Panda Game Manufacturing Are The Open Secret of Board Game Design

26 March 2024
If your shelf is full of board games, you're bound to have come across Panda Games before – but you may never know it. The hugely successful board game manufacturers, with their own factory in China, are the go-to for designers across the industry, from Oath to Blood on the Clocktower. We catch up with them about making board games.

What do games like Anachrony, Sleeping Gods, Blood on the Clocktower, Oath, Project L, Moonrakers, Merchants of the Dark Road, Root, and hundreds of others have in common? They’re all made through the same manufacturing company – say hello to Panda Games Manufacturing.

Who are Panda Game Manufacturing?

When the call connected with Tyler Lipchin, a Prepass Specialist (or, as he described himself at one point during the call, a UK Panda) for Panda Game Manufacturing, it was impossible not to immediately look at the shelf of games behind him. Giant Panda Meeple aside (yes, I want one, no, I don’t believe they’re for sale), it was an enviable collection. General Orders, 7th Continent, Apiary, Stuffed Fables, Project L, Sleeping Gods, Dead of Winter, were visible in just the first few cubes of the standard board game shelf. Big, fun, shelf hogging games, that are dotted across thousands of our own shelves. Given, it turns out, that all of them were manufactured by Panda Games Manufacturing, it’s no wonder he describes them as the biggest, most well-known game manufacturers in the world.

Sleeping Gods image, a small painted boat on a game board sea.

“We specialize a lot in bespoke components, unique components, any kind of very challenging manufacturing, restrictions or issues, or super creative ideas that just no one else can really do.” He says, when I comment something to that effect. “We thrive on that kind of work. So you’ll see quite a lot of unique projects that Panda’s completed and a lot of games with a really, really exceptional table presence.”

Game designers approach Panda Games Manufacturing for a number of reasons, and a chunk of that will be their prevalence. “We’ve been in the industry for 16 years.” Lipchen explains of the Canadian-based company. “Personally, my biggest clients are multinational corporations. The smallest client I ever had was two guys from high school, and they made a game as a project. They crowdfunded it after it became good. Games can be as small as a single deck of cards, all the way up to like Eclipse, or Pandemic Legacy. It’s a very, very broad range.”

Gold coloured metal tokens from the board game Sleeping Gods

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How does a board game get made?

“When you start working with Panda, you’ll be assigned a project manager like myself. And we will be with you through the entire process. We will consult with you on your game’s requirements and your specifications. We will be with you every step of the way, checking your files personally. We’ll be going through the pre-production process, and sampling, all the way through mass production and then helping assist you with shipping as well.

“Every day is different. Every client is different. Everyone has different requirements. Every game is different, right? No two games on my shelf are kind of even remotely close to being the same, in specifications, or in theme or manufacturing requirements. So it makes the job interesting and fun every day.”

Board Game Design to Table

“If you wake up and you have an idea for a game, don’t reach out to a manufacturer and ask to quote it right away.” Lipchen laughs, when we talk about the early stages of game development. “I usually recommend to wait till you’re kind of in beta testing.

“You know you’re going to need cards. You may not know if you need 60 cards or 65 cards. You might not know the size of your box yet, but you know you have to have a board. You know the board has to fit this many cards and this many pieces on it. Maybe you’re thinking of cardboard standees or wooden pieces. Maybe you have a prototype at home –  just having your prototype quoted in mass production form is super helpful at that stage. And then you can start to work on pricing.

Colourful spaceship components seemingly flying together, from Moonraker the Board Game

“I often recommend to find your MVP, your minimum viable product. And that is the minimum requirement to make your game what you want it to be. And that doesn’t mean it has to be cardboard standees, and no game board and just cards. Whatever makes your game, your game is your MVP. So, if you want to make a miniatures game and that’s important to you and that’s part of your minimum viable product, then let’s quote custom minis. If custom dice are necessary for gameplay, then custom dice will become part of your MVP. Then, let’s talk about the fun stretch goals.”

From there, Panda Game Manufacturing seem to go above and beyond. Far from expecting you to know and make decisions, whether you’re a first-time designer and unsure of the best options for you, or a multiple game designer who’s an old hand at Kickstarter, if you’ve got a digital prototype, they want to play it.

“The more I know about your game, the more I know the functionality of the components, the better I can advise you and recommend materials and solutions. I love this mechanic, but it’s so hard to keep track of this resource, what can we do? Maybe we turn those tokens into dials and these dials can go here on your player board for cheaper than tokens. There’s just these things that maybe you’re not really aware of. That is worth a consultation to just brainstorm, shoot back and forth, to find out what’s going to work best for you and for your game. Every game is unique. The mechanisms are unique, or at least the combination of mechanisms and the systems you’ve created are going to be unique. I think having that very bespoke approach to the manufacturing process is necessary to find out what’s going to work best for you.”

A small figure of a carriage, from Merchants of the Dark Road, a board game made by Panda Game Manufacturing

Lipchen smatters examples of advice throughout the interview, in a way that shows he really knows what he’s talking about – and in a way that makes you start to question the choices made about the games you own. Does this have a plastic insert to protect the cards? Is this a thicker card stock on a denser colour because of the social deduction element? Was this layout specifically to protect that component in the middle?

The Panda Game Manufacturing Process

What follows the initial round of decisions, or the crowdfunding campaign, is a lot of back and forth. If there are different versions, it’s making sure that all components are accounted for and altered as needed. Files are checked in-house, checklists completed by all parties and at multiple checkpoints along the way, before samples begin being sent. All of which becomes a far more streamlined process than you’d expect, as far from concerns of timezones and language barriers, Panda Game Manufacturing own their own factory in China, and the customer facing side work remotely across the world. If there’s any tinkering to be done, it’s all completed before a Mass Production Copy is created (the second full version of the game, but made using the same method the final version would be), and sent to the creator.

“I recommend filming the unboxing as you do it. If you want to change anything at that point, it would be costly because we’ve already produced everything – so hopefully with all the checks we’ve done prior, there’s nothing left to change – but the one thing we can change is the assembly. Film your unboxing, in case you forget how they were stacked. If you want to put the rule book on top, or the game board on top, that can be changed at this point. If it looks good, and you sign it off, then we go into final assembly.”

A number of alien miniatures from Anachrony

Over the next two months or so whilst the game is being created, a shipping plan is made, usually delivering to a fulfilment centre like GamesQuest, before it makes its way to your shelf.

There’s an air of enthusiasm for board games that feels like it can’t be maintained across the whole company, but the consultative, enthusiastic and industry aware approach seems to be at every touch point. Even their website offers an early estimate building tool (despite having no concept of a game, I gleefully made decisions for a tarot sized deck of cards and a magnetic close box), that knows its audience. Do I know what 365mm x 300mm x 98mm is off the top of my head? Absolutely not. But that’s okay, because Panda Game Manufacturing immediately tells me that’s the size of Scythe. Ah, too big for my imaginary game, best go down to one the size of Wingspan.

Whilst you’d hope that this ethos was at the heart of manufacturing, when we’re talking about creating a game in factories thousands of miles away, it’s not unsurprising a leap to assume it would be based on profit margins and simply getting the job done. You could make components based on specifications whether it works or not, and leave it at that, but Panda Game Manufacturing don’t do that. Even bonkers components don’t phase them.

Orange meeples surround a white suspicious looking meeple, all look like woodland creatures – from Root, the board game

Cool Board Game Components?

“Interesting manufacturing challenges, like UX or UI problems to solve, are the best part of the job” Lipchen says.

It’s impossible to resist asking which components or challenges stand out as the best, and after some deliberation, I C E, a game crowdfunded in June 2023, was chosen, that sees you lead archaeologists to uncover artefacts.

“That’s a six-layer magnetic connecting board, which was unheard of.” Lipchen explains. “It was super ambitious, but it was also very essential to the gameplay, which is cool. It is so unique that the game wouldn’t work without it, which is the best kind of thing. It’s not just a gimmick, you’re digging through tiles, digging through the ice and it’s very thematic and mechanical.” The game was displayed prominently on the top of the shelf throughout the call, and was also raised as a favourite for artwork too.

“We also did one of the most unique components with The Emerald Flame, which is like an escape room in a box. This has just a crazy amount of crazy components. I don’t want to spoil too many, but I believe there’s a bath bomb in here, which is one of the craziest components we’ve ever done. That was quite a feat of very unique components and a varied amount of materials for sure.”

Whilst many of us will never use Panda Game Manufacturing ourselves, as players over designers, we’ll certainly be keeping eyes peeled for that Panda logo or update where we can, and wondering just how many of our games were once in Panda’s capable hands… 


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