It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything on this site. When I started rapid prototype revision to my current game, I decided that my methods might be worth sharing. As with any game, the first few versions of Winter Rabbit were rough, quickly thrown together, and ugly. As I’ve started to lock in mechanics though, I wanted to make things look a little nicer for playtesters. The downside of that though is time. Crafting a good looking prototype is a time-consuming endeavor.
I kept things in black and white for three reasons: 1, while I want it to look good, it really is just a prototype; 2, I’m not an artist and there is only so much I can do; and 3, I don’t own a color printer. So, with that design choice in place, I started crafting.
I didn’t use a cutting machine to make the main game board; I did all that manually. I wanted to mention it first though because it is the main component of the game I’m working on. I printed the board on 80lbs cardstock with my home laser printer. I then attached it to the chipboard with a spray adhesive and flattened it out with a rolling pin. I recommend doing this outside or in a well-ventilated workshop. The fumes are bad ( I wore a mask) and the sticky stuff will get places where you don’t want it. Other than that, the process was easier than I expected and the results came out great. From here, revisions are a bit easier. In fact, I’ve already done one revision, just gluing the new version on top of the old.
Until recently, I’ve prototyped cards as a lot of people probably do: printed paper in a card sleeve with old MTG lands as a backing. This method works really well and looks a million times better than just writing on notecards. Still, I’m lazing and I wanted to kick the look of things up a notch. There are two parts to this: managing the content and crafting the actual component.
For managing the content, I’ve become a big fan of Component Studio. Made by The Game Crafter, this software is fantastic. It’s not without its flaws and limitations, but it has sped up my process dramatically. Component Studio is $10 a month, but there is also an IGA discount that cuts the price in half. If you aren’t to the point where you want to pay a monthly fee, try taking a look at nanDeck instead. There is a lot more that can be said about prototyping software, and I’ll cover that in another post.
For now, it is just important to mention that Component Studio allows you to export files in a few different ways, including in a print and play format. For standard poker-sized cards, this means nine cards laid out in a grid on a standard 8.5″ x 11″ sheet of paper. For mini cards, it is a grid of 20. From here, you are expected to cut the cards out yourself and sleeve them or whatever. When you need to cut out 75 mini cards once a week, this gets pretty tedious, so I decided to blow some money.
There are a few companies that make consumer die cutting machines. Cricut, Silhouette, and Brother are the main contenders. These machines are mostly marketed toward clothing designers, scrapbookers, and other types of crafting. At first glance, this seemed far afield from the game design forums and products that I’m used to. As it turns out, there is a lot we designers can learn from the scrapbooking crowd.
Most of these machines are limited to cutting materials with a thickness less than 0.37mm or so. For cardstock and paper, this is perfectly fine. One product did stand out to me though. The Cricut Maker machine came out last year. It’s defining feature is that it can cut materials up to 2.5mm thick. The average chipboard component is between 1.5 and 2mm. Great! That means that I can craft nearly any component I need from blank sheets of cardstock and chipboard. The downside is that you need a special knife tool – basically an Exacto blade with a proprietary housing – to cut those thicker materials. From what I’ve been able to gather, that knife accessory will be released at an unannounced time this year. In the meantime, I’ll just stick to cutting things from cardstock.
The price on the Cricut Maker was a barrier. This machine comes in at $400 while most of the others are about half that. After weighing the cost of buying component pieces, the time it would take to make them by hand, and the hefty price tag of the Maker, I decided to spend the money. If I keep up anything close to my current pace for prototyping games, I won’t regret it.
Using the Cricut Maker
The Cricut Maker is a beautiful, well-built machine. Taking it out of the box, I immediately recognized the build quality; this thing is heavy for its size. The software, on the other hand, could use some work. This machine, like its cousins, is marketed toward the crafting crowd. Older versions of Cricut required cartridges with pre-loaded vector files and operated without the need of a computer. Newer Cricut devices can connect to a mobile app or a web app via USB, using Cricut’s Design Space software. Cricut obviously tailored Design Space to a non-technical crowd. It is bare-bones and contains a lot of overpriced microtransactions (which we won’t need for our purposes). As someone who is at least somewhat technically savvy, I found it quite limiting. That said, design space does allow me to upload any vector file (SVG format) and load that into a design which is all it really needs to do.
From here, I set about creating cut templates in Illustrator (Inkscape would work fine too). Creating the templates was easy enough (those round corners!), but getting them to align with the printed page was a bit more difficult. The Cricut machine works by adhering your cutting material to a reusable, low-tac cutting mat and feeding that into the machine. The mat has guides to align your paper, but it also has an exterior bleed margin that has to be respected. I’ll get back to the alignment in a second.
In Design Space, the software wants to rearrange all of your objects (each card) into the smallest area possible instead of leaving them in the configuration you uploaded. For regular crafting projects, that would be great. When you want to align with a printed page, it isn’t so good. It took me a minute to find the “attach” feature which prevents this rearranging. So, ok, that problem was solved. Next, I found that there is no way to align the grid of cards to a place on the page.
My solution here was to create an outline around the entire page. Cricut has about a 1/4″ margin it imposes, so instead of making an 8.5″ x 11″ box, I had to squeeze that down to 8.25″ x 10.75″. I then placed my card grid inside that and tried a test cut. Off… by about 1/4″. So I revised my template and tried again, this time shifting the card grid 1/4″ to the left. Success!…well, close enough. Each cut was incredibly precise to the vector file but shifted ever so slightly in one direction or another between each sheet I attempted to cut. This is certainly due to a combination of slight shifting in printing, slight shifts in the placement of the paper on the mat, and slight shifts to the mat. This is why professional printers want you to leave safe areas and bleed zones. All that said, with a little practice, I was able to get fantastic looking cards about 90% of the time (I think I can still improve that).
It is important to mention that the Maker has a “Print and Cut” feature that optically aligns the cuts to your printed page. This is limited to images no bigger than 9.5″ x 6.5″ though. So far, I haven’t found a way to make it work for my purposes.
I also figured out another trick for that 8.25″ x 10.75″ box I put around the whole thing. At first, I was letting the machine cut this like everything else. This made it a bit easier for the paper to come up off the sticky surface and meant more errored cuts. Then I picked up their scoring stylus. This is meant to make score lines on paper for easier folding (handy for card boxes). I switched the outside box to a score line. Now, the extra pressure around the outside edge actually helps to hold the paper down, improving the stick.
The last hurdle to using this machine was peeling the paper off the sticky pad. My first attempts at this lead to curly cards. A few searchers around the scrapbookers’ forums taught me that bending the pad and peeling the pad from the cards (instead of cards form the pad) results in a lot less curling.
Since I had the materials at my disposal, I decided to make some simple card boxes. A quick Google search led me to Template Maker. This size lets you export SVG files for lots of different types with the size parameters that you specify. After a tiny bit of setup in Illustrator or Inkscape, these are ready to import into Design Space. I recommend moving the fold lines to a different layer than the cut lines. Design Space will automatically import each layer as a group. You can then more easily change the fold lines to score lines and leave the cut lines as they are. Attach all of the lines, then cut your project!
With all my templates and systems in place, I can now cut a deck of cards in a few short minutes. I’ve gone through several revisions in the last couple of weeks and my development time has sped up significantly. I’m really excited to find new ways to incorporate this machine into my prototyping process. Not having access to the knife tool has been my biggest disappointment. When that is available, I want to try making my own game boxes, boards, and other chipboard components. The price is also steep. Everything you can do with this machine, you can also do by hand; it just takes more time and skill. For me though, getting the tedious parts of development out of the way so that I can focus on the important (fun) parts is worth quite a bit. Also, I love digital design and the capabilities of this machine have already gotten me thinking of new component styles. I hope to post more on that in the future.