How to manufacture a board game

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Manufacturing is probably the biggest place that a board game self publisher can get themselves into trouble. There are so many nuanced factors that can go wrong with the process on top of the task of finding the right manufacturer to work with!

Many game designers and small self publishers have had nightmares with their initial efforts to manufacture their games. You could choose manufacture within the United States but have a hard time finding the right balance of quality combined with affordability. There’s nothing worse than an absolutely stunning game with the most exquisite components being utterly affordable to the masses because of high production costs. Alternatively you could try to work directly with a manufacturer in China and get great results; sometimes! You may get a fantastic price per unit overseas but without a representative actually in the country to show a presence at the manufacturing facilities you will be plagued with unpleasant problems; from language barriers and communicating your needs to quality control and making sure everything is up to your required specifications.

If you are not doing the manufacturing yourself (which on a bulk basis would be a daunting task without the facilities to do so) you may be better off to use an existing company that works directly with the factory.

To better help you understand the manufacturing process of a tabletop board game and to help you make the right choices as a self publisher (with the least amount of trouble), read on!

There are 6 main steps that you must go through to getting your board game manufactured:

  • Consultation
  • Getting Quotes
  • Choosing a Manufacturer
  • Pre-Press & Materials Checkpoint
  • Production
  • Shipping

Manufacturing Consultation

As a self-publisher, you will want to contact a manufacturer fairly early to get an idea of the viability of manufacturing your game. This should be done while still developing your board game so that you can be certain the components you have designed for the game can be properly produced. If you envision your game to contain a large number of bits or if you wish to include fancy custom components, you would be wise to check on the production costs early so you can steer game development in the appropriate direction if you need to make significant changes to the components.

The consultation phase is also a good time to get a general estimate of how long it will take to manufacture and ship your game. For a typical euro-style game with wooden and cardboard components, it takes 4-5 months from the point when you provide your files to the manufacturer until the games are physically in your warehouse.

Of course, the complexity of your game’s components as well as the “print-readiness” of your graphic files will have a huge impact on the schedule. A simple game with minimal components can be completed in under a month whereas huge monster projects may take many months to manufacture. Do not under estimate your own influence on the schedule as well. Many first time publishers will understandably make numerous late changes and revisions as they fine-tune their game. Make sure you know exactly what you want and have it finalized before your factory starts work to keep costs and delays to a minimum.

As a general rule of thumb, it is advised new companies to try to keep their game components fairly simple for their first production. This will keep costs down and result in a faster schedule.

Getting Quotes For Game Production

After some preliminary information sharing, you will eventually be ready to get an official quote for your game. This should be done before you raise funds to ensure you raise enough capital to produce and ship your game. At the same time, this is a good step for you to ask yourself which components in the game are going to give you the best bang for your buck and which ones you could do without (or make with in a lower quality material).

Many traditional Euro games are produced with very basic components (cardboard and wooden cubes) because their main selling point is their gameplay. In the past two years (and with the success of Kickstarter-backed projects), there are more and more requests for special and custom components which can really help to make your game stand out. Of course, with every additional and special custom component you add to your game, the cost will rise accordingly so it is up to you to determine what is the ideal mix of components to put in your game.

One factor that will have a huge impact on pricing is the total quantity of games you are looking to produce. The more games you make, the more feasible it will be to add fancier components to the box. This is because every component adds a production step to the manufacturing process. Every production step has a certain setup cost in addition to the material and labor cost. Certain components have especially high setup costs such as custom plastic components. Wooden and printed components are much cheaper than plastic and it is for this reason that most Euro games are made with only wood and printed materials. Common advise to a new game company is to print 1500 to 3000 games initially. With quantities less than this, it will be very difficult to turn a profit. If you produce too many, the games might take too long to sell.

Another important factor to consider is your target market. Understand your customers and have a marketing plan! Every game needs at least one main selling point – a fascinating theme, mesmerizing artwork, addictive gameplay, or awesome components that can capture the attention of gamers. Understanding where your game lies on the spectrum of these various measuring sticks can help you determine how much to invest in your game’s components. Some games work well as simple card games with minimal components and other have had their success multiplied by including gorgeous and thematic bits.

Lastly, create a strong company brand. Some companies are known for over-produced games whereas others may be known to release more traditional and component-light games (cardboard bits and wooden cubes). Success is found at both ends of the spectrum. It isn’t realistic for every publisher to attempt to become the next Fantasy Flight Games. Having a clear vision of what your strengths are as well as understanding your customers will steer your component decisions in the right direction.

That said, regardless of the number or complexity of components in your game, the most important issue that can derail your dream of becoming a successful publisher is ending up with a game that has quality problems. This is why the next step of choosing an appropriate manufacturer is perhaps the most important decision you can make as a new publisher.

Choosing A Game Manufacturer

There are two main places in the world to produce your game:

  • Germany
  • China

Some companies have tried to print games in other countries such as the USA with varying degrees of success but the vast majority of all board games are produced in Germany and China because they offer the best value. Way back in 2007, the landscape for board game printing was extremely polarized:

German printing was high quality but expensive whereas Chinese printing was low quality but cheap.

Since then there has been a lot of progress in improving the perception of Chinese manufacturing in gamers’ minds. If you have someone there to oversee operations on your behalf (and there are companies that will do this with your best interests in mind, for a nominal fee) then you can get high quality products at low Chinese manufacturing prices.

And you really do need high quality in all aspects of your games components. The reality is that in today’s gaming world, low quality products are simply not accepted and news of poor quality WILL spread around the internet and damage your company brand. There are only a handful of specialized game manufacturers in the industry.

My recommendation is to do your own research, ask other publishers for their recommendations, and choose the right fit for you.

Pre-Press & Materials Checkpoint

Alright! So you’ve finally decided on signing a contract with a manufacturer who you think will be a trustworthy partner to produce your games for you. You will be sent a payment invoice (usually 50% up front) as well as instructions on how to send your graphics files to them.

We now enter what we call the Pre-Press, Proofs & Materials Checkpoint Stage.

The pre-press team will now analyze your files to ensure that they are print-ready. Make sure you have followed the manufacturers list of file requirements to the letter to avoid any delays or extra charges.

Publishers who work with experienced board game graphic designers have very few file adjustments required before considering the files print-ready. If you are using a designer with very little experience (or if you are making the files yourself), be prepared for the possibility of a long and tedious pre-press phase that would involve multiple rounds of file revisions.

If time is a concern for you, I strongly advise you to use an experienced graphic designer.

During the pre-press phase the manufacturer will typically initiate the production of sample components. Wood and pre-made components can be ordered quickly whereas plastic components will take longer (4 – 5 weeks just to make a mould).

Once the pre-press phase is completed, your manufacturer will (or should) send you a Proofs & Materials Package which will typically contain the following:

  • Full Color Proofs – used for you to approve the colors. The colors in these proofs will be closest to the appearance of colors in the final retail product. However, certain finishes such as matte finishes and linen embossing can affect the way colors show up (based on the way light reflects off the surface).
  • Blueline / Digital Proofs – These proofs are printed for you to do one last check of the text, icons, and any other content in your games. These are made in addition to the full colors proofs because they sometimes don’t make a full color proof of every single component. Redundant card backs, text pages in rulebooks, and other components that don’t require accurate color matching don’t require full color proofs so they will often create blueline/digital proofs instead.
  • Mock Up of Printed Components – This will be a game that is created either without any printing at all, or with draft-quality printed components. The purpose of this is for you to see and feel the game materials. At this point, hopefully you can confirm that all the components fit nicely in the box and that you also approve of the thickness and feel of all the materials in the game (cards, punchboards, game boards, player mats, and so on).
  • Sample Components – Any components that you ordered will be included with this package so you should see an exact sample of any wood, dice, plastic, or pre-made bits.
    After receiving the package, this is your last chance to make any changes to your game before they start the machines. Once they get your approval, the full production process is started and there is no turning back.

Board Game Production

From the perspective of a publisher, the production phase is the most “hands off” phase. Once the manufacturers are given the green light, it is usually just a matter of waiting (approximately) 45 – 60 days until the games are completed.

Of course, from the perspective of a manufacturer, this is where most of the work gets done as they begin the process of turning digital files and component specifications into playable games!

Every game is different and the manufacturing process involves many detailed steps but here is an overview of the production of a typical Euro-style game with printed components, wooden bits, and custom dice:

All art files are converted to physical printing plates. Each image is broken down into 4 distinct colors: CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black) and a separate plate is actually made for each of these 4 color processes.
Components are printed one type at a time. Usually, components that require the most labor will be printed first and simpler components will be printed later so that work can be done on some components while other components are still in the printing stage.
Die cutting templates are set up for all printed components by a computer-aided machine
Cardboard used for the game board and punch boards are machine-pressed to achieve a very flat result.
Game boards, punchboards, and boxes are constructed using printed materials and cardboard. Afterwards, various types of finishes are applied to the components based on customer specifications.
The moisture content of all printed components is then measured before placed in a climate control room where components are dried to appropriate levels so that they will not warp after purchase.
Wooden components such as meeples are carved out of larger pieces of wood which are specially conditioned to be used in board games (to avoid mould). Then, these meeples are put into a painting machine before a final finish is applied. The wooden components are then dried and slowly tumbled (so the paint does not stick together) before being packaged and sent to our final assembly factory.
Dice moulds are created for custom engraved dice. Acrylic or resin material (essentially hard plastic-like substances) are injected into the moulds to create the dice. The dice faces are then painted in the appropriate colors, finished, then polished.
All incoming components are required to be put through quality control tests at the source factory and a test report is provided to us. Once we receive the components, we do a spot check to verify the test results. If the components pass the check, we continue with the production process. If not, the components are sent back to the original factory for reworking.
On the final assembly line, all of the components are sorted and put into the games in the specific order that has been instructed. Games are then shrink wrapped, placed into master cartons, and loaded onto shipping pallets.
The very first game that is assembled will often be express air shipped to you for your approval. This is called an advance copy and some publishers ask for multiple advance copies so they can forward them to reviewers and other industry folks.

This is essentially the moment of truth and it carries some emotional significance as you might imagine. The day a client receives the advance copies is almost always the happiest day of the entire process. After getting final approval, the manufacturer will continue to finish the assembly phase and begin to proceed with the final shipping arrangements.

Shipping Board Games

The standard method of shipping from China to the USA or Canada is by ocean shipped containers. The most cost-effective way to ship a game is to book an entire container. For customers who will not order enough games to fill an entire container, it is recommended that they produce a quantity of games that will take up exactly half a container. This way, there is a chance that shipments can be combined with other customers who happen to have their orders completed at the same time and are shipping to the same country.

Ocean shipping from port to port takes 3 weeks on average. In addition, you need to factor in potentially another 2 weeks to clear customs and truck the games from port to your warehouse. In the event that your order gets flagged for a random customs inspection, it can add another week or so of waiting.

There can be a number of surprises regarding ocean freight that travels from China to the United States. Here are the important things to consider:

Get somebody experienced (start with your manufacturer) to deal with booking the shipments and customs.
Customs delays can easily be 2-4 weeks.
You should budget a cost of at least $1 additional per game for transportation to your warehouse.
Shipping will take at least 1 month, sometimes more, rarely less.
Fuel prices, exchange rates, and demand can heavily influence shipping rates.

After the games arrive in your warehouse (or garage or basement .. or living room (lord help you with your spouse) in some cases), the manufacturers obligation is complete and now it is up to you to sell your games. Hopefully their hard work plays a big part in the success of your game and you will have many more reprints and future projects to discuss!

Manufacturing Board Games – In Closing

The tabletop board gaming industry is going through a very exciting transformation. Small startup publishers now have incredible tools and resources to fund (Kickstarter/IndieGoGo), manufacture and market (Board Game Geek, Social Media, etc) their own games.

With the barriers to self-publishing at an all-time low, a growing number of board game entrepreneurs are taking the plunge into the industry. Collectively, this injection of creativity and talent has the potential to take the tabletop gaming industry to new heights. There is truly a feeling of togetherness amongst publishers, designers, and even manufacturers in this industry as it seems quite clear that their survival and success is linked in many ways.

If you were ever on the cusp of launching a new game company or releasing your cherished new game design, there has never been a better time than now.