Game Design – Rapid Prototyping 101

Last week I mentioned my rapid prototyping system, but only hinted at some of the details. Now I’m going to share a little bit of what goes into my rapid prototypes. It’s important to note that every designer should find their own process and style for designing a game. What works best for me may not work best for you.

The first step in rapid prototyping is having a set tools at the ready. That is, have sharpies, pens, pencils, blank cards (easy/cheap to order on Amazon), deck protectors, dice bags, dice, and tokens in your supply. Odds are in favor that quick list I gave will cover most of the elements you’ll need in your prototype.

Myth: To make a prototype card you should have cheap Magic cards, playing cards, or some other card stock base to tape your paper stock card over.
Fact: Having cheap blank cards from Amazon is plenty. In fact the only reason I use them instead of regular paper stock is I have to cut out paper cards, and the blanks are already cut. If you don’t have blanks that are already cut, and you only have paper stock, then all you need to make the card workable is a deck protector. They will give more than enough sturdiness for the rigors of play testing. Please don’t waste your time taping your prototype cards to existing playing cards. This tip also applies to print and play games as well.

The next thing to consider when making your initial prototype is what are the bare minimum number of pieces you need to test the game once by yourself. This helps with a couple of things up front. First, you can very rapidly see if your game idea will behave as well as you hope. In addition, you are more likely to be open to changing things, even dramatically, if the initial test doesn’t go optimally. The general rule of thumb is the further you are into the design process the less likely you are to change things. The problem with that is if you are really far into the design process before you find out that you should change something, you are much more likely to justify not making the change. I’ve said before that play testers want to like your game, but the truth is if they only had middling fun, or worse with their initial experience, then they are much more likely to politely decline testing in the future. This leads to the final advantage which is you are more likely to put a polished game in front of your play testers.

How do you decide the minimum number of pieces? Let’s look at a card game for example. If you envision the final game needs 108 cards, ask yourself what the minimum, or typical number of players will be. If it’s 3, then ask how many cards will you need to get 3 players through 3 or 4 rounds. You might find that 32 cards is all you need. Pick 32 cards that you believe will give a good sense of the game experience, make those, and test the game by yourself. If the game has potential you should know after those first few rounds.

Of course all of that assumes you’ve put your ideas down on paper, or other medium in a way that lets you quickly transcribe the well thought out pieces, cards, etc. into physical space. Having the above components, and a process for turning them into usable game pieces is actually the second step. You don’t want to decide to make a game about something, and not have all of the cards, and other components thought out ahead of time. I personally suggest using Excel with multiple tabs to help map out your initial game idea, and details on pieces.

One tab can list some quick notes about the goal of the game, setup, turn order, victory conditions, and misc. notes that should be kept in mind. These aren’t complete rules, but just a space to organize your thoughts. For example, if the game has factions, for whatever reason, note the factions, and how they vary.

A second tab will likely list the cards in the game, perhaps their faction, color, cost, or other consistent attributes. Additionally, it will likely have a column called “special” which is where the special text that breaks the rules of the game go. If there are multiple types of cards in the game, then you’ll likely want a new tab for each type.

Depending on the game’s design or requirements other tabs can be created to note what the pieces are, and their vital stats. Other tabs might be used to track any math behind your balance, and notes for expansion possibilities. By putting all of this in Excel you’ve pretty much designed the core of the game. From here you can take your blank cards, and other pieces and quickly transcribe them.

The unspoken element in all of this of course is while designing these cards you have to constantly be planning for balance, and fun.

One comment

  • Crinis

    Very good advice! I’ve been thinking to myself lately that it might be a good idea to touch up what I know and even expand my knowledge and familiarity with Excel. This is just a great reason to do so and keep in mind!

    And you are right about having things ”at the ready”. I’ve had a couple of times when I’m juiced and ready to go with ideas but don’t know where one thing is only to come across it later. But having a ”craft room” or an activity place within the home is a good idea for such a thing. I mean, it helps to just have everything in place IN one place and ready to go when your muse is whispering in your ear.

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