ultimately, we design games to create a positive experience for players. The act of accepting and reflecting on feedback not only validates and empowers the players providing it, but improves the quality of the game for everyone to enjoy!

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