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Quick hacks for early prototyping

Hello. My name is Tony and I like to play games and make ... stuff. That's enough about me. My plan for this series is to do two or three entries over the next couple of months and then abandon it. I'm fairly confident of success with the bar set at this level.

So anyway, over the past few years I've played a few board games and this means I also think about making them. There are a lot of blogs about game design already, so I'm going to take a different approach - and write mostly about how to prototype things using random crap. Unfortunately this means my children are also in on the deal. Here is something I came home to a couple of years ago.

New designers

I'm not going to claim that this was a 'good' game, but it did have an expansion called "the blacksmith". That's actually pretty much the sort of thing you're in for, I'm afraid.

To start off the way I mean to go on, here's a short list of small hacks I have discovered. When I'm working on a game, or part thereof, there's a point early on where it helps to have a very cheap and nasty prototype method, to see if an idea works at all. If the materials used are at all expensive, then making it gets put off. If the components are too decent-looking, then discarding them to change the rules gets put off. So what is needed is something which is useable, easy to make but is actually unattractive.

I call this the round zero prototype.

Ticket Cards

I realised that train tickets are the size of a playing card, and they have an area of blank space on the back.

Train cards 1

Examination of a few cards showed that there are several slightly different formats depending on where and how you buy them. Cards from automated vendors often have tags at the ends which need to be cut off.

Train cards 2

Depending on how secret, important or persistent the cards will be in your game, it may be necessary to sort them out by type. In my experience this doesn't take long.

In more recent tickets purchased since the photo was taken, some of the empty space has been taken up by an advert. There's still enough room for a line of text or symbols, which is often all you need for data. I have experimented with sticking paper onto one of the faces. Although it worked, I don't recommend it - it is too much time and effort, and the cards tend to bend.

It so happens that I now buy train tickets regularly; I accumulate them at a rate of about two a week. It's easy to just save them up instead of throwing them away, and this is effectively reusing them so appeals to me for its efficiency. Of course there are some potential drawbacks to this approach. For this purpose these are not disastrous though:

1) There is enough information on the 'backs' to learn and work out what the cards are.

Yes, this is true. You shouldn't use this approach to make a recycled deck of standard cards to play poker for money. But for early stage prototyping - where you're playing yourself or playtesters who will only see this version once or twice this really isn't an issue.

2) These cards look unsightly; I can just sleeve paper with old Magic das gathering (or equivalent) cards / cut sheets of card down to the right size

Yes, you absolutely can. Note though that ticket cards shuffle really well, while both of those options are less good in that regard. Also, because cutting, folding and inserting take time, these methods impact on willingness to dump individual cards or the entire thing for something better. I suggest saving those for a round one prototype, when you've firmed up the basics.

3) I can buy blank cards very cheaply - use them instead.

Certainly, and I suggest you do that - but wait for the round one prototype. I find myself hesitating over tossing a single card costing only pennies. It's much worse when its a group of them which all have to change. With ticket cards, that's not an issue.

4) Some of my playtesters don't appreciate my game because it's too ugly.

Earmark the offending playtesters for the later rounds of testing with near-final components, when their comments about cosmetic issues might be useful.

Circular Coffee Cards

So this is along the lines of the above, but with the disc of card you can extract from the lid of a jar of coffee. They're writable on one side, and plasticated on the other. Depending on how much coffee you drink and how many you need, you may have to collect for some time before you have enough for your prototype. Circular blanks are more difficult and expensive to get hold of, though, and tricky to make, so it might be worth starting to collect them now.

Coffee Cards

I successfully used discs like these for a quick prototype which I was happy to abandon after a couple of playtests. I claim that as a win.

Game Money

This may be obvious to you - but on the off-chance it isn't, I think it worth mentioning. While you can use dedicated plastic, metal or wooden tokens to represent in-game money, its easy to obsess about getting ones with the right feel and put off testing. Players almost always like metal coins though, so just use real pennies. They're also cheaper than basically any playing tokens. I must admit I collect very shiny pennies for this purpose.

I think this dodge could easily extend to more elaborate later-stage prototypes. If I made a game with an ancient setting, the temptation would be to use old ones and perhaps use a hammer to beat them out of shape a little. Or for fantasy or future settings, perhaps dip them in glass paint. That actually sounds interesting enough that I might have to do some experimentation. But I'm getting ahead of myself. I find it's very easy to spend too much time and money on an early stage prototype. A significant benefit of the round zero prototype is the abnegation of that impulse.

I think that's enough for now. There's more where that come from, though, so maybe until next time.