Experimenting with Game Design and 3D Printing

A few days before the Christmas holiday break, Dave Gawron, part of the Madhouse film/animation crew and rising star of game design, wanted to debut his newest game, “Knucker.” It was a game that he and his brother-in-law came up with during Thanksgiving dinner. Knucker, belonging to the self-defined “real-time roller” category, is a dice game named after a mythical water dragon that would torment villagers in England.

As the crew gathered ’round, Dave presented a grocery bag filled with wooden blocks, dice, and a deck of cards. His prototype of the game was a hand-drawn dragon, in four sections, taped to four of the blocks. After explaining the objectives and rules of the game, the first public round of Knucker was underway.

The game was a hit and several staffers wanted in on the action. Its popularity got Dave thinking about how the game could be improved. Since the objective of Knucker is to be the first player to build a kingdom—consisting of land, a castle, and a throne—he believed a set of interlocking pieces that players could assemble throughout the game would make the game more fun and interesting.

Since he’s adept at 3D modeling, he had already begun drafting ideas for game pieces. And so Andrew Menich, one of the Madhouse interactive designers, decided to help Dave out with the design and crafting of the game pieces using his 3D printer.


One of the joys (and pains) of consumer-grade 3D printers is the endless fine-tuning and calibration required to achieve a decent print. They are often difficult to calibrate because of the multitude of variables involved. At its core, the printer’s job is to extrude filament at high temperatures evenly and precisely at fractions of a millimeter. A lot can go wrong. The ultimate challenge, and perhaps the primary factor in bad prints, is an uneven printing surface. The print surface must be perfectly spaced, or “trammed,” from the nozzle all the way around to achieve a high quality print—a near impossible task on cheaper 3D printers.

After about six hours of general assembly and four more hours of test prints and fine-tuning, it was time to print the first Knucker piece. The castle came first. A slightly lower quality print setting was chosen to get a feel for size, texture, etc. At .2mm layer height and 20% infill, the print took around seven hours, but it was nearly perfect. Next, a land piece was printed to test how well it fit into the castle walls. Using the previous print settings, the section of land was printed, but something just wasn’t right. It appeared that the print had collapsed on itself, but Dave confirmed that it was exactly as he had modeled.

First castle and land
First castle and land

A major lesson was learned printing the land piece: lower-poly models look better and print faster. The initial land piece had a lot of detail, but little vertical variation. Since it wasn’t printed with a higher-quality layer height setting, the details didn’t exactly translate and it ended up looking like a blob.

With the second iteration of the land piece, Dave made the mountains higher and pushed them closer to the edges. It was also scaled down slightly, giving it enough room to fit within the castle walls. Increasing the print quality resulted in a realistic-looking landscape of mountains and valleys. The inherit visibility of print layers from a Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) printer resulted in the appearance of flow banding that earthly rock formations possess.


The throne piece is the game-winner, so it had to be exceptional. As the kingdom is completed, the throne is placed on top of the land and castle. This is achieved by inserting the base of the throne into the battlements of the castle. The battlements had a clearance of about two millimeters, so it had to be nearly perfect. Surprisingly, the throne fit perfectly into the castle piece with a satisfying click.

Original throne piece
Original throne piece
Second throne - low detail test
Second throne - low detail test

After having a few prints completed, Dave went back and revised the castle piece.


Polylactic Acid (PLA) was used as the filament, which is available in almost any color, including gold, marble, and glow-in-the-dark filament. It’s typically sold in one kg spools and ranges between $20 to $40, but can easily reach beyond $100 for a single spool. It was decided to stick with the cheaper stuff for prototyping, but finalized prints will utilize something more exciting like gold, marble, or wood-filled filament.

Designing and printing Knucker pieces is still a work in progress as well as fine-tuning the printer. The next step will be to design and iterate over the dragon, a score counter, and some additional board pieces.