3D Printing for Games – Part 1

Choosing a Printer

For the past five years I’ve indulged a 3D printing hobby passion addiction that started with “Man, that seems cool, why not drop $1000 on something for which I have no concrete need?” In addition to being fun, though, it’s proven to be quite useful. I’ve used my 3D printer for all manner of hooks, fasteners, and containers. It creates essential pieces of my hydroponic gardening setup. Combined with some Arduino work, I’ve made some nifty little electronics. And, of course, it’s a source for an endless supply of gaming parts — dice, pawns, counters, even containers for the components of my Terraforming Mars game.

In one of my tabletop game designer communities someone mentioned recently buying a 3D printer to prototype pieces for one of his games, so I thought I’d share some of my experience with 3D printing; hopefully some of you other game designers find this useful.

Since we’re talking about using the 3D printer for game prototypes, I’m going to start with a few assumptions. First, I assume your main passion here is your board game design, not 3D printing itself. (Hopefully you’ll find it fun, but the point is that you don’t want to spend hours learning to 3D print. You want to spend hours designing your game.) Second, I’m going to assume that most of the audience doesn’t have a lot of 3D printing familiarity. If you’re bored with this level of introduction, go read about Four Day Weekend instead.

Let’s start with some fundamentals.

Do I actually need a 3D printer to do 3D printing?

Not necessarily. There are plenty of places where you can get access to a printer without owning one. Maker Spaces have been springing up every where for the past few years, including many hosted by public libraries. You can often use a 3D printer for a very low cost — often you’ll only have to pay a monthly membership fee and pay the cost of the plastic you use. However, access to printers this way is probably limited in the Days O’ Covid.

You can also send your models off to a commercial printer, much like you would order wedding invitations. Check out companies like Shapeways — you upload your model, they print and send to you. The advantages include not having to own your own printer and that these companies often have a much wider variety of materials to choose from than just plastic. The disadvantage is that they’re expensive. I don’t recommend this kind of service unless you’re only planning to print on rare occasions, or perhaps if you want something printed in a material not available on a home 3D printer.

One other alternative — get a friend to print for you. Many of us hobbyists are more than happy to print stuff for our friends, which we loosely define as “anyone willing to put up with us extolling the wonders of 3D printing.”

If you do plan to print using borrowed time on a printer somewhere, keep this in mind…

3D Printing is SLOW

When I say slow, I don’t mean “go get a Coke from the machine” slow. I mean “you’ve got time to drive to the mall, argue twenty minutes about eating at Chili’s versus Applebee’s, and actually have the meal” slow.

Some examples: a single six-sided die takes about ten minutes to print. That’s not bad. However, I’ve included a picture here of some of my Terraforming Mars component holders. What you see in that picture represents around 15 hours of printing time, possibly a bit more. My Maltese Falcon, which stands about 15″ tall, took nearly 20 hours.

(Yes, I have a Maltese Falcon. Do you not?)

In short, don’t expect to mass produce parts with your consumer grade 3D printer.

How Much Does a “Good” Printer Cost?

That’s somewhat like asking “How long is a rope?” but I do have some general thoughts. Unless you happen to already be experienced with electronics and enjoy assembling things, you probably want an OOTB (Out Of The Box) printer. Minimal assembly, pretty much just start printing. For a reliable printer with almost no assembly, expect to spend at least $300. You can certainly spend far more, but you can get something decent for as little as $300 to $500.

Whether you spend $300 or $1,000 depends a lot on the features you choose.

A Few Key Features

Single- versus dual-extruder: the extruder is the piece of the printer that pulls plastic filament in, heats it, and spits it out in nice, liquid form. The vast majority of printers are single-extruder, which means you can print a single color. I have a dual-extruder printer (the FlashForge Dreamer) and I love it. I can print two colors at once (such as the “Cu” and “Au” plates on those boxes in the image above) or print two different types of filament in conjunction.

However, I wouldn’t tell anyone that dual-extruder printers are a necessity. If you’re staying within a budget, this is one of the first features I’d sacrifice. And keep in mind — you can paint plastic. Many hobbyists print all their models happily with just a base color, then paint them.

Print volume: print volume directly influences price, and if you’re printing pieces for games, you don’t need a large print volume. Your typical six-sided die has sides ranging from about 12mm to 18mm. I believe the base for one of the most common scale RPG miniatures is either 25mm or 30mm diameter. While a large print volume is nice for other reasons, it’s not often a necessity for game inventors.

Heated bed: this is one of the items I don’t compromise on. It’s critical that your print sticks to the print bed until the printing’s done. (Sounds like a Kenny Rogers song.) There are plenty of tricks out there for getting good adhesion out of a non-heated bed, but in my experience, it’s far easier with a heated print bed.

Auto leveling: this is a luxury I’m willing to pay for. If the print bed isn’t level, your printing will probably fail. Think about it — the extruder is situated on rails above the bed. As it travels on the X and Y axes, it expects every location on the bed to be the same vertical distance from the tip of the extruder nozzle. When the bed isn’t level, bad things happen.

My printer does not auto level. It has a leveling routine that involves me adjusting three wingnuts below the bed while sliding a shim between the bed and the nozzles. It can be very frustrating and time consuming sometimes — unless the price difference is really untenable, my next printer will have an auto level feature.

SD card: this is a must, to me, unless the printer has some kind of buffering feature that eliminates the need. (And I don’t know if any do.) To print a model, your printer is going to consume a file called “gcode.” The most common methods of getting gcode to the printer are to tether your computer to the printer (i.e., USB), transmit from the computer by WiFi, or put the file on an SD card.

The problem with USB or WiFi is that the computer must remain connected to the printer for the duration of the printing operation. That’s fine for a 10 or 20 minute print, but when you’re talking about a component that’s going to take three to twenty hours…no thanks.

Resume print: I might actually choose this option over auto leveling. On older printers, like mine, if the power goes out or the print is interrupted in any way, it’s game over. You’ve got half an orc miniature, or a handful of irregular polygons instead of dice. A printer with a resume print feature can actually do exactly that — it keeps track of where it was and continues printing. Trust me, when you get to the sixth hour of a print you discover a lot of religion as you pray that nothing interrupts it and wastes all that time.

Conclusion

That’s enough basics for now. I do hope this helps you choose a printer, but if you’re getting ready to buy one, don’t go running to Amazon just yet — in the next (much shorter) post I’m going to talk about resin printers versus FDM printers, which is an increasingly important topic when you’re considering home printers.

Obligatory Advertising

If you’re finding this useful, please feel free to share it. And of course, I’ll be quite happy if you sign up for notification about the Four Day Weekend Kickstarter launch. I’m hoping to launch my first card game campaign early in 2021, and every time you share my page with a friend it helps me build that critical pre-launch audience.

Until next time…

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