This review series was done by Thornhenge and reprinted with their permission. Thornhenge is the internet child of Sam Brown and this web series shows a true commitment to game design. It is my hope that we can use Sam’s notes about these factories to help us, as game designers, to make the right decisions needed to make out games successful. In Sam’s words:
Hey there. I’m Sam, and I enjoy making games.
I like to understand the whole process, from design to publishing to printing to warehousing to shipping to what happens when you open the box and try the game out for the first time and, if I’ve done my job right, a hundred more.
This is the website for Thornhenge, a little company for the games I design and publish together with a bevy of artists and playtesters and allies in the printing industry and the rest down the line come together.
I try to keep this page full of information. Sometimes I’m rambling about my games. Sometimes it’s about factories or other steps in the process of making games.
My first loyalty is to the game player. But there’s a lot to say about how games are made, and info to share with my fellow publishers and designers, so expect to find me talking to them, too.
Panda Game Manufacturing of Shenzhen, China has earned a place as the go-to printer of the Kickstarter publishing community. With a winning combination of a eurogame-level focus on quality going into pre-press, and native English speakers in their Vancouver corporate office acting as the go-betweens to the factory in Shenzhen, they’ve carved out a place for themselves that’s made them the up and coming big printer alongside eurogame old-guard Ludofact of Germany.
My guides to the Panda Games factory in Shenzhen: Sunshine, John, and Cherry.
Starting in Panda’s showroom, I was first impressed by how many of the games I’d played and loved had been printed there. It’s an impression that would be repeated as I was lead about their printing floors, seeing time and again games that I had enjoyed in reprint, and new games from Kickstarter campaigns that I’d gotten excited by and backed. And then there was my first game, “Lyssan” on the showroom shelves, which they’d printed just the year before.
Printed box labels, stacked up and ready to be cut for Eminent Domain: Escalation.
At one of the hand-work tables, workers stack up components for Dice Hate Me’s “Compounded”.
Panda, founded in 2007, grew out of the Shenzhen Bofung Printing Group. Bofung dates back to the early 1980′s. In just 6 years, Panda has already expanded to supply a majority of their parent company’s work. The key to Panda’s success may come down to two things: Native English speakers at the corporate offices in Vancouver who make dealing with Panda easy for publishers. That, and a focus on quality. Panda starts with the assumption that you want to print your game at a quality level to equal or surpassing the expectations of the eurogame market.
Like other large boardgame printers I toured, Panda works with greyboard and does offset printing directly. They’ll make your boxes, punchboards, and rulebooks in-house. (I’m told they also do card decks in house, but missed it when we toured.1) For wooden components, and plastics, they’ll be your liaisons. Panda sources from factories that they’ve built up relationships with over the many games they’ve made previously, getting you meeples, dice, and other components to meet your expectations.
The heart of the operation, the workhorse of the game printing industry: A 5-color Heidelberg Speedmaster offset printer. One of these will turns out thousands of printed sheets per hour, once the proofing is done and the settings are tuned and locked in.
For extreme spot highlights, Panda has a part robot, part manual screen printer. The workers position each sheet, and a single button press activates the robot to lower the screen, print the gloss, and release the results. The second worker then clears the space for the next, and does a quick quality check before putting the sheet on the UV-curing conveyor.
Panda’s printing facilities include full support for hardbacks in-house. This bookbinding machine will stitch and glue together multiple signatures into a codex. Deluxe RPG books, anyone?
For a more typical boardgame rulebook, this machine will fold and staple-bind single signatures.
One extra step of the game-making process Panda did in-house that I hadn’t yet seen elsewhere is making their own dies, for die-cutting the boxes and punchboards. I had to spend a few minutes nerding out over their laser, which cut the grooves for the blades of the die to be slotted into. A laser table is a great tech for this purpose: A CNC laser cutter will take in a computer file and produce cuts down to a precision of a thousandth of an inch, just how they were in the file, in the board that holds the die blades. These then act as a guide & structure for the blades that stamp out a game’s punchboards of tokens, or the box tops and bottoms themselves, before they’re folded up. Making a die is a one-off job for each pattern of punchboards in a game, and lasers excel at high-precision one-off jobs.
The board being cut is protected by a spare sheet from another game print, keeping the soot from blowing back onto the wood as the laser burns the grooves.
Another place Panda shines is their attention to details that matter to game publishers. Where other large factories I toured might have only a single room set aside to drying print jobs, and that room might even be empty in the summer heat, Panda had multiple rooms set aside to drying and those rooms were in use. Panda’s been around this rodeo many times now, and they know that the final detail of drying the game parts can be there difference between a game whose boards warp a few days after opening and one that stays beautiful.
Drying Room #2, packed to the gills.
Panda’s Strengths, in summary:
- Games focus: Panda does games, and they’ve been doing it with an intense focus for the last six years.
- Native English speakers: Panda’s corporate offices are in Vancouver, their factories are in Shenzhen. Michael and the rest of the Vancouver team will be your liaisons in the printing process, and will spare you much of the confusion of dealing with non-native English speakers.
- A focus on quality: Panda starts with the assumption you want to make a game to the quality level of the eurogame market, not the big-box store mass-market or cheaper. Dealing with Panda, you’ll spend less time than with other printers going over your quality expectations and component selection. If you’re a new publisher and are asking for advice on component selection, they’ll be advising you based on the assumption that you’re looking to make a beautiful product, and not cutting corners.
Things to take extra care with when printing with Panda:
- When deadlines loom and tense eMails are exchanged between printer and publisher, the folks at Panda will often fall back on reminding you of their reputation for quality, and assure you that if they let mistakes through, they wouldn’t have kept that reputation. And much of the time, they’re right and you’re worried over nothing. But you still have to hold up your end of the bargain. Inspect each thing that comes back from them to make sure it meets your specifications, and don’t be shy about sending back the polite “this doesn’t look like what I sent you” letters when you have to. I’ve compared notes with many other Kickstarter-based publishers, and everyone I asked agreed on this point: We love Panda, but sometimes you’ve got to keep hounding them to make sure they deliver the product as specified, even when they want to fall back on their reputation. At the end of the day, Panda will make a beautiful game for you. But as proud as they are of their quality controls, you still have to do your due diligence.
- If you’re paying attention, you may notice hints of growing pains when printing with Panda. These guys are slammed with work, especially around the middle of the year: the months before the convention season before the holiday season. This, combined with their careful pre-press process means they need a few weeks longer lead-times for pre-press art approval than other printers. They can also command a higher price than most of their Chinese competitors, and have slightly larger minimum batch sizes: 1,500 rather than the 1,000 other large printers require.
Closing notes from Panda
Each printer got a chance to offer corrections and responses before these reviews are published. Michael@Panda made these notes on the review:
“We have expanded our team to include two full-time account managers located in Indianapolis, USA. This will greatly increase our service levels, response time, and should allow designers and publishers more opportunities to meet us face to face (Vancouver was a little too far from the action). This location was ideal to us as it is in the EST time zone and within close proximity to large gaming events such as Origins and Gencon.We also added a pre-press lead as well as another project manager to our team so our pre-production process is becoming faster and more streamlined. The kickstarter explosion of the past 18 months took us a little by surprise and we have been working hard to expand our team so that we can continue to provide the level of service that our clients expect of us.”
- The original text said that Panda contracted out deck making, rather than doing it in house. Michael informs me that Panda is now doing decks in their own factory. The text of the article has been amended to this. I’ll have to bug Cherry and John to show me the deck cutting machinery next time I’m there.
Signs of success: Panda has grown to the point where they have one of these die-cut monster machines alongside the single-worker die-cut stations that most games are cut with. If you’ve got an especially huge job, your game might be cut out on this behemoth.