Hexagonal Game Board

settlers of catan is one of my favorite board games. it’s the perfect combination of strategy, chance, and economics 101. if it has one flaw, it’s the number of pieces required for setting up the board. one of the game’s best features is the fact that the board changes each time it’s played, but that feature also involves handling 25+ tiles that never quite want to fit together. what if we could replace those tiles with one solid unit, all the while preserving the dynamic random quality that makes it unique? well, that’s the goal of this project.

Bill of materials

step 1:

for a long time, my inner nerd had been devising the concept for the ultimate settlers of catan board, but for various reasons i was intimidated by the task. hexagons are a tricky beast, and cutting them out with perfect 120° angles had proved a challenge i was unable to solve. luckily robots have a steadier hand than i, so a lack of precision is no longer an obstacle or an excuse. this project features a hefty serving of cnc routing, coupled with my first dalliance with the world of electrical engineering and computer programming. these are the raw materials—soon to be shaped, powered, and carved!

step 2:

digging through the scrap bin at tap plastics i found several nice sheets of 1/2″ acrylic that i plan to use for my catan board tiles. the scrap pieces are bit smaller than ideal, but at $1.70/lbs., the price was right for this prototype. because i was constrained by the dimensions of the acrylic, i had to piecemeal several smaller hexagonal units together, rather than cutting out one solid board. essentially, it looks something like this: (the colors represent the different paths/depths the router followed).

Router cutting paths

Acrylic Tiles

step 3:

so these are the pieces of acrylic—literally rescued from the scrap heap and given a new purpose. these will be the tiles for my board. they represent about five hours of cnc routing. for the most part, everything came out as planned, although i will need to slightly tweak some tolerances next time, but nothing a little light sanding can’t fix. because channels have been cut into the tiles, they need to be handled carefully, as they are prone to shattering when dropped (as i discovered). whoops! these tiles are the cornerstones of this project; everything that follows is designed around them.

step 4:

to hold the acrylic pieces together, a hexagonal lattice is needed. for this particular design, two were required: one for the top and one for the bottom. the tiles sit snuggly in the lattice, and are sandwiched between the two. the bottom lattice serves as a walled off cell for each hexagon. its purpose is to prevent different colors of light from blending together. however, i do believe future iterations can feature a simplified solution.

MDF Hexagonal Lattice

RGB Neopixels!

step 5:

it may not look like much, and if you were to base your judgement solely on the glops of hot glue and the shoddily soldered connection points, i’d agree. but this is where the magic happens! nineteen red/green/blue leds will illuminate the acrylic tiles. it took me a few days to learn how to code the arduino, but i’m pleased to report my simple little computer program works! every time the reset button is pressed a new randomized board will appear. it’s amazing the things you can learn with the help of google and youtube. this was the most challenging part for me. but hey, it’s always good to learn something new. i’m fairly confident this is the first arduino project of many to come. it’s good start somewhere, however basic it may be.

step 6:

so this board has gotten a bit complex. there are four separate layers stacked on top of each other, and now i need a frame that will house the hexagons and tech components together. i’ve made a bunch of square frames in the past, but hexagons are a little scarier, as they are very easy to mess up. i have yet to find a slick method for cutting equal length segments with 60° angles. fortunately, wood is a forgiving medium. 

All stacked up

The finished facade

step 7:

with the frame glued, sanded, and primed, it’s ready to receive a fresh coat of paint. i considered sticking with the classic color palette and giving it some creative flourishes, but i think i’ll save that for another version. instead, i’ve opted for a more modern look with clean straight lines. after all, this is the catan board of the future.

step 8:

one of the head scratchers on this project was the leds. it’s kind of amazing how bright those tiny diodes can get, but it’s also kind of annoying. their brightness is harsh on the eyes, and not something one wants to look at for an extended period of time. i originally anticipated that the acrylic tiles would be opaque enough to mellow out the intensity, but even at 1/2″ thick those little leds still shine with a fury. thankfully my roommate recommended using sheets of diffusion transparency—it really rounds out the brightness and distributes the glow nicely. i think on future models it might behoove me to include a dimmer knob, or a light sensor that detects ambient room light and adjusts the board’s luminescence accordingly. lastly, i thought it might break up the monotony of solid colored hexagons if i added some topographic lines. topographic lines are nice because they are indifferent to color.

P.S. it turns out leds are very difficult to photograph.


Schematics of the guts

step 9:

disclaimer: i am not an electric engineer, nor do i know what i’m doing. rather, i’m just following instructions i’ve found on the Internet. with that said, here is my schematic for the catan board. so far it seems to work 🙂 this is the bottom of the board, you can see my sloppy attempt to carve out space within the frame to hide the wiring and components. the arduino uno was a bit too big. fortunately the arduino nano fits perfectly! and at $7 for a chinese knockoff, what a steal!

step 10:

ok, so this isn’t really a step, but it’s done! i did not intend for it to look like a nintendo nes, but i guess the subconscious gets what the subconscious wants. for a prototype, it works great! future versions will only need slight modifications. knowing what i know now, i think a thinner, cordless board with more control options is well within the realm of possibility. it also might be fun to take a stab at an expansion board (30 tiles as opposed to 19). basically, there are still many opportunities for refinement. the next main hurdle will be to discover a method for making them more efficiently. the cnc router is an awesome tool, but it is also slow and time intensive. resin casting might prove to be the next logical direction to head. stayed tuned. i intend to massage this project further in the coming months!

All done!

the reset button in action!

blue = ore, red = brick, cyan = sheep, green = wood, yellow = wheat, black = desert


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