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Musings: You've played, but have you printed?

RANDOM MUSINGS on the fin-de-millénaire games scene . . .

7 May 2010 . . .

Whether it's an established inventor trying to hone an idea or a newcomer trying to draw attention to his work, the print'n'play mode has really taken off in the past couple of years. The place to announce them has become which lists ten pages of different titles as web-published. A few of these are probably misfiles, but still it's an impressive number. Donald Seagraves has also taken it upon himself to both index many of these such games.

The concept of the game whose images and instructions you can download from the web is hardly new. Bruno Faidutti had examples like Caravanserail, China Moon and Murder at the Abbey on the Game Cabinet as far back as 1997. They are not limited to unheralded inventors either. Michael Schacht's wonderful Rat Hot first saw life in not one but two print'n'play incarnations.

Presumably these titles are getting played as well, at least some of them for they have numbers of raters to prove it. Just take a look at micropul, which first appeared in 2004, and now has 356 different ratings. How many more must also have played it without bestowing a rating either because they are not site members, like to have more than one play before rating or for some other reason.

Indeed, after appearing in print'n'play format several have proven popular and intriguing enough for real publishers to license them and publish them for real. Besides the aforementioned Faidutti and Schacht titles, these include Himalaya, Kardinal und König:  Das Kartenspiel, Mutton, Erosion, and others.

The easiest to produce print'n'play efforts are those requiring printing only a map and the instructions, which fits the description of many pure abstracts, e.g. an Abande (also subsquently published as part of the tactic blue game pack). Prospective players can almost always find some idling checkers, coins or buttons to use as pieces for such games. Though not always as attractive as one would like, they will serve. In recent years the Icehouse bits have provided an attractive yet inexpensive solution and there are not a few games, e.g. Zendo designed specifically around them.

Cards and tiles, however, can be a more serious problem. Getting them printed successfully and cut out is a time-consuming matter. It gets especially daunting for all but the most skilled artisans if the cards or tiles need to be printed on both sides. For this purpose, good use has been made in some cases of traditional playing cards, e.g. in Deduce or Die. Even more recently, the Hong Kong firm ArtsCow has been offering to print packs of fifty-four cards for the unheard of price of under ten dollars, including shipping. The game inventor can uploads his images to the site and players can purchase the cards from there.

The ArtsCow program is more intended for those wishing to personalize a traditionaly set of cards, much as one does for a calendar or keychain, etc., but fortunately the mechanism is still fully usable by board game inventors. Unfortunately there is nothing similar for game tiles, at least not so far. If one wants to make more elaborate items such as dice towers or standing cardboard structures, there is considerable difficulty there as well.

Some mention might be made here of Lloyd Krassner and WarpSpawn Games which claim to have so far produced over 900 (!) different print'n'play titles for players to try out. Many of these are on very flavorful topics such as ancient civilizations, pirates, the silk road, etc. Indeed, the ability to delve into an unusual topic for which there are few or even no previous games is one of the format's great boons, for both inventor and consumer. Besides the aforementioned micropul (imaginary science), examples of these include Darwin's Finches and Arabian Nights.

It should be noted that all of these developments have consequences for regularly-published games too, some of them not so nice. If a game is just a set of cards, all of whose relevant information is easily gleaned by just reading the instructions, it can readily be copied. The clear message for publishers of card games is to include at least a few special cards which will be known only to owners of the set. A Schotten-totten which is basically six suits numbered 1-9 is easy to copy while its descendant Battleline which also includes a number of special cards is not.

That consumers are gaining greater facility with self-production also constitutes a challenge to publishers to keep their products looking as attractive as they can. A company like Winsome, known for its bland graphics (to be fair, intentionally so as the games are more meant to entice other publishers than as consumer product), can find there are players out there who will recreate their game without paying for it, not because of unwillingness to pay, but just because they want it to look better. Of course this sort of practice is stealing from game creators and must be discouraged as much as possible.

Something positive that print'n'players can do more of, however, is provide feedback on the games. Give ratings, yes, but also opinions and judgements on how well you liked or didn't like the game. Sometimes there is concern around hurting the feelings of an inventor. But the reality is that in the long run the worst thing an inventor can hear is that a game is "nice" or "interesting". Data on why a game was enjoyed or not enjoyed, which aspects, and by players of what ages and experience ranges is much more welcome and useful. As already mentioned, the main reason for many of the games to be web-published in the first place is to garner feedback that will ultimately help to shape and improve the designs. By the way, that includes the print'n'play designs available at this site as well.

Where all of this is going is unclear. Should licensing by a "real" publisher be the only ultimate goal of inventors employing the print'n'play mechanism? Or can there be a viable reality of web publication with large numbers of printing fans? What about web tools to easily convert some of these to on-line play? In the end, no matter where this is going, inventors and at least some players are having a lot of fun. Maybe you too?

A list of the print'n'play games that have been reviewed, commented or designed by this site. ...
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by Rick Heli    RSS feed    twitter image