Saturday, August 6, 2016

3D printing and board games

A New York MakerSpace is holding a game jam. It's co-presente presented by Ultimaker and MakerOS so you know there will eventually be requirements that the games have 3D printed elements in it, though other tools like laser cutters will also be available. For $30 I would hope they're able to supply everyone's needs.

I love the idea, but I see a lot of problems with this. Maybe this is just sour grapes talking because I can't attend, but I gotta ask, do you even 3D, bro? There are downsides.

The first problem I see is unless they have a bank of printers they're gonna have the devil's time producing several teams worth of games, especially if they're part intensive like Seej or Wood Wars or Shapes the game. 3D printing is slower than inexperienced people expect. Even relatively small games like Pocket Tactics require a solid day to print and several color changes to do it right.

But if the games limit the 3D printed components, like a few fancy chits or minis, or a case to hold the bits. Pocket Tactics could have a paper version done with a few standees. And that would be a good plan. But Art don't design itself, unless the thought is to reuse assets from other people's games they're going to blow their whole time in design, 2D or 3D. And if they do steal assets they're going to have to be careful and attribute. (Now I wish I had finished my 3D printed board game resource pack before now.)

But anyone who's designed a game knows that you save the art assets until you've sorted out the gameplay. Having participated in game design groups, I know a game can be developed in a day, and the art assets can be developed in a day, but it's generally not the same day. Play testing takes time.

With a focus on the finished assets it's likely these games aren't going to be good games. They may be pretty, and for success that's about all you need, I guess. But without time to develop the game play these project will eventually languish like all things that lack substance. It'll make for some pretty blog posts, which is a win for the makerspace, but a bit disingenuous for the rest of us. Maybe some of the teams will have games they've designed and tested and the jam will only be to put their hand through the polish phase. That, in my mind, would be a winner all round.

Having thought about this quite a bit I figure this is as good a place to expand on my thoughts about designing games with 3D printing. I've previously said some of this in a past video.

Most people new to game design don't realize that game design is often constrained. In fact the biggest factor to a games success is price so if you can make a fun game out of 16 cheap paper cards then you've got a hit. On the other hand big boxes with expensive components do occasionally succeed but more often than not the risk isn't worth it for most game publisher. 

This is where 3D printing can shine. Offload the production of the fancy chits and minis to the buyer and a whole world of possibilities open up. But this doesn't remove constraints, because you still have to think of the consumer. If you buy a box with the promise of a craft project before you can play it, I think there are some people who would get excited by this, but many people would say "no thanks". Conventional wisdom says the game should be playable out of the box. But conventional wisdom's been wrong before. Add to that, however, if your design relies on screws, rods, or other elements that won't be coming in the box. That's a lot of potential negative experiences people are going to have with your game because they didn't realize the incidental costs your game works incur on them. So keep the out-of-the-box components to a minimum.

In my option, the best game for 3D printing is where the 3D components matter. Pocket Tactics could be done with paper and it would play the same, in fact full color chipboard tiles with good art might actually be an improvement. But could Seej work any other way than 3D printed? No. The weight and dimensions of the components are absolutely vital The problem with this sort of game, though, is your design had skip the cheap prototype phase before you could test it. Ask me how I know.

Before modeling parts in 3D you should ask the hard questions. Could this be done another way? Weight the reasons. Be willing to accept that maybe 3D printing isn't the right answer. Maybe you can get it done faster, better, cheaper and more accessible some other way. If 3D printers become ubiquitous then, yeah, having a 3D print heavy game is good. But we're not there now, so 2D printed components can have a wider audience.

On the other hand, 3D components are really cool, so there's that. Novelty has its value. Imagine a monarchy themed game where you 3D print a small scepter to indicate who's first player in a given turn. Important to gameplay? Na. But the moment you get the scepter you know you're having fun.

In my experience a fully 3D printed game isn't feasible. Even my take on Squirrel Squabble needed a book of rules that I didn't take into account when designing the case for it. (A redesign is in my project pool.) Rules, stats cards, things with small text on them, all are better 2D printed.

In short 3D printing can be a valuable tool when designing a game but it's value needs to be weighed against other tools.

I can't wait to see what comes out of this game jam. All of this aside, if I were in a position to I'd probably attend this thing.


  1. Hey Joe, The GAMESMASH event is going really well - wish you were in town. Actually, those of us running the project have spent years in desktop 3D printing. The unique thing we are testing with this hackathon is actually that we are frame-shifting the final digifab elements to Monday-Thursday. You have to deliver your tested files by Sunday night, but then you get access to me running my 8 machines to produce your pieces during your timeslot. We reduced the team load to 4 teams to make this even more manageable, and because it was key to us to cross-pollinate and make sure each team had some hardcore game design thinkers and some hardcore digifab/3D printing experts. This is going well, and we might actually see these four teams producing 5 games (stay tuned). Your concerns are totally valid, and were the first thing we considered when setting up this project -- how could we keep the level of game design discourse high while helping to introduce these teams to the prototyping and production possibilities of 3D printing, vinyl cutting, laser cutting, CNC milling, and more. You would have loved this weekend --- and to be honest, i was thinking of your awesome re-creations of out of print games when I first decided to commit to putting in the time and energy to make this happen. I would say that the reason that the digifab elements are critical here is more that we are trying to push and support original, independent games that the teams want to take on to test it in other contexts, such as crowdfunding platforms. Definitely, all of these teams will be wanting to playtest beyond Thursday night, but we are hoping to see some pretty excellent games then. And the level of game design so far has been fantastic! No one has been obsessive with the digifab elements yet, that's for tomorrow. ;-)

    1. Keep me updated. I can't wait to see what comes out of this. I'm excited that I can claim to be part of the inspiration for this.

    2. I realize I messed up the link to your gamesmash, but I just fixed it.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.