Cutting Costs in Indy Board & Card Game Production


This thread is about saleable production, not prototyping.

OK, so here's the scoop. If you are reading this page and you don't have tens of thousands of dollars burning a hole in your pocket, then you just can't afford to produce super high quality card and board games through traditional domestic sources in the U.S. unless you buy the equipment yourself, do a lot of the labor yourself, or cut some clever corners.

So, you have to make some concessions. Almost every concession you make has a downside so take that into account when you choose to cut corners.


1) Materials

OK, so if you go overseas you can get cheaper products, but the materials (particularly playing card stock and press coatings) are slightly inferior to what places like Carta Mundi USA or Yaquinto can produce. That means that overseas things are cheaper, but somewhat inferior.

Also, true playing card stock is a somewhat rarish commodity and so it's expensive. If you want cheap, go with 12 or 14 point C2S stock, like that used in postcards. I could be wrong (since I haven't destroyed any of the Cheapass Games I own), but I think almost all of the Cheapass Games that aren't full color are not done on true playing card stock; they are done on plain old card stock or on a postcard-like stock. That's cheaper. That's why Cheapass Games are Cheapass Games instead of Expensiveass Games.

James Ernest of Cheapass Games has brainwashed a section of hobby gamers into believing that you don't need outrageously high quality components to have a good game, while the big boys have their PR guys turning up their noses as the quality of products produced by independent gamers. Not everyone has James Ernest's name recognition, so not everyone can get away with less that super production quality. Then again, James Ernest also prices his games at a small fraction of what the big boys charge, so I feel that James can turn up his nose right back at them for figuring out a way to produce quality games for under $10.00 (no mean feat, that).

True playing card stock has better spring, recovers from bends better, and chips and frays less than plain old card stock. True playing card stock is also opaque, while some other stocks aren't in strong light. However, if you cover a lot of the front and back of your cards heavily with ink and use a 14 point C2S stock, then people won't be able to see through them much anyway, particularly not if the cards are intended for use in a CCG (where 90% of all tournament players will use opaque-back card sleeves). So stock of cards is a place you can cut corners.

Another way people sort of cut materials costs down is by reducing the number of colors they print with. If your deck box is black, white, and one other color, that's substantially cheaper than 4 colors. If your cards have black and white backs and full color faces, that's cheaper than full color on all sides, and so on.

Some people try to skirt the materials issue altogether by producing a PDF. That's a topic for another thread.

The rule -- if you produce really good games, people can overlook the quality of your components IF AND ONLY IF your games aren't expensive. Above about $10.00 they'll expect high quality components. Above $20 they'll demand them.

If you have enough know-how, you can, for some things, keep material quality high by building stuff yourself from quality materials. But at that point, you are trading your labor for someone elses.


2) Labor

Because the U.S. has a pool of skilled labor, skilled laborers want skilled laborer rates, not unskilled laborer rates. Wage rates are higher here than overseas (partially to our relative economic strength and partially due to massive population density in some countries in Asia). If you are considering printing in India or Asia, read the article on Printing Cards Overseas.

Going overseas you'll find cheaper labor. Oddly enough, because labor is cheaper in India and China than machines that cost a quarter of a million dollars, a lot of companies over there do some collation and packaging with older machines that require more labor instead of modern, more automated machines. This means that domestically, in the high end hobby game manufacturing facilities, your collation and packaging is likely going to have fewer mistakes if it's handled via automation instead of by hand. This is a price for using labor to replace automation, and if you go overseas, try to get a contract with a maximum percentage of collation or packaging errors before you can return the whole print job free of charge.

If you are a died-in-the-wool economic patriot, and you cannot bring yourself to consider doing anything overseas, then there are two options. The first is to do it yourself. The second it to find a group of people willing to do slightly skilled or unskilled labor domestically for cheap. There are four groups that come to mind. The first is high school students. The second is college students. The third is retirees (senior citizens) who are bored, without a job, and needing to make a little extra income. The last (and no, I'm not being a pig or making a tasteless joke) are the retarded or learning disabled. Regarding this latter group, major metropolitan areas have service bureaus to do job placement for people who are fully capable of minimally skilled labor, but who, because of some learning disability, cannot read or do math at a high level, cutting them out of many good jobs. I've been assured by the president of one game company that he got great collation work done on the cheap domestically by reaching out to programs for the learning disabled.

If you buy just one piece of equipment (take your pick which kind -- a corner rounder, an electronic paper cutter, etc.) then you can always rely on your own labor to save you some money.

In general, even if you do things domestically, it's almost always cheaper to price things out on a service-by-service basis and move the product around to different places for different parts of the production process. But that can involve tons of your own man hours and can be complicated when someone in the middle makes a mistake that you don't catch until the end.

3) Packaging

I wanted to put this off separate from materials, because this is something of a separate issue. Packaging and collation can make up to 35% or the more of the cost of some gaming products produced domestically. No joke. You may find that printing decks just bound by cellowrap is $3000. That may get up to $6000 or so by the time you put the decks in boxes, add rulebooks, put them in point of purchase displays, and then cellowrap everything.

Some people try to leave out a step. One company I know, when they produced there most recent card game, didn't cellowrap their boxes. An otherwise high quality print job was destroyed in part, when the boxes (in my area at least) looked like they had been tossed around for weeks on a ship, unprotected.

Others try to do away with tuck boxes and instead switch to clear plastic boxes or card-sized ziplock bags. This is workable as long as you don't have randomized "chase" contents like those in a collectible card game booster. Some stores frown on games that have no box, but most hobby stores have seen that Cheapass Games can sell, and so they are more accepting of it than they used to be. One thing, if you go with the clear box or plastic bag approach you really ought to have something (on the outside of the box, as the face card of the bag, etc.) that has some sort of product identifier code that can be scanned with a bar code reader or read by eye and typed into a computer.

Depending on your game, you may be able to find videotape cases, DVD cases and develop inserts for them. Or you may go to a box manufacturer and buy a 100 boxes of a type that he already stocks and then develop labels or packaging wraps of some kind to wrap your brand identity around a pre-existing plain white, black, or brown cardboard box. Using "off the shelf" packaging, as much as possible, is often cheaper, particularly for small independent productions, than printing packaging that's a specific size.

For packaging, one thing you can't skimp on is the point of purchase display. You have three choices, in my opinion. First, you print a large enough game box that it can stand on its own comfortably on a game shelf, so you don't need a separate point of purchase display. Second, put your components in some hanghole bag (a ziplock bag with a little hole to hang it on a peg on a rotating display). Third, you come up with some kind of printed box or dispenser unit that your items are stored in. Some companies make POP display boxes that double as shipping boxes. They are made of printed, corrugated cardboard and they convert into a POP display on arrival. Go to your grocery store, find something that's got the right size of packaging, and see how they manufacturer packaged it. Did he use a POP display, a box or container that stands on its own, or bags with hangholes?
What you don't want to do is tick off retailers with lots of small bags or deck sized boxes with stuff in them. Even if you have to ship your games in white, unprinted, corrugated cardboard POP displays, better that than to have nothing and have your games spilling around a counter -- some retailers just won't order from companies like that, while others could care less.


4) Grouping Production Elements

This is a mistake that novices make that the big pros may not. The trick is this. Every time a printer sets up a plate he charges you money. Let's say you are trying to make a CCG and you want decks and boosters. You want to make 5000 cards worth of one deck. 5000 cards worth of another deck. And 10000 cards worth of boosters. A novice will get 3 price quotes. Bad, bad move. If all the cards have the same backs, print 20,000 backs all at once (as a single price quote). Then quote the faces separately. The printer will only have to setup the backs one time instead of 3 times, and you'll make sure he charges you for films for the backs one time instead of 3 times.

Another nifty trick is the "plate change". When doing offset printing, some printers will let you (for a small additional fee), change one color of plate (like the black plate) on their four color press. You want to make chase cards with different flavor text? Don't do them as entirely different sets of cards. See if your printer will allow you to pay for changing a single plate. He keeps running all the other colors of ink he uses to make composite process colors the same way as he did, but he puts in a new plate for black colors, and, voila, if your flavor text is black, then you have a second set of cards with new flavor text without having to pay for a whole second set of cards. You've effectively grouped all your backs and 3 colors of your fronts together, and used the fourth color, black as two separate print runs. Still, much cheaper than paying for two separate print runs from scratch.

These tricks can be combined to print separate games. Consider this. Let's say you have 4 games you want to do this year, and you want your company logo on the back along with the name of the game. You print all the backs simultaneously as a massive run, and then request a single plate change to print the name of each game on the backs of the cards. Not all printers will let you do this, and not all designers want 90% similar backs for different products. But you might be willing to put up with 90% similar tuckboxes or dice boxes or some other common component that's mostly reusable with a small change.

Now, Ryan Dancey is against cutting holes in tuck boxes, but another way to save a little money if you are willing to sacrifice some of the physical integrity of the tuck boxes is to cut a window in them. Let's say, for example, that you are producing a customizable card game, where each tuck box has a different character inside. You can cut a corner by cutting a window out of the box, and letting the face card show through. Set aside just one card slot in each set as an advertisement card to let the player know what's inside and now you can print all your tuck boxes for an entire game all at once, instead of doing 3 or 4 separate tuckboxes.

Similarly, you could order all black tuckboxes for multiple games that use approximately the same number of cards, and then let the card backs show through to identify the game. Take's some planning on the graphic design front, but it's possible. It's also possible to design all black boxes and then stick labels of some kind in them. Consider the CD and DVD industries. Most CDs and DVDs don't have custom box designs; they have generic designs and inserts inside or outside to label the box. Again, you are trying to group materials you need to produce so that they can be re-used, so that you can print one larger run of them instead of 4 or so smaller runs for different products.

Going back to point of purchase displays, for a moment. Let's say that you have multiple games in small envelopes. Perhaps if a distributor or retailer buys enough, you ship them a free display case or sturdy, reusable POP box. You make sure ALL the game lines of a given kind can display in that box. And when retailers reorder a smaller quantity, you send them the games without the display. This allows you to build one or two display boxes and use them for all your lines.


5) Components

As noted above, using "off the shelf" materials is a cheap way to produce things. Consider this: some game manufacturers produce pawns with flat vertical surfaces that you can adhere labels to. Which do you think is cheaper for a small run, buying those and a few labels, or asking for 20 different custom molds to represent each of the different classes of starships in your current wargame?

If the components take some end user work (putting on labels, punching out microperforated cards, cutting up sheets, punching out tokens, etc.), then that's a major savings for you, and probably also makes your game show up to the consumer's door organized, instead of as a jumble of components flowing around.

Whatever you do, don't skip on cheap storage. Include some rubber bands, tiny ziplock bags, etc. If you do, it'll cost you pennies and make the consumer much happier.

Another way you can save on components is to change the number of parts you need. For example, a lot of people can print 55 cards or 110 cards on a press sheet. Let's say your printer has a 55 card press sheet. If you have a 60 card deck, he's going to print 55 cards on the first sheet, and print 5 cards on the second sheet. When he cuts down the second sheet, he's gonna throw away 90% of it, but he's gonna charge you for 100% of it. So, print to fill your press sheet. Let's say the opposite situation is true. Your printer prints on huge 110 card press sheets and your current game is only 90 cards. Don't waste the other 20 card slots. Fill them with promo cards or some expansion. Have the printer cut them separately and hold onto them. The goal is to have little or no wasted space. And to accomplish that, you'll either have to cut down your number of game cards to match 50%, 100%, or 200% of the typical press sheet, or you're going to have to find something to do with the otherwise wasted space.


6) No Rarity

OK, producing collectible card game boosters is crazy, crazy expensive if they are randomized. They need to be collated and sealed in expensive mylar "foil" wrap which needs to be separately printed. If you don't need to hide the contents of your product, then the same cards can be cheaply cellowrapped. Right there, you don't have to print the foil, you can buy cellowrap (which is cheaper than mylar often), and you don't have to pay for what is often very expensive collation (which might get bungled anyway if it's done by hand).


7) Make what will sell or what you can give away

This sounds stupid, but it can result in some savings. Storing lots of games is costly. If you don't have an empty basement, you may have to rent out storage space which can be like $80.00 a month for a 5' x 5' x 5' space in some urban areas. If you live in the boondocks, storage space is cheap. But if you live in the city, it ain't. Try to project what you can sell in 6 months, and order just a little more than that. Don't try to order what it's going to take you 2-3 years to sell off unless you can give some it away as prizes or promotions at conventions or unless you have plenty of cheap storage space.

8) Sell Direct Only

This is something you financilly do NOT want to have to do, but some Indy guys prefer this method, because they don't want to hassle with retail or the distributors just won't pick up their products.

A lot of production methods are sufficiently cost effective if you don't sell through distribution. In distribution, there's the rule of 5. If the retail cost is less than 5 times your manufacturing cost, you'll either lose money or you won't make money. Why? Because wholesalers often buy from you at 2/5 of the retail cost. So, you don't have a lot of room to pay for layout, design, artwork, marketing, etc. if your manufacturing cost is above 20% of the total. Some people have a rule of 4 instead, saying that you can spend up to one fourth (25%) of retail on total production costs (including art, layout, printing, design, etc.). The bottom line is, that there are always hidden expenses, so if your costs go above a certain level, then you won't make money at wholesale.

If you order small quantities from your manufacturer, then since the cost per unit is so high, you'll probably be only able to sell direct. That's a bad thing in terms of selling off everything, but it has an upside -- you won't have to store much if you don't sell it.

Now, there is another option here if your production costs are high, but you won't like it. Let's say you have a 500 units, and you think you can sell 100 of them direct for a profit. Well, if distributors will buy 400 of them for no profit for you, or even a small loss, that helps you recover some of your production costs so that you can make your real profits on direct sales. This is financial suicide unless you are careful, but it may work for some.

Another variant on selling direct to the consumer yourself is to sell direct to retailers. Doing this if you have distributors can cause bad vibes with them. But, if you don't use distributors, then no harm in trying. Retailers buy at 40% to 50% off of retail, generally. Which means that they pay more than the wholesalers who expect 60% off of retail. So, if your production costs are a little too high for normal distribution, and you know some retailers (or are willing to make some relationships), then sell direct. You'll be able to squeeze out a few more percentage points to cover your higher production costs.