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Making an 'Operation' game costume

Gray Alien Hat

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.


( 30 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 1st, 2005 06:48 am (UTC)
Nice job, indeed.

Getting good connections to aluminum is tough. You may remember that aluminum household wiring was used back in the `70s, it was stopped because there was a problem with high resistance connection causing fires.

One way around this would be to put a low current relay in place of the buzzer, and use the relay's contacts to control the buzzer.

To be decent connections to aluminum you either have to do the unfun task of soldering to it, or using multiple connection points. Alligator clips, the 'sawtooth' cutoff from wax paper and plastic wrap boxes pushed through the foil, anything that gets a lot of contact area.

Nov. 1st, 2005 06:54 am (UTC)
Thank's for the suggestions. I like the idea of using the 'sawtooth' things.
Nov. 1st, 2005 07:11 am (UTC)
ah, sorry, that twas I, forgot to log in (duh - old age brain rot)

Nov. 2nd, 2005 06:07 pm (UTC)
You also might want to consider that "stomach" does not have a silent "e" at the end of the word. Maybe the costume would have worked if you had spelled everything correctly. More proof that the right brain and left brain do not work together.
Nov. 1st, 2005 06:48 pm (UTC)
OMG... that's what *I* was going to be for Halloween!
LOL... I was SO going to be the Operation game for Halloween but nothing as nearly as technical as YOUR costume. I *really* need to take a basic course in electronics. Until then, I guess I'll have to stick to my cheese grater costume.
Nov. 1st, 2005 03:11 pm (UTC)
I liked your acting job, letting out yelps whenever the LEDs lit up. That did startle your opponents? users?, umm, the people playing you.
Nov. 1st, 2005 06:45 pm (UTC)
That's pretty douchebaggy of you to rip on my friend Felix (who is the MAN) when you didn't even have the original idea.
Nov. 1st, 2005 06:45 pm (UTC)
Just so you don't think I'm an anonymous coward.
Nov. 2nd, 2005 02:54 am (UTC)
Did I rip on him? I don't think so. Note how I made certain to credit Felix with the original idea, for example.

I just asserted that I could do a better job. I then attempted to do so. Whether I succeded or not is something that neither of us are qualified to judge, because we are both prejudiced.
Nov. 2nd, 2005 10:36 am (UTC)
you didn't succeed
The thing that made Felix's the ultimate halloween costume, was the candy. Who wants to grab pieces of plastic out of a box that is being worn by some crazy looking fat dude?
Nov. 2nd, 2005 03:48 pm (UTC)
Re: you didn't succeed
You: "I was a bit disappointed...didn't look that much like the original...wasn't even using original pieces...instead had candy...."I can do better than that!""

A better sentence would have been: "So I saw this costume and decided to copy it. My buzzer didn't work, and I didn't paint it, and I also just hung it like a board over my neck. But really, it kicked the ass of the one I ripped off. Oh, and I still don't get why he used candy? I mean, on Halloween? Cute, sure, but it makes no sense at all!"

The reason he used candy is the same reason he came up with the idea in the first place, and you copied it badly a year later.

I don't think I'd be as annoyed as I am now, if you had said one nice thing about the guy you ripped from.
Nov. 1st, 2005 07:37 pm (UTC)
Hints for the Crafty.
1. You didn't mention having trouble with the foam core hanging up on your blade and "pilling," or leaving a ragged edge, but since you didn't mention specifically trying to avoid that, I imagine you had that happen a lot. Foam core is a great material to work with except for that whole cutting a clean edge problem. If one intends to do so, get a brand new package of blades for an X-acto knife or scalpel blades. Foam core's easy to cut in one single pass if your blade is sharp!! In my experience, I can cut about 10 to 12 linear feet with one blade, and then it's too dull to cut foam core cleanly. It's still plenty sharp for paper or anything else, but not foam core.

Now, were I insane enough to tackle a project like this, I'd cut the foam core by either putting a knife-edge blade in my jig saw, or using a spiral cutter, probably a spiral-cutting blade in my Dremel tool, although I have two big spiral cutters as well (the well-known brand name for these is RotoZip)

2. For marking lines on the paper. you can either get an art gum eraser (beige rectangular block) at an art supply store or some office supply stores, or better, get a fabric marking pen (1 2 3) at a fabric store. I had one in purple 'til it finally died on me. You get to put down a vivid purple line with the felt tip; very easy to see. When you want to "erase" it, dab at it with a slightly damp rag, or breathe onto it. Water causes the color to disappear. The lines naturally fade from airborne water vapor in a few days, but you can make them vanish right away, too. The amount of water needed to erase the line is much less than the amount that would buckle and mark the paper coating of the foam core.

3. The upside of aluminum is its weight and ease of working. The downside is normal humans cannot solder or weld it. You have to make mechanical connections, as you discovered. Drill a little hole, and use a nut and bolt to fasten the wires down. You can tighten them down good and hard that way. I doubt it was the aluminum's resistance that prevented the buzzer from working, but rather a poor connection. (The wires that bring power into your house from the street are made of aluminum, btw.) Once the solder cooled more, it probably just lifted away from the aluminum surrounding it, providing poor, high-resistance connections.

Creating a life-size working Operation game is fabulous. I am in awe at your foolishnesschutzpah in building this thing. Very cool.
Nov. 2nd, 2005 02:57 am (UTC)
Re: Hints for the Crafty.
Thanks for the hints and good words Dave!

Note: I did use an Art Gum eraser; that was why I was mystified that I couldn't get the pencil lines completely off. I have cut foam board before also, but I guess I was way out of practice.
Nov. 28th, 2005 09:53 am (UTC)
Re: Hints for the Crafty.
Cool costume, I came here from Its always an honour if they put your website up.

Anyhow, i really like the look here.. nice.
Nov. 1st, 2005 07:39 pm (UTC)
You may want to keep this in your Memories
You just made BoingBoing.
Nov. 2nd, 2005 02:59 am (UTC)
Re: You may want to keep this in your Memories
Yeah, I was both Maked and Boinged. At this point it looks like this page is going to get around 4,000 hits today. My web counter is going crazy.

It's a good thing I didn't get Slashdotted and Instalaunched too!
Nov. 2nd, 2005 06:51 pm (UTC)
Re: You may want to keep this in your Memories
How are you able to tell how many hits a LJ post is getting? Hosted images?
Nov. 3rd, 2005 03:06 am (UTC)
Re: You may want to keep this in your Memories
Yeah, I use a webbug image from a site that gives me some good stats. I had to hack my LJ template a bit to get information into the bug, like URL and title, because LJ strips out javascript. But it works pretty good, and the only info I don't get is referrer.

Perhaps I should do a how-to for that one of these days?
Nov. 3rd, 2005 05:53 am (UTC)
A how-to would be very helpful!
Nov. 1st, 2005 10:58 pm (UTC)
I miss paul and julies parties. I don't miss not having a job, but I miss the friends.

Very sweet costume, and congrats on the writeup. w00t!
Nov. 2nd, 2005 03:02 am (UTC)
Re: nice..
Ya, the party was fun. Don even made it down from BC (despite the border crossing nonsense he always has to deal with). Only thing? He was the designated driver!

I think it was the first time I've ever seen Don stay sober at a party. But he really did! I couldn't even tempt him with some good scotch. (OK, he did try a taste.)
Nov. 2nd, 2005 11:28 pm (UTC)
stomache ?
Nov. 3rd, 2005 03:08 am (UTC)
Re: spelling
Yeah. I noticed the day after the party. Funny thing was; a good percentage of the people at the party were writers, and none of them noticed...
Nov. 4th, 2005 03:36 pm (UTC)
Nov. 27th, 2005 10:06 am (UTC)
ha one of my best friends was the operation guy for halloween too - his costume was a full body suit though
Apr. 20th, 2006 11:32 pm (UTC)
we lil grade sixes joined up to make a project so we made an operation game and ours is WAYYYYYYYy BETTER THAN YOURS!!!!:P
Sep. 19th, 2006 06:14 am (UTC)
aprende a armar el cuerpo humano
aprende a armar un cuerpo humana
Sep. 19th, 2006 06:17 am (UTC)
Re: aprende a armar el cuerpo humano
aprende para enseñarle a tu hijo
Nov. 3rd, 2006 11:22 pm (UTC)
OPERATION - The Costume: Take 3
Many thanks for helping inspire me to build one this year. Last year I too saw Felix Jung's, but it was too late for Halloween. Check out my take on this at

( 30 comments — Leave a comment )

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