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.




My card game Fools! is now available at DriveThruCards


I’m quite pleased to let you all know that my game Fools! can be purchased through DriveThruCards now as well as The Game Crafter.

There are a few differences although the game itself is the same. If you purchase this game through DTC you’ll pay $9.00 plus shipping (which for me has been $2.99 for USPS). The game does not come with a tuck box or printed instructions. DTC do not currently have the ability to print the boxes and do not have an option for printed instructions. You’ll save a bit of money with them though. The instructions are available as a PDF download.

TGC’s version does come with a tuck box and printed instructions (although they’ve done away with the longer format 2.5″ instruction booklet, so the instructions come as 2 pages of double sided 8.5″ x 11″ paper). You’ll pay $11.99 at TCG plus about $4 in shipping, depending on where you are.

Both versions will take a week or two to print and ship.


A quick, fun trick taking card game in the land of Fairy!

Fools! Is a fast paced and fun card game that can be played with 2-4 players in less than half an hour. Each player takes the part of a Fairy Lord who brings their vast host of fairies to a grand tourney held once a year.

Over the course of a day, many battles are fought in the Grand Tourney, giving individual fairies a chance to show their skills on the field of battle.

As a Fairy Lord, you will use all of your magic and power to fill your armies with the most powerful fairies. If you sometimes slip a poor little sprite (or even a fool) into your opponents army, or replace one of your brownies with a knight, well it’s not cheating if it’s done magically! But be careful for the Fairy Queens, Kings and Champions will not stand for any trickery!

At the end of every battle, you will be presented with the three fairies in your army who were the bravest and most impressive. If your three fairies are more impressive than your opponents, you’ve scored a victory point! After all, it’s not the actual battle that counts in the Realm of Fairy, it’s the style and cunning it’s fought with that counts.

Each player draws a small ‘army’ of 3 face down cards and a hand of three cards. The army cards represent those fairies who will distinguish themselves in battle. Your hand represents fairies and fools you can use to hinder your opponents or strengthen your own army.

Cards can be played as Standard Bearers, some with special effects. Players are then required to replace a card in their opponent’s army with one from their hand. They may then replace a card in their own army with one from their hand. Through this all, their army cards remain hidden from everyone.

At the end of each turn, your hand is discarded and your army cards are revealed. Points are added up and the highest score wins the turn.

2 player games play to 5 points, 3 players to 4 points and 4 players to three points.

Game School: Print on Demand and Self Publishing using The Game Crafter or DriveThruCards


Check out the Game School community! 

Rather than kick off the Game School with a mechanic or theme idea, I thought I’d start off talking a bit about Print on Demand (PoD), self publishing and using the two resources I’m most familiar with – The Game Crafter and DriveThruCards. This article is meant really as an overview of both services as well as a starting point for actually using them.

They each have their relative merits and detriments – quite frankly it might be in your best interest to use both. Why? Let’s find out!

Print on Demand and Self Publishing

Why go the PoD route? Why not just have some publishing company run with your game? I’m not going to enter into a huge discussion on this right now. This article is more about using two of these resources than why you should, could or would want to. However, here are a few reasons off the top of my head:

  • You want the complete control over your project, want to go it yourself or only plan on small batch printing.
  • Getting publishers to look at your design can be hard – they’re pressed for time and there are tons of designs around!
  • You can control everything – artwork, layout, design decisions, marketing. This can be good and bad.
  • Prototyping. If you do want to get your prototype in front of some eyes, it doesn’t hurt to have it looking slick.
  • Not really for the mass market – your game may be simply for your group, may not appeal to a lot of people or you may be shy about showing it around.
  • PoD is another way to attract publishers – I’ve spoken to a few who specifically look through these sites for games that they may be interested in ‘taking to the next level’.
  • Your game is awesome, and fun but not very marketable.

Look, everyone who gets into game design would love to have their games published by Z-man, Stronghold or Fantasy Flight. It’s just not going to happen though. These companies are, well companies. While the folks in them love games and gaming, they also need to make a profit to continue doing what they do. They can’t often take huge risks on designs that may or may not work. Smaller companies are in a similar boat but with much tighter margins and less room for error. A game like Ninjas – Silent but Deadly I don’t think would ever have been produced by a game publisher. As fun as it is and as good a time as I’ve had playing it, there’s not a lot of return on that investment for a business.

I however get a ton of satisfaction out of getting N:SbD out into the world. I get terribly excited by each new box that sells, and so far I’ve danced right to the bank with the $25 or so I’ve made off of it. If you’re looking to get a game out into the wild, this is a great way to do so. Now, lets hit a quick list of pros and cons and then I’ll dive into actually using two companies, The Game Crafter and DriveThruCards.

PoD Pros

  • Your game is published. Yay!
  • You can have it your way – exactly as you designed it.
  • Great for prototyping and one-offs.
  • No more waiting a year plus for a publisher to get your game made.
  • Your per sales profits will be higher.
  • You don’t pay for production – it doesn’t cost you anything to use the site and have your games printed.

PoD Cons

  • Generally higher production costs for very small print runs means your games will cost more than you may expect.
  • Production and shipping means no instant or near instant gratification – expect 2-3 weeks from purchase to arrival.
  • Everything’s up to you – design, layout, play testing, marketing – all those things publishers would do for you.
  • No financial support from a publisher – no advance, marketing budget, etc.

The Game Crafter VS DriveThruCards

Catchy subject heading there which is good marketing, but let me explain one thing right off. If you’re going to use one of these folks to actually sell games (not just prototype), and these games are card games,  you’re probably best off using both. That’s my opinion anyway, and we’ll get into why that is shortly.

I’ve been using TGC for almost two years now. At first, I used them to simply prototype a few ideas I had, none of which have yet made it into publication. Over the last ten months or so, I’ve been using them to actually sell a few simple card games – Ninja: Silent but Deadly and Fools! DriveThruCards had a soft launch early this year and are now gearing up into full swing production for card games. Lets hit another list to quickly hit the pros of each site.


  • Less expensive production cost.
  • Less expensive shipping cost.
  • Taps directly into the DriveThruRPG/RPGNow franchise, which is huge.

The Game Crafter

  • Vastly larger selection of bits and components.
  • They have boxes that you can design, from tuck boxes for cards to full sized game boxes.
  • You can print boards, instruction booklets and more.
  • Their site can do a decent job of generating publicity for you if your game happens to be highlighted.

Both sites have roughly similar quality when it comes to cards. DTC just introduced a higher quality card stock but I haven’t had a chance to actually look at it.

Why use both? If you do, you’re margins at DTC will be 5% less, but they’re still pretty damned good. And you’ll have the ability to find new fans at either site. That’s twice the exposure. You will have to do more leg work though as the raw files needed by each site to print your games are very different. Here’s how to get yourself started.

That Damned Learning Curve

If you’ve never prepared anything for print before, well this is going to be a little painful. There’s no getting around it. You’re going to need to learn how to use some sort of image manipulation program (Photoshop, the free GIMP, Illustrator, etc.) and you’re going to have to use some sort of word process program (Word, OpenOffice, etc.). You’ll also need to learn about some basic layout and design concepts for both your cards/game and your instructions. I’m not going to teach you any of that now, or here. In fact, there are folks far, far more talented at this than I am so in future articles, I’ll probably be linking all over the net when talking about this. You’re also going to need to be able to produce print ready PDFs. I use Acrobat X Pro for this. Other free PDF creation tools may work as well but I don’t have any experience with them. You’re also going to want to read up a bit on bleeds, image sizes, what DPI means and more. All of these can be found in the FAQs for both sites.

Lets assume you’ve gone through and actually created your game as well. All the play testing, design choices, more play testing, prototyping in a basic sense, play testing, maybe a spread sheet or two, some more play testing. Now you’re ready to order a pretty prototype or even go to market for yourself!



Right here is where you want to start. This is a great overview of what they’ll need from you. They answer a lot of common questions and cover a few common mistakes too. Now here’s my boiling all of this down to several basic steps.

Have your rules ready to go as a PDF. You’re also going to need to make one big mother of a PDF for your cards. The way it works with DTC is that you need your (standard poker sized) card images to be 2.75 inches by 3.75 inches at 300 DPI. You can find all of their templates here. I use the GIMP to do all of my image processing and it’s as easy as scaling your image to meet these requirements. Got that done? Now, take the image you’ve prepared for your card backing, and each individual card. In this massive PDF you’re going to start with the card back, and then add the card front. Each is a page unto itself. So for one single card, you’ll have two pages. Card back, card front. Repeat this for every single copy of each card you need. If you have a deck of sixty cards, thats a 120 page PDF. This document will take you through the steps needed to actually create the PDF, as well as the image and color needs.

Here’s DTC’s poker card template:


You’ll then create a new product through DTC, upload the massive PDF containing all of the cards, upload the rules book and order a proof. Once you’ve received the proof (2-3 weeks) you’ll look it over, correct any problems and then approve the game for sale.

DTC has a pretty extensive FAQ that I’d recommend you read as well.


The Game Crafter

Personally, I’m more a fan of TGC’s file preparations but that may just be because I was exposed to them first. Your going to have your rules ready as a PDF again, but you have a few more options. You can print the rules as straight 8.5″ document through TGC, or have them as a downloadable PDF. You can also create an actual rules book, more akin to what you’ll see in any game purchased off of a store shelf. One thing TGC excels at are having templates available for you to use. Here are a bunch of game booklet templates, and here are their card templates. They’ve been at this game a bit longer than DTC and have a much greater offering when it comes to game production, above and beyond cards.

TGC will have you create an image template for each card and the card back. Each card (for a standard, poker sized card) is 825×1125 px in size. In fact, the template looks like this:


You’ll first create a deck of cards through TGC. Then, you upload the image file that will be the back of these cards. You then create each individual card type. By example, if you have a 30 card deck of 3 different cards, you’d create 3 card types. Upload those images (3 images in this example) and set the quantity of each to 10. That’s 3o cards, and to me a bit easier than having to construct a PDF for each card in the deck. That’s why I prefer TGC for prototyping – it’s just easier.

Here is a great place to start when it comes to using TGC.

In Conclusion

Both services have their advantages and disadvantages. For prototyping only, I default to TGC. For me the time it actually takes to prepare a prototype is a bit faster on my side of things, but printing and delivery can take longer. For games that I sell, well I’m using both sites. It just makes sense to spread my exposure as far and wide as I can. The extra effort in setting up the games for both sites pays off with the first few sales.

I hope this helps, even though it’s not meant to be an exhaustive overview of file preparation and using these two companies. Both have great online resources and are fairly responsive when it comes to questions. TGC also has an online forum dedicated to using the site. If you have any questions for me, feel free to ask them here, or head on over to the Game School community on Google Plus!





I’ve got Ninjas! Courtesy of DriveThruCards

I lost! To myself! Which I think means I’ve won, right?

My ninjas have started to arrive! In typical ninja fashion, they snuck into my home via my 9 year old (who apparently the convinced didn’t need to mention to me that I had gotten a package).

A little while back I was contacted by the folks at One Bookshelf (you know them as DriveThruRPG, RPGNow, DriveThruFiction and many more) to check out their new Print on Demand service – DriveThruCards. I was really excited about the prospect. I was a beta tester for their PoD program when that first launched and the chance to get in early and have a product up and printed by DriveThruCards was something I jumped at.

Except I didn’t have any card games in the works. Sure, I had the prototype for Upgrade Wars – but I’d already printed those out through another service. DTC’s specifications for printing were a bit different and the thought of reformatting all of those cards (for the fourth time) was shudder inducing.

Then, like a sword in the dark, an idea hit me. Over the course of half a day, Ninja – Silent but Deadly was conceived, grew and was born. And now I had a small, quick card print run that needed to be done! A week past I worked with Brian at DTC to get the cards into the correct format and printed. Yesterday evening, I received them!

They look fantastic, were exactly what I was aiming for and even had that just-opened-the-booster-pack smell. In all, I’m very happy with them and with DriveThruCards.

Once their service does launch (which should be soon) you’ll be able to order Ninja -Silent but Deadly Just the Cards. This will come with everything you need to play this little meta-game and a download of the instructions as a PDF.

DriveThruRPG enters the Print on Demand market, and I got to beta test and review it

[Full Disclosure: Not only am I a featured reviewer for DriveThruRPG but they also carry my products.]

DriveThruRPG, has recently entered the print on demand market, offering a small but rapidly growing number of PDFs as actual, honest to goodness physical books.

I was recently asked to participate in a beta test with this new offering, following the print on demand process from ordering right through to receipt of the physical product.

The process itself is not that much different than ordering up a PDF of your choice, but the options available now include print products.  They can range (at the author’s discretion) through soft and hard covers, black and white or color.  (Click on any of the images to make them larger).

The options have expanded!

Once your selection is made, you settle up as normal, using a credit card, Paypal or any credit you have with DTRPG.  You’ll receive an email confirmation of your order, and if you’ve purchased an option with a PDF, a link to download that PDF.

We were offered a set of product to choose from and I went with Brave New World, an alternate history supers game.  The game itself looks like a lot of fun but that’s a subject for another review.  Today we’ll focus on the print product and the process that goes in to obtaining it.

Several days later, I receive another email stating that my product had been printed and was ready to ship.  In less than two weeks, a package arrived and I had my first print on demand book from DriveThruRPG!

It is a Brave New World!

I was immediately struck by the quality.  It’s exactly like any hard cover RPG title I had picked up at my FLGS.  I was frankly impressed.  I wasn’t really sure what to expect but this book met or exceed all of the preconceived notions I had in my head of just what I’d be getting.


The stock for the cover is quite thick, and resistant to bending.  Weighing in at over 220 pages, it’s got a nice hefty feel to it with a good, solid binding.  This book isn’t going to fall apart anytime soon.

Solidly bound
Inside front cover
The goods inside

The end result is a great, solid product that you can hold in your hands for a lot less than I’d expect to pay for it.  It is of course up to the author or publisher to determine pricing, but this gives a good deal of flexibility to them.

The spine

We touched on this a bit in our latest podcast – I really feel that this is the future of small press role playing games.  The ability to quickly distribute PDFs at a cost far lower than print products, where the publisher and author receive much more of a percentage of the sale.  Add to that an easy way to get a print product out to those who want it, without having the overhead of a funding a print run, storing the product and shipping it out – it’s small press gold!

Once I get all of my ducks in a row, I can realistically expect to sell perhaps a thousand PDF copies and a hundred print copies of my Aruneus book in the first few months.  That may be a gross overestimation as well – this being my first full length product, we’ll have to see.  The ability to produce the PDF once, put it online and then allow anyone who wants a hardcover copy to have one – that’s amazing to me.  It’s a huge windfall as far as budgeting is concerned.

It also means I can realistically look to price a softcover, 100+ page book at well under $20 and the hardcover at well under $30, and still be able to make something of a profit, turning that back to the team who are helping me assemble this whole thing – and to future projects.

I’ve just heard from The DTRPG folks – here’s how shipping works:

These books ship worldwide. LSI (our print partner) has printing facilities in the USA and the UK and will ship from whichever facility is closer.

We’ve already had customers from Germany, Japan, Australia, Israel and several other countries.

In the tradition of my mini-reviews, I’m going to give DriveThruRPG’s print on demand offerings 5 out of 5 stars.

[tags]drivethrurpg, rpg, role playing games, print on demand, small press, pdf, review[/tags]

Old School Actual Play Mini-cast #1 – 22 Minutes of RPG Goodness

We’re back!  Welcome to our Old School, Actual Play Mini-cast!  This is a 22:25 mini-cast, in which Scott and I get together to chat about old school RPGs vs newer systems.

What’s good about Palladium FRPG 1st edition?  What about D&D 4.0, or 3.5?  Pathfinder? And just why does Savage Worlds rub Scott the wrong way?  Find out the answers to these burning questions and a bunch more as we sit down to chat.  And did he just say MMORPG?

Other topics we talk about:  Print on Demand, is it the way of the small press RPG?  What about licensing titles – worth it?  Just how far uphill, through snow, both ways did Ben walk to the high school RPG sessions?  What it is like being a small press outfit publishing only PDFs, and when will the whole crew be playing Old School again?

Scott is our GM in our old school Palladium Fantasy RPG 1st edition campaign, and Ben plays a wizard, and a slightly drowned assassin.

Listen to this podcast right here, on iTunes or through Drive Thru RPG!

[tags]rpg, actual play, old school, role playing games, palladium, savage worlds, small press, print on demand, feign death[/tags]

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