The Benefits of Pretty Prototypes
Today I’m presenting you my rebuttal for an article posted on Example of Play on May 30th. Here’s the link:
It’s an interesting article and I am currently at the prototype phase with Trading Post. So now’s as good a time as ever to post my rebuttal. I’m a big fan of the visual aesthetic of quality prototypes versus handwritten game designs on 8.5×11 sheets of paper. It’s worth the effort to me to make a quality prototype. Let’s get started…
The BEST possible prototype is an amazing looking prototype.
Maybe. It’s all about perspective and approach.
When designing a board game you will have to create something physical to test the game. There are many approaches to this but here are the two genres that your prototype will likely fit into:
- Use pencil/pen/colored pencils/markers.
- Use art creation software and a printer.
These aren’t the only options, of course, but they are the basis for today’s rebuttal of that article.
It Can Be Worth the Effort to Make Nice Prototypes.
So there you are, sitting at Protospiel or an UnPub event. You’ve got your prototype on the table. It’s got a few poker chips for money. You’ve got an 8.5×11 piece of paper that has folds and creases. It’s covered with a few chicken scratches of notes, but still it serves as the game board. And you’ve got sleeved cards covered in Sharpie. Your table is empty. You glance at the exceedingly full table next to you to see what’s going on. On that table is a glowing, beautifully rendered, full art prototype on thick matte board with quality printed cards and an aesthetic that draws you in.
Think of it like this. If you were an attender of Protospiel or UnPub and were looking for games to play, would you be more drawn to the nice fancy artwork where you can tell the designer put a lot of effort into his or her product? Or would you be more drawn to the 8.5×11 with Sharpie notes and no art?
One of the reasons I think Scoville had some of the buzz that it did after Protospiel-Milwaukee was due to the quality of the prototype. Several people commented on the thick, quality feel of the Orders and Recipes in the game. Others asked how I made the components. The point is that I put in a little extra effort to make things seem more like a real game rather than a prototype.
What Should Be the Focus of Your Playtester?
Let’s examine the same scenario as above. So someone sits down at your table, with your 8.5×11 covered in Sharpie. You think you’ve got a decent game here. So you teach them how to play and after a few rounds, when you believe things should really be taking off, you notice a look of confusion on their face.
Let’s get into their head a little bit. As that player you are trying to enter into whichever world the designer has built for you. Part of playing games is about stepping into a different world for a while. In this case you don’t know what world you’re entering because there is no theme and no artwork. This 8.5×11 with Sharpie thing has you in a mental police chase to try and figure out how things work in this game.
Your mind has lost it’s focus. You are staring at a white sheet of paper while trying to put yourself in some other world. Where will your focus be? I imagine it would be difficult to make the game your focus.
Let’s think of another example. It’s 1910 in Manhattan and you need a cab. You’re waiting in the rain watching for a cab to roll by. Whoops, one just drove by, but it looked just like a normal car. Aye. Wait, what’s this? A Yellow Cab? That sure was easy to spot. So you hop aboard the yellow cab and they take you on your way. And not surprisingly, you leave a nice little tip for the driver because he was so easy to spot.
Board game prototypes are the same. As I saw at Protospiel-Milwaukee and as evidenced by the plethora of games on Kickstarter alone, there are a lot of people designing games. Your game should have appropriate enough artwork to be able to draw in players, build buzz, get your name out there, and perhaps earn a publisher’s eye. I wouldn’t expect to get anywhere with my designs if they looked very poorly made.
Are You Willing To Change Things?
One of the problems with building a high quality prototype is that it can be difficult or cumbersome to make changes. With Scoville I just about wore out my rotary cutter. Every time I made some changes I’d have to print out new components and cut them and mount them to matte board.
One way around this issue is that when you make your original prototype, go ahead and make some blank components. That way you’ve got pieces that you can write on as placeholders until you’re ready to make a complete new version.
The article that I linked above discussed a card that the designers were unwilling to change for a long time. The point they made was that if you are unwilling to change it, it’s not a prototype. In their case they had an elegant card with full artwork.
I totally agree with their sentiment. And in the situation where you are unwilling to change a component then you might as well put full art on it.
Don’t Get Too Attached!
Another point of the article was that the designer expended a lot of effort to make a nice quad-fold board and then began to consider player tableaus rather than the nicely crafted board.
While I enjoy the quality feel of the components in my prototypes, I don’t let myself get attached to them. So what if I spent three hours designing a deck of cards and paid $10 to have the deck made at The Game Crafter. If the game is terrible with those cards then I have to be willing to get rid of them.
So that brings us to our balancing act of the show. There is a balance between the effort you put into making a quality prototype and the usefulness of that prototype. If you are solo testing there is absolutely nothing wrong with the 8.5×11 with Sharpie approach. If you are having friends over to try out a new game design there is nothing wrong with that approach either. If you are attending a convention and you are seeking valuable feedback, then please don’t go with the 8.5×11 approach. Put in some effort and make it look nice. Then after the convention when you apply that feedback, be willing to throw away your original quality prototype.
Why Awesome Prototypes are Better
If you’ve put in some effort and realize that you’ve made a quality prototype that you aren’t ashamed to show off then here are a few points to consider:
- You can believe that players will feel immersed in your game, and feedback will represent that.
- You will have built a prototype that you would be happy to send off if a publisher requests it.
- People are conventions will be more willing to playtest your game than the ugly 8.5×11 game at the next table.
- You will be honored as a great human being and a plaque with your image will be mounted at the Board Game Prototypers Hall of Fame!
Okay, maybe not that last one.
The bottom line is that, depending where you are in the design process, it may be time to make a nice, high quality prototype.
Spend a little effort and make things look nice so that you are the one that draws a crowd!
Prototyping Techniques Applied to Scoville
While at Protospiel I heard a lot of kind words for the quality of my prototype of Scoville. So today I am sharing my prototyping process with you. I hope that it can help you make a quality prototype that you are confident about.
When I was first getting into board game design I was a little overwhelmed by what it took to make a prototype. I watched a few prototyping videos on BoardGameGeek.com. Those only made me shy away from the whole process. It can be intimidating. But today you can learn that it isn’t perhaps as daunting as you might think.
Overview of my Process
First things first: you need a game concept. Assuming you’ve got a great idea in mind it’s time to start prototyping. Early on in my board game career I was designing a heavy Euro game. I waited to make a prototype until I had worked through all the details of the game. That was a mistake. It is my recommendation to make prototype components of your game as early as possible. For example: If you have an auction in your game, test it independently from the other mechanics. Test each mechanic individually and test them early on. There is no point to design an entire game only to find out that the individual parts don’t work.
Once the individual elements seem to work then you can try to put them all together to make a full game out of them. Here is a rule of thumb I try to follow:
Never add complications unless they are absolutely necessary.
This is a difficult thing to do. It is always easier to add another rule or add another component. But if you want to make a good game, focus on the innovative mechanic rather than all the little rules about the rest of the game. Keep it simple.
So I start with a concept. I usually write about 10 pages of notes and sketches about that concept. Then I’ll go ahead and start prototyping (this is what I’m covering today). Once I have a prototype ready then I’ll play test it at least 10 times. This will give me a solid amount of feedback. Only after testing 10 times will I apply any changes. Here’s another rule of thumb:
Don’t try to change things in the game on the fly, and don’t change more than one thing at a time.
Following this rule is critical, especially the part about changing more than one thing at a time. If you change more than one thing it can be difficult to know which of the things you changed made the game better (or worse). Change one thing at a time and test it profusely. So I apply feedback and adjust things after 10 play tests. Once the game has gone through the PROTOTYPE – PLAY TEST – APPLY FEEDBACK phase several times to the point where there are only very subtle changes then I get to the point where I am confident about contacting publishers about it. There is no point in pitching a game unless you’ve gotten it to the point where you are proud of your product and confident to show it off.
Getting Started: What do I need?
When making a prototype I usually begin with a spreadsheet. A spreadsheet allows you to create custom tiles or cards very easily. You can print them out yourself and turn them into quality prototype components. Here’s a list of everything I use(d) to create a copy of Scoville:
- Spreadsheet software
- Graphic Design Software (I prefer Inkscape, but The Gimp is also very useful)
- Paper (Plain paper for first prototypes, Glossy photo paper for pitch-able versions)
- Thick card stock – As thick as you prefer, though the thicker it is the more difficult it is to cut.
- Components: cubes/meeples/coins
- Circle Punch
- Paper Cutter (I have this one)
- Bingo chips
- Glue Stick
- Gerber Baby Food Containers – if you don’t have kids find some friends who do and beg them to save these for you!
Here is a picture of all the components that go into the game:
That’s everything (except a box) I need to make a copy of Scoville. Let’s walk through the prototyping (physical creation) process.
Make it Rain! Or Something Like That
Assuming you’ve taken your concept and created artwork that suits you, it’s time to actually make something real for testing. What that means to me is that it’s time to print stuff out! Scoville has 13 pages of printing required for a full copy. The next step is to adhere those pages to the thick card stock. I like to buy the stuff that is as thick as standard board game chit board. This gives me the feeling like I am playing a real game when I test it.
So I use the glue stick and cover the back of the paper and then stick it to the card stock. Once I’ve got them all glued down I can start to cut them to size. Since the large card stock boards I buy are too big for my paper cutter I run a scissors through them to separate the difference components before using the paper cutter.
Then I use the paper cutter to trim the fat and make them nice and clean. Shown here as an example is the first cuts done to the auction tiles:
I then go ahead and cut each tile out individually and end up with a pile of nice thick quality components:
I continue this process for all of the components in the game.
Making Player Shields
Another part that seemed a little overwhelming to me was the production of player shields. But I found a nice, easy way to make them. If you don’t want pictures on them then just cut some paper and fold it. If you want pictures or logos then follow this procedure:
Print the logos.
- Cut the logos to a rectangular size.
- Glue the logo centered on a sheet of thin card stock.
- Angle cut each edge so that it will lean when completed.
- Fold gently.
For Scoville I made the artwork on the shields include the player color. Making your own player shields rather than using shields from games you own can really spice up your prototype.
One of the more tedious things in this process is making my own coins. I don’t have to make it as hard on myself as I do, but I prefer a really professional looking prototype.
It would be much easier to simply write a money value on the plastic bingo chips with a marker. This would make them more difficult to read and they wouldn’t look as nice.
So my process for making coins is this:
- Create the artwork.
- Insert the coin images into a document file.
- Print the document.
- Punch the coins out of the paper.
- Adhere them to the bingo chips.
Here is a tip for punching, if you use a circle punch like mine:
If you hold the punch like it seems it should be held then you have to rely on the little plastic bump guides on the side of it. Just flip the punch over and you can visually align the punch with the coin. This makes it so much easier!
Once you’ve got them all punched you can simply glue them to the bingo chips. I recommend watching something on TV that is really attention grabbing, so that it draws your attention from the tedium of gluing little circles to bingo chips.
If you don’t like the idea of gluing circles to bingo chips then go ahead and use the same thick card stock that you’ve been using. Just be aware that the circle punch may not punch through the thick card stock. That’s why I went with the bingo chips.
The Final Product
Once you’ve got all the components glued-punched-cut-etc. then it’s time to put it all together. Here is a before and after picture showing the reduction in volume for Scoville:
To continue with the theme of a quality, pitch-able prototype I like to use a nice container to hold everything. You can buy these at Target.com or you can find different colors in the store. They are only $5. I should also note that these fit into a Medium Flat Rate Priority box from the United States Postal Service. So it is pretty easy to mail one off to a publisher!
Now you’ve got your container so throw in the components, a couple copies of the rules, a business card, and you’re ready to pitch your game! Note, you do not need to have a high quality prototype to pitch a game. I am just a firm believer in making a good first impression. Here’s what Scoville looks like in it’s full prototype form:
How Much Is It Gonna Cost Me?
I mentioned earlier that you can make an high quality prototype that is also inexpensive. Here is a rundown of the costs for a full copy of Scoville:
- 13 sheets of glossy photo paper: $3
- Printer Ink (I buy cheap Non-OEM ink off Amazon): ~$2
- Glue Stick: $3.30
- 4-Pack of Thick Card Stock: $13
- Bingo Chips: $0.50
- Meeples ($0.14 each): $0.84 – I live near The Game Crafter so I can pick them up and avoid paying shipping costs
- Plastic Cubes (250): $7 – I bought a tub of 1000 cubes for $25 (shipping included) from EAI
So the total for a high quality prototype for Scoville costs me under $30. So maybe you wouldn’t characterize that as inexpensive. But when $30 can allow you to create a pitch-able high quality prototype that might catch a publisher’s eye, I don’t think $30 is too bad.
What techniques do you use? I wanted to point out that I did not write about making cards. Most people, when making prototype cards will purchase penny sleeves, insert their custom made cards, and make them thicker by dropping in a M:TG card. I don’t use cards in Scoville, so I didn’t include that.
I hope that you enjoyed this article. It has been a fun process for me to figure out some of the best ways to make a prototype. If you have any ways to make the process more efficient, please leave a comment so others can see!