Prototyping Materials

A bit of a change of pace today . . . .

I’ve built a number of prototypes for games, and have seen others’ prototypes as well. In so doing I’ve learned some lessons that I thought might be useful to others.

1. Invest in 3″ x 5″ cards. These are very cheap and can be used for just about anything. Every game I’ve thought up that’s had cards has started out with the text just jotted down on these (the cards have a bit of rigidity, so they can be shuffled). The first searchers for OtND were cut out of 3×5 cards. I’ve even used them as backing for my current set of searchers, to help protect them from the slings and arrows of outrageous storage solutions.

What’s especially great about 3×5 cards is that they make experimenting a snap. Don’t like how a certain game element is working out? No problem! Put that card to the side and write up a new one. No need for cutting something out, printing, or other barriers to the process. A game in its early stages is going to change constantly, and with 3×5 cards those changes are quick and easy.

I feel like a shill for a paper company, but I’m very serious: if you have a pack of 3″ x 5″ cards from the dollar store you can mock up a game.

2. Foam board is great. If you want something a little sturdier than a 3×5 card, this is the stuff to get. It’s light but has a nice thickness to it and is plenty strong. I make boards for OtND out of it, but I’ve also seen it used for individual playing pieces with great success. If I were making a “demonstration copy” of OtND 3/16″ thick foam board is what I would use.

This is also very cheap, and craft stores often have coupons. I’ve linked to Michaels above because (a) that’s where I know to get foam board and (b) they have a weekly coupon online which is often quite good.

3. Look into “generic” and reusable materials. Jay Treat has built a prototype out of lego. Another designer I know buys decks of cards that are just numbers 1-12 in different colors; he uses them for early testing of new mechanics, when the theme isn’t ready and it’s just necessary to find out if the gameplay can work. There’s also no shame in pulling pieces from games you already own. No one will be able to tell if your wooden cubes are repurposed, and even if they could it wouldn’t hurt anything. Just make sure you know where everything came from, and in what amounts. 😉

Perhaps the overriding theme is don’t spend more than you have to. Many games don’t work out, and there’s no sense in putting a lot of money and time into a concept that might be destined for the scrapheap. Simple, inexpensive, preferably reusable materials are great for early versions, and you won’t be out-of-pocket too much if a game falls flat. Keep that money for when you’ve got something that really sings and deserves the star treatment.


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