Empty Nest Gamers

With our children now grown and out of the house, my wife and I have a lot more time to fill. This blog will feature our thoughts on games that we've played recently (with an emphasis on how they've worked for us as two-player games).
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Working on the Railroad: Building My Print-and-Play Copy of 1889

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Love the world.
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I'm happy to report that I've now completed my first print-and-play game. Overall, it was a very good experience, and I'm happy with the result. It isn't up to professional production standards, but it's much better than I would have expected before I started digging into the process.

I decided to build 1889: History of Shikoku Railways as my first print and play, for two reasons:

(1) It's described as 1830 on a smaller (and shorter) scale, and that's the length/complexity point where I currently fall in my exploration of the Series: 18xx family of games.

(2) There is a really attractive set of files on the geek, here. Great thanks and praise to the graphic designer, Karim Chakroun (carthaginian):

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There are ongoing debates about whether 18xx games should emphasize minimalist functionality in their graphic design (a view I'm coming to understand better, the more I play the games) or should instead strive to be more decorative. To my mind, Karim's design strikes a very happy balance. The colors and graphic elements are understated and handsome, without being intrusive. I really like it. I'll have some pictures of the game I built, below, if you want to see what I mean.

If you aren't interested in the possibility of building a print and play game yourself, you can probably stop reading here. What follows below is a fairly detailed description of my journey, including links to all of the tools that I bought and used. If you aren't contemplating building a print and play game, it probably won't be much use (unless you just enjoy reading this kind of thing).

Shares, Trains, Charters, and Private Companies

I started with these, because they were the simplest thing to produce.

The graphics files are already an appropriate size for printing, without any futzing around about scale. (As you'll read below, that was not the case for the map.)

• COPY. So the first step was to go to a copy store and print the files onto white cardstock.

• LAMINATE. Then I took them home and laminated them. In preparation for the project, I bought a small thermal laminator from Amazon, for $36 with shipping: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B008587M0K/ref=oh_details_o...

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It's very easy to use. You turn it on. It gets hot. Then you put your document in a laminating pouch (open on three sides) and insert it into the back of the laminator. There are rollers that slowly pull it through the machine, heating it as it goes. The results are excellent, and the laminating sheets adhere directly to the sheet that you're laminating. That's important, because it means that you can cut the laminated sheets up into individual cards and the lamination won't fall off.

• CUT. And that's the next step, cutting the sheets into the shares, trains, and charters.

Initially, I tried using a hand-held rotary cutter and steel straight edge. Guess what? I sucked at it. As I learned in grade school, I can't cut a straight line without screwing it up. Fortunately, I tried it out on some scrap before cutting my actual copies, so I realized it wouldn't work before I trashed anything.

So instead I bought a $20 rotary trimmer (http://www.amazon.com/Fiskars-199080-1002-Portable-Scrapbook...).

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It has a little table and fence to keep your stock in place. It also has a guide bar, perpendicular to the fence that supports a little cutting head that slides up and down on the bar. You press down on the head, causing the rotary blade into contact with your stock and push the thing away from you or pull it toward you, cutting as it goes. All of that machinery constrains the blade's movement to one direction, meaning: straight lines!

Pro tip: it is very likely that your stock is not perfectly straight inside the laminating stock, meaning that its edges are not parallel with the laminated edge. This means that you CANNOT RELY ON THE FENCE TO PROVIDE A 90 DEGREE ANGLE. Instead, you'll need to carefully line the page up with the cutting bar to make sure that the blade will cut where you want it to. I'm not sure I've explained that clearly, but you'll see what I mean if you try it.

Another pro tip: Karim's files have crop marks on the outer edges of the central image space. There are no lines separating individual cards. This is nice graphically, because you don't have any evidence if your blade strays slightly from the intended cutting line (with intermittent borderlines appearing and disappearing to show your sloppiness). The solution is to make one set of your cuts (horizontal or vertical) using a "perforating blade" on your trimmer (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B000NV4L10?tag=article-boardgamegee...).

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This little guy leaves the cut lines structurally intact, so that you can continue working on the sheet without having it come apart as you proceed (which would make it impossible to continue using the exterior crop marks to line up your cuts). Once you're completely done with all cuts, the perforated cuts can be easily separated by hand. As discussed later, this technique is especially important when cutting out the hex tiles. Many thanks to Karim for posting this advice originally, here: [geeklist=926854][/geeklist]. (Note: he uses a handheld cutter, which, as mentioned above, is beyond me.)

• CORNER ROUNDING So after cutting out all of those cards, did I throw them in a ziploc and consider the job done? Nope. I bought a device that cuts a round-over on the corner of a piece of paper.

I went cheap and bought a $5 corner cutter: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B000B7S4FK/ref=oh_details_o...

Unfortunately, you get what you pay for. The cheap one wasn't happy going through cardstock and two layers of lamination, so it did two annoying things:

(1) It jammed almost every time, requiring me to push the cutting punch out of the hole it drives into (rather than having it spring-return as designed).

(2) It almost always left one of the lamination layers intact. I had to trim those off with scissors.

It was a nuisance, and it might have been easier if I'd bought a $15 corner chomper. But the results were well worth the hassle. The cards really look much better with rounded corners. Strongly recommended.


From gallery of Hobbes

From gallery of Hobbes

[Sorry about the quality of the pictures througout. I don't pretend to be a photographer.]

Station Tokens

The next easiest step was producing the token markers.

• PRINT. I color printed the token sheet directly onto whole-sheet label stock (available at the copy store).

I have a pretty good supply of painted round wooden disks (a lot of these came as extras in my copy of Steam). I sorted out the necessary number of each color to match the companies. Then I punched out the company tokens from the sticker sheet, using a handy little $5 half-inch circle punch: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B000XAKWPK/ref=oh_details_o...

Pro tip: Peel the backing off of a company's token stickers BEFORE you punch them out. Otherwise it is a total bitch trying to peel the backing off of the little half-inch circles. I didn't know this at first, so I punched out a whole company's worth of stickers before trying to peel the backing off of any of them. This turned out to be so difficult that I was considering just gluing them to the disks, backing and all. Finally I found a work-around. I took one blade of a pair of scissors and scored the backing on each circle, deeply enough to cut through the backing but not the sticker itself. That gave me purchase to peel the backing off. I strongly recommend just peeling first and then punching. (The main downside of that approach is that you have to be careful that the sticker doesn't get stuck in the punch. It didn't happen to me, but I saw the possibility.)

Center and apply the stickers and PRESTO:

From gallery of Hobbes

Printing the Map and Hex Tiles

This was the most trying part of the job. Because the hex track tiles are overlaid onto the game board, the tiles need to be the same size as the hexes on the map. This means that you need to print both the map and the tile sheets at the same scaling (ideally 100%).

The difficulty is that the map won't print at 100% onto any standard (U.S.) paper sizes. The map files come in two flavors: a single large file that would need to be printed on a poster printer or a tiled set, where the map has been broken up into a number of sheets to be printed separately and assembled into a folding board.

I wasn't going to print the poster-sized map. I wanted to laminate and mount the thing, which wouldn't be possible at that size. Also, I planned to store my whole game in a standard(ish) sized game box. I didn't want to roll and tube a paper map.

So I was going to be tiling. Unfortunately, the pre-tiled files provided by Karim are too large to print 100% on U.S. letter-sized paper. I could have printed them on legal-sized, but then they wouldn't have fit the laminating sleeves (or the game box I'd planned on using).

Fortunately, Adobe Acrobat has the option of printing a large file as a series of tiles. Karim's files are jpegs, so I first needed to print them to pdf (which also meant setting a custom paper size, so that I could print the entire image).

Once I had the pdf file, I took it to Kinkos and printed off nine tiled pieces of the map, onto cardstock. (I had to pay their tech to do it for me, as the self-serve doesn't allow that degree of control over printing.) The results were a bit wonky, as all pages except the central one were about 1/2 pages (edges) or 1/4 pages (corners).

Then I printed off the hex sheets, also onto card stock.

I took my sheets home and mounted them on medium weight chipboard (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00161W6L8?tag=article-boardgamegee...). I used spray glue, picking the one that promised low-odor (chemical smells give me a sick headache). It was messy and fiddly, but produced good results (give yourself a good work area and take your time).

Then I laminated them. Cardstock glued to medium chipboard is almost too much for my dinky laminator. I had to gently assist each page through the machine, especially when first entering the rollers -- otherwise the machine would balk. But the results looked great, very sturdy and protected against liquids and stains.

Preparing the Map

My little rotary trimmer was also unhappy about cutting through cardstock, chipboard, and two layers of laminate. In fact, it refused to go all the way through. Instead, it scored about half-way through.

Fortunately, I had the handheld rotary cutter and steel ruler to fall back on. Once I'd cut all of the edges of each map tile, I took the sheet out and re-cut each line by hand. Although I'm now famous for my inability to cut straight lines, I mostly managed to stay in the grooves that my trimmer had already scored.

Now I had a set of 9 map tiles, all laminated, mounted, and trimmed. I wanted to make a folding board, but I decided against trying to make it all one piece. For one thing, I didn't want to try to think through the geometry of how to lay out the direction of each folding joint between boards. Also, I didn't want to have any tape on the face of the map (which would be necessary to get it to fold "up," with the finished faces of tiles facing each other.

Instead, I made three strips of map, each made up of three tiles. In each strip the tiles at the end of the strip folded "down" and under the central tile. That wasn't a perfectly clean solution, as the two edge flaps overlap when folded, but it works.

I used book binding tape to make the hinges for the folds (http://www.amazon.com/Scotch%C2%AE-Book-845-Inches-Yards/dp/...). It's clear, pliable, and strong.

Pro tip: When playing with my copy, the edges of the three strips of map didn't mate cleanly. There were differences in level and it was easy to bump the strips and knock them slightly out of alignment. Fortunately, my wife had the perfect solution. We took strips of blue painter's tape, which is designed to come off cleanly after use, and taped the three strips together on their backs. The tape was tacky enough to hold the map together and prevent edges from lifting or moving during play. When we were done, we just peeled off the blue tape. Recommended, if you go the multiple strips route.


From gallery of Hobbes

[This is just a portion of the map. I couldn't get a picture of the whole without awful glare on the laminate.]

Preparing the Hex Tiles

I took the laminated and mounted sheets and cut each of the lines between hexes using my rotary trimmer. As noted above, this deeply scored the material, rather than cutting all the way through, so there was no need to switch to a perforated blade. (But if you're using thinner material, you'll want to use the perforated blade on half the cuts, to avoid the problems described earlier, where your page comes apart making it impossible to align the cuts with exterior margin crop marks.)

Then I removed the sheets and completed each cut using the handheld cutter and straight edge.


From gallery of Hobbes

The Box

I had a hard time finding a blank box that would look decent on my game shelf. The best that I was able to find (at a reasonable price) was a 9x12x2.5 folding-top shipping box from my local UPS/shipping store. It cost around $2.50.

I printed this image onto a whole sheet label to cover the box top:

Board Game: 1889: History of Shikoku Railways

(That's a modified version of a portion of Karim's map, adapted by Cole Wehrle.)

Then I cropped out a horizontal strip of that image, containing only the "1889" text and the bits of map to the left and write of that number, printed it onto sticker, and used it on one side of the box.


From gallery of Hobbes

From gallery of Hobbes

The End Result

I wound up buying about $80 in tools, which I'll be able to use on future pnp builds, and around $35 in copying. That's pricey for a single game (though it doesn't compare too badly with the price of comparable quality assembled games from Deep Thought Games, LLC).

But now that I'm geared up, I can make future games for around $35-40 total. That doesn't include the value of my time (probably 8-10 hours altogether), but I've always liked making things, so that's just part of the hobby. I'll probably wind up building at least two more 18xx games and will now (for the first time) start paying attention to other pnp possibilities.

We've played my 1889 build once so far. It looks good on the table and is very functional. When you build something yourself, you know where every error is, but viewed objectively, the results are pretty good. It's rough around the edges (especially the edges between map tiles), but I did better than I expected. In fact, that's the reaction I've gotten from my wife and friends so far -- it's better than they thought I'd manage. I choose to see that in a positive light.

All in all, I'm very happy with the process and how it turned out.

Up next: 18AL? 18GA?
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