Digital vs Offset Printing – What You Need to Know

Digital, Offset, RGB, CMYK, Bleed, Trim, Lbs, GSM, Cover Weight, Text Weight, Index Weight – what does it all mean?!

This is the first of series of posts that will serve as a quick Printing 101.  Today we’re going to talk about digital and offset printing.  What’s the difference?

Offset printing is done on a traditional press (as in “Stop the presses!”). It uses a series of plates – one for each color and varnish and is best for large scale, high quantity printing.  Offset printing, sometimes called “conventional printing”, uses actual ink that will soak into the paper a fraction. Pressmen can adjust the delivery of each plate to achieve the desired colors and come very close to “true” color as intended in the original file.  For instance, the orange and purple of a very popular shipping service is 100% offset – it’s why the colors on those proprietary envelopes and boxes are always EXACTLY the same color even though the different materials have a different absorbency and the press had to be adjusted to achieve that outcome.

Offset Press

Offset Press

Digital printing uses heat and polymers to adhere toner to paper. This process is quicker, and better for small runs. While color has come a long way in the past five years, digital printers still have trouble with pure secondary color orange and primary red.  The prints are still beautiful and vibrant – just not a 100% match to your digital art.  Some printers will have what they refer to as digital presses – these use toner but use larger press sheets (thus reducing the cost) and can apply varnish or coatings.  Varnish and coatings are very important in things like cards, playmats, and tokes as they extend the life of the finished piece and give a sense of quality.

Toner for Digital Printing

Toner for Digital Printing

If you need 500 flyers for a convention or to distribute at your local gaming and hobby shops you want to go digital.  If you need the instructions printed for 5,000 games you want to go offset. Offset has the added advantage of tweaking colors to reduce cost – for instance it’s cheaper to print black only for a black and white document.  This isn’t just something they made up – they only need 1 plate instead of 4. They only need the (very well paid) pressmen to “hang” one plate, clean one plate, and operate one station instead of 4.  It legitimately costs them less to run black and white. With digital you are generally going to get an estimate for the same price either way.  Some places will give you a “discount” for asking about black and white rather than take the time to explain the info above.  So ask!

This info and the following posts will be especially helpful for prototyping. Try to spend as little as possible until you are actually trying to impress people with your game.  Your playtest copies and be printed at home on a laser or ink-jet printer (choose black and white unless color is necessary for the game play!) or at work (with permission!).  Unless you want 10 or less copies on plain letter sized paper, please stay away from the “big box” retailers and quick print places.  They charge nearly a dollar per color copy, single sided, letter size.  See if you can find a local print shop.  Almost every town has one or two because local businesses need them!  Here you’ll get a good deal and possibly even ideas about how to print your final game or money saving tips.

Have you had good or bad experiences printing your prototypes in the past?