Game School: Prototyping 101

Ah prototyping! That trap that can so easily swallow you up until you’re floating in a sea of card stock and meeples, desperately trying to dog paddle while holding two different versions of the rules in your hands and wondering who dumped all this stuff into your pool in the first place.

The aftermath of a good prototyping session.

The Right Stuff

9 out of 10 game creators agree, scrap paper is your friend. The other one uses some sort of program to mimic scrap paper. And honestly, this really is the best way to go about with a first prototype of your game, in most cases. Take the cards you’ll need, the board you may want, the pieces you’re going to use and create ’em all using paper. Grab some from that printer at work, rip ’em out of your notebook or substitute index cards for other bits and pieces. Woah there, hold on! Let’s take it back a step though. What exactly are we prototyping here?

Got Game?

This is the first step in prototyping anything. Having something, anything to prototype in the first place. You have to have a game. In your head, the rough idea of a design, jotted down on paper – whatever it is you have to go through that creative process of thinking up something to play. Go do that right now. Yes, really. Take 2 minutes and think up a game. I’ll get you started – it’s a deck of 24 cards in a 2 player game with each card labelled 1-12. There are 3 suits, stars, circles and moebius strips. I chose moebius strips because they’re hard to draw and it amuses me that you’ll be drawing them. Or make up your own damned game. Either way, lets get back to prototyping.

Back to The Right Stuff

Right. Now you’ve got a game to prototype. You’re really going to want to do this stuff on paper first. I don’t care if you hand write it out, or make some simple cards with a free MS Word template and print them out. What you’re going for here is the fastest way to get something out that is super easy to change rapidly, and has the least amount of graphics or iconography on it. Let’s look at the advantages to doing it this way.

A rough approximation of my past prototypes and where they ended up
A rough approximation of my past prototypes and where they ended up
  • It’s really, really fast and easy to do.
  • You can change things rapidly, which you’ll probably need to do.
  • It’s cheap.
  • You won’t be distracted by fancy artwork and heavy iconography.
  • It’s cheap.
  • You’ll get to see the base mechanics of the game in operation, and won’t succumb to theme blindness.
  • Did I mention it’s cheap? It really is.

Filling out note cards, or creating paper boards and using existing components from other games or stuff around the house really is the most economical and the fastest way to try something out. This portion of prototyping is great for just giving the game a few whirls on your own, or co-opting a friend or family member or three into your play testing circle. They don’t care if it looks like the aftermath of a ticker tape parade, and all should be looking at right now is what’s broken, what’s missing and what works, not what’s pretty. This is a critical point in any games development, and you’re going to be doing it with little bits of paper, paper clips and possibly Fritos. Get used to that idea.

I got a bunch of kinks out, now what?

Option 1 – Print and Play

Now it’s time to get more people interested in your game, and a great way to do that is to create a Print and Play version of it. Not only can this generate lots of interest, but it’s the easiest way to get groups of people you don’t know to blind play test your game. But creating a PnP file isn’t always easy.

There’s a line between making it look beautiful and making it easy to print (and easy to create). If you’ve got a card game, it’s fairly easy to sit astride this line and make serviceable cards with clip art or other public domain artwork. Games with boards, meeples and other things, well this gets a bit harder. You can construct a board that’s printable on one or more than one standard piece of 8.5″ by 11″ paper, and hopefully anyone testing out your game will have a ready supply of bits on hand.

Again, the point with this is to keep it fairly simple – however, this is also a great time to test out iconography, layout and graphic design.  You’ve got to find a balance between easy to make and inexpensive to commission and real world look and feel. You should try to get your placeholder artwork (that clipart stuff), your numbers, text and icons roughly where you want them to be in the finished product. Not only will this allow you to spot any mistakes in layout and at least have an idea as to how to correct them, but it also shows players and potential publishers how it will work as a finished product.

Option 2 – Print on Demand

Another way to go about making much more beautiful prototypes is to start designing your game for real world use – again it doesn’t have to be perfect, or even all that pretty. Like the PnP option above, all the icons, text and place holder art should probably be generally where you want it in the finished game. If you wish, you can even get a bit fancier with the artwork and design. You can prepare your files for a POD company such as The Game Crafter or DriveThruCards and off you go! In a month you’ll have a solid, playable prototype.

Stop right there!

Do not let cute red pandas get in the way of your play testing!
Do not let cute red pandas get in the way of your play testing!

The big decision is upon you. Are you going to try to sell this game to a publisher, or are you going to go it on your own? This is an important question to ask yourself, and an important answer to possess, because it’s going to inform exactly how you proceed from here.

I’m going to sell my game to a publisher.

Great! I’m glad you’ve made this decision. I wish you all the best of luck because you’re going to have to start selling your idea. We’ll be talking about talking to publisher later on here in the Game School. For now let’s focus on prototyping and it’s role in selling your game.

You’re probably not going to want to hire an artist or a graphic designer to make your game look professional. A serviceable PnP or POD game is really where you want to go from here. Why? Because publishers have artists that they like to work with. They have styles of design and art that they are comfortable using and are going to want to apply those to a game they purchase (hopefully from you). This is completely, absolutely within their rights – they are putting the real money on the line for things like further development, marketing, manufacturing, and distribution. So they get to make a lot of choices as far as your game goes. Design choices, mechanical choices and whatnot.

It’s great to have a decent looking prototype to show them how the game works but it will be a waste of your time and money perfecting the look of the game ahead of time (in most cases – there are always a few exceptions).

I’m going to produce and sell my own game.

Now is where design comes into play in a much greater way. Whether you plan on selling through third party Print on Demand services, or are going to become your own publisher to self-publish your game, it’s going to have to look finished. You’re aiming here not to impress someone with just clever game play and mechanics, but to impress lots of people with the entire package. This means that, while you may want to order a rough prototype (something I do despite the cost because I love doing so), you’re going to need help. You’re going to need a fully realized design, iconography in place (where necessary), artwork, box designs, rule book design, layout and of course writing, editing and even more play testing.

Once you’ve gotten everything designed (it’s a long road but certainly not impossible to do this all yourself or with resources available online), then you order a prototype. This is a first look at your finished game. You’ll want to make sure you’ve ironed out all the game play/mechanical issues before you get to this point. You’ll check over your prototype for every little thing.

Will you then be going through a manufacturer to get a print run of 1000 copies (and another prototype)? Will you do it all PoD? Your call on this one and that’s beyond the scope of this article. Do yourself a favor before you get to that point though and make sure that everything works, and looks great, by prototyping.

Of course, it’s not all black and white

There are plenty of cases of people going it on their own, publishing through TCG or DTC and then getting noticed by a publisher who’s in the business to make games and profits. There are also plenty of cases of newly minted publishers getting one title out and giving up the ghost, or not even getting that title out.

Personally, I’m going to try the ‘get someone else to publish for me’ route and have started designing games that I think are fun, tight and commercially viable. I’m not an artist, graphic designer or a master at contracts, customs and manufacture. I’d rather find someone who is and convince them that I’ve got the games they need to print.




2 thoughts on “Game School: Prototyping 101

Add yours

  1. I am currently in the beginning phases of creating a board game and this article was incredibly helpful to put into perspective what is going on in my head and with the cardboard cut-outs of pieces I am working with. I also liked looking ahead a little bit to see where I wanted to go with this board game. Thanks!


  2. I’m glad you found this useful! I’m working slowly on getting thoughts, resources and ideas together for us folks who are still fairly new to the game publishing arena. There wasn’t much like this when I started out and I’m hoping this will make things easier for everyone, which will result in more games I want to play being available!


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