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Tips for Print-and-play Board Game Production

The process for creating a print-and-play board game is a little different from making a video game. You will obviously spend no time programming, which frees you to spend more time in playtesting, but there is still the "implementation" step of creating a final deliverable. What goes in there? Here are a few pointers.

The Rules

The most important part of your submission will be the rules. Novice designers often leave the rules writeup until the last minute and neglect it, but realize that if your rules are not clear that no one will be able to play your game! You are therefore encouraged to spend a fair amount of time writing your rules carefully, and even handing your game to other people and watching to see if they can figure out how to play just from reading your rules (you may find it useful to "swap" games with another team that is also working on a board game, at your site or at another site, if you can find one).

Most rules follow this outline, in order:

  • About the game (Name of the game, estimated play time, number of players, credits)
  • Theme/Backstory (if your game takes place within a narrative, include a couple of paragraphs explaining the theme and premise. It's customary to put these in italics to make it easy for the reader to skip if they don't want to read this part yet)
  • Game components (what is included in the print-and-play package, and what common components if any must be supplied by the players separately, e.g. standard dice)
  • Object of the game (in a sentence or two, generally, what are the players trying to do to win?)
  • Setup (what do players have to do before the game starts, to get the game ready? This includes deciding how to start play, e.g. deciding who will go first)
  • Progression of play (detail what happens during the play of the game: what can players do, at what point, under what conditions; and what other things happen automatically that are not triggered by explicit player actions)
  • Resolution (two things here: one, under what conditions does the game end; and two, when the game ends, how is a winner determined)
  • Additional examples or quick reference tables (if needed for clarification)

You may wish, time permitting, to make the rules look nice. Choose an appropriate font, add some graphics, and especially use images from the actual print-and-play game components in figures and diagrams as needed for clarity. Remember that to some extent, the game is the rules, so use the same care and craftsmanship for the rules document as you would for other components.

The Components

In addition to the rules, you must include the components themselves, along with instructions for how to cut them out and assemble them if it is not obvious. If you are producing these resources digitally, then PDFs are probably the best way to go, but remember that different countries have different paper sizes, so make your art with a generous border to allow for this. Also, try if possible not to rely on special paper or other printing materials to make the cut out elements work. If necessary, assume that these will be printed on paper and then stuck to card stock, cardboard, or some other material; if that is the case, then make that clear. Note: complex constructions with tabs and slots do not work well with standard printer paper. Common components include:

  • Game board. It's more convenient if it can fit on a single standard-size sheet of paper, but if you need larger, consider dividing it into quarters and putting each fourth of the board on a separate sheet (and then the player just needs to assemble the four of them into a larger rectangle). It's not recommended to go much larger, as some players may not have a table large enough to hold the board! Don’t upload a huge camera-ready artwork of GB size. If you want an HD version, upload a more modest one and have the larger file referred to by URL location in the notes. That way you give players an informed choice.
  • Cards. Standard card size is 3.5x2.5 inches (with apologies to anyone who is used to metric measurements). Squeeze as many of these as you can per standard-size sheet of paper (for example, in the US, standard size is 8.5x11, so you can fit nine cards in a 3x3 grid per sheet with half-inch margins all the way around). Try to stick to this size unless you have a very good reason not to, and if you must have smaller or larger cards, try to make it a multiple of that size. Also consider making a single (separate) sheet for card backs, to allow players to print the cards double-sided if they want. If you like, you can make the shapes rounded-rectangles instead of pure rectangles, to guide the players so they can have cards without corners. People are going to want to test out your game; thin paper “cards” will probably be see-through, so having a design that folds in, with two sides printed, then stuck together in a sandwich will allow people not to cheat and give a bit of sturdiness to what are likely to be heavily handled components.
  • Dice. If the dice are of a standard variety (4, 6, 8, 10, 12 or 20 sided with numbers counting up from 1) you do not need to include "printable" versions of dice, just mention in the rules that the player should be prepared to supply a certain number of dice of certain types. If you want non-standard dice (odd number of sides, or different numbering on the faces), you can try to include a large unfolded die for printing (the player would cut it out and fold it, then piece it together with tape) or include individual faces of standard size that could be printed on an adhesive label sheet and pasted on top of a standard die (this works better for "d6" or six-sided dice, and can get unwieldy on a "d20" where the faces are so small). Or you can re-think your design to use standard dice. Another effective alternative is a set of cards, each with one of the face values you are requiring. Then when a roll is needed, shuffling the cards and choosing one is probably just as good as the real thing. This allows for unusual dice to be simply incorporated without game testers having to go to significant expense; see note on see-through cards above.
  • Pawns and chits. Standard colored pawns to represent the players' pieces on the board can simply be mentioned in the rules as something the players are expected to supply themselves, if you wish. If you include non-standard tokens (such as chits that contain different stats written on them) or if you simply want to include pieces with custom artwork to represent the players, there are a couple ways to do this. The simplest is to just include the pieces inside a square, with instructions that the players cut out the paper and perhaps mount it on thick cardboard or similar (using school glue or a glue-stick) to give it some weight. If you prefer a "stand-up" piece, include a pair of adjacent rectangles with the "front" and "back" of the token that the player can fold to make a little paper tent. Even better, add small squares on either side to form the base (so it will be a straight line, square base-front rectangle-back rectangle-square base), and then include instructions to cut out, fold along the lines so that the two bases overlap, and tape them in place with a small weight like a pebble or coin in order to make the piece stand up.
  • Player aids. If your game has certain things the players need to look up frequently while learning the game (the kinds of things that would go in a quick-reference table or chart in the rules), consider either putting that information on the game board itself if there is room – for best results, put it in several places on the board at different angles, so that no one has to read upside-down to see it. An alternative is to create reference sheets that can be printed out separately and handed to each player.

Creating the Components

What tools do you use to create these? As with everything in Global Game Jam, the tools are entirely up to you. However, for best results, we offer these suggestions:

  • Rules. The printed rules contain mostly text, so this will generally be easiest in a word processing program such as Microsoft Word.
  • Cards. Slide-presentation software such as PowerPoint makes these pretty easy, as they already have an automatic rectangle and rounded-rectangle shape and you can give it the exact dimensions, and copy/paste your format for each.
  • Game board and other components. If you're including a lot of illustration, use the drawing or painting program you are most comfortable with (examples include Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator). These can be exported to a variety of formats such as jpg or bmp, in order to import them into other documents if needed. If you make excellent paper prototypes with hand-drawn art – and after all, who wants to use a computer, right? – then asking your host for access to a scanner, digital camera, etc, will be a life saver. That way, you can make the board look excellent, but still allow others to share that creation via a scanned image rendered into a PDF.

Putting It All Together

Ideally, you should combine everything into a single document in an accessible, portable format such as PDF (you can download a free PDF exporter tool here: http://www.primopdf.com ).

Quick hints for approaching the design of a board game:

  • After some brainstorming on either the narrative or abstract idea for the game, or the detailed mechanic/technique of play – people seem to fall into these two categories – ask yourself, "Is this fun?" and "Will this be fun in an hour?" and "Is this something that has emergent qualities that make the optimal solution hard to see, or vary depending on other players?"
  • No one plays Noughts and Crosses (aka Tic Tac Toe) beyond the first few games, because the possibilities are quickly exhausted. BUT what if you could remove a piece, or change a O for a X or slide them into adjacent empty squares? If you are stuck for an idea, why not take something familiar and change one thing. Is it suddenly less clear what to do to win? Evolving a game idea can be a good way to get to something unexpectedly different and cool. No one is going to accuse you of plagiarism if you are sincere and don’t just clone something old.
  • Prototype quickly and spend most of your time playtesting and iterating on your design. In the early stages, use whatever is available: note cards, paper, dice, coins from your pocket. Worry about the visual look-and-feel later once you've got the core mechanics and components solidified.
  • Remember, to be truly polished your game is going to have to be played through a lot. Really, a lot! Play with the designers, taking careful notes of things that "just don’t work" as well as "sudden flashes of inspiration." Play with anyone NOT the designers, but with one of the team on hand to answer questions during play, while another makes careful notes of things that were unexpected or generally not fun. If you can, set up a "blindtest": have others play the game without the designers present, with careful instructions to make notes and comment on play. Afterwards, the designers can come and ask questions, but "Oh, the idiots didn’t understand my game!" responses to genuinely befuddled game testers is NOT the right thing to do; it is your job as a designer to make the game accessible, and if a playtester couldn’t understand what was going on, you are the one who failed, not them. If you get the game room lawyer testing your game – "Ah but the rule never said I couldn’t transform an Orange Triangle, so that means I always WIN!" – then don’t be a jerk. Thank them. They are griefing your game deliberately, sure – "But it’s obvious that you don’t do that..." – but it serves a great example of what to do to not make the game unbalanced and unfun! As a designer, your job is to create a solid design, not to antagonize your playtesters. And remember that the purpose of playtesting is to find problems, so the more problems found, the better!
  • Bring prototyping materials with you if you have them. Index cards, paper (blank, lined and graph), dice of different kinds and colors, plastic or glass beads/tokens, coins, standard pencils (you'll be erasing a lot!), colored pencils... you don't need everything, but bring a box with you that has anything you have lying around that you think might be useful. Or, ask your host what prototyping materials they are able to supply. This is the first year that the Global Game Jam will include board games, and many organizers will probably thank you for reminding them that these resources are things they probably could/should supply.

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