Friday, June 4, 2010

Manufacturing in China - Dan Tribbles GTS09 talk

At the recommendation of reader Hulken, I'm listening to this show: GTS 09: Getting the most out of your Chinese manufacturer. This is great stuff.

The speaker is Dan Tibbles, CEO, designer, and producer from Bucephalus Games (BGG profile here).

Some interesting points (I'm taking notes as I go):

Initial contact
  • He suggests requesting domestic game publishers for recommendations for factories
  • There are hundreds of thousands of printing companies in China, but very few of them are able to make quality cards and boards
  • Try for three different factories, and send each of them a sample game as close to production quality as you can
  • Boardgames are a somewhat alien concept for the Chinese; they need help understanding what you want
  • You need to be extremely specific about components - e.g. paper weights, coatings, etc. - this is where examples work better
  • You should ask for a quote and a sample; they'll make free samples, but you need to pay for shipping
Choosing a company and working with them
  • Quality is extremely variable, and prices reflect this quality for the most part
  • Get the pricing broken down by component, not for the whole thing
  • Cross-cultural communication is very difficult; use examples (actual samples) instead of words
  • UPS to China and back is $100-$200
  • They're willing to go through several iterations back and forth
  • New publishing companies - pay half of production run up front, plus set-up charges (tools, molds, plates, etc.)
    • Card sheet setup charge = $300
    • Game board setup charge = $400
    • Plastic figure from mold = $3000-4000 minimum, can get very large; each figure is very cheap
    • Metal figure mold = $800, but each figure is expensive
  • Part-time, hobbyist publisher (like me) should aim for 2000-2500 games starting print run
  • Big push, with marketing money, no more than 5000 copies
  • Minimum would be 1000-2000 for Chinese printing
  • The reason there's the big drop in price is that there's a bunch of waste - maybe 1,000 copies are printed and thrown away before the colors are right, the press is ready, etc. So, your costs reflect these extra wasted materials.
  • Blind rules testing is important - get readers to check your rules out for clarity
  • Files need to be in great shape before sending - these turn into print proofs, which can cost several hundred dollars; they get sent back and forth
  • Colors are never going to be perfect - often close, but not perfect; three iterations of back and forth sending is about the limit for this being useful
  • It takes 30-60 days to get everything right before production, and then there's production and shipping; four months is a reasonable smooth timeline with few problems.
  • Files should be totally flattened (i.e., no separate layers); no fonts, no stuff that can be moved or edited; everything should be graphical rather than text or font-based
  • Make all changes yourself; don't request that they make edits, since the words and grammar can be messed up
  • Factories should have Illustrator, Quark, Photoshop; file format isn't super-important, but make sure it's flattened.
Payment and production
  • Payment - send purchase order over to factory; shouldn't be more than 50% up front; 30% up front is also good. They'll expect the balance when the product ships - not when it arrives.
  • You will send payment by wire transfer to their bank account
  • With lots of pieces, some may be outsourced; more complex means more time in production
  • Tip - you should request to see and approve the first few units of the production run - "top of production" samples - as a final proof
  • As a small, new customer, you will have very low status; the factory will prioritize other people and other projects; this can take lots of time
  • Don't be in a hurry; be willing to use slow shipping for proofs and 
  • Quality control for whole run is hard to do; you can do it in person, or you can hire somebody to do it, but it's difficult for small new companies
  • Big wood pieces (e.g. gameboards, large parts) have the most variation, so they're the biggest concern - not little pieces, which are generally OK.
  • He's worked with maybe 60 companies over there, but would only work with about 10 of them again.
Shipping and Customs
  • Factories don't arrange for shipping - it's up to you
    • Air shipping - very expensive; maybe $6 per game; 4-7 days
    • Ocean shipping - two options
      • LCL - Limited container load - you get a little piece of a container, shared with others
      • FCL - Full container load - you rent the whole container - but it doesn't matter how full it is - not charged by weight, just volume
      • 20' container is 1/2 as much by LCL
      • 40' container is 1/2 as much per game as 20' (does this make sense?)
      • Might still be cheaper to get a 20' container than go LCL
      • Damage rate might be 2%, but more if fragile, and more if they are susceptible to water damage - e.g. wood parts expanding, warping from humidity
  • Every single game should be shrink-wrapped individually
  • Open at least 5% of the run to see if there are problems; more if there look to be issues
  • It can be worth shopping around to get a good rate on a container - the rates will be extremely variable; individual discounts can be big, and you can play the companies off of each other
  • Examples:
    • 20' container from China to the West Coast of US - $1800-2200
    • 40' container from China - $3000
    • Depends on fuel
    • Extra charges - taxes, paperwork, government fees, fuel surcharge
    • They can probably give you an estimate for the whole shipment except for import duties
    • Shipping company can handle transport within the US too - can go on trains or trucks
  • Shipping - China to the U.S. West Coast - 2-3 weeks, plus another week of factory to ship, plus time to go through customs in U.S.
  • Customs can be nearly nothing, not even inspected, or it can be a detailed search, but you have no real control. If you do get inspected, it will cost you a few hundred dollars a day for storage, and it may take several days.
  • Good paperwork will help - everything from the factory should have a value included; shipping company can help with this.
  • Wood products can include formaldehyde, so wood components (especially plywood) can give you problems
  • Customs bond - required to go through customs - this is either $500/year, or $200-300 per container shipped
  • Timing is tricky - you can't pay until it clears customs, but you don't know when that will be, and you pay for every day of storage, so you want to pay as fast as possible so you don't pay for needless storage
Final tips:
  • Tip #1: Low prices mean low quality; there aren't many companies that rip people off now, but quality will vary
  • Tip #2: Proofs won't look like production run, since they're done on different machines. Things will be wrong; you need to point these out, and check again in the top-of-production sample. This can be pretty major stuff; e.g. game board, cards not printed correctly or cut correctly as they will be on final production run.
  • Tip #3: English won't always be good - keep asking until you understand; you won't offend them as long as you're talking business.
  • Tip #4: They are 9-10 hours from us; their e-mails will come in the evening U.S. time.
  • Tip #5: You should be able to save 30-70% even with shipping; more on stuff that requires lots of manpower
Wow, that was one of the most useful things I've listened to. Very good stuff, lots of questions answered. I'd recommend it to anybody.

Update:  These are available in non-iTunes format at - the China one is here - thanks to commenter Eric Hanuise for the link.


  1. Can't get to the podcast - you apparently need itunes to downlod it, and there's no itunes for linux so i'm SOL.
    Could you provide a link to a mp3 version somewhere ?
    Thanks a lot in advance!

  2. ah nevermind, I found it trough google :
    amazing source of info, indeed!

  3. Thanks for the link - I've updated the post.

  4. Hehe looks like the podcast was usefull to more than you ^^
    I am curently looking to selfpublish a game of my own also. So I have bin studying up on everything I can find on the web for the last 6 months or so. Reading al sorts of blogs and litening on the GAMA podcasts. Unfortunetly most of the podcasts are of no help exept the "china" one. Shur ethere is some smal nice things you can use in some of the "marketing" once but those are targeted to storowners, and it just hapend some of the stuf you can use also.

    I saw that you have bin in contact with the factory Tasty used for his games. And yes they have had some isues with moistur, I know there have bin complains of warped tiles. I do not know how suseptibol a cardgame and manual would be to moistur. Also it is hard to say if the games where moist when they wraped them or if moistur have gotten in during the shiping. If it is the first you can probobly just tell them to be extra carfull and let it dry a litle extra. But the later then I guess there is nothing to do.

    But also cards ar usualy shrikwraped as a gamepice also and this might protect them some more than ordinary cardboard tiles that ar in sheets. But then again youre guess is as good as mine here...

  5. Yeah, it's hard to know how big an issue the moisture would be, or whether it's widespread or just something that a couple of people have experienced.

    I have to say, hearing about these troubles, and hearing about all the back-and-forth you need to do with the Chinese factories, I am more and more nervous about taking this on. I'll have to look hard at how much money I can save - it will have to be significant.

  6. Yes ofcors... The moisture is one of those things that is hard to asses. Also the games that ar damaged con most often be used as sparparts. And I do not know to what extent you have to be able (or expected to) suply people with spareparts that ither brake or get last. Well in youre case where it is onley cards then maby not to sutch a big extent. But I do think the savings will be "big enough". May even so big that you might want to reconsider using a display box insted of a normal toch box (thats what i think youre leaning to right?).

    But still also, how big of an issu is moistur to onley cards? I do not know to what degre the games ar moist... I Talked to Tasty about this and he said the games where moist when they packaged them from the factory and he did not think putting the smal bags of "do not eat" in them would have helped, al tho I am of a difrent opinion. I do not se how the games already being moist or the cames becoming moist would be an issu to the "do not eat" bags (I cant recal whats there name =)

  7. I'm in the same process too, sourcing manufacturers for the first game I'll publish.
    Sourcing to Asia means cheaper printing/mfg cost, however I'd never do it without
    - A good insurance policy on the goods from asia factory doors to my premises (which is not included in the prices they give you)
    - A price difference of at least 40% from a domestic printer (I live in europe, so my options are a bit different than in the US.)

    If going for a cheaper cost eventually means you end up with unsellable goods, or a total cost that is higher than domestic, it doesn't make much sense.