Inquiring Minds Want to Know

Art is a major bottleneck for me. Game concepts, playtesting . . . all of that I can handle. When it comes time to make an attractive prototype, however, things grind to a halt. Nice artwork is beyond my skills.

I’m sure others have run into this issue, so I thought I’d ask: when you need art for a prototype, where do you go?

Prototypes: 3D Games Are Fun Before They’re Done (and Board Games Aren’t)

File this one under unintended effects of one’s choice of prototyping material: I’ve noticed a big difference in the experience of coding board games and 3D games. Putting a 3D game together in Unity is fun, even when the game is in its very earliest stages; there’s a player to control, things bounce off of each other, etc. Board games, by contrast, don’t do very much until they’re substantially complete. As a result I find myself drawn to work on 3D games.

Even in game design, it seems, moral hazards are everywhere!

Prototyping Materials: Chipboard

So you’ve designed a board game. It’s working out pretty well, well enough that you want to make a nice copy–something you can show to people and have them focus on the game, rather than on managing terrible components. You need a material that’s strong enough to stand up to play, thin enough to stack and shuffle, and weighty enough to have a good feel.

You need chipboard.

Chipboard is my new favorite prototyping material. It’s heavier than cardstock or other papers, so it’s better for things like tiles that need to stay in one place during a game. I’ve also found it very sturdy; a copy of Lines of Questioning I built out of chipboard almost a month ago is almost good as new after many tens of games, with only a single tile “marked” by a damaged edge. At least one professionally-produced game in my collection has held up less well.

In addition, putting art on chipboard is trivially easy. Get the art printed on label stock, and then affix it to the chipboard before cutting. The label stock will adhere to the chipboard without any difficulty, and both stock and board can then be cut at the same time to give a tidy edge.

Perhaps most importantly, chipboard materials work well in play. 1/16″ thick chipboard is strong–it won’t bend by accident–but is still thin enough to stack without getting unwieldy. Furthermore, it feels great in the hand. One playtester specifically called out the satisfying heft of chipboard tiles as contributing to Lines of Questioning’s experience.

Unfortunately, the material isn’t entirely easy to work with. Chipboard is too strong to cut with scissors. You’ll want a rotary cutter, a steel ruler with a cork bottom to guide the cutter, and a self-healing mat to protect whatever table you’re cutting on. (All of those things are available at local craft stores.) Be certain to wear eye protection–safety glasses are about $2 at hardware stores–and kids should get help from their parents.

Still, the effort and minor up-front expenses are small prices to pay. Chipboard is inexpensive, durable, and well-suited to boards and tiles. If you’re looking for something nice to build a game out of, give it a look.

Theory: Prototypes Wagging the Dog

It’s important to wary of the impact choice of prototyping material can have on game design. Having a familiar method for building prototypes can channel one’s thinking, limiting the design options available.

Lots of people build games in Game Maker. It’s a powerful tool that allows one to create computer games without needing a thorough background in programming. Any computer-literate person can use Game Maker to construct a prototype.

Or at least, certain kinds of prototypes. Game Maker is built on the assumption that you want to create the kinds of games commonly seen on computers–platformers and shooters, for example. Its easy, drag-and-drop options have those games in mind.

By contrast, it’s quite difficult to use Game Maker to prototype, say, a classic hexgrid wargame. None of Game Maker’s built-in menu functions apply intuitively to creating such a grid or to moving units around it. Game Maker has a “gravity” button, but it doesn’t have a “divide up the playing area into equal spaces” button.

Experienced users can, of course, use Game Maker to produce hexgrid games. I suspect, however, that those who think in Game Maker terms will naturally gravitate toward prototypes–and, ultimately, finished products–that Game Maker readily supports. It’s easy to build action games with Game Maker, and hard to build turn-based strategy. That feedback will tend to shape the mechanics one uses, and ultimately the games one creates.

One can set aside Game Maker for tried-and-true paper, but that has its own problems. Tracking multiple objects through three-dimensional space is relatively easy for a computer, but is a lot of work when done by hand. Games with many modifiers affecting a single random decision benefit from a computer to do the math. The decision to prototype a game with foamboard and 3″ x 5″ cards is also an implicit decision to accept limitations on mathematical and physical complexity that computers can brush right past.

There’s no prototyping tool that doesn’t impose some kind of restriction. Java programmers and C++ programmers may have different opinions about whether it’s realistic to design a game that must run at a consistent 60 frames per second. Someone who builds prototypes out of wood is apt to make a very different game about constructing a house than someone who exclusively uses paper. No matter what one chooses to prototype with, that choice will impose demands on the later design.

Yet, the limitations of one’s prototyping tools need not extend to one’s design thinking. The key is not to let the tail wag the dog. Allowing the game’s needs drive how the prototype is made ensures that the prototype is making the game better, rather than turning the game into an excuse for the prototype.

I’ve been thinking about this because of a new game I’ve been working on recently, something with a more “arty” bent than Over the Next Dune. The game calls for player 2 to have an effect on player 1’s movement. At the start of the process I briefly considered using a simple physics model, with player 2 as a sort of deity who could manipulate gravity in real time. However, that seemed like it would be most obviously suited to a PC or tablet game–and since I have only a very modest background in programming, I wasn’t prepared to go down that road. I started looking for designs that could be mocked up with paper instead.

Although I’m pleased with where the game has gone since, it was, in retrospect, an error to abandon that early concept just because it would have been difficult to prototype. The preconception that “I don’t do prototypes on computer” caused me to shy away from an interesting idea without giving serious consideration to whether I could make it work in a board game format. I limited my own options without finding out whether that limit was really necessary.

They say that when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. In the same way, preconceived notions about how to build prototypes can limit one’s design creativity. Focus first on the design, and then find a way to prototype it when the time comes.

Prototyping Materials, Part 2: Nicer Cards

Following up on a previous post about building prototypes: what happens when you’re past the 3″ x 5″ card stage, and want to make some really nice cards to show your game off? You could use a service like artscow, but if you want to do the work in-house this thread on Boardgamegeek is an invaluable resource. The materials required aren’t expensive, and the work is fun in a craft-project sort of way.

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.