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Gathering of Engineers

Ludographic considerations from the Silicon Forest

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Tools of the Trade 2: Light Tiles

This is the second in a series of unknown length about making game prototypes. Today's session: making light tiles of any size that look nice and hold up reasonably well for playtesting. Next session I’ll cover making cards for card games and board games.

If you don’t need heavy tiles, but you want something that will lie flat and usually stay put on a board or on a table, this may be one way to go. I’ve used this to create light tile sets for Isla Nova (100 hexagonal tiles about 2 inches across) and for Metro 2 (60 tiles about 1.5 inches square). Here's a picture of this type of tile being used in the original Northwest Trek, which features a unique five-sided flat tile about 2.5 inches wide.

Fronts. The key to this type of tile is to buy and print the tile fronts on “full-page label stock.” I just Google’d that phrase and found plenty of stores, online and off, that offer labels of this type. The Avery standard numbers are 5165, 5265 and 8165 so anything compatible with them should work pretty well.

Print the tile images (color or whatever) on regular 8.5 x 11 full page labels. One example would be at Einktech, where 50 sheets of this 8.5 x 11 size label sell for $11.95 (on sale). Shopping Headquarters (whatever that is) has an even better deal with 100 full page sheets at $15.30 postage included.

Test the paper once it’s printed to see if the image will hold up under use – rub it with your thumb or something. If the print is frail at all, you can laminate your tile after it’s stuck to the backing. See the notes below.

Backs. My favorite for this type of tile is Report Covers, often pulled out of the recycle pile at business locations. These might be consultant proposals that get tossed, old computer printout covers, anything that is sturdy, cuts with scissors and is clean monocolor or patterned on one side. It usually doesn’t matter if one side has been used, since you can cover that up with your label stock. Flat cover stock is best, but you can use the flat portions of patterned or embossed covers as well.

We’ve also used clear acetate, leather look reports and vinyl for backing material. But some materials don’t stay flat once cut into tiles, so test ahead of time. Matte board (used to frame pictures), foam-core board and thin woods are also nice, but those materials all need to be cut with a razor knife or rotary knife and straight edge. I’d like to acknowledge “anonymous” who wrote in last week about his/her success in using matte board, spray glue and a rotary knife. Sounds good!

Preparation. Print the fronts first. Peel off the label backing carefully and expose an edge (like ½ inch) of the label. Place the backing material (so that you will cover the side you don't want) on the exposed sticky edge and arrange it so the printed image will have the backing material behind it all the way around. It usually does is you’ve printed an 8 x 10.5 inch image on an 8.5 x 11 inch page.

I usually do the next step upside down, that is, I'm looking at the printed label. Carefully peel the label backing in a straight line away from your exposed edge, smoothing the sticky label image onto backing as you go. You don’t want air bubbles under the image. If the label peel-off is split diagonally, make sure you catch all of it as you peel and press – there’s no UNDO button here!

Cutting. For decent prototypes, I just use a pair of heavy shears (scissors) and cut the tiles out one at a time, starting with longer straight lines for efficiency. It helps in your original tile image to have a little space between tiles, like maybe a neutral colored border. That way you can cut out each tile with a little wiggle room.

One level up in quality is to use a razor knife or rotary blade to cut the tile edges. If you’re careful, this method allows you to print your tiles closer together so you can get multiple tiles’ edges cut on a single pass.

Notes. Last, laminate if you’re going to. This will make a tile that lasts a long time, but it’s more work. Since you’ll be cutting these tiles out, make sure the laminate sticks to the image after the card stock is cut. There are peel-and-stick laminates for this as well.

And if you can get peel-and-stick laminate thick enough, you can make tiles directly by printing on card stock, thick laminating it and cutting the tiles out. However, I haven't seen thick laminate like this except in commercial operations.

Next time – the wonderful world of printing CARDS. I’ll try to cover card stock, peel-and-stick and using card sleeves. Hoo boy.


  • At 11:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I'm the prior Anonymous: J C Lawrence {claw+bgnight@kanga.nu}. Can't be bothered with an account. You can also find several sets of instructions and further details on making matt-backed tiles and game boards, even folding game boards, in the Spielfrieks archives. It can be a very easy and fast process. For instance making a full copy of Kardinal und Konig: das Kartenspiele from scratch, including printing time takes only about 45 minutes (images are available from Michael Schacht's website). Not bad for a full game's worth of tiles. Hex tiles take longer as they require one more cut than square tiles, but even Schacht's Gods (full of hex tiles) can be made in about 75 minutes including printing.

    Making cards? Depends on what sort. The two main types are 1) for card games where cards are to be held in a hand, ordered and manipulated frequently, and 2) action or event cards which are examined for their content but otherwise rarely handled and are definitely not held in a "hand" for an exptended period. I've not seen a solution I like for the first case. For the second I'm a fan of using a pabel printer to print out labels on plain paper, cut them out quickly with a rotary knife and steel rule, then slip into MtG card sleevs ($3 or so per 50). If you want stiffer, drop a MtG land card behind them (free from your local MtG tournament store). Large numbers of cards can be made very quickly this way. Certainly a thousand or two per hour.

    Branching off to the side: I'm not a fan of scissors at all for prototype work. It is very difficult to reliably cut straight lines, to make pieces of exactly the same size, or to make unmarked and indistinguishable edges on pieces. A rotary knife is both faster and more accurate.


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