As work on Osprey Adrift charges onward, I’ve been thinking a lot about prototyping.

This is a subject that a lot of people have already written on, but I wanted to give my two cents on the matter since it’s consumed a significant portion of my energy and wallet. (Pun intended!)

I think the key to remember if you’re inexperienced with prototyping is to keep it as cheap as possible. Prototyping can be an expense that quickly adds up and, if you’re like me and self-publishing your first game, be an expense that you can’t really afford.

Still, prototyping is a necessary part of the design process. I think where a lot of independent designers get into trouble is they want to create the coolest-looking product they can because they’re so excited about their idea. But that excitement can get costly if you don’t keep it under control. Just because you have a vision of how you want your final game to look doesn’t mean it has to look like that right away!

If you’ve read my post about theme & mechanics throughout my creative process, you’ll remember that I go through several stages, each of which requires some sort of prototype… but only the later ones require any degree of sparkle.

Early on in the design process, I make a prototype that’s quite simple. Since I’m primarily testing game mechanics at this point–and I’m making changes to the game at a very rapid pace–I generally use plain white index cards. A stack of a couple hundred blank index cards runs for $0.88 at my local grocery. Not too shabby. For games that require specially sized/shaped components (such as hex tiles), I like to buy blank ones from The Game Crafter. They have a ton of stuff, ranging from tiles to meeples to dice. The nice thing about buying blank stuff is that if I decide to put a game on the back burner–or my game graduates to a more elaborate prototype–I’ll likely have a bunch of pieces I can use for other prototypes. I keep a giant plastic jewelry storage box to store all of my loose prototyping components.

game prototype storage.JPG
That’s a lotta storage space for meeples…

When I’m ready to move onto improving the game (what I called my “Unit Testing & Incremental Improvement” phase in my previous article ), I still use handmade prototypes, but I put a little more effort into them. Since I’m paying a bit more attention to the game’s theme and the overall experience, I want to start working through some ideas for the game’s final visuals. What this means is I use colored pencils or markers to start sketching out the frames for the cards, and being a little more thoughtful about where I place blocks of text. And although I’m no artist, I might even doodle a picture or two. It’s important to start thinking about how the final game will look – even if the final artwork will eventually be done by a professional.

Only when I’m ready to move into my “Closed Beta Testing” phase, do I order a prototype from a printing company. I create my own design files using found art and laying it out in Visio or InDesign (I’m no artist, but I can at least get the rough layouts I want), and I use a print-n-play service (like The Game Crafter). I keep the cost down by only ordering one and resisting the urge to order another whenever I make small changes to the game. At this point, my prototype also serves as a tool for collecting feedback. Do the playtesters like the look of the game so far? What about the component quality? Do they want cards with a heavier weight? Do they like the look of the rulebook? Use their feedback to inform your decisions as you start working with a professional artist and/or graphic designer, and make any necessary changes to the prototype by striking them out wherever possible… instead of buying another prototype.

During my “Blind Testing” phase, this is where I try to make a prototype that’s exactly what the final game will look like. Of course, there will be changes made after testing and the quality may be a bit different, but if I can get the look of the game to be 95% of the way there, then I consider it a success. For Osprey Adrift, this means using the professionally-done artwork and ordering a prototype with those files. It’s quite expensive to print such a small quantity of games, and that’s why I only do this when I’m certain I’m ready to move into blind testing. (Alternatively, if you want to run blind tests before you pay for professional artwork, you could do that too; I just prefer to give my blind test groups a sneak peek at what the final game’s going to look like. Because I only move into blind testing when I’m fully confident in the game, I don’t have to worry about making the wrong decision in commissioning artwork.)

Remember, tailor the prototype to its intended audience, and keep it as cheap as possible. Only add more expensive components when absolutely necessary. Designing a game is a ton of fun and infinitely rewarding; but that doesn’t mean you have to spend a fortune to do it!

I’m sure I’ll have more tidbits to share about prototyping, but until next time…

Keep it plucky,

Nick

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