3-D BOARDGAME DESIGN
by James Davis
Back in the before-days, when I was attending actual game conventions in person, I liked to walk around the tables and see what games people were playing. It was a great way to meet other gamers, and to get an idea of what games I might be interested in buying in the dealer’s room. Around the early 2010’s, I started to notice a table or two had cool minis or tokens that didn’t come with the original game. When I asked the owner where they bought them, I was told, “I printed them.”
That was my first real introduction to 3d printing. I’d heard about it in the news and in some science magazines and websites I follow. But 3d printing belonged to corporations or individuals with very deep pockets. At least I thought so until I saw those game pieces.
I talked to the owner after his game and found out he had built his printer from scratch following instructions online. At the time, personal 3d printers were in the multiple thousand-dollar range, and building your own was the best way to drop that price to something reasonable. But I decided it wasn’t for me. It was still way too expensive and far, far too technical for me to build my own. So, except for the occasional “It would be cool” comment, I dismissed the idea.
That is until Sheila, my wife, who had apparently been listening to those comments, got me a small $200 3d printer for my birthday a couple of years ago. I hadn’t been keeping track and so had no idea they had gotten so cheap. And of course, now I’m hooked.
Since I’ve only been in this hobby for a few years, I’m no expert. But I do know enough that I could give you, dear reader, an introduction to this great hobby that very much intersects with our shared love of board games. You’ve been needing another hobby, right?
First off, let’s show you what you can do.
This is an example of some of my first 3d prints using the $200 printer. All of the terrain on the board is printed, as are the token trays on the other side of the board. As is the red card holder behind them. And I can see that I was playing Terraforming Mars as poorly then as I do today.
Here is a closeup of the special tile replacements for Terraforming Mars. These prints were my first effort in this hobby, and an experienced eye can tell that is the case. But you can see that even a noob can do quite well.
These are of course for Underwater Cities. The models are created by different people. Follow this link to browse what is on Thingiverse for this game, including some well-designed box inserts for the tokens. The token trays I’m using can be found here.
And these are my Robinson Crusoe prints. The first image has the Shelter, Roof, Palisade and Weapon tokens. The second image shows the Morale marker, the Shortcut and the Camp tokens. These incredible models were made by Toawi and I’m astounded they are free.
And this is, as they say, just the tip of the iceberg. There is an incredible amount of free 3d files ready for you to accessorize your games. Taking a random example, there are card organizers, character meeples for Lords of Waterdeep, virus tokens for Pandemic, game piece organizers for virtually every popular game, tile dispensers for Carcassonne, more dice towers than you will ever use, terrain for miniature games, and so on. To get an idea of the wealth of options out there, check out Roberth Johansson’s Geeklist. It contains an ever-expanding list of 3d file links for board games. Also search within some of the web sites I list in this article for the name of your favorite board game. That’s how I found the Terraforming Mars files.
Ok, now that I might have you interested, let’s get into the details. Well not too many details. I’ll leave most of the technical specifics to your research. I’ll instead explain the basics with the hope I can give you the information you need to see if this is the right hobby for you. But even if not, keep reading because there is a less technical option to create bling for your games.
The most popular, common, and cheapest 3d printers use Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM). The model is created by heating thermoplastic filament in a nozzle and feeding it out precisely in 3-dimensional space, layer by layer. Think of it as oozing out a very tiny strand of spaghetti at an exact location. Another popular method used by hobbyists is Vat Polymerization that uses laser light to chemically cure photopolymer resin in a vat.
FDM printers are slower and they require support for overhanging elements of the object. They print one layer over another from the bottom up, and so all overhanging elements (such as an outstretched arm on a miniature) will not print correctly unless they have support printed underneath them. On the other hand, the choices of filament color and type are incredible and fairly cheap, compared to resin printers. Resin printers don’t need such supports and are better at fine details. They are excellent machines for making miniatures. But at a higher overall cost, and the resin can be toxic. I personally have avoided resin printers for that reason.
I started with a small $200 FDM 3d printer called the Monoprice Select Mini v2. My wife did a great job researching what would be reliable and easy to use, but still cheap. I personally would recommend it as an entry machine based only on my personal experience. With one very important caveat I’ll list below. I’ve since moved up to a slightly more expensive and much larger Creality Ender 3, and I love it.
A quick web search will turn up dozens of other similarly priced machines that would be the same quality or better. But (and let me stress this), do your research. There are many 3d printers out there, at all price ranges, that simply aren’t very good. Fortunately, there is no shortage of great advice, tips and tutorials on the Internet to teach you. Such as this buying guide for 3d printers. And the 3d printing community is awesome.
Like any hobby, however, there are some downsides. So, let’s get that out of the way. Simply put, 3d printers are fiddley. Depending on which printer you get, sometimes very fiddley. To get successful prints, you need to keep track of quite a lot of things.
For example, with an FDM printer, the model is built by oozing a small amount of heated plastic through a nozzle onto a platform (called a bed). The nozzle needs to be within a certain distance from the bed for the plastic to successfully extrude. If it’s too close, the plastic will “squish” out flat and the flow of filament will be uneven. If it’s too far away, it will print in midair above the bed and not stick to anything. So, you need to level the bed until it is the correct distance from the nozzle. And you need to do that a lot. With the cheaper printers, often before every single print.
And FDM printers are slow. They need to be because the filament must be placed with precision. You can speed things up in many ways but the quality of your model will suffer as a result. If you are printing something like a life sized baby T-Rex skeleton, it will take almost a month of constant printing to complete. But wouldn’t that look great on your dinner table?
FDM printers are much safer than resin printers but they aren’t entirely safe. ABS filament (the same plastic used by LEGO) can cause moderate toxicity in lung cells when it is heated to its melting point (around 230°C). Being a plant-based plastic, PLA filament is not toxic, but can still create ultrafine particles in the air. Many people place their printers in the garage or some other out of the way place for this reason. Or you can buy or build enclosures to place around the printer. But studies have found that as long as the area is well ventilated and you take intelligent precautions, FDM printing is safe. But be warned, both ABS and PLA are moderately fragrant when heated, ABS is especially odorous.
Virtually all of the 3d models you will find will be an STL file which contains the surface geometry of a 3d object. But 3d printers use a GCODE file that contains the actual instructions for the printer. For example: move the nozzle 10mm to the right at 50mm/s, extrude 3mm of filament, etc. The GCODE file also tells the printer the temperatures to use for the hot end and the bed, the height of each layer, and many other things that you will need to learn. Therefore you will need to convert an STL file to GCODE.
Fortunately, there are many software solutions, called Slicers, you can use to do this conversion. I personally use Ultimaker Cura, and have found few problems with it. You will need to learn how to use the software and how it interfaces with your printer. If you are at least somewhat technically minded, you are golden. If I can learn it, you definitely can.
Also, each 3d printer has its own quirks and problems that you’ll need to deal with. The cheaper the printer, in general, the more issues you might run across. For example, as I mentioned, my first printer was the Monoprice Select Mini v2. It is a very good machine to get into the hobby. But there is a serious and very dumb design flaw. The heated bed wiring is soldered from below. As the bed moves back and forth when it prints, that wiring will move with it, and the friction will eventually break the wires or the solder. It is not if the heated bed will stop working, but when. It is easily fixed by rewiring the bed wires to come out the back instead of below. But you need to know to do that.
The Ender 3, along with a number of other printers, arrives unassembled as a kit to save on cost. If you are sloppy with the assembly, you will immediately run into serious headaches and become very frustrated. 3d printers are precision tools, and so if anything is off kilter somewhere, you’ll need to hunt down what went wrong. This is where finding info on the Internet is invaluable. Find a good site run by enthusiasts of the printer you bought, and rely on them to get started. (If you get an Ender 3, I strongly suggest you watch this excellent video on how to assemble it. I followed his instructions to the letter and have had zero problems. Also, he is a fellow gamer!)
Although I’m sure I’m making it sound otherwise, 3d printing is no more difficult than any other technical hobby, such as flying RC planes. But if you aren’t technically inclined at all, you might want to take a hard pass here. However, as I said above, keep reading: I have a solution for you below.
I would like to stress again that before you even attempt a print, you do your homework. Learn the basics of how 3d printing works. Learn the quirks of your new printer. Watch dozens of videos and read tons of articles on the subject. Like any good hobby, you can dive in to the deep end of the pool. But make sure you know how to dogpaddle first. Or it is a guarantee you will become exasperated with your printer.
But then once you have a handle on things, that’s when it really gets fun! When you know enough to get your printer and slicer “dialed-in” with the right settings, printing models becomes very easy. I’ve gotten to the point that I can find a cool STL file, slice it, move the GCODE file to the printer and be printing in about 10 minutes using my Ender 3.
I’ve “spruced up” the printer by printing a tool holder, a fan cover, a cable protector, a filament guide and more. And I’ve bought some upgrades, such as a glass bed. But one upgrade I’ll mention specifically because I wish I knew about it starting out: Octoprint. Most 3d printers use a mini-SD card to store and move your files. But if you buy a Raspberry Pi and install Octopi on it, you can manipulate your files and your printer via a web browser. Or even your phone with the Octoprint app. Connect a camera to the Raspberry Pi and you can record time-lapse videos of your prints. You don’t need it starting out, but I highly recommend eventually adding this to your machine.
Now, as promised, there is an alternative to buying a 3d printer and delving into the technical miscellanea. Have someone else print it for you. And no, I don’t mean to ask your tech-loving niece or nephew to print all of your board game bling bling. There are quite a few 3d printing services where you can purchase models and have them mailed to you. It can be somewhat expensive, depending on the service and what you request. Many services have resin printers, so you can get amazing miniatures without having to deal with the toxic materials yourself. It is also possible to hire people on some sites to make 3d models for you.
Which brings up another way to enter this hobby: create your own 3d models. I have a gamer friend who has used Shapeways to great effect. He is a big enthusiast of the biplane era during World War I. I’ve spent quite a few hours playing miniature dogfights with him and our friends. Because he knows the history so well, he soon became frustrated that miniature companies weren’t making some of the planes he wanted. So, he learned how to use a 3d modeler and made his own. He wasn’t interested in owning his own 3d printer, so he uploaded his files to have them printed. And when his models gained interest from others, he created a shop on Shapeways where he sells those models. He calls it the Reduced Aircraft Factory . When I asked him about it, he replied:
To me, the big advantage here is that you can make models available that might not otherwise be economically possible to produce, just because the demand might fall below the cut line to cover all the costs of prototyping, production, boxing, distribution, etc. (that you have with a conventional product). In fact, all of the costs and risks of inventory completely disappear — supply exactly equals demand.
I hope I’ve given you a taste of what I’ve found to be a very rewarding hobby that is much in tandem with my love of board games. But you are not limited to only board games. I’ve printed many other things as well, such as a strip to secure my mask on my face. (Because apparently, I have floppy ears. Who knew?) And of course, there are the silly things, like this tensegrity table. Or this gear bearing spinner which is a great example of something that would be impossible to make without this technology.
I’ll end by sharing some links that I’ve found useful. This is by no means a complete list.
- STL files. There are dozens of sites, but these are ones I typically end up using:
- Thingiverse – A very popular site to find models and I think the best place to find them for free. Using the search tool on the site, type in the name of your favorite game. If it is popular, you are likely to find something useful to print.
- MyMiniFactory – This site has a big emphasis on gaming and geek culture. Definitely one to check out and browse through. Especially for miniatures. A large portion of models are not free, however.
- Yeggi – This is an STL search engine. Search for a game here and you should find something good.
- Guides and Forums
- Print Quality Troubleshooting Guide – Bookmark this. You’ll need it.
- Rep Rap Forums – A bit on the geeky side of things, but there’s some good advice hidden here.
- All3DP – A very good place to learn about 3d printing in general.
- r/3Dprinting – It’s Reddit, so steel yourself for the occasional “interesting” person. But I’ve read many good tips here. Also look for an r/ for your model of 3d printer. I’ve found r/ender3 to be very useful.
- Check out the link above for slicers. I use Cura, but I’ve also heard very good things about Simplify3d.
- Meshmixer – While this program will not win awards for ease of use, it does have invaluable tools that I’ve used often. It can repair a poorly created STL file, or it can generate tree supports, for example. I would suggest you read this tutorial to get started.
- Tinkercad – A web based 3d modeler that is easy to use. It’s not full featured, but it is surprisingly powerful nonetheless.
- Blender – On the other hand, this is full featured and not at all easy to use. The learning curve isn’t a curve, it’s a vertical line. But once you take the time to figure it out, you can create some amazing things.
- 3d Printing Video Resources
I hope this has been useful to you. I will agree this hobby requires a bit of time and research to get up and running. And it is not for everyone. But, for me, the time was well spent. I really enjoy having such a resource to enhance my favorite games.
Happy printing! (And if you have any questions, please leave a comment. I’ll be happy to provide any help that I can.) – – – – – – – James Davis
Have feedback? We’d love to hear from you.
Other Spring 2021 GA Report articles