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Making Games Look as Good as They Play

Paul Jefferies
United States
Delafield
Wisconsin
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My name is Oobydoob Scooby-dooby Banooby. I have the silliest name in the galaxy. (Thumb Wars)
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Microbadge: We are all going to be dead, so why sleeve?Microbadge: I have a Game RoomMicrobadge: I play from my gut!Microbadge: Scythe fanMicrobadge: I love to pimp my own games!
From gallery of W Eric Martin
(Editor's note: This article first appeared on BoardgameNews.com on Dec. 29, 2008. My apologies for the watermarks on the images, but these are the only versions that I still have. Thanks to Paul Jefferies for helping to publish this article once again! —WEM)

I've been playing "German games" since 1988, and almost since my first introduction to them I've tinkered with the components. Perhaps it's because I'm British, or because I have an artistic bent, I'm not really sure, but I know that when I play a game with great components it enhances my whole gaming experience. Obviously a zillion games out there with fantastic components are about as fun as having your teeth drilled, so it's not just about which pieces are in the box. I'm interested in tinkering only with games that I consider to be "good" – and we all have our own definition for that, don't we?

For me, a good game is one that I think will find a permanent place on my limited shelf space. For many years now, my collection has hovered around the 250-300 mark, and as new games come in, I weed out the games that have lost their charm (or just aren't getting played any more) and sell them on. I've not done an inventory of how many games I've upgraded with different components, but I would guess it's somewhere around 50-60.

I should interject at this point that I have collected game pieces since I first began playing, for no other reason than I initially funded my hobby by buying games at rummage sales and selling them to real games collectors in the USA and Germany. (I know one who has over 14,000 games!) Purchasing games at rummage sales means you inevitably buy some that are incomplete. Consequently, for the last twenty years I've been keeping game pieces, cards, boards and money from incomplete games (while throwing the rest away), which has provided me with a wealth of bits to draw from when it comes to enhancing a new game. With that said, I'll stop waffling and move on to some of the games I've tinkered with. I'll start with minor enhancements and move progressively on to complete re-makes.

Minor Upgrades

Notre Dame – My first thought on reading the rules was, "Okay, we have a black cube for a rat. That'll have to change!" So I tracked down small plastic mice on eBay (cost about $2.00) and when they arrived, I discovered they had a hole underneath which fit perfectly onto some playing pieces from another game that matched the player's colors! Goodbye black cubes, hello rats! The only other piece I changed was the turn marker, which I thought was rather lame. I rummaged around in my game parts until I found the guy in the picture who, once painted, I thought made a pretty good Quasimodo!

From gallery of Photodump

Note the individual boxes for each player's bits


Cleopatra and the Society of Architects – This game comes with outstanding components so I didn't think I'd need to do anything to it, but once the game arrived I thought it a crying shame that you could barely see the wonderful detail on all the building pieces! I experimented with various paints and markers to try to make them stand out, and in the end what worked best was a brown colored-pencil which I rubbed into all the detail, then erased from the flat surface. I was particularly pleased with the results.

From gallery of Photodump

From gallery of Photodump


Rum and Pirates – The start player token was hopeless, so a dip into my kid's LEGO solved that. Then all I did was add real money – gold pennies from Portugal – for the plastic coins and we were set to go! I also gave every player his own die, so we didn't have to pass the same one around the whole time.

From gallery of Photodump


Il Principe – I replaced the money tokens with something more substantial and used cannon pieces from old Risk sets as territory markers instead of the cardboard discs that came with the game. It was a small thing, but I was pleased with how it looked as a result.

From gallery of Photodump


The Awful Green Things from Outer Space – I fell in love with this zany Tom Wham space game the very first time I played it. However, the cardboard counters were so thin I had great difficulty picking them up, so I mounted them onto thicker card. The game also came with a paper "board" that didn't lay flat and moved easily during play, disturbing all the counters, so I mounted it onto a puzzle-board which I'd picked up somewhere along the line. Problem solved!

From gallery of Photodump


Medium Upgrades

From gallery of Photodump
Acquire – This was one of the first non-children's games I ever played...and it was also the first game I ever upgraded! Using flat black tiles to represent hotel chains didn't feel right; I wanted them to look like hotels. As I said, I was just starting out so the only game I knew with hotels in it was Monopoly. I wrote to Waddington's Games and asked whether I could buy ten sets of hotels. A delightful lady sent me a letter back saying, "No, I couldn't buy them" – but whoever she was, she very kindly included with her response ten sets of hotels! It was a very kind gesture and one I've seen repeated over the years. Most game companies, I've found, prove to be very helpful when it comes to getting hold of extra pieces.

Now that I had the hotels I had to figure out how to put the grid references on them. I tried writing it in permanent marker, but the results looked horrible! I did some investigating and discovered that Letraset (what we all used before desktop publishing came along) made adhesive lettering in different sizes. I ordered some through the local art store and it worked a treat. I ended up with the rather pleasing hotels that you see in the pictures. Of course, this was before any 3-D reprint of the game by Avalon Hill or Schmidt Spiele.

From gallery of Photodump

From gallery of Photodump


My final tweak to the game was to draw tiny pictures of the various hotel corporations and stick them on the corporation tiles. As the picture reveals, I also had to cut a "V" in the bottom of the tiles so they would sit on top the hotels. The 1999 Avalon Hill remake of Acquire was outstanding, but I still prefer my original upgraded set. [Note: To keep the tiles secret from other players, they simply need to be turned on their side.]

Airlines – I picked this game up when it first came out, and I've really enjoyed playing it over the years. It always cried out (to me) for little airplane tokens instead of the wooden disks it came with, but I never found any small enough. Then, lo and behold, some years later, Avalon Hill came out with its game Air Baron which had the exact right-sized pieces I was looking for. I wrote to Avalon Hill and the company allowed me to purchase several sets of the plastic planes. Many of the colors matched the colors of the airlines tokens, so all I had to do was trade them in for each other. The missing colors were only a lick of paint away, and now I have a very visually pleasing game of Airlines. It still hits the table about once a year or so.

From gallery of Photodump


Alexander the Great – In a similar vein to Acquire (but needing a lot less work) this game came with wooden cubes to represent temples and cities. It was a relatively simple task to replace the temples with houses I had in stock, and the cities with some of the cities from Sid Meier's Civilization. (I bought them off the website.) I also used some of the standard-bearers that came with the cities as claim markers. These are placed on the board in places where you hope to build a temple or city. They worked out great.

From gallery of Photodump


From gallery of Photodump
Circus Imperium – I was tempted to put this one in the "extreme makeover" category because it was such an enormous amount of work, but in the end I left it here because I didn't make the game over from scratch – I only upgraded it.

The game comes in a shallow bookcase size box and everything in it is either paper or cardboard. Three thin cardboard buildings (Skyboxes) can be constructed and placed on the board during play, and while they don't add anything to the actual play of the game, they certainly add a lot in terms of atmosphere and aesthetics. Constructing these buildings takes forever! The instructions are negligible, and there's a ton of pieces. Every one of them has to be painstakingly cut out by hand, carefully scored (difficult on thin card) and even more carefully folded and fit together. Gluing the pieces doesn't work, so Scotch tape is your only other option. With that said, they are worth the Herculean effort they require because the end product looks fantastic.

Imperium also comes with a very large paper board – isn't that a contradiction in terms! – and like all paper boards it refused to sit flat, so I bought some art-board and mounted it in such a way that it folded up small enough to fit back in the box. (The Skyboxes, of course, have to be kept somewhere else entirely.) The playing pieces were also thin card and I mounted all of them as well, so they were easier to pick up during play.

From gallery of Photodump


With those three things done I played and enjoyed the game for well over a decade...always looking to see whether Ral Partha would come out with some 3-D miniatures to go with it. It never did, so two years ago I decided I had waited long enough and would make my own "anti-gravity chariots" and "dangerous beasties". I had nothing in my bits collection to help me here, so I knew from the outset that I would be spending some money to make this happen, but the game had proved its "stick-ability" so I was prepared to make the investment at this point. The anti-gravity chariots I made out of some Star Wars miniatures (I don't remember the name of the ships) which looked somewhat similar once I had cut a piece off the top of each of them. The chariot boxes that sit on top of the base I made out of toothpick holders I found at Walmart (three for $2). They were the right shape (oval) and simply needed to be carefully cut down to leave a lip on one side.

Pleased with the results so far, I started searching for creatures to represent the beasts pulling the chariots. This proved to be the most difficult task of all. In the end I found some Lord of the Rings miniatures – Warg Riders – that had creatures that I thought would do the trick. Once they arrived I was a little disappointed to find them slightly smaller than I would have liked, but they were the best I could find, so I made do. I couldn't attach the Wargs to the base of the chariot because during the game it is possible to cut them free and ride on their backs (if your chariot is toast!), so I came up with the design you see here, enabling me to move both chariot and beasts together or to separate them as needed.

From gallery of Photodump

From gallery of Photodump


Finally, I bought some gladiator figures to go with the game – but once I'd done that I realized I could have anyone driving the chariot, so I have collected a whole host of "drivers" ranging from Darth Vader to SpongeBob SquarePants. There are pictures on BoardGameGeek showing some of the different types of characters we used in one of the games. In the end I had to make a whole new box to house the 3-D pieces, and I stabilized them with foam to keep them from rattling around.

The Scepter of Zavandor – A game which involves gem collecting...but with cardboard gems! This was a no-brainer. I used a set of gems put out for Ystari's game Ys and added a few extra colors that were missing using some half marbles I purchased from a pet store that were designed for a fish tank.

From gallery of Photodump

From gallery of Photodump


The player tokens were the standard wooden cubes, but I thought they deserved to be upgraded, too. I had picked up several of the Harry Potter games at thrift stores for 50 cents each for the magician hat playing pieces. I had figured they'd be useful one day – well, the day came earlier than I expected. I kept my eyes peeled for several weeks for the extra couple of sets I needed, so I had enough hats of each color. Since Scepter is about enchanting gem stones, I thought the wizard hats fit the theme perfectly. Oh, and I also made a box insert.

Evo – Three guesses what I did to this game! The picture speaks for itself, although I must say it was more difficult than I thought finding five different small dinosaurs, especially ones that weren't soft rubber! The only other issue with the game – as anyone who has played it will tell you – is the ridiculously small scoring track. To solve this I created a new scoring track, made of dino-prints, on the computer and mounted it on an old game board. Of course I had to get the size right so it fit around the old one, but that was all it needed.

From gallery of Photodump
From gallery of Photodump
From gallery of Photodump


Pirate's Cove – I had fun with this upgrade mainly because pirates are such a fun theme to mess with. I gradually replaced virtually all the parts with nicer pieces. The dice I replaced with gold dice from the game Midas. I put a call in to Front Porch Classics and purchased some of the ships from their game Dread Pirate. A touch of paint on the base of the ship was all they required.

The pirate ship started out as a pencil sharpener – there is still a hole in the back – but with some cannons on deck, a skull on the front and crossbones on the sails...well, now we had a Dread Pirate Roberts! The money I traded in for gold coins that I had in stock, and for $3 on eBay I picked up a nice metal treasure chest to keep them in. The cardboard treasure chest tokens I replaced with tiny treasure chests from a 1970's game called Pirates' Gold – the game that had ships with magnets in the base that sucked up the treasure chests (which also had magnets in them) as they sailed along. I won several sets on eBay and asked whether they would send only the chests for reduced shipping, which they were happy to do. All that remained was to take the magnets out of the chests to stop them from all sticking together and to sail to treasure island to bury them! I was delighted with the finished product.

From gallery of Photodump


Extreme Makeovers

From gallery of Photodump
This last category has two types of games: games that are generally unavailable, and games that could have had wonderful components if the manufacturer had unlimited resources to pour into them. For those of you who are reading this thinking you would much rather spend all the time I spend upgrading games just playing them...well, so would I! But for many years I got to play games only one evening every two weeks, which was far too infrequent for my liking. Fiddling with the game components became something I could do here and there in-between game nights, and it didn't require a whole evening at once. Having a project on the go gave me something I could look forward to while juggling responsibilities with work, home, and young children! Just thought you might like to know.

Tahuantinsuyu – A superb game from Alan Ernstein that I decided was well worthy of transformation. The box was the first thing to go as I knew it would not be big enough to handle a host of new pieces. Wherever possible I try to keep a game to a bookcase box so that's what I went with. (I found the cover picture on the web.)

The gameboard was printed on thin card, so I mounted it on an old gameboard I had, then had it coated so that you could draw on it in wax crayon. I wanted to be able to use dry-erase markers and Alan told me they would stain the board, so I put clear book covering over the map so the markers would be usable.

From gallery of Photodump


As for the pieces in the game, glass squares were used to represent cities (red), garrison camps (yellow), and terraces (green), while clear half marbles were used to represent labor, and small wooden cubes stood for temples. As you may or may not be able to see in the pictures, I used the glass squares as the base for the new terraces I made – they were really fiddly and a lot of work but the end result was worth it – and also for the garrison camps. (More bits from Civilization.) The cities I replaced with cities from Warrior Knights; they are a bit big, but they work fine. I painted the top of them obviously. The temples I remade to look like ziggurats by gluing wooden squares together. Drilling a tiny hole in the bottom meant the temples fit on top the cities, which I was pleased about.

From gallery of Photodump

From gallery of Photodump


I also replaced the glass score markers with the ones shown, the glass labor tokens with Incan gold (from Dread Pirate), and lastly the tiddly-winks used to determine the end of the game with some larger cardboard discs. I got to play my new upgraded version for the first time with the designer at the Gathering of Friends in 2008. I'm glad to report he gave it the thumbs up.

From gallery of Photodump
Ars Mysteriorum – This is another great game from Alan that I also gave the works. I did the same thing with the box as I did with Tahuantinsuyu.

I didn't change any of the game pieces in this game; I just made the five game boards 3-D by finding a paper-cutting CD on eBay for the buildings. Sadly they had only four types of buildings on the disc, so I had to repeat one of them. (I chose the castle since that was the coolest.) Having cut the buildings out, I then mounted them onto black card so they would visibly stand out and be stable enough to stand up. I initially looked for mini artists easels to put the recipe cards on, but I couldn't find any, and if I had, I worried about how I'd fit them in the box. Then I saw these mini-books in a dollar store, and they did the trick nicely. Making an insert for the book was simply a small computer project.

From gallery of Photodump

From gallery of Photodump


The black bases for each building area were cut out of old game boards and covered with sticky-backed felt. Another computer project produced the pictures and names for each magician's tent, and I then mounted them onto wooden discs which I found at a craft shop and painted black. The different types of pots, on which to place the recipe tokens, were really fun to come up with. Another trip to the craft store gave me the different varieties, then all that had to be done was to fill the ones that were hollow, paint them and mount them onto six-inch rulers I'd also painted black. Put together, the "boards" really brought the game to life. Oh, and the 3-D figures I bought from Alan. He had some made to go with the game, and I was fortunate enough to get my hands on a set.

From gallery of Photodump


From gallery of Photodump
Power Grid: Atolla Modulus – I love this game, so when I saw the Atolla version on the Geek I didn't think twice before starting to make a set. All I really made was the box, the value tokens to go between the islands, and the boards. I tried to buy a set of game pieces from Rio Grande, but it doesn't sell pieces separate from its games (shame that), so I had to buy a secondhand copy of the original game to get all the parts I needed.

Getting the size of the board squares right took several attempts, but eventually I managed it and printed them all onto high resolution paper. To make sure the card I mounted them on was solid, but not too thick, I used the puzzle boards from the game The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, which seemed to show up regularly at the local thrift store for a dollar. I needed several copies to have enough tiles, but they worked perfectly once they were cut down. I then covered them all with clear sticky-backed book covering. Coming up with the box art just meant fiddling with various images and putting them all together. I also covered some smaller boxes with graphics from the game and used them to house all the pieces.

From gallery of Photodump

From gallery of Photodump


Ursuppe – I picked up this classic from Doris and Frank in Essen the year it was released, and it still gets table time every year. From the outset it was obvious that the game needed something more engaging for amoebas...but it wasn't obvious what! I toyed with different ideas for a couple of years until I came across a children's game at a thrift store called Wiggly Worms. As soon as I saw them, I knew I'd found what I was looking for. It took a couple of sets to have enough to upgrade all the pieces (including the 5-6 player expansion), but it was well worth it. I pulled out the central peg and cut it in half, drilled two new holes in the base and glued them in. Then I glued the wiggly worms onto the original hole. It was only last year that I decided to replace the damage markers with skull beads. They didn't quite fit over the pegs so they had to be drilled out as well. The score markers just needed a hole and a cut-down worm to make them look nice, too.

From gallery of Photodump

From gallery of Photodump


From gallery of Photodump
Atta Ants – This was a fun little game that desperately needed a box (as it came in a 100-count CCG card holder) and a few upgraded pieces. I couldn't replace the wooden discs with ants because they have to carry items during the game, normally a green glass bead (leaf). However, the spiders that attack the ants don't carry anything, so those wooden discs were replaced right away. The two mini-expansions that came out meant I could also add fake rocks and some wonderful beetles I found, once again, at the thrift store. All the beetles needed was a touch of yellow paint, and they were ready to go on the rampage. As for the box, I replaced the plastic card holder with a spare box from the original German (KOSMOS) version of the Settlers of Catan Card Game. The image of leaf-cutter ants on the lid I found on the web.

From gallery of Photodump


From gallery of Photodump
Energy Poker – I have no idea how available this game is these days, but fifteen years ago when I made my own set it was as rare as hen's teeth. Back then I played games several times a year at the home of Mike Siggins, and he owned a copy of Energy Poker which he let me borrow to make my own set. It meant color photocopying (which was the really easy part) the board, the cards and the players' "bidding boards", then constructing them back into a game. The board I cut apart, separating the individual playing tracks, for ease and comfort during play. The center section and the player tracks were all mounted on old gameboards and covered with sticky-back plastic. The players' "bidding boards" were pretty fiddly since they needed a pocket in which to place money and multipliers; making them sturdy but thin was more of a challenge than I had anticipated. The cards all had to be mounted, covered and cut out, which was time-consuming but not difficult.

From gallery of Photodump

From gallery of Photodump


All that remained was to replace the game pieces. The original game comes with colored plastic tiddly-winks to represent the different types of energy and regular metal washers to show the current availability of the different energies on the central board. The washers were replaced with pawns from Scotland Yard, which are clear so the numbers on the board can be seen through them. The various energies were replaced with yellow cones (solar power), brown barrels (oil), black plastic chunks cut out of plastic rods (coal), green Monopoly houses (gas), and blue Risk pieces (nuclear). The box was an old Ravensburger game, and the picture on the lid was a poster I picked up from a book store. This game has proved to hold its own despite game development coming a long way since it was first produced in 1980. For my money this could do with a full-scale overhaul and reprint.

From gallery of Photodump
Discretion – This entire game had to be made from scratch based on a summary of the pieces and the rules that Stuart Dagger put in a copy of Counter magazine years ago (or maybe it was Sumo back then). I made everything myself and the only pieces I pinched from other games were the wooden cubes – used for loans – and the plastic "buildings" – which came from multiple sets of Advance to Boardwalk, and the money. I really got into the fuzzy sticky-back-felt on this game, using it for the board, the box cover and even on some of the cards! It gives the game a nice feel.

From gallery of Photodump

From gallery of Photodump


Well, I've gone on far longer than I ever intended and it's time I stopped. Besides, I'm not yet finished replacing all the pieces in Agricola, so I've got work to do! I hope you've enjoyed this romp into the zany world of upgrading games, and if you've worked on any upgrades of your own, I'd love to hear from you and love to see them. Let me add a footnote before I go: If anyone out there needs someone to come up with ideas for game components for any kind of game they're designing, I can't think of anything more fun to do – other than actually playing games of course! Now, where's my spray paint and glue...
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