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Making an 'Operation' game costume

A couple of weeks ago the Make Magazine blog posted about
a costume based on the game 'Operation'
. Remember the 'Operation Skill Game' where you operate on 'Cavity Sam'? (Did you know they have a Shrek Version?)

Operation Skill Game
Operation Skill Game

Anyway, I took a look at Felix Jung's Operation: The Costume and I was a bit disappointed. First off, the costume the guy made didn't look that much like the original. Heck, he wasn't even using original style game pieces, choosing instead to have people pick out candy. (Admittedly a cute idea, but it wasn't the game.) At this point I uttered the fatal words "I can do better than that!"

I can do better than this!
Felix Jung's version

The Stimulus

Every year some friends of mine throw a great Halloween party, and every year I try to make something cool enough to win a prize. I've never won the grand prize, but I've always placed. (OK, they give out lots of prizes so it isn't too hard. But I've never left empty-handed.) So, when I asked Anita what I should do this year she reminded me of aforesaid fatal words.

Hoisted, as it were, by my own petard we set off for a local thrift store and Anita immediately found an 'Operation Skill Game', complete with all the pieces and game cards. Fate was clearly taking a hand! Over the next few days I went to the local Radio Slack to pick up a piezoelectric buzzer and a couple of red LEDs and stopped by a local craft store for more materials. I was now ready to begin construction! (In other words, I was about to bite off way more than I could chew as I stepped off into the deep-end of a pool of stupidity clichés.)

The Goal

The goal is to make something that looks, and works, like the real game.

Operation Skill Game Operation Skill Game
The real thing

The Stuff

Materials required

  • 1 piezoelectric buzzer, 3 volt

  • 2 red LEDs

  • Tangle of wire (from my SOC [Stash O'Crap])

  • D-Cell flashlight

  • 2 D-Cell batteries

  • 2 disposable aluminum cookie sheets

  • 1 pair kitchen tongs

  • 1 roll velcro tape

  • 1 old T-Shirt

  • 3 sheets thin foam-core board

  • 1 sheet thick foam-core board

  • Markers

  • Pencils, erasers, etc.

  • Tracing Paper

  • Cardboard (an old box will do)

Tools required

  • Glue gun (and a largish pile of hot-glue sticks)

  • Soldering iron (and rosin-core solder)

  • Multimeter, or at least a circuit tester

  • Box-cutter, or other razor knife (with plenty of extra blades)

  • Yard-stick

  • Electric drill and drill-bit set

  • Duct tape (of course!)

The Construction

Tracing the game board

I took a page of tracing paper and cut it to fit into the game board, between the neck and the groin. I then marked the paper off in one-inch squares in a grid of five inches wide and seven inches tall. Finally I traced the image from the game onto the paper.

Tracing of game board

Transferring the image

The foam-core board is twenty inches wide, so that fits the tracing grid perfectly in a one to four ratio. The foam board is taller than twenty-eight inches, but that is all to the better because I can cut off the bottom bit to make it a little easier to wear. With a soft pencil and the yard-stick I draw the grid lines as lightly as I can.

Foam board with grid

Next I transfer the image from the tracing to the foam-core using the grid lines to keep things proportional. Once the drawing was completed I use markers to color things in and erase the pencil lines. (Note that the pencil lines are very difficult to erase and don't always come off completely from the foam-core board. Obviously I should draw them even lighter.)

Finished image
Finished image on the foam board

If you compare the finished image to the tracing or the game board, you will see where I moved the arms out so I didn't have to draw the hands and so they would match my real arms better. I also moved the writer's cramp up the left arm because I could not have included it otherwise. Finally I added man-titties, which required moving some other things around. (Why did I add man titties? Well, other than the fact it means I get to write 'man titties' in these instructions, I do have a reason. More on this later.)

So far so good, although you have probably noticed how I am already slipping from my goal (see above). But big projects have a way of doing that, don't they?

My grandson is very interested in the process

Cutting out the board

Using the razor knife I then cut out each of the holes for the game pieces. I also cut off the unused bottom of the foam-core board. I do this with the foam-core on top of the cardboard to avoid cutting into the table. Cutting the holes goes slowly, I carefully cut along the lines in multiple strokes until the foam-core is cut through.

Cut board
The holes cut out

Drawing the back

I put the completed front board over another piece of foam-core and used a black marker to trace around the holes. I then color inside the hole areas with a red marker and cut off the back to the same length as the front.

Back board Back and front board
The back foam board

Adding the aluminum

Now it is time to fire up the hot-glue gun. The disposable aluminum cookie sheets cut easily with a pair of scissors. One big piece covers most of the holes on the front board, with a few smaller pieces to pick up the slack. I attach them to the non-image side of the front board with the hot-glue gun -- and whine because I didn't think to have a hot pad handy for pressing the aluminum down. (Note that aluminum is a good conductor; of both electricity and heat.) Gluing the large piece is difficult to do because the glue wants to cool before you can get it all down, but I manage at the price of a couple of burnt fingers.

Aluminum applied
The aluminum glued on

Building it up

I need to make my front and back into a box about an inch deep. For this I cut some one-inch wide strips of foam core board using the yard-stick as a guide, holding the yard-stick down firmly with one hand and pulling the razor knife along it. I only cut through the top of the foam-core board on the first stroke. I then follow the cut a second time (or more if needed) until I have cut completely through. It is actually rather difficult to get good straight cuts, but I can do it with a little practice.

For the top board I glue strips all around the back edge (on the other side from the image) to make an open ended box one-inch deep. For the back board I glue strips around each of the hole markings. The two boards fit together to create a nice box with a front and back.

Back board built Back board built
The back foam board built-up

To make things stronger I glue some cut and folded cardboard stiffeners to the corners of the front and to a couple of places in the middle where there are no holes. Finally, I cut the game pieces out of the thick foam-core board. This is tricky, but by starting oversized and shaving them down I get some pretty good looking game pieces. I also cut out the aluminum inside the holes, leaving a bit less than half an inch of aluminum showing.

Holding things together

To hold the game pieces on the back board (because the game board will be hanging vertically from me) and to hold the two pieces of the box together I use velcro tape. You can get this with stickum already applied, so you just press it in place; fuzzy side to where you want something to stay and prickly side to the thing you want to hold there.

Velcro On stiffeners
Velcro to hold the game pieces and the top board to the bottom

To hold the game board on me, I get Anita to cut up one of my old T-shirts so that it consists of the neck part and the front hanging down like I'm wearing a bib. I then hot-glue that to the back board.

T-shirt hanger T-shirt hanger
T-shirt hanger


The first part of the wiring is to make certain the circuit actually works. Using an electronics breadboard I build a test rig consisting of the two LEDs in parallel, both in series with the buzzer. (Normally you would want a resistor in series with the LEDs, but the buzzer has a pretty good resistance, so no worries.) I remove the light-bulb from the flashlight and attach wires to the positive and negative terminals. I then use the wires to power the breadboard. Success! LEDs light up and buzzer buzzes.

So now I need to wire the board. This turns out to be a real problem! It seems the aluminum won't take the solder. After multiple attempts I finally roll edges of the aluminum around some stripped wire and fill the space inside with solder as best I can. I have to do this for each piece of aluminum and it takes me a full order of magnitude longer than it should have. (Anita, hearing my swearing at this point, mutters something about wishing she had never reminded me of my fatal words...)

I bring these four ground wires together and attach them to the negative lead from the battery pack/eviscerated flashlight. The positive lead goes into the positive side of the buzzer (piezoelectric components and LEDs both have specific positive and negative sides, and you must keep the polarity correct or you will damage them). The negative side of the buzzer is wired to the positive side of both LEDs and the negative side of the LEDs is attached to a wire that I run out the side of the box. I then solder that wire to the kitchen tongs. Finally I solder all my wired connections, wrap the exposed wires with electrical tape and hot-glue the wires down so they don't get in the way of the foam-core stand-offs on the back board.

Back board built
All wired up, and no place to go

About those LEDs

You are probably wondering about the two LEDs. Well, remember the man-titties I foreshadowed a while back? You got it! I didn't want to try to make a red nose that lighted up because I didn't like the idea of wires across my face. I finally decided to make lighted nipples instead. Using the electric drill and an appropriately sized bit I made the holes for the two LEDs, and for the wire out the side for the tongs while I was at it. I then pushed the LEDs through and hot-glued them in place.

LEDs lit up
Lights on


So, my wiring job consists of positive power wire to buzzer, buzzer to LEDs, LEDs to tongs, tongs to air-gap, air-gap to aluminum, and aluminum to negative power wire. All I need to do is close the air-gap by touching the tongs to the aluminum and holler "Eureka!" Or something...

If you guessed 'something', you obviously have a future in software testing.

The man-titties light up just fine, but the buzzer won't buzz. Crap! Obviously I had a connection through the buzzer, or the LEDs wouldn't light. But no buzz! It worked fine on the test rig -- AAARRRGGGHHH!!!! (Anita is muttering again, but I have no time to listen.) So, partial tear down and test: It is the connections to the aluminum. With all the resistance those crappy connections have I am getting too much drop for the buzzer to sound. IT WON'T WORK AND I AM OUT OF TIME AND I WON'T EVEN GET TO FINISH COLORING THE DAMN THING!! (Anita is muttering louder.)

Oh well, we need to get going if we want to get to the party on time. And half a loaf is better than another crappy cliché, so time to pack up and hit the road.

Finished! All I need is a fake red nose.

The Party

The party, as usual, is great. Lots of good friends, good beer, and good talk. And the costume works great, even without the buzzer. I've never worn an interactive costume before, but it is kind of fun to hand someone the tongs and watch them try to rip out my heart.

So, how did I do? Grand prize dude! Even without a working buzzer I won the big one! Yeah!

The Notes

Total construction time was around twelve hours, spread out over several days. It should have been around eight hours, but the wiring (especially all that fiddling with the aluminum) took way too long. Obviously I am going to have to come up with a better way of connecting to the aluminum. I might also try increasing the number of batteries to four. Perhaps I didn't meet my goal exactly, but the final result is pretty damn close.

Oh, and when I was fooling around with the costume today, the buzzer decided to work. Grump...

The Future

Well, obviously I'm not going to toss this thing out, having put so much work into it. The next step is to finish coloring the foam-core more in keeping with the actual game, build up an edge around it similar to the real thing, and get that damn buzzer working. I'm sure I will find plenty of new opportunities to play with it.

Right now I am just happy Anita stopped muttering.

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June 2012


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