Five Tips for Prototyping

One of the most important pieces of advice anyone can give an aspiring game designer is to playtest early and often.  Playtesting is the basis in which a game is tested for balance, functionality, and refinement.  But to playtest, the game designer must first make a  prototype of their game.

A prototype is defined as an early model of something from which later models are developed.  In terms of board game design, a prototype is simply an early, unfinished version of the game that is used to playtest and refine the game.

So here are five tips for prototyping your board game concept:

  1. Keep It Simple, Stupid!  (KISS)  Whether your board game is a complex wargame or a light card game, simplicity will make playtesting easier and help you spot areas of the game that need improved.

  2. Use free or cheap components.  Don’t burn a hole in your wallet over a prototype that will likely change.  Here are some examples of free or cheap game components:
    1. Paper and pencil
    2. Construction paper (large sheets cost under $1 at the Dollar Tree, Walmart, Target, craft stores, etc)
    3. Foam board (the Dollar Tree sells foam board.  Other stores will cost $3 or more.)
    4. Box of Colored Centimeter Cubes (honestly, this is one of the most useful and versatile prototype components… they can be resources, enemies, heroes, counters, tokens, etc)
    5. Colored Chips/Tokens
    6. Blank playing cards (with box)
    7. Card sleeves (they fit the above blank playing cards perfectly).  
    8. Bag o’ Dice
    9. Use components from games you already have.

  3. Don’t spend time on art or graphic design.  I’ve spent tens of hours polishing early prototypes with fancy graphics or pictures downloaded from Google.  The thing is, your game will change and all that time spent was wasted (worst case scenario) or at least could have been better used playtesting or designing the game (best case scenario).  Unless pictures and illustrations are critical to the game play itself, don’t worry about it for your prototype.  There’s nothing wrong with a prototype that looks like it was made by a seven year-old.

    wp-1473079467033.jpg

    My latest prototype of The King’s Legion.

  4. Write down the rules, but be clear and concise.  When you eventually playtest your game, you want to have the “official” rules on hand.  (This is especially important when playtesting with other people.)  But don’t fall into the trap of spending hours writing detailed rules that cover every possible game state or scenario.  Write down the game objective, game setup, and gameplay directions, and keep them short and sweet.

  5. It WILL change.  Just like the game design itself, don’t be married to your prototype.  Since you know the design will change between playtests, so will the prototype.  Pieces will be lost, torn, thrown away, etc.  This is why you shouldn’t spend time on illustrations and graphic design, or why you shouldn’t spend much money on expensive components.

I have learned these tips the hard way and have spent significant time on prototypes that were eventually thrown away.  So after going through 4-5 vastly different iterations of TKL prototypes, these are five tips I have for prototyping.  

What have you done for your game prototypes?  Do you have any advice to share?

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2 thoughts on “Five Tips for Prototyping

  1. chris vodopia says:

    I agree in not spending money an art or custom printed cards. The odds of your game resembling your first idea is minuscule. When I design a mechanic I usually have a list of rules (5-10) related to this mechanic. by mixing and matching then, or adding one in to fix a glaring issue helps mold my idea in to something keeping, or removing.

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    • That’s a good practice. I do something similar. For each mechanic, I keep a list of modifications to that mechanic or alternate ideas. That way I am able to easily tweak it and track which variables of the mechanic work well (or doesn’t).

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