Is your favourite board game worn out, but now out of print? Do you want your own copy of an old game, like Go or Nine Men's Morris? This article does not contain designs for individual games, but is an introduction to some of the techniques that can be used to make your own boards and playing pieces.
First Things First
When you make a game, it will never be as polished or as perfect as a manufactured game. That's what you pay them for, after all1. What you make here might be functional, maybe even pretty if you've got a good sense of design, but it won't be as good as a shop-bought game unless you have a lot of skills hidden up your sleeve. Be proud of what you achieve, and don't try to compare it to a shop-bought copy.
Where Should I Start?
First of all, pick a game. It shouldn't be anything too complicated - certainly not on your first trip out! If it's a game that you know well all the better, as you can adapt what you have to what you need. If you're inventing your own game, you can tailor your board and playing pieces to your game concept, rather than having to borrow them from other games.
Paper and Pencils
By far the simplest way to create a board is with a pencil on a bit of paper. Most people will have drawn a Noughts and Crosses board at some point, and that's a fine place to start. Sketching it out first is a good way of finding out whether the design you've made will work - there's nothing worse than getting all the way to the end and then finding there's not enough room to put down your pieces!
Card and Pens
A decent pen on thick card is a more permanent way of drawing a board. Invest in a steel or transparent plastic ruler to draw perfect straight lines and a compass to draw circles2. If you don't have a compass, you can use two pencils and a piece of string. Tie the string to both pencils, one at at either end. Put one pencil in the centre and then move the other one, with the string taut, around it. It's not perfect but with a bit of practice it's not bad. If you are using a transparent ruler use it with the bevelled side to the paper so that the ruler doesn't touch the wet ink, because that will cause it to wick under the ruler and smear. If you're using a metal ruler put a few layers of masking tape on the underside, leaving a few millimetres free each side. That way, when you draw a line the ruler isn't touching the card and the wet ink.
Varnishing can work to preserve card, as can laminating it (if you have access to such a thing). There's also the Blue Peter sticky back plastic method, or even several strips of wide transparent packing tape stuck on so they overlap ever so slightly.
Fabrics can make great portable boards. They can also be used as a wrapper for any pieces, dice or anything else that comes with it - just parcel them up inside.
If you do pick fabric, it's best to hem the edges to prevent fraying - or use felt, which won't fray. Hemming can be done by hand or with a machine, or even with iron-on tape. If you want to wash your board (for example, if you plan to use it outdoors) then make sure that you pick both a fabric and a fabric paint that can be washed.
Victorians and Georgians used to create games by sticking paper squares onto linen. This allowed them to be rolled or folded without the paper falling to pieces. If you want to try it, leave a gap between the squares so that when you fold the cloth it doesn't break the edges.
Now, woodworking is an art, and a skilled one at that. However, don't worry if it's not your forte, because there are a number of things you can do to get around this.
Buying the Right Wood
There are lots of factors. There's cost, to start with. There's the look of it, the density, the finish, whether or not it's been treated with chemicals or left to age. But if you only have a few tools, there is one thing that's crucial - try to buy the shapes you need. Say you want a square board about a foot down each side. Ask in the shop if they can cut it for you to the right shape. Many provide this service for free, but there can be a minimum size3. Perhaps they have one in a foot-and-a-half square - can you adapt your game to be slightly bigger? Perhaps you want a border around the edge - a lot of DIY stores sell that sort of thing in long strips for only a few quid a pop. In some places they'll even chop them up for you to the correct length. Take your time to see just what they do have to offer, and ask what they'll do for you in terms of cutting and finishing. It might be worth it to buy something more expensive that you don't have to buy a tool to finish off.
Most of us would admit to wanting to use only the finest wood. But in reality, we haven't got the skills to do it justice. Pick MDF or another cheap board for a base, because you can always paint it. Cheap pine can be stained to give the appearance of a hardwood. It's not the same, but, as the opening of the Entry states, it will never be perfect.
If you can't get things cut for you, you will need access to the right tools. This isn't the article for recommending specific tools, and there are plenty of places that can tell you the best tools for the job you want to do. However, a saw is almost indispensable, and a jigsaw can make light work of some otherwise tricky jobs. Sandpaper is necessary to prepare a surface before painting or varnishing, and to shape edges and prevent splinters.
You could get a black felt tip permanent marker and write directly onto your board. Using a ruler, you can easily mark off a grid. However, if you bought something that's functional as well as merely pretty, you may want to do something a little different.
Paint is a fantastic way to hide something. It also has the added bonus of providing a barrier between the wood and whatever you use to draw on it, meaning that that permanent marker won't soak in and look silly - it tends to bleed out along the grain of the wood. A really useful tip for writing on dark paints is correction fluid. The stuff comes in pens now and the white is opaque. It's perfect for making white lines on dark paints, and you can use it with a ruler for a perfect straight line. Contrasting paint can also be used for making lines. Use masking tape to get a really straight edge, or use a pencil to mark out where you want to paint.
If you own a soldering iron, it is possible to burn lines into wood. The wood should be as light in colour as possible so that it shows up. You can use a metal ruler for straight lines, but it does not work well freehand. The instant you touch a bit of grain the iron tends to zoom off of its own accord, even if you're expecting it.
If you only wanted the wood for weight, you could always draw the board on paper and then glue it to the wood. Although you could use ordinary paper, wallpaper is designed to be glued to surfaces and should protect the design from the liquid glue underneath. You would still need to varnish it to protect it.
One final method requires soft wood, a pencil and a craft knife. First, draw out the board in pencil. Then, cut out the pencil marks with a knife. Finally, paint or stain the wood a dark colour, making sure that you don't go into the gaps you cut out. The cuts will shine through, and if you take care the effect should look like inlay at a first glance. Some people find it easier to reverse the cutting and staining stages as you can get a cleaner cut, but only if the stain hasn't gone too far into the wood.
Varnish is needed to prevent wear. Pick a clear varnish (unless you want a specific effect, of course), preferably one that's designed to take wear and tear. Paint has a habit of chipping away, and cheaper woods like pine mark and dent very easily. Make sure you varnish both sides of the board. Varnish tends to contract as it dries, so if you varnish only one side, the timber is likely to warp.
If at all possible, water-based paints and varnishes are safer to work and play with, especially if you intend children to use them. Don't forget to sand the splinters off carefully first! Glueing a piece of felt to the bottom of the board will protect the chair or the tabletop from scratches.
Metal, Glass and Plastics
Unless you know what you're doing, don't bother with these. You will need specialised tools and knowledge, and it's simply not needed!
Markers and Dice
Most games require some kind of counter, or marker. Use what you have - coins, corks, buttons, small stones, anything that fits the purpose. You could try making your own out of wood, but anything more complicated than a painted tile could stretch your woodworking skills4. Also, the smaller you go, the trickier it gets.
You could experiment with making salt dough paste which, when baked, turns rock hard. Alternatively just make or buy small figures or models that fit the rest of your design. It doesn't really matter what they are made out of - pipe cleaners, bits of coloured paper, bits of play dough - it's up to you.
Dice are hard to make, because not only do they have to look right, they have to be weighted right or the won't roll the numbers equally. Just buy the dice you need - it's much easier.
There are some alternatives though - throwing sticks have been used around the world to do the same job. Some easy ones can be made with some dowel rod, split lengthways (as before, just buy it pre-split). Paint the flat side, and then cut four pieces of roughly equal length (about two inches is a good length). Throw them in the air, and when they fall, count the number of painted sides. If none of them are painted, the score is five. If they land end up, just re-throw.
There are also spinners, which are hexagonal pieces of card with a pencil or similar through the middle. Write a number on each edge, spin the pencil on its tip and see which side it lands on. If you're using home-made randomisers, make sure everyone uses the same one so it's not weighted in anyone's favour.
Where Can I Get Ideas For Games?
Almost any game can be created, but be careful of copyright. A simple internet search for 'board games' will bring up many for you to choose from. The book Discovering Old Board Games, by RC Bell is a good collection of games that are out of copyright (usually by hundreds of years!), and contains the boards that you can copy along with the rules you need to play them.
There is always the option of adapting a Print and Play game. Many of these are free and you are encouraged to download the design and print them out yourself.
Section 52 (2) of the UK's Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 states that:
After the end of the period of 25 years from the end of the calendar year in which such articles are first marketed, the work may be copied by making articles of any description, or doing anything for the purpose of making articles of any description, and anything may be done in relation to articles so made, without infringing copyright in the work.If you don't think that the game you want to copy falls under the 25 year rule, it is recommended that you find a legal copy or make something different. After all, there are hundreds of others to choose from!