With Arena: Grand Champions being a physical board game instead of a digital product, we had to put a lot of thought into creating a clean and quality product that fit into our budget and the amount of units we ended up needing from our Kickstarter campaign. Here, I will cover the process we went through getting the game printed and how we created the custom 3D miniature rewards we offered at certain reward tiers during our Kickstarter campaign.
Printing Our Own Board Game
The Search for a Printer
Before we started the Kickstarter campaign, we needed to figure out where we could get the game printed and how much each unit would cost so we could set our rewards and fundraising goal accordingly. We began searching the Internet for printing companies that could print our game. The problem we kept running into was an issue of quantity. Most companies that offer board game printing services require you to order a large quantity of games due to the higher costs of setting up printers and die cutters. In order for them to offset the high setup costs, most places will require you to purchase 500 copies or more to make it worth the effort. Obviously, for a company just starting out and relying on the Kickstarter campaign to pay for the ordering of our game, trying to get 500 supporters on Kickstarter seemed like a very daunting goal.
That is when we stumbled upon a company called The Game Crafter. TGC is a web-to-print company based in the United States that offers a very unique service. They allow anyone to create their custom board or card game online and then can print the game for the designer, whether it is just a single copy or over a hundred. They offer quite the assortment of game pieces in various shapes and sizes. You simply pick your components, match your designs to their templates, and they handle the printing. This company allowed us to focus more on the quality of the game and less on the need to somehow sell 500 copies at a cheap cost and gutted design.
Printing the Game and Revising
After the Kickstarter campaign ended and we got to work creating the game, we very easily took our art and text we had and translated it to the component templates that The Game Crafter provided. Some changes were made to which components we wanted to use based on game testing and prototypes, but the process of editing and changing around parts was incredibly easy. When we had completed all our design and proofing, we placed a bulk order for the games we needed. The games came in a pretty decent amount of time and when we got them, they looked great! The best part is that TGC also acts as a publisher if you choose to use them for that. After we saw the physical product and made small tweaks, we then offered the game for sale through their website. This lets us sell the game without having to keep a bunch of games in a spare closet; people can simply place an order through them anytime and it will be printed and shipped directly to the customer, complete with any updates or tweaks we can make to it at any time.
As an incentive to help raise money during the campaign, we wanted to offer more than just a copy of our board game. We had the standard shirts and posters for sale of course but wanted something really unique to offer to our backers. I have a good amount of experience with 3D printing as I picked it up as a hobby in college. Thus, the idea to offer 3D miniature figures of our main characters to replace the standard chipboard standees was born.
Creating the Digital Models
The first thing that we did after the Kickstarter was funded was create the cover art for the board game. This featured our characters based on the backstories and abilities that we created for the game. Using the cover art as a sort of concept art, our talented modeler Nathan got to work sculpting the characters with guidance from me as to modeling for 3D printing. 3D models that are created for the purpose of printing need to adhere to different guidelines than models that stay digital. Your model needs to have thickness, be watertight, and have less floating geometry. Once Nathan finished his modeling, I had to go through a series of processes to “fix” the models and make them printable. This involved closing holes, scaling, and tweaking the models so they would translate better to the physical world through the magic of 3D printing.
Printing the Gladiators
When we were planning out our Kickstarter, we developed a plan for scaling production of our 3D miniatures. We set a number of miniature sets we felt confident we could produce using our own hands and tools. Once we went past that number, we were prepared to look into finding a third-party manufacturer to produce the figures we would need. Thankfully for the sake of this blog post, we ended the campaign with a small enough number of sets that we could produce in-house.
We wanted to create the cleanest looking pieces that we could, and even though I have a 3D printer, its resolution was not high enough to produce the good-looking, game-scale figures we were striving for. It can handle a good amount of detail, but too much of the detail would end up being lost printed on my FDM printer. Luckily, there are plenty of services out there that can print 3D models at high resolutions on very expensive equipment, like Shapeways. Since we only needed a master copy of each character to mold and cast from, getting more pricey models printed professionally one time was a good move. This way, we got a better quality master model from the start. We received our master models and set about cleaning them up and preparing them for molding.
Molding the Gladiators
Now that we had our four “master” character models and four pillar models as perfect as we could get them, we were ready to make silicone molds from them that could then produce the 356 figures we needed for our backers. I had done prop making for a couple years before taking on this project, making weapons and other objects from video games and pop culture using a variety of methods but this was going to be my first dive into molding and casting. Before I ever cracked open a jar of silicone, I did as much reading and watching as I could on how to go about this new challenge. I started off by compiling a list of different silicones, resins, and additives I could use and researched what the pros and cons of the various materials were. I decided to go with Smooth-on products for this project because they are widely used, have a great reputation, and offer a wide variety of options.
For the molding process, I got some Mold Max 14NV, a tin-based silicone that can stand up to a good amount of castings without degrading or ripping and allowed me to mix the silicone and pour it by hand without needing any special equipment that I didn’t have in my workshop (aka my spare bedroom). I knew my models were complicated enough in shape to warrant creating a two-part mold. I placed my model into some clay and covered half of it in clay so that when I poured silicone on top of my model, it would only cover half the model and surrounding clay, allowing me to pour the other half of the mold later and create the two separate halves of my mold. Once that first pouring of silicone cured solid, I flipped my mold over and dug out all the clay I had previously sculpted around my model. Silicone is an interesting material and does not stick to anything, except itself. So, to keep my second half of liquid silicone from fusing to the first half, I sprayed a couple layers of mold release onto the mold and model before pouring. This essentially creates an extremely thin layer on the already-solid silicone and model that will prevent the incoming liquid silicone from completely melding with the already cured silicone. I poured in the second half of the silicone and waited. Once it cured, I removed the mold box that the liquid was poured into and gently pulled apart the two halves of my mold and removed the model inside. What is left behind is a perfect negative of the model that can be filled with resin to create an exact copy of the model that was molded. Now onto the real fun.
Casting the Gladiators
Thus began the most time-extensive, effort-filled, and repetitive project I have ever undertaken. I cover the process of casting and cleaning up our miniatures on our YouTube channel (click here to check them out) so I will refrain from going into a step-by-step breakdown of it here but rather will cover a general process and some techniques I picked up over the process. I started off with getting some Smoothcast 325 Color Match resin. This two-part resin takes tint very well because it cures transparent rather than white or gray like most urethane resins. Before casting a single figure, I wanted to really nail down the color of the figures. I made some small test pieces with various amounts of color and powder mixed into my resin. Tinting and mixing powder into resin proved to be a very precise science; sometimes I would add the same amount of tint but something would be slightly different and consistency would be thrown off. I decided that I needed to standardize the amount of tint I was mixing into my resin a different way. So, I bought some squeeze bottles like you would use for ketchup or paint and filled them up with the one part of my resin. I now had a larger and measurable amount of resin to mix my tint into. I got the color result I wanted and noted how many drops of tint I needed in each full squeeze bottle. This also removed the need to tint each cast in the moment as I could simply tint the whole bottle just when I refilled it. I also found that an 1/8th of a teaspoon of metal powder got the sparkly shine I wanted in each figure.
The general process for making a casting involved coating the mold in some form of mold release, either mold release spray or a light dusting of baby powder, closing up the mold and strapping the two halves together, then mixing and pouring the resin to fill it up. After an hour or two, the liquid resin would cure solid and I could pull my model out of the mold, ready to cast another. There were some figures that required me to pour some resin into the mold before closing it so the liquid could flow into some areas better than they would with the mold closed and standing up. This helped the figures come out solid with little to no air bubbles and was worth it, even though it required more time per cast. After a figure was pulled, I went through the process of cleaning it up by sanding, trimming, and polishing each figure.
The whole process of creating the 3D figurines for our Kickstarter backers took 2 gallons of silicone, 5 gallons of resin, and countless hours casting and cleaning up our figurines to make sure they were as professional and clean as we could get them. The whole process was a fun and very educational experience for me as I feel like I learned a whole new facet of propmaking and production. I hope you enjoyed this walkthrough of the process and if you have any questions, please reach out to us through our website or social media. I want to say a special thanks to Bill and Brittany Doran of Punished Props for their wealth of instructional content that helped me develop my skillset and helped me get started on this new challenge as well as the Punished Props community for answering various questions I had while going through this process.
Arena: Grand Champions has been a blast to develop. In this article I’ll go over some of the points in the development cycle that ultimately changed the entire game for the better. Every problem that we encountered had multiple solutions that were successes or failures in their own right. Some solutions like ‘Events’ were ineffective at resolving the problem, but we kept in the game because it was fun. Because we had multiple successes, failures, and ineffective solutions I’m only going to offer 1 failed and 1 successful solution for each problem discussed to hopefully provide some insight on how we learned from our failures to overcome our problems.
Double or Half
The first step into developing the gladiators we took was establishing a baseline for creating them. We developed a fairly simple system of point buying to create multiple gladiators, and thought out rough ideas for their maneuver cards. We built the system with the idea of using the smallest possible point values we could. We didn’t want big numbers for the sake of big numbers. This created 3 problems: Cost of maneuver cards vs. the over/under powered effects, zero room for mistakes, and later on random chance.
Why was this a problem?
The cost of the maneuvers were low to correlate with the small point values of the gladiators. We didn’t build them in as part of the point buying system instead we played it by ear. This ‘low value everything’ idea created a very sensitive scale in which 1 point made a huge meaningless impact in every decision. If you were the first to the fight your odds of winning went up astronomically. It didn’t matter if a gladiator's maneuver would cost all of their maneuver points, or just a few points it was almost always powerful enough to cost someone else the game. We thought this is great!
They may lose the game, but now they have a vendetta that would make them more likely to support another gladiator thus creating a team. Albeit a lopsided team, but a team nonetheless. However, this wasn’t the case. In one of the earliest play testings during round 2 Nolyn got stabbed and then shot with an arrow. He immediately died before even getting to play the game. This happened over and over again. Every mistake made, or every gamble failed meant that gladiator had no chance at winning, or worse they lost extremely early. The player’s had no room for error.
Failed Solution: Random Chance
When the system worked it worked… negatively. When the pre-game is filled with aggravated talks of alliances, and the second round of the game is filled with bitter in fighting it wasn’t fun. So we identified the weaker gladiators and tried to even things out by incorporating random chance. One of the ways we did this was to give the assassin a basic action that let them avoid all damage N% of the time. No matter how much we adjusted this number, or how much we changed the damage it negated, or the effect it caused it was unbalance-able at this scale. It drastically slowed game-play. It also killed the strategy. This became glaringly apparent for every gladiator we gave a chance ability to. We could see then that random chance had no place with the gladiators because it was only satisfying for one player a fraction of the time, and made everyone else miserable every time.
Successful Solution: Double or Half
In the very wise words of Sid Meier “Double it or cut it in half. You are more wrong than you think.” We did just that. We doubled every attribute point. Immediately the game became more fun. You could plan for failure and still have a shot at victory. Alliances occurred more organically, but more importantly were never a pre-game discussion. This alleviated that bitter tension of the previous iteration, however, it created a new issue: Rock, Paper, Scissors.
Rock, Paper, Scissors:
This wasn’t the first time we encountered this Ouroboros. In the earliest stages of development we had a perfectly symmetrical system with the intentions of the game feeling more chess like. Where strategy would always win out.
What was the problem?
With not enough resources at one’s disposal it became a slug fest with zero strategy where avoidance was the only way to guarantee victory. We solved it initially by changing up stats, and adding more asymmetrical maneuvers. Now it was back. Barbarian > Enchantress > Assassin > Soldier > Barbarian. Knowing this within a few turns you could accurately predict the outcome of the game as well as who was going to ally with who. Nathan was pivotal in pointing this out. This dominant strategy solution offered a stale sense of game-play.
Failed Solution: Hard Counters
We knew exactly what the opposing gladiator could do to gain the upper hand, so we tried to raise the stakes. We gave everyone a costly maneuver or a stack-able basic action that would hard counter their specific weakness, and then leave the opposition wide open. Once again knowledge of the game beat out our intentions. As I’m sure you figured it out, this created a zero-sum game. Everyone was always at a stand still, and with more points to go around everything drug by. No one took risks until they were sure their opponent couldn’t hard counter. All attempts to remedy this became a tragedy of commons that lead back to dominant strategy solutions.
Successful Solution: Meaningful Asymmetry, and Utility
The problem at its core was that it could be predictably resolved through dominant strategy in which each player in sequential order knew what first order optimal strategy to perform. There was no incentive to deviate; no mystery to the game-play. We needed a way to introduce choices that had equal value with starkly different outcomes. At this point most of the actions and maneuvers were somewhat symmetrical, and there was almost no utility abilities. Starting with the basic action we redefined them on an individual level matching them more to the theme of the gladiator with the same idea in mind: A move, an attack, a utility, and a recovery.
This impacted the Enchantress the most. She went from feeling like a Soldier with some range to an Enchantress. Her basic actions fit better within the context of the character she no longer dealt direct damage, but instead caused other gladiators to hurt themselves. She didn’t buff herself to defend, but instead placed others in harm's way. This felt good on every gladiator, but still wasn’t quite enough. The maneuvers needed to be changed with the same concept in mind, and their costs needed to locked in to better fit the context of the gladiators.
Firstly, the cost of the maneuvers became locked in at 2, 4, and 6. Next, we changed them to reflect not only the context of the gladiator, but to piggyback on the idea of hard counters. Hard counters were a failure, however, the insight we gained from testing them really showed us the shortcomings of each gladiator.
The best example is the Barbarian he had no real range abilities, and against the assassin could never catch up enough to inflict damage. It’s important to remember most maneuvers have a cool-down, and can only be used once per turn. What worked for him, that didn’t unbalance the entire game, was to offer maneuvers that increased his speed, and gave him a powerful ranged attack. It seems like a no brainer, but honestly it was not.
Finally, some gladiators were awarded out of turn abilities(or response abilities) actions that they could take whenever on credit. This last tweak alone really made the game more fun. It opened up a lot of branching options for some of the more boring gladiators. These changes all took a great deal of testing, and the game was finally shaping up. However, something was still missing. Something major that was lurking just beneath the surface out of sight. Try as we may we were unable to determine what it was that dramatically broke the equilibrium of the game every other game. I’ll call this problem customer support.
The game was playable, and it was okay. However, the cost of manufacturing and distribution was too steep for a just ‘okay’ game. No game is ever really finished, and there is always more that can be done, but we felt we had done it all. This sub-par game was the best it could be
What was the problem?
“Testers don’t like to break things; they like to dispel the illusion that things work.”— Kaner, Bach, Pettichord
Our efforts to suss out a major issue had been met with failure. The game was trapped in a perpetual state of not fun enough often enough. We had a sizable play testing team of friends, but no fresh eyes.The game needed a new perspective.
Failed Solution: Relentless In-house Play Testing
The game was tested into the ground. It was tested to the point that everyone dreaded the thought of having to play it. In fact, I'm pretty sure Nolyn, who was over testing, begin to believe everyone hated him because every time he was around that meant test time. We were exhausted and the game was stagnant. Hope was running thin.
Successful Solution: Customer Review
Nolyn found the solution from a great source that every game or product needs to go to before being finalized: the customer. When I said customer support earlier you probably thought of a company providing support for a product to a customer, but this was not the case. The customer was providing support to us. During a convention, a group of young board gamers sat down to play our game. Their feedback was invaluable.
The biggest change that came out of their feedback was the way in which the Enchantress played. She was the linchpin of the stagnation of the game. We had given some credit to a few of her abilities allowing them to be used out of sequence, but her real issue was how restrictive this was in the context of the game. The solution for her was to give her a permanent basic action investment. She could now choose to use only 1 basic action or 1 maneuver on her turn then use another basic action at any point before her next turn. It wasn’t tied to any one basic action, and let her respond through careful strategy and thought instead of being billed later because of an unforeseen circumstance. Since her basic actions aren’t as powerful as her maneuvers, freeing them up to be used later didn’t break the game either. We called the ability Delayed Gratification, and it was one of the biggest successes for the game.
The development cycle of the game has ended. The limited print run and models for the Kickstarter have been shipped. Now we are contemplating our next actions for Arena: Grand Champions, but in the meantime you can pick up a copy from The Game Crafters.
If things go well we’re hoping to start a back stock of the game meaning we will be able to sell the game cheaper through our website, and put it on store shelves. Thanks for giving this a read I hope it was helpful.