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Making a small printrun with Ellison Die and OvernightPrints

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ensor
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Warning: Long Post Ahead.

I'm currently in the beginning stages of doing a very small print-run of a card game; I wanted to have some very nice copies for friends and family as gifts, and also to get a feel for the costs and benefits of a small-time setup versus professionally printed, and partially just to see if I can do it. When it's all said and done, I should have between 100-200 copies. I thought some of what I've learned might be of help to others here.

After reading up on some of the possibilities over at Lee's Veritas Games site ( http://www.veritasgames.net/cgi-bin/design.cgi ), and pricing them out compared to printing at home with my inkjet, cutting them and Xyron laminating them, I decided to go with the option of having postcards printed and then cutting out the cards with an Ellison Die Cutting machine.

First, the postcards. I got samples from both http://gotprint.com and http://overnightprints.com, and I liked the cards from Overnight Prints the best with the matte finish, while the glossy options for both looked way too shiny. It was thick 14pt card stock, similar to what is in the Adlung card games or Clocktowers from Jolly Roger Games. I also got samples of business cards, since Overnight Prints had the option of rounding the corners for you, and hey, I'd be willing to shrink my cards down by 0.25" if it meant not having to cut anything out. The rounded edges looked nice, but the sample cards were all of slightly different sizes, and they say that things can shift by a small tolerance between each business card you print, and since the cards would need to be shuffled and exactly the same size, this didn't look like a good option. I chose the postcards.

As for which postcards, Lee mentions on his site that you want to print two different playing cards on one 4x6 postcard, or four different playing cards on a 5x7. For 100 copies, it was $40 for the 4x6 and $65 for the 5.5x8.5 option, saving $15. They currently have a "Free Shipping" deal if your order is over $75, which means the Overnight is out the window, but they still show up UPS in about a week. I had a friend who printed business cards with them in the past, and she said the colors were a little different that what was on her screen, the brown turned into a pale green. A bit wary, I sent off about half of the cards I need, and my colors came through just fine, and they were centered front-to-back as good as I can tell, the quality was very good. With this setup, there's no proofing of what they will print, you check to make sure things look right on your computer when you upload the appropriately-sized JPGs (300dpi), but supposedly they have a money-back guarantee if you don't like what you get. I haven't had problems yet, so I can't vouch for customer service. If you want to get the tuckbox for the cards printed at the same time, to use the 5.5x8.5 postcard option the maximum depth to your box is .666", if you use the cool tuckbox generator to make your boxes ( http://www.cpforbes.net/tuckbox/tuckbox.cgi ). This should be just enough for me to include the cards and the rules.

Now for the cutting. I've heard mentioned on bgdf by fastlearner and darkehorse of using an Ellison Die Cutting machine for making playing cards, with the Playing Card die http://ellison.com/shop/?p=product_detail&itemnum=12636 being very close to bridge-sized cards (2.25" x 3.5"). This was about $30 with shipping, and it looks very nice, with exactly 0.25" between the two cards, good for making my template in Illustrator. I found that our local library had the machine, so we reserved some time and headed out Saturday for some die-press fun. First we cut the 5.5x8.5 postcards in half, easier to handle that way. But getting everything lined up for cutting proved to be a trick, and my wife came up with some crafty solutions.

We made a three-layer template out of standard cardboard, similar thickness to a cereal box, and matte-board, usually used for making pictures, to hold the postcard in place. First, we placed the die on the corner of the cardboard and traced around the two inner sides of the die. Here we attached an L-shaped piece of matte-board with double-sided tape, so we could always place the die in the same spot each time; the matte-board was thick enough to make a good resistance to the rubber bottom of the die. We then used the die in that spot to punch out two holes for the playing cards. Taking off the die, we placed the postcard underneath the cardboard until we could see the cards with proper spacing on the borders. We flipped the cardboard and traced the postcard, and then cut this out so we could put the postcard in the same spot each time. Finally, we found we needed a third layer, two small tabs (one on the top, one on the side, about 1/4 inch so they would't be in the way of the cutting) to hold in the postcard with a small amount of double-sided tape, else we couldn't line it up and hold it in place as we put the die on top. This worked out the best, and eventually we made two templates to speed up the production line, so we could have one being loaded with the new postcard while the other was being cut and the playing cards removed.

On another site about making your own Tarot deck ( http://www.wopc.co.uk/otc/production.html ) they talk about someone's experience using the Ellison Die. The whole page has some good info for bgdfers, here's the relevant section for die-cutting:

Quote:

The Die cutter makes a very consistent edge, but has the flaw of somewhat crimping in the edge of the card on the face side. (I cut with the backside to the die to make sure the backs are unmarked.) The cards still look good and shuffle well, so I'm just commenting and not complaining.

I also found the consistent edge, slightly rougher than I'd have liked but both cards were exactly the same size. The crimping was there too, bigger than I thought, so there's a little 1/16 inch rim around your card. I was able to fix this by smoothing them out with the back of a wooden spoon, a trick I picked up while doing blockprints a few years ago, and now the edges are barely noticable and the cards look much better, although it does take a bit of time. Also, the black on the rubber part of the die seemed to flake off just a bit, getting little black particles everywhere, which means the cards need to be dusted off before you can use them. We were able to get the pattern down such that we could make a cut in less than every 30 seconds, so 4 cards a minute, 240 per hour.

So, is this for you? I don't know. We'll be heading back to the library this weekend to finish our first batch of punching, then getting the rest of the cards printed and starting up again in May when they arrive. If you want to make about 100-200 copies, have a lot of duplicate cards in your deck, and are on a budget, this might work for you, it's the cheapest but takes a lot of labor to make the finished product. Would I do it again? Maybe, we'll see how I feel when I actually finish this project. The extra cost of going to a professional publisher might be worth it.

I'll have more info about the game when we wrap up the cutting, and if I think of anything else that comes up I'll add to this post, hope this was helpful to others thinking about doing the same thing someday.

Nestalawe
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Making a small printrun with Ellison Die and OvernightPrints

Great info ensor! Good luck with the next batch, and it would be great to see some photos of how the cards turned out!

Nestalawe'

VeritasGames
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Making a small printrun with Ellison Die and OvernightPrints

Some points of note. First, check regularly at Overnight Prints. They have various promotional offers seasonally, it seems, and you can get some really slashed prices when things are on sale. If they have free shipping for big orders, that's probably a new kind of promotion.

Next, other postcard printers can print on 3.5 x 5 or 5 x 7 cards. Those are awesome to use, because you can have a finishing service split the cards in half (3.5 x 5) or into fourths (5 x 7) and then you can perfect poker-sized cards with square corners.

If you get 4 x 6 or 5 x 8 cards then you need some extra cuts made.

For under $200.00 you can buy a Lassco corner rounder with a 1/8 inch radius blade and round the cards in a few hours.

I think if you have more cash than labor, this is the best route for finishing your cards. They'll look more professional, more consistent, and you'll have very little hassle.

Overnight Prints has some other problems associated with them. First, some of their upload technology only works with VERY precisely formatted PDFs, etc. and breaks with anything else put into it, making it reject some PDFs.

Regarding color correction -- you'll get the best color from a printer that requires and uses CMYK color space images. Overnight Prints, if memory serves, requests RGB images. Which means there's automatic color shift when the conversion from RGB to CMYK happens. That said, printers that are entirely automated do the worst color matching, but have the lowest costs, as a general rule. Almost all the people with the best short run costs have expensive "digital offset" printers, that print with actual offset inks, but setup things and run with digital setup.

For ad cards we did for the GAMA Trade Show the printer I used charged more than some of the other postcard printers, but was still a digital offset printer. They came to our office THREE times (for a $15 extra charge) to deliver a proof, to pick up the proof to color match against it, and then to deliver the 2000 mini-poster ad cards we did. That's service. You pay for it, but it's often worth it.

At Overnight Prints I would probably just print a short sample run to color check and then print the main run. After you do a run or two with them you probably can guess at the color corrections to do. I have samples from them, but I haven't used them.

Regarding stock quality, the 14 point C2S with the UV coat that you can get from Overnight Prints is substantially better than you get from most postcard printers and is a fine substitution for true playing card stock if you are on a budget.

If you use an Ellison die, you can get a poker-sized die. Additionally, if you custom request it, they can build things into the die (according to them) to help them line up things. You REALLY need to buy a custom die or work up some sort of work around with an Ellison die cutter, because they are built to cut out decorative shapes which you then hand decorate. They are not typically designed for precision cutting of pre-printed stocks. With any kind of die cutting machine you REALLY want to have a common black border around the cards instead of a full bleed to the edge of the cutting lines. Slight misalignment is more likely to be hidden that way.

Hope that helps.

Glad you found some useful information on our website. Thanks for mentioning it. The more people that hear about it the better. I view the site as a good reference site for people who regularly read BGDF.

If you have requests for additional information to be added to pre-existing articles, or if you have ideas for more articles, drop me a line.

Also, if I should break up some of this information (in this article) and add it to the articles and glossary entries that already exist on the website, please chime in. I don't know if this is redundant, or if this type of information is useful to folks.

Cheers

Dralius
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Re: Making a small printrun with Ellison Die and OvernightPr

ensor wrote:
I should have between 100-200 copies. I thought some of what I've learned might be of help to others here.

You probably are already planning on it but make sure you bring several copies to Protospiel to show off. Many of us are interested in alternative ways to do short run products. This goes double for me when it comes to card games. I have a project or two that I might choose to do myself if it is both economical in materials and time.

IngredientX
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Making a small printrun with Ellison Die and OvernightPrints

Ever since I read about the Ellison die cutter, I've always been curious about this approach. Thanks for the informative post!

jstahl
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pictures?

Any chance you could take some pics of the process, templates and equipment?

Sound like a great process...

Thanks,
Jeph

VeritasGames
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Re: Making a small printrun with Ellison Die and OvernightPr

ensor wrote:
The extra cost of going to a professional publisher might be worth it.

By the way, it's worth noting that getting someone to print 100 copies of something is really gonna be a chore. 500 to 1000 copies and you might get a decent price point. Most people who actually have the dies to make playing cards want to run 500 copies of a deck (overseas) or 3000 (domestically).

Even if you print 500 copies, it ain't gonna be cheap. You have to print in the multiple thousands to get a decent price point.

The advantage of traditional printing is that you have more control over the process.

I have developed a way to chain together pre-existing equipment on the market and special packaging materials to crank out games on an entirely Print On Demand (POD) basis. My business partners are looking for startup capital right now, because the startup costs are likely to be $90,000 US. The speed of production looks like it will be quite high and should be able to produce production grade products. You may hear more from me on this in about 12 months if we raise the appropriate funding.

ensor
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Making a small printrun with Ellison Die and OvernightPrints

Quote:
Other postcard printers can print on 3.5 x 5 or 5 x 7 cards. Those are awesome to use, because you can have a finishing service split the cards in half (3.5 x 5) or into fourths (5 x 7) and then you can perfect poker-sized cards with square corners.

That might be easier than the die cutting, but make sure to get samples from different print runs to check their tolerances, or you could get 3.6x5 on one run and 3.4x5.1 on another which would make good shuffling near impossible.

Quote:
It's worth noting that getting someone to print 100 copies of something is really gonna be a chore. 500 to 1000 copies and you might get a decent price point. Most people who actually have the dies to make playing cards want to run 500 copies of a deck (overseas) or 3000 (domestically).

I agree. The only place I could find to do professional printing of 100 copies in the US is Card Press ( http://card-press.com/Custom_card_games.htm ) which has a rather confusing website, and the prices are much higher per deck than I was willing to spend.

Quote:
Any chance you could take some pics of the process, templates and equipment?

That's a great idea, I'll get out the digital camera this weekend and try to capture how things go together.

Quote:
You probably are already planning on it but make sure you bring several copies to Protospiel to show off. Many of us are interested in alternative ways to do short run products. This goes double for me when it comes to card games. I have a project or two that I might choose to do myself if it is both economical in materials and time.

Yes, thanks for reminding me, I'll definitely have copies for Protospiel. I think it's economical in materials, all total it should be about $3 for a deck of 28 cards + box + rules, pretty good for such a small number of copies. As for time, I'll let you know when I finish making the games. ;) I'm going to make them all at once, but it might be easier to make them in an as-needed framework.

I'll try to get some pictures posted next week, sometimes it takes a while to remember and download them from the camera.

nickdanger
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Making a small printrun with Ellison Die and OvernightPrints

I know that not many people have access to a laser engraver, but just for completeness sake I wanted to mention that a laser engraver can slice through card stock handily, quickly, and accurately - allowing for nine full sized poker cards from an 8.5 x 11 sheet.

Plus they come in very handy for making various prototyping parts.

Worth making friends with someone who works in a trophy shop!

--
Nick

VeritasGames
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Making a small printrun with Ellison Die and OvernightPrints

ensor wrote:

That might be easier than the die cutting, but make sure to get samples from different print runs to check their tolerances, or you could get 3.6x5 on one run and 3.4x5.1 on another which would make good shuffling near impossible.

That's an awesome observation. A friend of mine prints at 4" x 6" and cuts them down into two 2.5" x 3.5" cards and then sends them through a Lassco corner rounder.

Oracle
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Making a small printrun with Ellison Die and OvernightPrints

nickdanger wrote:
I know that not many people have access to a laser engraver, but just for completeness sake I wanted to mention that a laser engraver can slice through card stock handily, quickly, and accurately - allowing for nine full sized poker cards from an 8.5 x 11 sheet.

Plus they come in very handy for making various prototyping parts.

Worth making friends with someone who works in a trophy shop!

Did you ever try cutting card stock then? When we talked about it earlier I think you were woried the laser would just ignite the card stock.

I'm still trying to convince myself to buy one and make back the cost selling custom parts on ebay, but $13,000 is a pretty big gamble even if it is tax deductible.

nickdanger
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Making a small printrun with Ellison Die and OvernightPrints

Yeah, I have played around quite a bit with cutting out card stock. I think the thing that really made a difference is using what they call a cutting table which is basically a honeycombed table. Using this there is no heat build up on the table itself and it slices through card stock leaving the medium unharmed.

It's really quite nice as you can slice the cards with radius so you don't have to worry about cutting the corners later. Cuts out 9 poker sized cards in about 15 seconds.

Still, I can't say it's worth 13K just for that purpose!

FastLearner
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Making a small printrun with Ellison Die and OvernightPrints

One consideration with low-cost press runs like these postcard shops: the color is very likely to vary from one print run to the next, which could be a problem for card backs (or even fronts, though cards are especially sensitive to unmatchd backs).

Places like this usually use "gang run" printing, which is to say that your job is printed on a press sheet with many other jobs, to help spread the cost around. Once the press is running, the techs will make adjustments to the overall color of the sheet in order to try to get the best possible balance. However, if one client on the run has, for example, skin tones in their artwork, the techs will likely do some balancing to try to make the skin tones look good (notoriously the most touchy part of printing). When you receive your postcards, it's likely you won't see much of a problem, if any.

However, in the next run there might be some other skin tones to try to balance out. Maybe last time they kicked the magenta up just a bit and dropped the cyan, but this time they need to cut back the magenta and kick up the yellow to make the skin look good. Even though both times you may have specified the predominiant card back color like C40 M60 Y10 K10, the first time you actually got C37 M62 Y10 K10 and the second time you got C40 M57 Y13 K10. While these two don't seem a lot different numerically, that 3% swing in cyan and yellow and the 5% swing in magenta will produce quite noticeably different colors.

Now if you're printing, say, 30 different postcards then your projects may well gang with themselves and you may not see the trouble, but odds are that somewhere in that run others' print jobs will be on your sheet and the color will be adjusted on-press.

Worse, and even more likely, is if you include different quantities in different publishing runs. For example, if you have a deck where there are 4 each of 10 cards and 2 each of 6 cards, you might do a run of 400 each of the 10 and 400 each of the 6 because the cost difference means you'll hope to use the extra 6ers in a second publishing run (and not have to print the 6ers then). Odds are very high that the extra cards won't match the next print run.

I may have over-explained, but hopefully you get the idea. There is some real risk involved, and you can be sure that the company won't guarantee exact color matches from one print run to the next, unlike if you had the whole press sheet to yourself in a full-blown publishing run.

-- Matthew

Oracle
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Making a small printrun with Ellison Die and OvernightPrints

nickdanger wrote:
Still, I can't say it's worth 13K just for that purpose!

Yeah that's not even close to justifying the cost.

I could make cardboard and plexiglass hexes to sell in the proto store, but I don't think that would go very far to paying for the machine either.

It's too bad I can't rent time on one at a place like Kinkos.

----

Also Matthew has an excellent point. There's commercial games like Chez Geek where there was a slight color difference from the first edition to the expansions, and the player base was very vocally upset.

ensor
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Making a small printrun with Ellison Die and OvernightPrints

Good points about the colors, Matthew. Overnightprints.com explicitly says they can't do color matching between print runs, so it's something to watch out for when using this method. I'm doing my deck in two batches, because they're really subdecks that don't have to match amongst the different runs, so if the color changes slightly, I won't even know.

I took some pictures the last time we cut out more cards, they're posted at http://www.goadrich.com/photos/2006april (along with other pictures of our easter dinner, and my wife's pictures of a local horse show near the bottom of the page). The room lighting was weird and most pictures came out yellow tinted, but I tried to fix them up with some photoshop level adjustment.

And Nick, that laser engraver sounds so cool and efficient, I'm jealous.

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