Neo-Tokyo is about to extrude

Adventures in 3D Printing tokens for the game Godzilla: Tokyo Clash

An assortment of custom-made tokens for the board game Godzilla: Tokyo Clash

Two unexpected side-effects of this extended shelter-in-place order: there’s more time for playing board games, and 3D printing is more practical since I’ve been at home to keep an eye long-running prints. Taken together, it’s been the perfect opportunity for a project to re-learn Blender and get more experience with 3D printing. (Which up until now, has seemed like more of a time investment than it was worth, unless it was for a very special project).

One pleasant surprise of the past couple of months has been discovering the game Godzilla: Tokyo Clash, published by Funko and designed by Prospero Hall. We first heard about it via a Watch It Played video, and before we even got to the ending, we’d already decided it was a must-buy. After some initial confusion over the rules — almost entirely the result of my assuming the game was more complicated than it actually is — we were able to enjoy it as a light-to-medium-weight beat-em-up game of kaiju flinging tanks and buildings into each other, and flinging each other into buildings. Giving each kaiju a mostly-individualized deck of cards with special powers adds just enough complexity and varies the pacing. A game really does play out like the last 20 minutes of a Godzilla movie, with monsters maneuvering into place and then unleashing a barrage of wrestling moves combined with atomic breath and then clubbing their opponent with a train car.

(Incidentally: Prospero Hall has been killing it with board game designs lately. They’re a Seattle-based design house that seems to focus on making licensed games that don’t feel like uninspired cash grabs. Disney Villainous is more interesting than a Disney-licensed game needs to be, their Choose Your Own Adventure games are a nostalgic take on escape room games, and the result is a ton of light-to-medium-weight games that are mass market enough to sell at Target, but interesting enough to actually get more people into the hobby. Plus their graphic design is flawless throughout. Anybody still just publishing yet another re-skinned version of Clue or Monopoly should be embarrassed).

Tokyo Clash has a 1960s Japanese movie poster aesthetic that is just perfect, and it comes with detailed well-painted miniatures of the four playable kaiju. There are also some simple but well-themed miniatures for the “large buildings” you can fling your opponents into. However, the game uses cardboard tokens for everything else. They’re fine, but they kind of undercut the atmosphere of seeing these monsters marching around a city, tossing things at each other. I decided to use it as an excuse to re-re-re-learn Blender — every time I dive back into the software to model something, I forget everything about how to use it within a month — and make 3D-printed replacements.

The most plentiful tokens are the small buildings that are scattered around the modular city map to give a quick energy boost to the kaiju destroying them. (They also trigger the ending of the game, in a pretty clever mechanic that limits the game length both to how much destruction is being caused and how much energy is left on the board). I started with those since they’re the easiest to model, and I figured they’d be a good basic test of the printer’s ability to preserve details in small objects.

The buildings are, intentionally, not much more than simple cubes. But they were a perfect re-introduction to Blender modeling, and a good test of how fine detail the printer will support. I’d rate it as good but not mind-blowing, with the caveat that for all of these, I used very cheap PLA filament that’s been sitting unused in a box for almost two years. It also suggested that it’d be fun to make a dice game where you’re rolling buildings, if that doesn’t already exist.

For anyone curious, the printer I got is the Monoprice Voxel, after reading and watching some very positive reviews for it online. (And before watching some much less effusive reviews elsewhere online). My first 3D printer was from Monoprice, and it was a good entry point for someone curious about printing but not willing to spend a ton of money to try it out. For the Voxel, I’d ultimately agree with the Tom’s Hardware Guide review, which says that it’s a great choice for beginners and casual users. I wanted something that was as close to plug-and-play as possible, and that’s exactly what this printer delivers. You can get better print quality and more extensibility for cheaper, but for me, the convenience and ease of use means that I’m getting more use out of it already. Just being able to start prints over WiFi, instead of having to transfer them with a USB stick or SD card, means that I’ve done more with this printer in a couple of weeks than I did in 2 years of owning my older one.

Next up: the vehicles. I started with the UFOs, since they’re trivial to make in a 3D modeling application. Here’s where I was reminded how I’m still very much a beginner when it comes to 3D printing, since it took a ton of trial-and-error to get a decent print of such a simple model. With this combination of printer & filament — and I suspect a recurring problem in FDM 3D printing in general — the problem was the supports required to hold up the underside of the saucer. With all of these prints, the supports would never come off cleanly, leaving the surface of anything facing the print bed all scarred and jacked up.

The only “solution” I could find was to just minimize the need for supports in the first place. With the UFOs, I ended up printing each saucer and pedestal as separate objects, hoping that the angles were shallow enough that it could print without supports. I was very pleased with my cleverness when I saw that the saucers printed out mostly fine. I was less pleased when I realized they’d be impossible to glue on to the pedestals because I hadn’t made a hole in the bottom of each one. It’s stuff like this that shows the importance of convenience with a printer, because I can almost guarantee that I wouldn’t have had the patience to do this much iteration otherwise.

For the tank, I had to actually do a little bit of research, since I’m completely ignorant of military history and largely ignorant of Toho cinematic history. If anyone’s curious, the tanks used in the early movies are called Type 61 tanks. Fortunately, I was able to get away with my reliable still-not-very-good-at-3D-modeling trick: just put a bunch of small cubes and cylinders on the outside to make it look like mechanical detail. They were printed small enough — and the models across the board are simple enough — that I think it mostly works. Again, supports were an issue, especially with that long and thin tank barrel. I ended up having to print them vertically, with only the back end of the tank touching the build plate.

The fighter jets (an F-86 Sabre, but to be honest I don’t know what distinguishes the different models from the ones used by the Japanese defense force) meant I’d have to graduate to more “advanced beginner” modeling, with reference photos and figuring out how subsurface modifiers work. I was happy that I was able to get the basic shape looking close to accurate (eventually), but realized that I couldn’t see any details I could add like I did with the tank. Apart from the bands around the cockpit, I couldn’t find any room for details to make it look more like a “professional” miniature.

The jets also required several iterations — I remembered to put a hole in the bottom for the pedestal, but kept having to scale up the tail fins and other small parts to keep them from being torn off when I tried to remove the support material. I eventually ended up printing them upright as well, with only their tails touching the build plate, and a thin line of supports touching the back of each wing. Even after seeing that work in person, I still say that that’s completely unintuitive, and I never, ever would’ve expected it to be the best way to get a clean print.

Incidentally, the reason I wanted the “flying” models to have pedestals wasn’t just for looks. In the game, the buildings and vehicles have an energy point value associated with them, which is printed on the underside of the cardboard tokens. I’d originally intended to have the game’s cardboard tokens fit into the undersides of my models, like the game does with the included large building models, but they would have to be too large and require more precise measuring than I had the patience for.

One unexpected side effect of this whole project was that I got to see what Godzilla fandom on the internet looks like. To be honest, my only experience with the original Godzilla movies is seeing the MST3K versions, and the American Raymond Burr-starring version of Gojira. The rest I only know through decades of cultural diffusion.

This board game definitely rewards fans of the movies, with references and in-game events and its overall aesthetic. So I had to look up what the “oxygen destroyer” and the “lightning generator” were, as well as find reference images for all the other vehicles. Gojipedia — the Godzilla wiki — was invaluable for that. And as somebody who can be an obsessive Star Wars fan, it made me happy to be exposed to a level of fandom that I knew almost nothing about.

This model was just another exercise in putting cylinders together and scaling parts of them, but I was pretty pleased with how it came out. It’s also, as it turns out, a torture test for 3D printers, since there’s really no good orientation that doesn’t require a lot of supports or generate a lot of thin strings between sections.

The most difficult models for me to make were the train car and the lightning generator. With the train, it was first a matter of figuring out how much detail could be included on a model this small and have it instantly read as a Japanese commuter train from the 1960s. It’s kind of like pixel art or cartooning in that respect, two other things that I’m not very good at.

The bigger problem was that the slicer (the program that translates a 3D model into something a 3D printer can generate) kept complaining about errors in the model, even though I hadn’t thought I’d done anything particularly weird or challenging in Blender. It had all been simply insetting faces, extruding shapes, and using boolean operations to combine shapes together, but the slicer kept insisting that I was giving it some kind of 5th dimensional object that couldn’t exist in our space. I went through, meticulously re-building most of the faces from their individual vertices in a ridiculously time-consuming process, and it still didn’t work. Eventually I scrapped version one and started over again from scratch, trying to recreate the shape with as few polygons as possible. That was able to print with no errors, although it still had the same issues with supports all along the undercarriage. At some point I’d like to try printing new versions stood vertically, but as soon as I got a successful print for this one, I wanted to move on.

And finally, the lightning generator (aka a cheap Tesla-looking prop on top of an electrical pylon). Surprisingly, there are multiple tutorials on YouTube explaining how to make a pylon in Blender, and it was easy enough to recreate. But I didn’t even attempt to print it, since it created a network of tiny lines that looked great for in-game use, but would’ve been far too delicate in extruded plastic.

I want to go into this in some more detail, since it’s the only part of this process where I felt like I knew what I was doing and taking advantage of a Clever Blender Trick. I used some of the same tricks as the tutorials, but skipped the “Wireframe” modifier, since I wanted more control over how thick each part was. So I took a cube, stretched it vertically, split it into 3 parts with edge loops, and then did “Inset Faces” on each one of the faces, then “Extrude along normals” to push those square faces into the center of the tower and form the four main support posts. Then I selected each of those square faces and used “Poke Faces” to triangulate them, making that cross pattern. Then I used inset and extrude to pull those cross bars back out. I deleted all the remaining inner faces, to make the holes in the structure. That required going inside and sealing up all of the interior, making new faces vertex by vertex, which was really tedious. I was proud of myself for figuring out I could keep the whole structure a simple and easy-to-work-with vertical block while I did all the work with the cross bars, and then used a Lattice modifier to bend it into that tower shape. I’ve got to confess, though, that it never once occurred to me to use a mirror modifier on the whole thing, which would’ve saved me half of that tedious work. I’m a little less proud of that.

Anyway, it’s too cartoony to look like a real pylon, but I’m the most pleased with it because it’s the model that I think looks most like it could’ve come shipped with the game. I was especially pleased that it printed pretty well on my first try, needing only a thin line of supports under the overhangs at the top.

I also printed out 5 battleship tokens, but they’re very simple, and I don’t have much to say about them. I had figured out Blender’s subsurface modifier and mirror modifier by that point, so it was relatively straightforward to make a shape that looked mostly like a battleship. I wasn’t able to add much in the way of interesting details, though.

So that’s an extremely exhaustive record of my process making a bunch of unnecessary miniatures for a board game that I’ve still only played two times so far. But making pieces for board games was one of the main things that first attracted me to 3D printing as a hobby, and this whole project was a ton of fun. Now I want to find excuses to make more stuff for different games, and maybe learn how to make more complex and more detailed miniatures. As somebody who’s always been frustratingly inept at making things with wood, clay, paint, or really anything outside of computer space, it’s enormously satisfying to make something on a computer and see it materialize in the real world. Even after doing it hundreds of times now, it still feels like magic.