Quality Control: Good Checks Take Time

This article is based on an interview with Marek, Boardcubator’s art director, during which he discussed principles of the quality control process with Michal.

Marek before unboxing the sixth mass-production version of Project L.

From the manufacturing standpoint, quality control together with prototyping and playtesting are intertwined parts of a journey towards making sure that components of the final production copies don’t leave anything at all to be desired. While this article mostly discusses aspects of the quality control process, it is important to point out that it often starts with and depends on a prototype. Not necessarily the one used for gameplay iterations, but rather as a technological sample (made with tools and materials at hand) that closely resembles the final shape of the mass-produced game. As long as all the product design elements on it are final, it can serve as a reference copy to be shown to the manufacturer as a benchmark for what the game is supposed to be.

I believe it’s always better to have such a reference copy not only because you have in your hands a tangible item that corresponds to how you expect the final game to be made, but also because you need to make sure that all components feel right when players manipulate with them. This way you can get the idea of how people will actually play with the game instead of making assumptions based on a prototype that technologically doesn’t match the final game, is made of different materials, and therefore also plays differently.

Working with and testing things out using close-to-final components may reveal possible production problems early. Moreover, the act of submitting a reference copy and manufacturer’s subsequent agreement to produce the game correspondingly can be crucial as it allows a direct comparison with anything the manufacturer makes and, therefore, also potentially telling them “I’m sorry but this just doesn’t look anything like what we agreed on.”

This is the reference copy of Project L. The box was made by hand from cardboard, the pieces are sprayed laser-cut acrylic, and the puzzle boards are laser cut blackboard with layers of printed paper pasted over them.

Towards the Production Copy

During the production process, there are various iterations of the game that need to be thoroughly checked. The first one usually takes the form of a white prototype (see the picture below) without any print, which is used to approve the material structure of the components and technological processes they will be made with. This is especially important for any components that are not standard in size, shape, or material.

Once the materials are approved, the manufacturer will make a pre-production copy (PPC) and, eventually, also the mass production copy (MPC). PPC is a prototype version made using technologies that work well for creating a small number of copies. This means 3D print for miniatures instead of injection molds, laser printed rulebook instead of offset, or tiles cut using a plotter instead of a die cutter. The PPC should, however, resemble the final quality as closely as possible. The MPCs are then the only few copies of the game that are fully assembled once the manufacturer has finished the mass-production of components. It is the last safety measure against production problems, and there should be ideally only one iteration made as any issues at this point would require running a part of the production again. Once the MPCs are approved, the manufacturer assembles the rest of the games and the fulfillment begins.

This is the board, rulebook, mission tokens, project tiles, cards, player aids and box for Space Race. The only thing that’s missing are the rocket models, meeples and a plastic insert. And the actual print.

There is almost no difference between a quality control check of the PPC and MPC — it’s always necessary to look at everything that could have possibly gone wrong, even if the previous versions had it right.

Because PPCs and MPCs are made using different technologies, problems that weren’t on the PPC may appear on the MPC so the manufacturer must be certain that they can achieve the desired result after the switch to mass-production processes.

The manufacturer will of course provide disclaimers about the difference in the technologies between the PPC and MPC and how it affects the result. For example, cardboard tokens in the PPC can be cut using a plotter, so the alignment will not be as accurate. There is usually a checklist attached to both the PPC and MPC that lets the creator tick appropriate boxes to make sure they have looked at all aspects of the sample that need to be approved. This ranges from checking that everything is printed correctly (correct data, print accuracy, color matching, and brightness), that all components are present (correct sizes, materials used, and finishes on the components), that assembling and packaging is done well, and so on.

Going through samples of custom meeples with silk-screen printing.

Light at the End of the Unboxing

The quality control process is very similar to unboxing a new game. As the designers slowly and carefully unpack the components, they assume the role of backers who just got the game delivered and are now opening it for the first time. Let’s see how it goes: After receiving a parcel from the manufacturer, don’t rush, but carefully open the cardboard packaging and just stare inside for a while in case something catches your eye. Look at the way the game is shrink-wrapped, where it was heat-sealed, how it looks, and if it perhaps looks differently than other games. Consider details that you wouldn’t otherwise care about, such as whether there is dirt or a fingerprint from the packaging, or how the game was treated during the assembly.

I remember opening new games way back when I never looked at miniatures in terms of where the mold lines are. It used to be all about ‘whoa, what a great looking mini!’ and that was it. And now I stare at them wondering why a particular mold line is so prominent or get irritated by uneven die cuts on cardboard tokens.

Pavel, our graphic designer, checking the print and finish quality of a Project L puzzle board.

Anticipating what should be inside, you take the lid off and look at how the game was assembled. The order in which the components were put in is crucial because it affects what components lay on top of each other and what can get bent, scratched, or dented. If a component protrudes over the edge of an insert and there is a rulebook on top of it, the rules will get dented because paper is unfortunately prone to it. As you are getting the components out, pay attention to how everything feels and see what might bother a person who just got the game. The last thing is to check every component in detail to see if it has any production issues and also to compare them with a reference copy to make sure everything is the same as the approved data.

You will create a list of issues that includes even those that are so small that they are very difficult for other people to notice. However, after the 10th playthrough, they may eventually become as prominent as to cause the component to break. This is why it is so important to take your time with the quality check.

Only looking at the components will not cut it. Every part should be manipulated with in order to reveal the kind of wear it will receive during play. For example, bad varnish is hardly noticeable with a naked eye, but it will become apparent when it smudges after a few games. Even letting the components sit outside of the box for a while can reveal a lot as the material may warp.

Marek going through the components of Project L.

Assuming Is the Root of All Production Problems

What isn’t explicitly flagged as being bad is considered approved, so there is nothing worse than not pointing out a problem because you think that it is so obvious that everyone must already know about it. Even the smallest issue should be in the feedback as it will be much more difficult, and perhaps costly, to deal with them later in the production process. Having a multiple set of eyes available is also handy as everyone looking at the game will list different problems based on their own perspective.

Decisions made during the development of a game always transfer into possible future manufacturing problems, so having advisors in different areas is the key to ensure smooth production.

It’s always great to have a consultant for every specific technology or material used in the game. Every component is designed in a certain way and an experienced person can identify parts that may be impossible to manufacture in mass production and point out more suitable solutions. That being said, experts in one field may not see the problems that their solutions might cause in different areas.

Jan visiting the printer in person, making sure the print sheets match our specifications.

If you have missed it, check out the previous article about art direction in board games. In the future articles, we’ll talk about other aspects of games production and development.

Until next time,

Michal

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Marek is working as an art director in Boardcubator and a marketing specialist for Bionaut. Three of his crowdfunding campaigns made it to the top 10 most funded Czech crowdfunding campaigns, one of which was for Jan Švankmajer’s latest film Insects. Moreover, he spent 5 years working for the Czech Film Fund.

MichalMichal is Boardcubator’s communications manager and game developer. For the past 6 years he has been an instructional designer for Norwich Institute for Language Education. He is also a university lecturer and teacher trainer, working towards a PhD in English literature. We’re all mad here.