Part 1: Laser cutting board games, cards, meeples, and more!
I have recently started using laser cutting for Boring Box Games prototyping, but I am hoping to use it in my finished products as well. There are a number of reasons for choosing to laser cut – I like the slightly burnt look around the edge of the components, it allows me to experiment with different materials at low cost, and it means I can rapidly prototype and iterate.
One of the biggest goals I have in laser cutting is to test the durability of different materials in different use-cases. I’m using a 1200GSM chipboard for the game board, which I anticipate will hold up quite well. Conversely, I am also going to try laser cutting some of the game cards and I expect these to wear a lot quicker, particularly as I’m trying to avoid adding chemical UV coating.
Join a makerspace
Laser cutters are getting much easier to find with the growth of makerspaces (also known as design labs, hacklabs, and hackerspaces). Commonly, these spaces are run as not-for-profits or as extension of institutions such as libraries or universities. Some charge a fee to use the space or to do induction sessions, and others will provide training and use of the space at no cost.
Commonly you will find large-scale equipment like laser cutters, waterjet cutters, CNC routers, 3D printers, and electronics labs. To complement these facilities, these space also commonly feature power tools, hand tools, specialist software, and even tool lending libraries.
For board game design, they are a fantastic space to experiment and prototype at very low cost, allowing you to iterate faster.
Lessons in laser cutting for board games
Here, I want to four lessons from my early stages of laser cutting for board games. These have been the biggest hurdles for me as I learn the process, so they will hopefully be helpful to others who have never done this before (as I hadn’t!). These are:
- Creating my designs
- Understanding vector vs raster images (in the context of laser cutting)
- Image engrave vs vector engrave
- Cutting order
Creating my laser cutting designs – Adobe Illustrator and AutoCAD
For Festival Season, I am using one A2-sized chipboard for the gameboard and a second one for the game tokens and some other components. The game board is made up of an outer frame and 40 triangle tiles that will be randomly placed for each game.
I had originally created mock-ups of these in Adobe Illustrator with the intention of bringing them in AutoCAD as vector files. On reflection, I probably would have prepared these natively in AutoCAD, as I spent a lot of time tidying the files after I imported them.
If this all sounds like nonsensical technical jargon – never fear.
The tl;dr: AutoCAD is the software that commonly prepares things like architectural drawings. It creates those floor plan drawings you may see in buildings that show you things like the location of fire exits.
I will also preface this in saying I had never used or even really heard of AutoCAD before I started designing board games. I’ve used Adobe Illustrator quite a bit, so it didn’t take too long to pick up the basics. And truly, the basics is all you need. When you open AutoCAD, there are about a million functions you will never use in board game design. I highly recommend an AutoCAD intro course on LinkedIn Learning, and then learn by doing.
Makerspaces will often have this software available for you to use, if you don’t have access yourself.
Understanding vector vs raster images
This is fairly common knowledge, but is very important to understand in laser cutting and engraving. (As will become evident in the next section).
In the image below, I have two dollar signs – one vector and one raster. Vector files are made up of paths, much like a join-the-dots drawing you may have done as a child. Raster files are made up of pixels.
At the smaller size in this first image, they look very much the same.
In this second image, I have now stretched both of these images (on an A4-sized artboard in Illustrator). The lines on the vector file are still crisp and sharp, where the raster image has become very pixelated.
Why? The pixels in raster images are square. No matter how you arrange squares, you will never end up with a truly curved corner, hence the ‘squared’ look of the corners on the $.
With the vector image, the program has essentially spread the “dots” (actually called anchors) in your join-the-dot picture further apart to make a larger image. It then re-draws the paths between them based on the new distances.
If I remove all of the colour from inside these shapes, you can see the anchors dotted around the perimeters of the letters. Vector paths can be scaled from a postage stamp to a billboard without losing any quality. Raster images will degrade as they get bigger, as you are not adding any extra pixels – just stretching the ones that are already there.
Image engrave vs vector engrave
Ok, back to laser cutting! Laser cutters do two things – cut and engrave. We’ll deal with the engrave first, as that is also the order in which your job will be done.
Laser engraving is always the first step in your project, before you do any cutting. Essentially, if you were to make cuts first, the loose pieces may move slightly in the laser cutter bed, and any later engraving could be misaligned.
To engrave, the cutter is essentially reducing the power so that instead of being strong enough to cut the material, it only goes part of the way through. This then burns the charred colour into your material.
Laser engrave treats vector and raster files very differently, and this particularly matters when you’re dealing with text. If you have text that has been converted to vector outlines, the laser will, quite literally, join the dots as it engraves. It draws the outlines of the letters, but does not fill in the letter. This is vector engraving.
If you are wanting text to be engraved that is filled in, it will be treated as a raster engraving. The laser will start at the top row and move left to right, top to bottom (like a typewriter – or more accurately, like a dot matrix printer) to engrave the full letter, tiny line by tiny line.
You can see both in the short video below.
When I did my laser cutter induction at my local makerspace, we had an object with about 10 letters on it, each about one inch high. About half the letters were set to vector engrave, the others to raster engrave. The raster engrave (the filled-in letters) took about one and a half minutes to complete, while the vector engrave (just the outlines) took about 20 seconds.
While this is a small difference here, I have about 40 Festival Season game tiles, each with the name of a venue, some icons, and other text on each tile, as well as 100+ game tokens and other components. While a prototype using raster engraving would be possible, producing games at any scale would require substantially more time at the laser printer than would be feasible. As a result, I opted for a more block-y sans serif font and vector engraving.
This also had implications on font choices. I originally had a serif font for the vector engraving. When I converted these to the engraving paths, the part of the serifs where they taper on each letter would mean having two lines for the laser to engrave that were very close together, particularly given my letters need to be small enough to fit on each tile. The risk is that two engrave lines so close together may burn more of the material than I intended, or leave darker marks around the serifs than the rest of the letter.
I hope to test this a bit more as I play with the laser cutter in the lab.
While I knew that I wanted my 40 triangle tiles for Festival Season to be cut out, there is actually a bit of an art to doing this correctly. In the image below, you’ll see the basic layout of my board (with text removed, for simplicity).
My makerspace has a handy template file to use (and most will), which has colours specific to each ‘layer’. The machine will be pre-set to recognise these colours and cut/engrave in the correct order.
Essentially, this will start with engraving, then move on to the cuts in order. With mine, the hexagon of triangles in the very centre will be cut out first. The cuts then move gradually outwards, towards the edges of the board. Essentially, I needed to make sure that as any chunk became separated from the main sheet, there should be no more cuts needed within that chunk (e.g. between two tiles).
The laser cutter bed uses a gentle vacuum to pull your material (cardboard, wood, acrylic, etc) down, to keep it stable as it cuts. This means that as a cut piece becomes separated from the main sheet, it may move slightly. This may only be a couple of millimetres, but given the scale of my game tiles and tokens, this could make all the difference to not having misshapen pieces that won’t fit randomly back within the outer frame.
Going forward with laser cutting in board games
I will most certainly have a Part 2 for this one, as I experiment with different materials and settings. If you have any questions, drop a comment below – and don’t leave without signing up for the Boring Box Games email newsletter to get more game design goodness!