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Road to SXSW - The Shape of Things

This year, Yomi's Gate was nominated in the South by Southwest Gaming Awards. I'll be showcasing the game at the festival from March 13th through March 15th 2015. Between now and then, I'll be writing a series of articles discussing the game, where it came from, how it was made, and the kinds of challenges I've encountered along the way. This is one of those articles.

Last week I talked about why I'm making Yomi's Gate. This week I'll dig into more technical details about how the game is made. 

One of the most common questions I get about Yomi's Gate is, "How did you make the pieces?" 

The first important part of that is that I come from an art background in stencil art, specifically in single-layer and one-color stencils. With that kind of art, there's an artistic challenge in conveying an image with minimal detail. It's not explicitly minimalism, but when your x-acto knife can only cut so fine, when bleach bleeds, and when your stencil medium can only take so much detail, you have to learn which corners you can cut and which ones are still necessary. Those skills were absolutely vital to making my board game pieces. 

The samurai unit is one of my best examples, so let's start with that one. I'll detail my thought process as I went from initial concept to the final version. 

The samurai was my first piece after the initial meeple test, so it was also the unit with the most trial and error. Above, you can see the five distinct iterations I went through, not counting micro changes that didn't warrant a new version number. The fifth is the current samurai that is actually in Yomi's Gate. I'll walk you through what I was thinking as I went along. 

V1: I wanted a realistic stance, since samurai are human and we're pretty good at recognizing when humans look wrong, so I started with a photo reference of a kendo student. This was useful for stance and proportions, plus I knew that in kendo stances I could be liberal with using loose clothing to fudge the details. I roughed some shoulder armor and the horns of a helmet.

Unfortunately, most of the sword was immediately vaporized by the laser, as were the horns.Eventually I learned that the amount of vaporized material is called the "kerf," so now I know that my laser vaporizes about 0.05" with its beam. When your sword is only about 0.1", the path to the end and back is enough to vaporize the whole thing. This was crucial knowledge and is still absolutely critical in everything I laser-cut that requires any sort of precision. 

V2: I thickened up the horns and the sword. They weren't immediately vaporized anymore, but they were still getting stuck when removing the piece from the sheet it was cut from. Those sharp corners were all causing the laser to double back on its own path, melting some parts of the unit back onto the sheet. Further, the sword felt pretty fragile in that it seemed like it could break off at the hands. 

V3: I removed the points from the helmet horns and they worked a little better, but they still looked very, very small since much of that material was being vaporized away. I also smoothed out the lines from the hands to the abdomen, eliminating those sharp, concave corners, and I enlarged the hands such that they would be truly gargantuan on a real person. Turns out that's hard to notice anyway, so it wasn't a big deal. I also made the front foot a little smoother and larger, since it was giving me some trouble. 

V4: Almost there! I thickened up the sword and completely abandoned the pointed tip, which worked wonderfully. Still, those horns...

V5: Forget the horns. As much as I wanted them, they just weren't working for this unit. Instead of having a head that looked like a human wearing a helmet, I literally replaced it with a circle and squished it around a little bit. With no sharp corners anymore, samurai pieces can be popped out of the sheet cleanly, there are no fragile parts, and they still generally retain the original shape and idea. 

The key takeaway here is that I started with a general idea of where I wanted to go, then I got rid of everything that didn't work. I wasn't shooting for perfection, but rather something that was functional and good enough to serve my purpose. At the end of the day, I have a piece where you can clearly look at it and say, "Yes, that's a person with a sword." 

Here's the final piece cut from acrylic. 

Pretty cool, right? 

From a design standpoint, the visuals of the pieces serve two purposes: Once you know what they are, you can 1) remember them and 2) distinguish them from one another on the board. I don't expect anyone to intuit what a unit can do, but my hope is that once you know that there's an archer who can shoot, you can look at the pieces and pick out which one the archer is. I hope that people can look at the units and think things like, "That one is on a horse, so it's probably a cavalry unit." I also hope that there's zero confusion between, say, a samurai and a mounted samurai*.

*The Shogun and mounted samurai are supposed to be a little bit confusing because I want people to pay careful attention to whether or not they're looking at a mounted samurai or a far-more-powerful Shogun. I see this as a passive ability of the Shogun.

Size also comes into play here in a subtle way. All of the unique, powerful hero units are bigger than the expendable army units, for example. The Daimyo, who's a monster on the battlefield, absolutely towers over the samurai. The ninja, one the other hand, is a sneaky hero who's actually crouched to be about the same size as a samurai. Bigger units are supposed to be functionally more threatening in-game and for the most part that's true. 

So really, that's how I make a physical piece from beginning to end. 

  1. Brainstorm what a unit is supposed to do in-game. This is a step for another post. 
  2. Draft what that unit should look like to convey its purpose. What are its abilities and what would be good visual indicators of those abilities? Make sure it doesn't look too much like any other unit. 
  3. Find references for what that thing might look like in order to get proportions and poses right. 
  4. Remove everything that doesn't work. Repeat this step several times. If horns aren't going to work, for example, get rid of them entirely. Are horns really that important to conveying the functional purpose of a samurai? Probably not. 

Thanks for reading! Check back next Thursday for another article about the process of creating Yomi's Gate and getting it ready for exhibition at SXSW!