At any one time, I’m working on lots of games. At the time of writing, I have 5 in early design stages, 7 that are somewhere in the development-playtesting cycle and 30+ that I’m actively pitching. (I also have around 50 abandoned games that made it past initial prototyping – a subject for a future blog).  So, as you can imagine, I create a lot of prototypes. My husband says it’s like living with a primary school teacher – as many evenings a week, I’m sitting in front of the telly cutting up components. I leave a trail of offcuts in my wake. The prototyping detritus is everywhere. 

This game is set in a rainforest. Can you tell?

Making it playable

I don’t make particularly beautiful prototypes but they’re functional – and to be honest, that’s the point. The purpose of a prototype is to test the game as it is right now and to get it to the next stage. You are not selling the game to your playtesters. You might have a vision about how the final product will look, in fact you probably do, but your prototype doesn’t need to look like that. It just needs to work mechanically.

It’s possible to go too far the other way, of course. Game components on scrappy bits of paper with hard-to-decipher handwriting will make for hard-going playtests. A basic level of graphic design (whether this is done digitally or by hand) is important. 

Here’s a (non-exhaustive) checklist:

  • Are the components big enough? Will all players around the table be able to reach/see?
  • Is all the text legible?
  • Is it clear what text is mechanical and what is provided for flavour? 
  • Have substituted symbols for text where possible? You don’t want playtesters to have to be overloaded with text.
  • Are your symbols intuitive for your average playtester?
  • Is it clear what components belong to what player?
  • Is your use of colour clear? Or are you using the same colour to mean two different things? 
  • Will it be possible for a colourblind playtester to play? (You might not be able to do much about this, but maybe there’s a quick fix – e.g. using a pattern with each colour.)
  • Do the components support intuitive play? For example, if your board is directional, have you added arrows? Or if your cards have a cost and a value – are these clearly shown in different ways and different places on your cards.
  • Have you minimised the decorative elements? Things that are added to prototypes that have no mechanical function can be confusing. (Some published games are guilty of this too).

What about art?

If you feel – for your game – it’s important to hook players in visually, then take time to give them an idea of how you think it will look. For example, I have a game called Postcards, where players travel the world collecting postcards for their journal. I want the whole thing to have a sort of 1930s feel – when travel was luxurious and exotic. I imagine the postcards in an art deco style. I have an example in the game box. But the cards in my prototype just have a vaguely art deco feeling font. 

Of course, if your gameplay is linked to the artwork – like MicroMacro: Crime City or one of Bez Shahriari’s games – e.g  A game about Cute Comical Creatures and how to identify them after someone makes noises (pictured) – then it’s a different matter. But for most games – the artwork isn’t integral – so don’t worry about it, at least early on. 

Prepare for updates

Chances are that you’ll want to make changes to your prototype after each playtest… so make it easy to change! If you’ve spent huge amounts of time making your prototype look beautiful, or money on a high quality prototype, you’ll be far less inclined to make significant changes to it. So assume changes will be made and construct prototypes accordingly.

Be prepared to scribble stuff out, or ‘sticker over’ the original. It won’t look pretty, but as long as it’s functional, that really doesn’t matter, (unless you’re doing blind playtests just before you go to print. In this case it should look as close to the final product as possible.) 

If you have easy access to a computer and printer, digital files are easy to update. Save past versions in case you wish to return to them, but update your main files after each playtest. 

Don’t spend out on artwork. Unless you’re self-publishing, or your game is very art-based, you don’t need this to playtest. Through playtesting you may remove components, change the theme or even abandon the whole project. It’s so much easier to adapt and reposition when your investments are minimal. 

My prototyping kit

The kit you need will, to a small extent, depend on what sort of games you want to make and how you choose to work. Some designers will have a lot more. Some will make do with much less. But this list covers my own basics. I create almost all of my prototypes digitally and print multiple versions. (It’s possible to do it by hand, but my skills don’t lie in this area.)

Things I would struggle to do without:

  • Computer, internet connection and colour printer.
  • A3 laminator with both gloss and matt laminating pouches. 
    • Matt laminate is best for most components as it eliminates the shine and components can be seen equally well from all angles.
    • Gloss laminate is best for any component you want to write and erase on – e.g. roll & write boards. Perfect for use with dry wipe markers.
  • White copier paper – for any elements I’m laminating.
  • 160gsm white card – for printing anything that’s hard to laminate – e.g. tiles that need to closely tessellate. 
  • Permanent markers (I use sharpies) in 6 colours, but lots of black ones.
  • Dry erase markers (for writeable games).
  • Good scissors (probably my most used item).
  • Glue. I use Pritt stick for anything that is going through the laminator and PVA for other things. If you’re using foam to create 3D components or tiles, be careful what glue you use as some melt foam (as I’ve learned to my cost). 
  • A selection of basic wooden components in 6 colours. I use lots of cubes, discs and meeples. I sell some basic sets for a reasonable price, or have a look at the extensive range on Spielmaterial or Board Game Extras.
  • A bunch of different dice – including blank D6s, which can be written on with sharpies.
  • Blank playing cards – for you to write on.
  • Card sleeves. These are super useful if you’re printing cards on paper, then sleeve them using an old playing card or blank card to add rigidity. Sleeves make cards very easy to update.
  • A selection of plastic grip seal baggies.
  • Elastic bands.

Nice to haves:

  • A selection of random bits from old board games – counters, pawns, interesting dice and gameboards and tiles you can paper over,
  • Foam board – for creating thicker tiles (for easy handling) or for building up to create more 3D components. 
  • Cutting board and knife.
  • Guillotine – but only if you’ve got a good one. Crappy ones can actually cost you time and ruin printouts. 
  • Drawstring bags

    A note about digital tools: I use Piktochart to create my digital files. It does everything I need, but it does come with a subscription cost and a bit of a learning curve. There are many different tools which you could use instead. Other folk in my playtesting group use different software or online packages including InDesign, CorelDraw, PowerPoint, & Canva. Anything that allows you to mix words and images, mess with positioning and print stuff out easily will work.

    When I have an idea for a game that warrants something special – I’ll try to make it using my kit first. If it’s not possible, I’ll consider other things I might have around the house that I could cobble together to make a workable prototype, before spending money on special pieces. But I do sometimes buy special pieces. I recently bought a whole load of plastic animals, for example – wishing I’d kept a bunch from when my boys were little. 

    Is your prototype pitch ready?

    If you’ve developed your prototype through multiple playtests, it’s probably pitch ready. You don’t need to spend money on fancy prototypes. It just needs to clearly demonstrate the gameplay. It needs to function. 

    Publishers don’t expect to see prototypes with all the bells and whistles. When a publisher looks at your game, they’re not interested in the artwork you’ve created (or commissioned) – it’s a distraction. They’re only interested in how the game plays. The gameplay must sell the game by itself. After all, the production is their job. Your job is the game design.