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Free at Last: A Step-By-Step Look at How I Create a Print-and-Play Game
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Over the last few months, a handful of Geeks have contacted me asking me for advice on how to create a print-and-play game. I also tend to repeat myself a lot in the forums when people ask for recommended materials, and I thought it might be useful to share the entire process, from start to finish, on how I create a game. I've created a different GeekList about print-and-play games over here, but, while it's thorough, it covers a lot of different techniques and a lot of different games. I thought a step-by-step walkthrough of one game might serve as a good companion to that list.

My latest project was Free At Last, an impressive entry into the card-driven wargame line created by Ted Torgerson. I had an opportunity to play it about a month ago, and decided that it was the next game to make the print-and-play cut. What follows is a breakdown of how I created the entire game.
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1. Board Game: Free At Last [Average Rating:6.86 Unranked]
♪ Isaäc Bickërstaff ♫
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Of course, the first thing you want to do is collect all your resources, from the materials to create the game, to the files you will need. The latter isn't always straightforward; for Free At Last, I had to download different files created by different people, and even had to create something myself. Here's a run-down of the files I used:

The Rules
The Counters
The Map
The Cards
The Leaders
The Leader Cards

I also created a file of images to stick to the gamebox, which I haven't made available here because it uses the image attached to this entry, and it's specific to the box I used to store the game. Furthermore, I had to do a lot of fiddling with the map image to get it down to a manageable size to print, and I used Microsoft Paint and a PDF print driver to accomplish that.

Here's the material that I used for the game:

17 pages cardstock
23 pages full-sheet label stock
2 pieces 32x40 mat board
24 wooden blocks (11 red, 13 blue)
24 plastic cubes (11 red, 13 blue)
2 d6s
1 Plano 3448-60 box
2 Chessex counter trays
1 leftover cardboard box from our cable installation

Additionally, I used the following equipment to accomplish all this:

rotary cutter
self-healing cutting board
metal ruler
single-hole puncher
corner rounder
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2. Board Game: Free At Last [Average Rating:6.86 Unranked]
♪ Isaäc Bickërstaff ♫
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I usually start with the easy stuff first, since I can work out manageable chunks of time for doing the different tasks. With Free At Last, it was the leader counters. It was simply a matter of lining up the ruler and making the cuts.



I took a tip from the game forums and decided to stick them down to wooden blocks, a la the block wargames, and ordered the appropriate blocks from Columbia Games. This cost about $9, including shipping, but I think it was worth it.

Here we are pre-application:



... and here we are post-application:



Pretty nifty, huh? I had to do this step twice, since my first attempt at printing the images made them a bit too large for the blocks. So there are actually about ten days separating the first and last images above.
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3. Board Game: Free At Last [Average Rating:6.86 Unranked]
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The next step was making the cards. I cheated at this step and just sent the file to Office Depot for printing. I didn't want to hassle with double-sided copies, and since it would have required special instructions that the print folks always seem to have trouble with, I decided not to worry about the card backs, even though they looked awfully nice.

Office Depot has a nice color printer that gives the cards a crayon-y sort of feel, and adds a bit to the overall thickness of the cardstock. I would have preferred something thicker than what I have, but they turned out very well, and are sufficient for my needs.

Here we are pre-cut, with all 14 pages of cards showing:



... and here we are post-cut, about 30 minutes later:



Being the OCD guy that I am, I wasn't quite done. I wanted the cards to be easy to shuffle, so I took a bit more time to round the corners of all the cards. Here's what 448 card corners look like, after about 45 minutes' more work:



But lookit those fancy cards! It was totally worth it. I only wish the cards were a bit thicker, and had the backs printed on them.
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4. Board Game: Free At Last [Average Rating:6.86 Unranked]
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Next up were the counters, and this is where I started needing to take a bit more time with my work. I had printed the counter sheets out on full-size label stock, since my work with spray-on glues has been disastrous. I wanted to paste them down to mat board, and since I keep all my scraps from previous projects around, the first thing I did was to find the appropriately-sized pieces. As you can see here, even the smallest scraps sometimes prove to be useful:



I don't have any technique for applying the label stock to the mat board, other than to always put the labels down on the white side of the mat, with the color showing on the back side. I opt for black, just because it's simple, but I can see other creators adding some color to their games by picking complementary colors. I'm just not willing (or able, for that matter) to go that far with it.

I also prefer mat board over other materials because it's light enough to be used in a game, yet sturdy enough to hold up over repeated play. Foamcore is too light for me, and winds up being too bulky for its purpose as a game medium. Chipboard seems flimsy to me, and it also has a non-uniform back, which could be an issue if information needs to remain secret. Mat board works well, and is fairly cheap, at $6.99 for a 32x40 piece at Hobby Lobby.

Now, I want to point something out to anyone who is thinking of making his own print-and-play game: MAKE YOUR COUNTERS LINE UP NEXT TO EACH OTHER. It's aggravating (and a lot more work) to have to cut out the gaps between the pieces. Here's an example of what I had to do with some of the counters in the game:



... and here's an example of some of the other counters, which were much easier to cut:



Note also that I am about halfway through with cutting out all the counters. There were a lot of them, so this step took between 45-60 minutes. But the end result is nice, and I always feel like it's worth the effort.

One thing I should note is that I don't use any kind of spray or stick protectant on my counters. If you're concerned with the artwork rubbing off or fading over time, you might want to try some of that Krylon clear matte finish, or just use some of those self-stick laminating sheets. I haven't done either with counters, so I can't recommend one over the other in that regard.
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5. Board Game: Free At Last [Average Rating:6.86 Unranked]
♪ Isaäc Bickërstaff ♫
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I almost didn't print out any of the leader cards (created by the ever-gracious and talented fractaloon), because I dread having to do anything that requires making two-sided counters. I've done it once before, for Oh No, There Goes Tokyo!, but it was a serious hassle to get everything lined up just right.

Luckily, isaacc suggested in a recent thread to use a peg to line up the artwork on either side of the backing to ensure that the pieces lined up correctly. Here's the gist of how to do that, minus the pegs.

First, you hold up the two pieces that need to line up against each other and align them back-to-back, as best you can. Once they're aligned, punch a hole through the edges of the printouts, in opposite corners:



Next, stick one side of the artwork to one side of the mat board. Try to keep the edges with the holes as close to the edge of the mat board as you can, because the next step is to punch holes through the mat board in the same place where you punched the hole through the printout:



Now, flip over the mat board and do your best to line up the holes in the second sheet of artwork with the two holes in the matboard:



This step took me a few tries, and it still didn't end up being perfect. It's awfully close, though, and a far cry better than anything I could have done using any other methods.

Once I had the artwork stuck to both sides of the mat board, it was just a matter of cutting out the pieces using the ruler and the rotary cutter.
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6. Board Game: Free At Last [Average Rating:6.86 Unranked]
♪ Isaäc Bickërstaff ♫
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The next step was to create the board, and let me tell you, this step was a bit of a bear. My first attempt to create a PDF file of the map image resulted in a 15-page PDF, in a 5x3 grid. Since I don't know how to make a pentakaideca-folding board, I decided to go back and print out the original version of the board, designed by the author of the game. Aside from it being smaller and more manageable, it also had a clearer color demarcation in the regions, which meant it would be easier on my colorblind eyes.

Well, the file didn't print out correctly. The map, as it's available through the link, seems to be missing gaps between the northern and southern regions of the map. So I had to ditch that all together, since the author is no longer on the Geek, and doesn't seem to answer questions about the rules, and I went back to the other, better-looking map and tried to squeeze it down in size. I was playing around in Microsoft Paint (it easily breaks down a large file into page-size sections when printing), and realized that you can have the program fit the image into x-number of printed pages. I opted for the six sections and let the printer fly. It worked ... well, not perfectly, but fairly well.

Because the resolution of the board was so high, smushing the graphics down to a smaller size resulted in some blocky lettering in the graphics. Everything is still legible, but it's not perfect, and I have to say, it bothers me a little. But it's a small sacrifice to get the board down to a reasonable size.

So. Though I don't laminate my counters, I've started laminating the boards I create, just because I figure the boards will get the most wear during play. I've learned that it's easiest to laminate the individual map sheets before applying them to the mat board and cutting, and I use the self-stick laminating sheets, since using a hot or cold laminator might result in the laminate peeling off. Here's one section, mid-laminate:



Once it's laminated, I stick it down to the mat board and cut off the excess edges:



I followed this procedure for all the sections of the board, and in this case, it resulted in six distinct portions of the board:


(My apologies for how blurry this photo is. By the time I realized how bad it was, I couldn't go back to retake it.)

The next thing I needed to do was to hinge the board so it would fold up nicely for the box. The trick to making a successful hex-fold board is to divide it into two halves, the upper and lower section. You'll then need to put one hinge on the front side of the board, and one on the back, so that if you were to set it up on a table, it would look like:

/|/

This is a tricky process, because at least one step of this procedure is sticking a hinge down on the back of two pieces, when you can't see the artwork to make sure it's lined up correctly. All I can say is: BE CAREFUL.

For the hinges, I use a strip of the self-stick laminate. Other than this or clear packing tape, I don't know what else to suggest for this step:



(Yes, this is a horrible shot, and yes, that's our chandelier you can see reflected on the board. But can you see the hinges? That's what this photo is all about.)

One of the tricks in creating a properly folding board is to make sure you hinge the correct sides of the board. You have to hinge the top and bottom halves to fold the same way or they won't fold together properly. So, If you hinge the top and bottom halves of the boards to fold like this:

/|/
(assume the playable side is on the top side of this illustration)

... then when you attach the two halves together, you would need to hinge it on the FRONT of the LEFT-MOST pieces. This way you can collapse both halves, and then fold the two halves against each other.

If you have trouble visualizing this process, pull out a copy of Ticket to Ride and look at the way it folds. You want to duplicate this same pattern when creating your own folded boards.

Here's the finished board, and (again) our chandelier:



This whole process takes the longest, usually about 90 minutes.
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7. Board Game: Free At Last [Average Rating:6.86 Unranked]
♪ Isaäc Bickërstaff ♫
United States
Greer
South Carolina
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Finally, it's time to talk storage! And it's also time to recognize a steep decline in the quality of pictures that I took in this step. I apologize in advance for the shoddy photos, but they'll get the main point across.

I toyed with the idea of using baggies for all the pieces, and then keeping each player's pieces in a smaller box, but I didn't like it that much. I also considered Plano boxes, but couldn't find one that wouldn't be too big for the purpose, or had enough spaces for the way I wanted to sort out all the pieces. In the end, I went with some Chessex counter trays, one for each player:



The leaders needed their own little box, too, and it turned out that one of those 3448-60 Plano boxes was just right. It means that both players have to share one box, but I think they'll get over it:



For the cards and the leader boards, I opted to create some tuck boxes. There weren't any files that existed for these boxes, so I used cpforbes' template online, and then edited the PDFs by adding some images for color. I created one box for the cards, and another one for the two players' leader cards:



The leader card boxes turned out to be a bit snug, but they're serviceable. I may recreate them at some point, but I'm in no hurry.

Lastly, I created the box. This is one of those corrugated cardboard boxes where the top is connected to the bottom, and has a flap that goes inside the bottom half. I believe our cable modem came in this box. It turned out that it's the perfect size for all the contents, as you can see here:



Using some graphics from the Geek, I created images to place on the top, bottom and sides of the box. All you can see here is the top, but it at least gives you an idea of how it looks from the outside:

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8. Board Game: Free At Last [Average Rating:6.86 Unranked]
♪ Isaäc Bickërstaff ♫
United States
Greer
South Carolina
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The results of a five yeer studee ntu the sekund lw uf thurmodynamiks aand itz inevibl fxt hon shewb rt nslpn raq liot.
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I forgot to mention the most important thing you'll need as you create print-and-play games: OPPONENTS. The next step is to find one willing to play the game to give my creation a test run. That's the official "Last Step" to the project, and since I've played a partial game already, I'm looking forward to it.
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