Manufacturing as a Design Tool

I’m going to make a bold statement: All game designers should think about manufacturing. This doesn’t just apply to designers interested in self-publishing, who obviously need to understand it. If you’re designing a game, and you aren’t thinking about manufacturing, you are missing out.

There are two main reasons to think about manufacturing during the design process. The first is the obvious reason that a game that has taken manufacturing into account will be more appealing to a publisher, for a variety of reasons. It shows that you are actually interested in producing a game, not just coming up with ideas. It also shows that you have considered how to make the game affordable to produce. Fewer components requires less custom manufacturing, a smaller box, so lower manufacturing and shipping costs. (Miniatures games require a different approach, but you still need to consider molds, materials, and box size concerns.) Publication and manufacturing is an art in itself, so if you’ve already solved some of the problems of how many pieces you need, how they fit together, and how they are made, you are saving work for the publisher in the long run.

The importance of the publishing aspect cannot be understated. All of these factors apply doubly if you are intending to self-publish. They also apply if you are prototyping. If you have 100 unique pieces with intricate shapes, it will be a lot of work to make just a single prototype. Even hex tiles are complicated because it is difficult to get uniform pieces. Square or rectangular cardboard tiles start to look very appealing when you think about how many you will be cutting out. (Episode 127 of the Plaid Hat Podcast discusses some of these issues)

But the second main reason to think about manufacturing during design is because it can actually make your design more elegant. It may seem surprising that high level game design can benefit from things as mundane as printing and cutting cardboard and bagging wooden pieces, but the two are closely linked.

Stepping back for a moment, there are almost always multiple solutions for a given game design problem. There is often an obvious and direct solution that involves adding more components. Need to track more information? Add dice, boards, tokens and cards to help record it. Need to help figure out the score? Add some point tokens. Need to add some controlled randomness? Throw in a bunch of cards that have the distribution you want. The common thread here is that each of these solutions fills a single function. And that often leads to making the game tedious or fiddly.

But thinking about manufacturing puts a high utility cost on these extra components. The actual costs aren’t important, but knowing that it will increase complexity and cost makes you think about how you can combine and reuse components for multiple functions. Elegance is often viewed as a game where all of the extra parts have been stripped away without losing functionality. This is exactly the intent of considering manufacturing: eliminating extra stuff.

Sometimes this approach can even lead to interesting new directions for design. Obviously, I don’t know how other designers consider manufacturing, so these examples will be limited to my own experiences. Some of them aren’t great examples, but still show the thought processes work.

So here are some things to consider in terms of manufacturing. Think about how you can use both sides of your cardboard components. Can you turn something over instead of using another piece? Do you need to mark something where it is, or can you simply move what you’re marking? Think about places where information is duplicated. Do you need separate areas to track different types of information, or can you combine them into one? You might be able to use one component to track both. Can you use the same wooden piece for two different purposes, at two different locations? Do you even need wooden and cardboard pieces, or can you replace it with a simpler way of tracking the information? How large should a board be

Think about detailed issues, like how many cards are printable at a time. Cards often come 9 to a sheet, so if you only need 50 cards think about what you can do with the extra 4, or see if you can do away with 1 card out of the 55. Think about how to reuse the same die for multiple sheets of cardboard. Rather than thinking about just how many of a token size and shape you need, think about how how to evenly spread all of the pieces across multiple sheets. Multiple different wooden pieces are more complicated to include, but a lot of a single shaped bit is very simple.

To show that this isn’t just theoretical, here are some examples from my own game designs:

In New Bedford, I started with 20 buildings because that’s the number of buildings that fit on a piece of 8.5”x11” paper. I could have chosen any number, but I balanced the game around that number of buildings because it was easy for me. Rather than adding a bunch of bits to mark who has built which buildings, I had buildings move around the main board. The detailed breakdown of whales also used the same logic (since it was easy to do sets of 20). It was also dependent on the length of the game, but it does drive some of the development, to avoid running out of tokens. And when I considered removing lumber from the game, the extra cost of separate wood and lumber bits was one of the factors that impacted my decision.

For Human Resources, I wanted a playing field, pieces that move around, and ways to control them. Using both sides of the cards enabled me to do that. As a bonus, it set up a nice balance by creating a duplicate set of abilities in both colors. The unknown nature of what cards remain available adds a good strategic twist.

The mining game I was working on included two separate groups of actions that the player must move between. They have moved from separate player boards (a neat mechanic) to being included on the main board, which reduces the room needed, but also suggests some improvement to other mechanics.

I obviously don’t know what decisions led to final published games. But it is no stretch to say that manufacturing concerns must play a role in the design of numerous games. The real strength of how manufacturing drives design is that it adds another limit, which inspires creative solutions. (I’ve said before that limits are a great design tool.) So the next time you work on a game, remember that the next time you have a problem, you can think outside the box by thinking inside of the box.

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  1. #1 by Sarcastic Robot on March 24, 2014 - 7:01 pm

    I agree with this wholeheartedly. As a designer I try and let this move and simplify my designs. As a publisher I look for designers who thought about how they are making games and not just throwing in as many things as possible.

  2. #2 by Paul Owen on March 24, 2014 - 9:20 pm

    Probably the most efficient game I know of in terms of component usage is Traders of Carthage. The cards actually serve four different functions depending on where they are and how you use them. The can serve as currency, goods, containers (for protecting goods from pirates), or victory point counters. Plus the board is tiny, and there are all of 12 wooden pieces for the whole game. Very elegant.

  3. #3 by Thematic Mechanic on March 27, 2014 - 4:36 pm

    As someone getting ready to start the move from design documents to prototyping, this was a good read.

  4. #4 by Brett M Myers on April 8, 2014 - 9:42 am

    Alex Yeager from Mayfair Games used to give presentations at Protospiel, years ago, about manufacturing considerations in game design. There are several standard card sheet counts, for example, depending on the printer and the size of cards used; 54, 60, 66, 72, etc. (I’d need to look through my notes to verify).

    Recently, I play tested a game with a publisher and after playing, he counted up approximately how many sheets of punch board it would take, which is something I’d never really thought about. I think if you have a publisher in mind for your game, you can take a look at their standard box size and that’ll give you a rough estimate of the size of punch board they can use, and you can mentally lay out your cardboard tokens and tiles on those to see about how many sheets of punch board it’ll take. Generally, fewer is better.

    Another consideration is whether your punch board components can be divided evenly. Each sheet of punch board is die cut, and a new die is made for each tile layout. If you have pieces that can be evenly distributed or close to it, you’re better off. For example, if you have 24 2×2″ tiles and 60 1″ round tokens, they might fit nicely onto three sheets of punch board with 8 tiles and 20 tokens each. That’s one die. Uniquely shaped pieces will require a separate die cut, and therefore a separate die and punch board sheet. This probably isn’t a deal-breaker, but again, fewer is better.

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