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Counter Clipping: In Search of a Better Solution

Posted by Andreas Ludwig on May 10, 2010

by Dave King

For some reason the issue of clipping die-cut counters periodically generates energetic debate between those who do and those who don’t clip. But when seen as akin to trimming the flashing off a plastic model before beginning assembly or off lead miniatures prior to painting, one wonders why wargame publishers don’t include instructions on clipping with their games. Clipping should more properly be viewed as a necessary step in preparing a game for play.

When die-cut counters are punched from their frames, the corners inevitably fray to some degree. Clipping largely eliminates the problem of these corners snagging each other in counter-dense games, which can jostle whole battle lines or cause stacks to tumble.

Proponents of counter clipping will tell you their counters are also easier to handle, neater looking, and allow more counters per compartment in sorting trays. Many non-clippers will still use a hobby knife to cut counters free from the frames that hold them, thus minimizing ragged corners. Others simply use the counters as they break free from the frame, no trimming of any sort, considering themselves purists of the hobby.

According to several informal, unscientific surveys, slightly more than half of all wargame players trim their counters as part of prepping a game for play. Of course, that means about half the players do not clip. So where did this counter-clipping thing begin and where is it going?

Rounding the Corner

In the beginning there were wargame counters–and they were not very good. Made from soft cardstock or chipboard, the counters would fray at the corners when punched from their frame. Because the die-cutters of the day did not cut entirely through the material, players had to be careful when breaking counters apart lest they also tear the paper from the underside. Worse still, die-cuts on many counter sheets were uneven so that the counters were not uniformly square, and the printing was sometimes off-center so that it did not match up with the die-cuts anyhow.

Just as it never occurred to early wargame publishers that counters could be printed on both sides, players seemed to accept ragged corners as normal. But in 1974 Rand Game Associates published Omaha Beach and a few other titles featuring counters with pre-cut rounded corners. About that same time magazine articles illustrating game play began showing counters with rounded edges. It didn’t take gamers long to put nail clippers and counters together and make the mental leap forward to clipping counters. Its appeal caught on quickly.

In practice the depth and regularity of the clip varied from gamer to gamer. One could find games with corners nipped off just enough to eliminate the nib, some games cut so generously that the counters looked octagonal, and some cut haphazardly with no apparent overall pattern. With these problems came a new solution–the clipping jig.

Clipping Jigs: Making Nail Clippers Consistent

The CD jig

It’s impossible to say when or where the first clipping jig arose. The motivation was simply to take the guesswork out of clipping and get consistent results game after game, month after month,. Basically, the jig allows only a specific amount of the counter’s corner to protrude through an opening against which nail clippers are held flush through the clip action. Still, only one counter at a time can be cut.

Probably the most frequently seen clipping jig is the mundane CD case, top popped off and one corner filed open at about a 45-degree angle. To make it their own, gamers cut, sand, file, paint, apply decals, and more. More industrious types used other plastic boxes, and some clearly put more than a few minutes’ effort into the project. For a short time in 2007 and early 2008, a small U.S. vendor offered a sturdy clipping jig made of plexiglass with nicely milled edges, but still it only cut one corner at a time.

Better Die-Cutting Does Not Mean Fewer Clippers

Counters themselves evolved over the years, melding creativity with available technology: double-sided printing, denser paper stock, different sizes, icons other than NATO symbols, four-color process printing, photo-realistic imaging, and more. Perhaps the most important technological changes occurred in die-cutting.

The CD jig

Before the onset of computers, printing presses and die-cut presses were controlled manually. Press operators would make small adjustments, test a few more sheets, adjust, etc., until they got an acceptable result. Of course, what was acceptable in 1960 would not pass muster today. Between then and now a variety of die-cutting techniques were used, all aimed at producing better counters and none very successful until recently, although European publishers generally achieved higher quality than their American counterparts.

Perhaps the cruelest cut of all was the center tab. Not only were die-cut counters held in place by the usual corner tabs, but they were also given the added security of a connector tab on the side of the counter. Even if one neatly clipped the corners, the remnants of the side tab would make the effort futile in game play. For a time TSR employed this technique in games they published under the SPI name, but even as recently as 2004 Avalanche Press reverted to this anachronism in Panzer Grenadier: Beyond Normandy.

With the maturing of computer-controlled technology, die-cutting has become so precise that some counters almost shake loose from their frames. The thick, oversized counters in Conflict of Heroes, from Academy Games, are individually cut with rounded corners, so that the frame can subsequently be used as a storage holder.

This last example may be the only one that totally obviates counter clipping. For despite vastly improved quality, a large segment of gamers insists on clipping corners for both appearance and ease of handling on hex maps. And after nearly forty years of progress in other areas, nearly all of these gamers still clip only one corner at a time.

A Totally New Solution: Clipping without Clippers

The C4 Corner Cutter in action

For those wargamers who clip counters there is a new product that should be of particular interest–the “Counter Culture Corner Cutter”, or C4. The C4 Corner Cutter was designed specifically for wargamers to speed up the monotonous task of clipping counters one at a time. Up to ten counters can be loaded at once in the C4 and with just a little practice, users can easily prep the typical 400- to 600-counter game in under an hour. Monster games can be knocked out in a single evening. Compare this to the slow rate of nail clippers and the value of the C4 is obvious. It takes counter clipping and game preparation a huge step forward. As one user said recently, “It makes short work of a tedious process.”

The C4 works in combination with a hobby knife, such as the X-acto, using a heavy-duty handle and a half-inch-wide chisel-tip blade; other blades can be used but this is the recommended one. The user loads a stack of counters so that the corners protrude between two beveled edges; the stack is snugged up against the side walls; then the corners are zipped off with the hobby knife. It takes surprisingly little pressure to cut through the stack. Depth of cut can be adjusted in a number of ways: flipping a chisel-tip blade to its honed side, adding pressure to the snugging device, or using paper shims against the side walls of the cutter.

Before and after

The C4 Corner Cutter was invented by Dave King and is made in a variety of colors by Dave King Freelance Associates in Lexington, South Carolina. Each one is hand-made and individually tested before shipping. Those interested can find more information at www.daveking-c4.com, including photos and user comments. The item can be purchased for $19.95 on Ebay by searching “C4 Corner Cutter” in the Toys and Hobbies area, or it can be ordered direct from the maker by Email.

In his review of the C4 on The 2 Half-Squads podcast, Jeff Hallett said, “It’s definitely worth $19.95. If time is money it’s definitely worth a lot more than that.” He concluded the review saying, “I love this product, I use this product, and it really works.”

And to show how great it works here’s a video about the simple but effective process:


About the author:
Dave King, inventor of the C4 Corner Cutter, has been playing wargames since the early 1960s and clipping counters nearly that long.

2 Responses to “Counter Clipping: In Search of a Better Solution”

  1. Anonymous said

    Anonymous doesn’t get out much I guess.

  2. Anonymous said

    I have been a non corner clipper since the 70’s. I prefer the square look, and the only way to achieve that is by cutting the counters from the tree. I have never seen ANYONE advocating punching the counters without a knife.

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