Designing a board game insert

I recently decided to take it upon myself to design a board game insert for the game Anachrony - Essential Edition (BGG Link). This is a relatively heavy worker placement game with a very strong theme and several mechanics I enjoy. I thought it would be interesting to go through the design process for the insert I created since this is something I've never done before that covers a variety of disciplines.

What is a board game insert and what does it do?

So what is an insert? An insert is a way to store components for a game to make them easier to access. Instead of having components, chits, and tokens in plastic bags they may be organized in holders or trays. They are typically made of foam core, 3D printed, or laser cut on thin pieces of wood. If you're interested I'd recommend checking out the foamcore insert list over on BGG. Just find a game that sounds interesting, then click on the post number on the left hand side to go directly to the post for some image examples.

The Essential Edition version of Anachrony released relatively recently has fewer components, a different box size, and no plastic worker mech components so professionally made inserts don't exist yet. Mind Clash made sure the box itself is small which I appreciate as it reduces the shelf space required but this does mean you need a focused insert design with very little wasted space. Several people have made their own inserts which are quite good but didn't fit my desires in terms of design. I prefer inserts that focus on quickly setting the game up and putting it away over component separation. I also understand that this is not everyone's preference and my insert may not be everyone's cup of tea, but I designed it for my copy of the game so I can do whatever I like.

Choosing which technology to create the insert with

This was my first decision to make. When designing inserts foam core is by far the most common material since it's cheap, easy to acquire, and most importantly you can continually iterate on designs from the comfort of your own home.

I don't like foam core inserts due to the thickness of the material. You can find 1mm and 2mm foam core, but it's really flimsy, so most people use 3mm or 5mm foam core and this wastes a lot of space. With Anachrony's compact box I knew this was going to be a concern. No matter what technology I chose all measurements would be in mm or cm to ensure as accurate a fit as possible since all components are designed using the metric system.

3D printing is the most accessible outside of foam core. Thanks to sites like makexyz (no affiliation, I just used them for this project) you can order printed objects from local printers. The downside here is you have to either find existing 3D printing design files (STLs) or create your own using software such as Blender, Fusion 360, or OpenSCAD. It's also much more difficult to iterate on designs (more on that later) unless you decide to buy a 3D printer which I ultimately decided against.

The last consumer friendly option is laser cutting and while very cool it is also the most annoying because finding laser cutters that are available to the public is difficult or expensive. I have no experience with acrylic or wood panels and was worried about imperfections in my design. When 3D printing it's a lot easier to see a 3 dimensional object than to create many 2 dimensional pieces that then need to be assembled.

In the end I went with 3D printing. Since I have familiarity with Python I ended up using SolidPython which integrates with OpenSCAD for rendering and converting to an STL. I used Ultimaker Cura to ensure my designs would fit on the 3D printer's print bed correctly.

Since my local resources were closed I used makexyz to get my prints from a local 3D printer. I also investigated the type of 3D printer I wanted the prints to be made from to ensure I had the proper bed size dimensions and print quality (I settled on a Prusa MK3).

Initial Design Focuses

When starting the design process it was critical to me that I get an understanding of the main components of Anachrony. This meant I could get an idea of how many components there are (how many storage trays do I need, and how big do they need to be?), what will the setup process look like (what is most time consuming to set up? How can I reduce this time?), and ease of storage (can I store this game on its side with this insert?).

If you want to explore the components before continuing for the context I recommend looking at the Anachrony images page on BGG.

I started by setting the game up and tearing it down multiple times to identify where the problems were. What was taking too long or was too annoying? What felt fiddly or repetitive to do? What aspects seemed like they could be improved on but didn't really matter to overall setup time and interactions during play? Are there ways that components can be arranged in the box without an insert to improve setup and tear down times?

After thinking about these questions as I went through the process of setting up and putting away the game my notes led to the following conclusions: * Dealing with bags is annoying, they should be completely eliminated. * Some resources should be stored apart, while others don't really matter. * Saving seconds during setup isn't worth the annoyance of sorting everything when putting the game away. * Faction specific setup is a chore when all faction specific components aren't together. * Some components stack nicely together in the box by themselves and don't need to be fully separated or stored. * Getting people involved and excited during the setup process is important. * Packing isn't fun when it's too tedious or requires too much precision remembering where everything goes. * Touching and feeling the components as you set them up helps you get excited about the game and should not be taken away by using the insert as resource storage during the game.

I recorded the time it took me to perform various steps in the setup process and the biggest offenders were putting things in or taking things out of bags, sorting and setting up each faction, trying to make everything fit back in the box, and general component placement on the board. Aspects such as shuffling tiles and cards, sorting tiles in to groups, and making piles of resources didn't create friction and give you an idea of how the game will play while allowing you to begin exploring the iconography. I realized that taking away this exploration lead to a less enjoyable setup even if it did make things slightly faster.

From here I looked at what components needed to be separate and which could be stored together, as well as which components made sense to store close to each other. I came up with this crude listing:

Component grouping

I was now able to move forward with my basic design tenets and actually begin working on the insert itself.

Planning the Insert requirements

Based on my observations above I knew there were some easy wins.

  • There would be no bags in the insert or in the box. If a bag was required I considered that a failure of the insert.
  • Faction components needed to be stored together and in an aesthetically pleasing way. I want people to get excited when they see the faction art and say "This is who I want to play!" before we even start the game.
  • Components such as workers, cards, and several components with unique shapes should be stored with each other. They don't need to be perfectly sorted, I want people to get their hands on them
  • Resource cubes should not be stored together, they're annoying to sort.
  • Worker components don't need to be sorted.
  • Too much sorting during tear down is more annoying than the benefits during set up.
  • Tile storage doesn't need to be overly complex.

With general planning and a better understanding of what was problematic out of the way it was time to get started on actually thinking about what the insert would look like.

Imagining the Insert and how it will look in a 2D space

Before moving in to 3D I started by creating 2D sketches of the approximate design of the insert. What would it look like if I was staring at the box from above? I came up with these initial ideas:

Layout ideas

Between initial 2D design and the final design I made several changes and revisions. I didn't end up drawing those out as much since I had the 3D modeling software to think about what I would want it to look like, this is just the first version of the insert to give myself a starting point.

Organizing the Box

Once I had settled on the 2D design of the insert I had to make sure everything would fit in the box in the various layers. I considered creating 3D paper mock ups at this point, but was confident enough in my height measurements that I didn't feel it was necessary. I created full size 2D mock-ups of what the insert could look like as a single layer:

Layout full sizing

With the layout finished and making sure everything would fit with the dimensions I measured for the general shape it was time to work on the digital side.

Designing the Insert in 3D

This portion of the design process was by far the most interesting and involved as I realized there were questions such as wall thickness, rounded edges and corners, fillets, inner versus outer depth of each insert part, and total volume of each part of the insert. I started running calculations to determine how much volume each type of component I wanted would take up. In some cases I included extra room in the event I purchased extra components such as resource cubes.

Using SolidPython and OpenSCAD for this was effective but I also had to think much harder about how to work within some of the limited ways OpenSCAD supports creation. Objects such as fillets were especially problematic and unless you can really picture how the shapes are going to look in 3 dimensions in your brain as you enter the calculations I don't recommend this. When you create objects in OpenSCAD you're basically starting with a solid object then "cutting" pieces out of it and adding pieces back in. Each element is a different piece that you have to account for and properly associate with each other so the program understands what you want and in what order you want the steps to occur.

Openscad factions

This is pretty good for creating general shapes, but once you get in to more complex shapes or squaring things off it can become more difficult. You can't say you want an object at specific X, Y, and Z coordinates, instead you have to treat the initial creation point of the entire object as the offset. So if you want a cube cut out to be in the middle of an object you need to start from the corner of object, then the corner of the cube instead of the center of the cube.

I implemented several different techniques to get the shape and dimensions I was happy with, as well as various other small design tweaks to improve the look and feel. In total I created 7 unique insert components.

  • 1 faction insert (4 of these are needed)
  • 2 resource cube trays of varying sizes
  • 1 tray for cards, dice, and a few miscellaneous components
  • 1 large split tray for components
  • 1 large tray for components
  • 1 building tray

Printing the insert

This was the easiest part of the whole process. As I noted above I used to find someone locally with a 3D printer. I had already confirmed via Cura that the insert elements that I wanted would fit on the printing bed specified by the printer I decided on and I recommend that others do the same before putting in too much work as you may have to resize things. I initially looked at someone with a larger printing bed and had to slightly tweak one of the designs but I was happier with the final design any way.

I sent them the STL files and after some review we were able to settle on a price. It cost me $41.25 for the actual printing, then $8.25 in fees to makexyz. I considered spending $750 to buy my own Prusa 3D printer kit but decided against it. I may still buy one in the future as this process was fun and creating physical objects is much more rewarding than most other technology and programming based endeavors to me.

This is what all the components of the insert look like (trays on the right are double stacked for a total of 4, 1 for each faction, there are 10 3D printed objects in this picture):

Insert pieces

Putting it all together

With the inserts completed I was able to organize all the components. This is better represented by images. Below you can see before and after as I move components from the bags to the insert, and then put the insert in to the box.

Bagged box

Components pre-insert

Faction example 1 1

Faction_example 1 2

Insert Assembly 1

Insert Assembly 2

Insert Assembly 3

Insert Assembly 4

Insert Assembly 5

Problems With the Insert

There are a few minor issues with the insert that were hard to mentally imagine during creation. The biggest of these is that while the fillets look good, the inserts should have been more rounded internally than they are, especially for the resource cubes. This isn't a big deal since I usually dump out the resources with my hand held over the other sections, but it would have been nice to have realized this. The resource cube sections are also slightly too large. I did this in case I wanted to buy more resource cubes in the future or upgrade them, but looking back I probably could have held off on this.

Another issue is the overhang of the second resource cube tray. I don't know why I overlooked this during my design process but I did. I should have made both layers the same length to allow for better vertical storage. I haven't had any issues storing my game vertically yet, but I'm also not throwing it on the shelf so I imagine this could be a problem and resource cubes may spill out.

The last issue is the card tray. The finger notch to easily pull the cards out isn't perfectly centered. I did this on purpose but when seeing it in the physical world it feels a bit too off centered. I've fixed that in the STL files so it is centered better.

Overall Results

I am extremely pleased with the insert considering this was my first exploration in to several new disciplines related to artistic and functional design, 3D CAD work, and 3D printing. In the future I will likely not use SolidPython and will instead use Fusion 360 for this sort of work. If you've found this interesting and want a copy of the STL files so you can print your own Anachrony insert you can purchase all the STL files for $2.99 on Gumroad.

I hope this has been helpful for anyone else interested in making their own inserts as I didn't see many resources that talked about the process from concept to realization. If you create your own awesome insert please let me know!