Board games Production. part 1 : Printing, cardboard and cards.
This chapter will be more technical than the previous ones, and will try to cover key aspects of the actual production of a board game : Once playtesting is done, once the game has been quoted, it will be manufactured. Boardgames are not standard issue items, everything is bespoke, and there are a lot of different techniques and materials being used to produce that finished box.
This is one of the most complex and fascinating aspects of this trade, and you should try to at least understand the basics of each of these techniques and materials. This will allow you to better use them, reduce your costs, and more efficiently develop new games as you have gained a better understanding of what can and cannot be done, and what the impact of your decisions is on production cost.
In complement to this chapter, I can't recommend enough that you go watch 'Made for play', a documentary from the folks at The Spiel Podcast, which was filmed on location at Ludopackt, the leading European manufacturer of boardgames : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uvrmG7G7XqU
This is the most basic and most important part of most boardgames. All the text and images that appear on your game components and packaging will be printed. There are extensive resources available on Internet and plenty of books on printing, so I will not cover this in depth here and will provide links to external resources where pertinent. This will also help keep this chapter a manageable size, because there is enough relevant material on this subject matter to cover several whole books.
You absolutely need to get at least a basic understanding of the whole printing process, and you also need to learn how to properly use pre-press/desktop publishing software in order to produce files that a professional printer can actually use to print your game. This chapter will end with a section covering pre-press basics, but here again there are extensive resources available on the Internet and lots of books on the subject matter so do your homework.
Offset printing is the most common method for industrial printing. In a nutshell, the page text and images are decomposed in a few basic colours (usually Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and blacK - CMYK) and each colour image is 'engraved' on a thin steel plate. Actually nowadays, printing plates are not "engraved" anymore. They are imaged on computer-to-plate (CTP) makers, using lasers to burn off incredibly thin layers of polyester or metal plates. These plates are affixed to big steel rolls, each roll is rubbed in ink of the matching colour, and sheets of paper are fed through all rolls in sequence.
Each roll deposits ink on the paper like a big roller stamp and once the sheet has been through all rolls the sum of all coloured inks forms the printed image.
More steps (plate/roll/ink) can be added, to have more colours, special inks such as gold or silver, and one or two coats of varnish..
An offset press is a huge machine, bigger than a car, that can cost over 2.5 million Euros for a 6 colours press, and which is engineered to produce very high volumes of printed material in a small amount of time. State of the art offset printing presses can churn through 16.000 sheets of paper per hour.
First the operator runs it very slowly over a few sheets of paper to check all colours are correctly registered (i.e. alignment is perfect and no colour is printed slightly off-centre) and that the colour balance is correct (i.e. the final image is neutral, without a colour cast.) Once these calibration tests are done, the whole print run is launched.
Here is a small video of such a printing press, a speedmaster sheetfed process offset press : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ic6KZqe-sYI
For higher volumes, such as newspaper, the basic process is the same but instead of using a sheet feeder which slows down the process, they use web fed presses, or web press. This is nothing like an office copier where you set a number of copies and get that exact amount of copies delivered : it prints on a continuous feed of paper, coming from a huge roll. The machine starts off slow, then gains speed until it reaches its peak speed. The operator evaluates the time required to print the requested amount of copies, and lets the machine run for that time, with a small margin. Then, the machine is stopped, and the printed roll is cut in individual prints which are only then counted to know how much copies were eventually produced.
Here is a small video covering that process : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kBpeoCW8Xq8
You can get more information on Offset printing on Wikipedia for a start : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Offset_printing
Using either process, some copies will be lost at set-up time, and at the end of the production. Also it happens that problem arise during production leading to a full halt and restart of the printing press. This makes it quite difficult to print an exact amount of copies on that kind of industrial press. Moreover some copies will be damaged during handling, bent, smeared, lost, ...
To account for this, most printers will have a variation in the actual copies produced with regard to the amount requested. A 10% variation is common in the industry, meaning your total will be between +5% and -5% of what you requested (so for 1.000 copies requested, expect to get between 950 and 1050 copies.) Some printers will just produce more to be sure to have at least the exact amount requested, discard the un-requested copies, and charge you for the cost anyway.
Since there are lots of different printed materials in a single board game it also means not all items will have the same production count, so your actual number of produced games will be limited by the item that was printed in the least copies : if the printer produces 1500 boards, 1450 sets of punchboards and 1480 rulebooks, he'll be able to assemble only 1450 games.
Another important aspect of offset printing is that the sheet being printed must be thin and flexible to be fed through the printing press rolls. You cannot feed thick cardboard or chipboard into an offset printer, so usually printing is done on thin paper that will then be mounted on cardboard. Cloth and other materials are not suitable for offset printing either.
I can't resist the opportunity to also share this wonderful video explaining how printing ink is made :
Flexography, serigraphy, and other less common techniques
There are other printing techniques that you will sometimes have to deal with as a board games publisher. Offset is a great and very precise technique, but it is mostly only fit for printing ink on paper. These other techniques will come into play if you want a printed image on other materials than paper (or paper mounted on cardboard).
Flexography is more common for printing on plastics and rigid, thicker materials. The material must however be flat. It is somewhat similar to offset but instead of steel plated the printing plates are made of a rubbery-like material. For more info on Flexography, check out Wikipedia : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flexography
Serigraphy, or screen printing is basically using a stencil to lay ink on a support. This can be used to print on surfaces that are not flat and which cannot be put through the pressure of an offset printing press. It is very common in textiles (T-shirts especially). High end machines allow for automation but at its heart serigraphy is a manual and labour intensive process. This means for small quantities it's usually expensive. It also is limited in colour registration precision, as each colour must be stencilled separately, in sequence over the support. Again, you can get much more info on Wikipedia : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Screenprinting
Other less common techniques are sometimes used, such as laser etching, digital printing (for small quantities that require full colour images), ink-jet printing, etc. The printing method to use will mostly be dictated by the support you want to print on and the kind of images you need to print. Nowadays it's even possible to print images on food, and the possibilities really are endless. What you really need to understand is offset printing and the most common techniques described above. You can always come back and look up information on the other techniques on the internet when you need them.
Varnishes and coatings, lamination, Foils
Printed material can be improved before it is mounted on cardboard. The most common finish is a coating. This is a layer of varnish that is coated on the whole print, sealing and protecting the ink and paper from friction and smearing. Coatings can be applied at the printing press stage, of be sprayed on the finished prints.
Varnish and coating are nowadays usually aqueous (water-based), in order to comply with health and safety regulations in the workplace and for the toys and games market.
Coating can be matte, semi-gloss of glossy, and will affect the appearance of your print very much; Glossy coatings make the print look more contrasted, with deeper darks and colours; matte coatings will slightly subdue the colours and darks.
Several layers of coating can be applied, and coating can be printed just as printing ink. This allows for fancy effects such as an overall matte coating with some parts of the print covered in a glossy coating.
UV coating is a special type of coating made of a polymer that hardens when exposed to UV light (this is called curing). The coating is a clear viscous liquid that remains liquid and sticky until cured. UV coating usually is thicker than a regular coating meaning it is mechanically more resistant too. In contrast aqueous coatings harden by drying, or by polymerisation (so called acrylic coatings or acrylic polymer coatings).
Paper and cardboard can also be embossed or stamped in to shape them. This is usually done after printing so the precise registration required for color printing can be achieved ona flat surface, before shaping.
Lamination is another way to protect print. It consists in gluing a sheet of plastic on the print, usually transparent. Lamination also allows for 'foil' effect : a metallic foil is laminated on the print, thin enough that the printed material can still be seen through it. The metal foil breaks light in an iridescent pattern. Opaque foils can also be applied on some parts of the print, for a mirror silver or gold finish for instance.
Last but not least, the printed material can be textured. This occurs either before print using a textured paper, or more commonly after printing, by spraying a textured coating or laminated a textured plastic.
Laminating a sheet of plastic is more resistant than a coating, however if applied incorrectly lamination can peel away over time. It can also be a problem with die cut components so it usually used only for game boxes and sometimes boards.
The mounting process
Pasting thin sheets of printed material on a cardboard panel is called 'mounting'. This process requires high precision when mounting prints on both faces of the cardboard as both sides need to be perfectly aligned to each other. This step is automated, to ensure perfect alignment and consistent gluing of the surfaces. The panel is then flipped and the operation is repeated on the other side.
You usually will never see a panel of cardboard that isn't mounted on both sides : even if only one side is to be printed, a blank or printed sheet of paper will be mounted on the other side as well. This has two purposes : first, it ensures both sides of the cardboard have been coated in glue, which does seal the cardboard against humidity as well as it fixes the printed paper on it. Second, once mounted the paper and cardboard will react to ambient humidity changes at a different pace, which might lead to warping when one of the components shrinks or grows at a different pace than the other. Mounting paper on both sides greatly reduces this effect. (Corollary : Mounting different types of paper on both faces of a cardboard sheet can lead to warping.) Last but not least it is not very nice to see components that are printed material on one side and plain greyboard on the other, so it's aesthetically better too.
This process is the same for game boards, punchboards, and boxes (although these generally are mounted on only one side. The folding and shaping of the boxes helps prevent warping.)
Game boards and cardboard tokens, game boxes
As I stated above, there is nothing like a standard component in a boardgame. Everything is bespoke, every time. However some techniques are common to many boardgames, and the most widespread ones are die cut cardboard counters, game boards, and game boxes (which use the same techniques).
These components are made of printed paper mounted on a cardboard core, which is then cut and bent into shape according to your needs. This also places board games production out of the league of most printers. Printers specialize in printing on paper, usually using offset presses as described above. Cardboard thicker than a cereal box is too thick and rigid to run through a printing press so these items are made of printed paper mounted on cardboard. Pasting printed paper on both sides of a cardboard sheet, with perfect centring (usually called 'registration' : both sides are perfectly aligned to each other) is a very specific trade that is different from printing itself. So different in fact that some boardgames manufacturers use an external supplier for printing and specialize on the mounting and transformation of the cardboard itself.
Some printers specialized in box making or advertising/point of sale displays have the required tools and know-how for that kind of work too, but most commercial printers don't.
Paper and cardboard/chipboard types
There are lots of different kind of papers and cardboard available on the market. Paper and cardboard usually are made from a combination of cellulose (from wood or cloth) and glue, in varying proportions. Other items can be added to get different textures, thickness, rigidity, colours, softness, glossiness, whiteness, .... So here again you will need to do a bit of side research as entire books could be written on that subject matter alone.
Cardboard (grey cardboard made of recycled elements - Cardboard usually is called chipboard in the US, and sometimes paper board) is basically paper but much more thick. The quality of the components used (wood or cloth) and amount of glue used will play a major part in the mechanical properties of the cardboard, and have a major impact on the quality of the final product.
For board games, you want cardboard that is dense (made of smaller fibres with a high ratio of glue to fibres) and rigid. Using a softer type of cardboard will lead to many problems : poor die cutting because the cardboard compresses under the blades and the blades bend during cutting, tokens easily torn apart at the core - both faces separating, variations in the surface finish, components that tear when punched out or which bend easily. Also cardboard with less glue is more sensible to humidity and can degrade over time or even worse mould or rot if exposed to humidity.
Good cardboard for boardgames will be dense (pressing your fingernail on it will not dent it much), have a high glue to fibre ratio so it resists well to humidity and doesn't bend easily, be smooth on the surface (which means fibres used in its fabrication are ground thin), and preferably be grey rather than brown (meaning it is based on cloth rather than wood pulp.) Of course this is just an indication, and you will learn over time to recognize good cardboard from bad.
When you buy and un-punch a new game, always take some time to observe the cardboard used. Tear away a few pieces of the punched sprues and look at the core between the printed material : colour, texture, density, hardness, ... You'll quickly notice that according to the place the game has been manufactured different cardboard types are used, with different end results.
Paper and Cardboard weight measurements
The history of paper making and printing is quite long already, even if you only go back to Gutenberg and forget about parchment and papyrus from the antiquity. It has evolved into an industrial process all over the world, and different regions have grown to have different ways to measure paper and cardboard size and weight, just as the imperial and metric systems of measurement for distances and weights are used in different parts of the world. As a board game publisher you'll have to deal with both according to the location of your suppliers, and as you will see this long history of paper brings some fun oddities.
There are two key measurements with paper : Size and Density. Size is the way a sheet of paper's surface is measured, and there are several standard sheet sizes in the industry. If you want to be able to optimize your printing costs, it can help to figure out the sheet size used by your printer. This is especially true when printing cards : if your whole set fits on one sheet it will be cheaper, and if it is just one or two cards too much to fit on a single sheet it might be a good idea to reconsider the number of cards you use. Any good printer/manufacturer will inform you of such issues in order to save on production costs.
The Wikipedia page on paper sizes gives a thorough run-down of standard sheet sizes : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paper_size
Density measures both the weight and thickness of paper. Different systems of measurement are used in the metric and non-metric world, and there is no easy way to convert from one to the other.
I will refer you to the excellent Wikipedia article on paper density for a detailed explanation : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paper_density
When in doubt as to the exact qualities of a paper type your supplier proposes, always ask for a sample. They will send you a small blank piece of that paper and you will be able to evaluate it much better than with just a few numbers.
Die cutting tools
Many boardgames use several die-cut punch-boards (also sometimes called 'flats' in the industry) for game tokens and counters. Both faces of the punch board are covered with printed paper, mounted in perfect registration, and the resulting sandwich is then press-cut using what could best be described in layman's terms as a sort of giant cookie-cutter.
When designing a punched board layout, always remember that you will have a front and a back side, and that they will be mirrored. Always label them 'front' and 'back' or 'recto' and 'verso' to avoid any confusion with the manufacturer. Die cut layouts are always on the 'front'/'recto' side.
The most common tool used for die cutting is steel blade dies. This is one of the most bespoke tools in the whole board games manufacturing industry. Based on the die cut layout provided by the publisher, a craftsman will carve that pattern in a wood board. He will then manually bend and shape steel blades and set them into the carved wood panel, producing the aforementioned giant cookie cutter. That tool will be used in an industrial press to individually cut each sheet of components for the game.
The steel blades are covered by a sheet of synthetic foam that protects them and also helps push cut components outside the tool when removing it.
Once the pattern is completed, the craftsman will create cuts in the blades in order to leave thin connection points where the cardboard will not be cut, allowing the counters and tokens to remain attached to the punch-board until torn apart by the customer. If the blade for a round token was a perfect circle, the token would fall out of the punched board right after cut. You do not need to add these connection points to your die cutting layout, the manufacturer will do it accordingly to the die cutting pattern.
Some manufacturers opt not to leave such connection points in order to have a complete cut of the parts. They instead perform what is called a 'kiss-cut' : the blade cuts the top layer of printed paper from the sheet, cuts the cardboard core, and only cuts a part of the lower sheet of printed paper. This requires very high precision die cutting tools and presses.
Be careful when using kiss-cut and lamination : the kiss-cut needs to cut the lower paper completely and part of the laminate. If the cut is not precise enough, the laminate will not be cut and it will tear apart when un-punching the components.
Manufacturers in Asia also sometimes take advantage of the cheap cost of labour in Asia to perform a complete cut of the components and have workers manually punch and bag all components of the game in the factory.
During production, each sheet will be manually or automatically placed under the die cut tool and pressed. This process is performed under production time constraints, so the cutting will not always be at the exact same place as sheets can move a bit before they are cut.
Furthermore, when pressed into the cardboard to cut it, blades can slightly bend and angle, meaning the cut will not be a perfect 90° from the sheet surface. This also means the cut at the bottom of the sheet will be slightly off compared to the one at the top.
To compensate for these small variations, your token designs should have some tolerance built in to off-centre punching.
Manufacturers recommend that die cut parts have a 'safe zone' of about 3mm inside and outside the cut line to make sure no important part of the print is left out and that no white zones are visible on the cut part. Lower tolerances are possible, but at the cost of a slower production pace. Always discuss the tolerances of your die cut parts with the manufacturer before committing to print in order to avoid costly mistakes and painful discussion about who is responsible for the problem.
The bending of the blades during cutting also means some patterns can be problematic. For instance, two long parallel blades should be spaced by at least 5mm to avoid excessive bending of the blades, or even breakage. Designing a die cut layout is always an exercise in optimization of the available space while being careful not to place blades too close to each other.
The die cut tool is expensive to produce as it is a completely hand made item. If all your punchboards can have the exact same layout they can be cut using the same tool instead of requiring one tool for each punchboard so you should carefully plan your punch boards around this whenever possible.
Also, if you have several different die cut layouts but the manufacturer can fit them all on a single big sheet of paper, he will do so in order to save costs.
Die cutting tool costs are proportional to the complexity of the cutting layout. A ballpark figure would be 600 to 900€ for a tool of medium complexity (round and square tokens and one or two custom shapes) and a size about 30x30 Cm.
The life span of a die cutting tool is between 10.000 and 50.000 cycles, depending on the thickness of the sheets and the complexity of the pattern (more complex is more fragile.)
Small die cutters
There are hobby and arts and crafts companies such as accucut ( http://www.accucut.com/ ) that produce small die cutting presses, using manual rollers, and that can produce custom small die cutting tools. Those are not suited for industrial sized production but might be an option for small press publishers.
Victory point games ( http://www.victorypointgames.com/ ), an US board games publisher has made an interesting choice : they print, mount and cut their components internally. They use a laser cutting machine instead of steel blades and a press to cut the component sheets. This process is slower than steel blades die cutting, so it is better suited for small batches. It also leaves some sooth on the component sides. Laser cutting however is more precise than die cutting (especially so as each sheet is manually inserted and placed in the cutter) and allows for some interesting etching possibilities too.
They posted a video showing off the whole process here : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZUF4s_4rX24
As you can see it is currrently still a slow process, only suitable for small production runs.
Many games feature a game board. The game board is produced using the same process as the punch-boards : paper is printed and then mounted on both sides of the board. If only one side is printed, the other side is covered using paper with black ink, a pattern, or an illustration.
Game boards are wrapped in the printed paper so that the cardboard is not visible on the sides of the board. This looks better and makes the board more resistant to tearing both sides apart, as well as to accidental spills.
The 'front' side of the board is printed with a large bleed, like 15mm all around. That print is wrapped around each side of the board and to the other side. The 'back' side print is shorter than the board side (by 3-5mm all around) and is mounted on top of the wrapped borders of the front side.
This means when designing your front and back sides you must take into account the different sizes for each side, as well as the fact that the edges of the front side will show on the board sides and around the back's print.
The mounted board will then be creased or partially cut at the fold lines, and cut at the cut lines. Cuts will not be wrapped as the board's sides because it would be very complex to cut the board first and then mount the print on it. Furthermore wrapping the cuts would bring extra material in the cut and the board would not lay flat any more.
If the fold lines are partially cut instead of creased (which is better as it provides a more precise folding), the cardboard is completely closed and the printed paper is left intact and acts as a hinge. Good manufacturers will glue a reinforcement strip on the reverse side of the fold, along the fold line. This reinforcement strip is visible when looking carefully at the board as the mounted print is slightly raised there.
The 'American valley' is a slang term that refers to a production technique that was common with US manufacturers : instead of creasing or cutting the board at the fold lines, they cut the cardboard before mounting, and mounted the print on it leaving a small edge between the two sides of the cardboard. The mounted print then acts as a hinge for the fold. This techniques results in a game board that has a noticeable change of thickness at the fold line, which was referred to as the 'American valley'.
Taking cardboard one step beyond
The techniques of mounting and die cutting can be combined creatively to produce very nice results. An elaborate game board of player aid can be created by mounting one or several die-cut sheets on a flat board. This allows for things like player aids with holes for components, holes that have a print in the bottom.
Also common is the use of die cut components that are assembled to form three dimensional components : stand-ups, buildings, player screens, boats, …
Cards usually are printed directly on card stock, but can also be printed on cellulose acetate, such as poker plastic cards, or on clear acetate for transparent cards. Other materials exist but they are less common.
Card stock fits between paper and cardboard with regard to thickness and flexibility.
Playing cards are rarely printed on a single layer card stock, most playing cards you will see are printed on multi-layered card stock. The composition of that multi-layered sandwich will greatly affect price : the more complex and high-tech it gets, the more expensive. Using multi-layered stock allows manufacturers to offer cards with qualities that might not all be present from a single material.
First, cards must be opaque : when looking at the back of the cards you should not be able to see what is on the front, even if there is a light source behind the cards. This can be achieved by using thicker stock, but it is not always practical or reasonable to do so. Furthermore, thicker stock will crease when bent and might prove too thick to pass through an offset printing press. To achieve opacity, the middle layer of a card can be made of black or blue dyed stock, of white stock with a high concentration of white pigments. A plastic of metal foil may be used too, for special purpose cards.
The card must be flexible. When bent side to side it should not crease or fold, but retain its form. To achieve this, the multi-layered stock must be thin, and the glue used to mount all layers together must remain flexible.
Last but not least, a variety of effect layers may be added to the stock : textured substrates of laminates, coatings and varnishes, etc.
When printing cards, always consider the use that will be made of the cards during play, and adapt your requirements accordingly. If some cards will be placed on the board at the beginning of play and not be manipulated at all until the end of the game, you can use cheaper stock for these cards. On the other hand if your cards are to be held in hand and traded a lot during play, you will want to get high quality stock for these cards. If you have several decks of cards for your game, especially if they have different sizes, you may want to consider using different stock for each deck.
You may hear about 'linen finish' cards or 'linen core' cards. In the past, card stock manufacturers made stock with a linen veil in the core. This gave the cards great flexibility and resistance, and also a distinctive texture. Nowadays, such techniques are so expensive that they only are used in the arts and crafts, not on an industrial scale. Furthermore modern products and techniques allow for stock that is more resistant and much lighter than using linen core. However, the aura of quality and good reputation of that kind of stock have remained, and players perceive cards that have a linen-looking texture or finish will perceive these as being of better quality than other finishes. Manufacturers offer a variety of coatings, varnishes and laminates that are called 'linen finish' or 'linen touch' for that purpose.
There is one big decision to be made when designing your cards : will you use common borders for all the cards or will your images extend until the edge of the cards. This will affect how many cards can be placed on a single sheet and also how they are cut. Common border cards require only one cut and are much less expensive to produce : if the cut is slightly off-centre, since the same colour is present on both side it doesn't matter much. Custom-bordered cards will require some bleed around each card, requiring twice as much cuts than common border cards. Custom-bordered cards require more paper surface as well.
The printed sheets are cut in stripes horizontally, then vertically by a machine. The resulting deck will be square-cornered. The whole deck will the be die cut in a single step to have square corners.
It is also possible to have custom-shaped cards, cards that are round, hexagonal, or have a specific shape. Only do this if there is a good reason to, as custom-shaped cards are more expensive as they will require a custom die cutting tool, and less practical to shuffle and to hold in hand. They might wear faster, too.
When designing cards for printing, you should not design them as laid out sheets, but rather consider each card as an individual sheet, alternating card fronts and backs. It is the printer that will lay out your individual cards to form sheets, allowing him to optimize the amount of cards per sheet and printing quality.
Always consult with your printer when designing cards for a game, he will be able to help you find the best combination of card size, count and materials for your project in order to keep costs in control and still get the best available card quality.
There are plenty of card sizes used in card and board games, however some sizes have come to be regarded as standard nowadays. Ask your manufacturer which standard card sizes they can recommend, and always try to use a standard card size instead of a custom size. I cannot stress this enough, you should only use a non-standard card size if there is a very strong and compelling reason not to.
Many players will protect their playing cards using plastic card sleeves. There are countless available sizes and thickness of cards sleeves on the market nowadays. Sleeves are a very popular accessory with board and card games players, so you should give them some consideration when producing a game with cards.
First, sleeves add thickness to the cards. A deck of sleeved cards can be twice as thick than the initial deck. If you plan your game box with components pockets big enough to accommodate the cards once they are sleeved, this will be appreciated by sleeve-loving players. Furthermore, unless there is a very strong and compelling reason not to your cards should have a standard size, and fit existing sleeves.
Last but not least, if the vast majority of your players will sleeve the cards right out of the box, you may consider using a cheaper card stock. I would not personally vouch for such cheap short-cuts, but some publishers chase every single cent of production cost and this is an option they will consider.
My experience with cards is still limited and I welcome feedback on the subject matter.
- Tony Stapells, which shared some insight from his 38 years of experience in printing and helped correct this chapter :-)