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#9 – The Costs of Advanced Prototyping

Designer’s Den is a game design blog covering a wide spectrum of gaming including mechanics, art and graphic design, world building, and more!

In Designer Den #8, I discussed my top five recommendations for getting started in game design. Points 1 – 3 were focused on the same topic, which, I think, is the biggest hurdle for most new designers: the prototype.

During its earliest phases, prototyping can and should be fairly cheap. Often, a simple prototype can be built with the materials you have on hand, and if not, you should aim for spending less than $10 on any new parts. That’s because the goal of early prototyping is to get something tangible on the kitchen table as soon as possible. Ideally, mechanics will be fluid and change after a few tests, which is why you don’t want to spend too much on the first draft.

However, once your game has evolved into a solider state, you may consider having some parts printed for you by a manufacturer that specializes in making prototypes, so your game starts looking closer to a theoretical finished product. This is about the time when artwork will start appearing, too, whether commissioned by you or bought/licensed from an online market. Just make sure you have the rights to use any art you intend to have printed professionally. 

We’ll call this next stage advanced prototyping. I advocate for making this transition around the six month mark, but it can happen as early as three or even as late as a year, depending on the speed at which you’re making progress and the funds needed to advance. (Everyone goes at their own pace!)

When you do decide to enter advanced prototyping, your research & design costs are going to climb rather quickly, so it’s important to go into it with realistic expectations and a budget. In this post, I’ll share my experiences with two manufacturers that offer prototyping services, including the average costs incurred. Maybe these figures will be able to aid you in your next steps of game design!

What Costs?

You might be thinking that the costs associated with advanced prototyping are tied directly to physical material, but there are other costs that must be considered. To me, the second largest cost after the hit on my wallet is time. Not only the time it takes to ship a product to my door, but also the time needed to prepare the files the manufacturer needs and to communicate with customer service (important for any custom components or problems that arise with templating).

Another more abstract cost to consider is your opportunity cost. If you opt to print with one manufacturer, you give up the opportunity to print with another and may have to settle for substitute components or lower quality to reap some other benefit. (Unless monetary and time constraints don’t matter to you, then you can print with any combination of manufacturers to create the perfect prototype! But then why are you here?)

Ultimately, I’ll focus on physical material and time costs, as they have the largest impacts. You should be able to deduce the opportunity costs by comparing the other two.

Give Us Names

Right, so who are the manufacturers? The two I’ve printed with are QP Group headquartered in Hong Kong, and AdMagic’s Print & Play division headquartered here in the United States (Vancouver, WA to be exact). QP Group operates a few websites, but the one I visit the most is www.boardgamesmaker.com. (They also run www.makeplayingcards.com, but from what I can tell, BGM can do everything MPC does and more.) Please note: I’m not sponsored or endorsed by either company.

I’ve printed with QP Group since 2018, whereas I just started ordering from Print & Play this month! That means I’ve garnered quite a lot of interactions with the former versus the latter. That’s another thing to keep in mind. . .

Printing with Board Games Maker (QP Group)

This company is almost exclusively located in Hong Kong and mainland China, with one production workshop in California.

Physical Materials

My game predominately consists of a quad-fold board, poker-sized cards, and player mats, with some smaller pieces and a rule book. As with most companies, upgrades are available. I’ll note any relevant upgrades if they add to the cost. Also, I’m not including the cost of the box. I don’t think a professionally printed box is necessary until you enter the demo or preview phases. I’m also not including the cost of dice and other standardized pieces, as these costs are only incurred once and are essentially universal across manufacturers.

Here’s the breakdown:

  • 18×18″ matte game board = $15
  • 286 poker-sized cards, S30 standard smooth stock = $58.70
    • (40 cards x 7 decks, + 6 tokens = 286. BGM produces decks in certain increments. The most cost-effective method is to print two decks of 144 cards, at $29.35 each.)
  • 7 player mats = $44
    • (Normally, a mat (210gsm art paper) costs $2-4, but BGM charges a custom file & tooling fee of $30. 7 x $2 = $14 + $30.)
  • 16-page A5 rule book = $6
    • (A5 dimensions are 8.5×5.5″, or a standard page folded in half.)
  • Subtotal = $123.70
  • Shipping = $23.99
  • Grand total = $147.69

Time

Fortunately, prototype printing for US customers is done at their California workshop in the Bay Area. For someone who lives on the West Coast like me, the time it takes to reach me after the box ships is only 4 – 5 days. However, there are other time constraints to add.

The first will be the time it takes to establish a ticket for custom requirements (if you don’t have any, skip this paragraph). Because customer service is based in China, your message probably won’t be returned until very late at night or early in the morning. And of course, when you respond to that response, you can count on another day delay. It generally takes me at least 4 back-and-forth inquiries and confirmations before the custom files are accepted due to language barriers.

Next, the files are reviewed. If the uploaded files are slightly off kilter, you’ll have to correct the images or approve the printing as-is. Doing so requires more correspondences, and thus more days. Add 2 more.

Now that the files are ready for print, they go to production, which takes about 2 – 3 days. Only then will the prototype leave the California workshop and hit the road.

So altogether, the time spent uploading, receiving, and reviewing files, then printing and shipping the prototype with Board Games Maker amounts to 10 – 12 business days.

Printing with Print & Play

This company is physically located in Vancouver, WA (about 2 1/2 hours from where I live near Seattle). I believe their customer support is all based in the United States, but I can’t attest to them all being located in Vancouver.

Physical Materials

I’ll copy the same list as from above, with minor alterations where needed.

  • 18×18″ matte game board = $38
    • (Woah! Why is it more than double? Normally, glossy boards are $16.10, but I prefer matte (no glare, please), which must be custom ordered. The base cost is $27.76 plus shipping, which is calculated separately because custom orders don’t add to your shipping charges in the cart.)
  • 286 poker-sized cards, double-sided gloss stock = $43.68
    • (40 cards x 7 decks, plus 6 tokens = 286. Print & Play makes them on sheets of 18 cards each, so I need 16 sheets total.)
  • 7 player mats = $23.25
    • (I use the custom size rectangular card option and print on premium matte stock. I’m able to fit 3 mats to a template, meaning I need 3 total orders. $4.75 x 3 = $14.25 + $9 custom tooling fee.)
  • 16-page A5 rule book = $2.60 
    • (A5 dimensions are 8.5×5.5″, or a standard page folded in half.)
  • Subtotal = $107.53
  • Shipping, Sales Tax, & Insurance (optional) = $24.12
  • Grand total = $131.65

Time

Shipping from Vancouver to my office (all in the same state, mind) takes 1 – 2 days. However, their priority shipping lists the time at ~3 days (at $9.38), so it seems that even folks across the country won’t be waiting long.

Now, I have to add in the support I required for my custom components. This took 2 days, but I can see it being as short as 1 if I’d sent my emails earlier in the morning.

There’s no review period with Print & Play (unless you pay for it), so after uploading and submitting files, it goes into the production queue. Their website advertises a 48-hour turnaround, and sure enough, mine took 2 business days to complete.

Overall, the time spent uploading and receiving files, then printing and shipping the prototype with Print & Play amounts to 4 – 7 business days. (I ended up altering my order after it was completed, which tacked on an additional 2 days to accommodate it, for a total of 9. This is still less time than Board Games Maker at its best.)

Summary & Other Considerations

These two companies are both great partners. However, there are other factors at play worth acknowledging besides the costs outlined above.

BGM has a slightly larger suite of components and generic pieces, but Print & Play’s suite is by no means lacking—you should still be able to assemble a wholly functioning version of your game. BGM also offers more finishes on printed components and choosing between gloss or matte doesn’t require a custom setup (for the board at least). BGM’s templates and UI are also better in my experience. They make it incredibly easy to import files with a drag-and-drop interface.

Another aspect to consider is quality. How good do you want your advanced prototype to look? In my experience with Print & Play so far, their quality looks superior on the whole. Their colors match my digital proofs better than BGM’s, which sometimes look washed-out. Also, Print & Play’s cuts are more precise. If you’re printing cards with borders, this is especially important. I’ve received BGM prototypes well above my tolerance for off-center cuts on multiple occasions. 

By now, once you start advanced prototyping, you should have a clear path in mind regarding how you want to publish your game. (I also cover this in Designer Den #8.) If you’re on the game designer route with a plan to sell the game, use your advanced prototype to pitch to publishers. While having a highly polished version of the game isn’t required, publishers will appreciate seeing it in this stage to help them gauge the final manufacturing costs. 

And if you’re the publisher, now is the time to really expand your playtesting and stress-testing. But don’t stop after just a few sessions. You’ll want to put the game through the ringer and get your money’s worth! If that means making edits to the game with markers or white-out, don’t hesitate. Printing an entirely new edition to accommodate a few changes is cost-ineffective and wasteful. Trust me on that. I wish I’d let my prototypes breathe longer before printing more!

With all this in mind, if you’ve started advanced prototyping for your game, what have you done to save money and time? Are there any companies you’ve printed with I didn’t list, such as the Game Crafter? I would love to hear about it!

Thank you for reading, and until next time!

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