You have a brilliant idea for the next big tabletop game. You have a theme in place, the rules drafted, and now all you need is to get your game in front of people and start playtesting! One problem: how the heck do you get your idea into playable form?!
That first prototype is where many new game designers get stuck. It's easy to have an idea, but to put it in physical form for others to play is intimidating and it can get expensive! As you test and refine and redesign your game, old prototypes become obsolete and you'll have to make new, updated ones. Yep, you'll be making a lot of prototypes! You may be thinking "I don't have the cash for that!" Fortunately, you don't need that shiny, professional-looking prototype with complete art and custom box until you're game is close to final - and that requires a lot of testing! So how do you go about making your first drafts? What materials and tools do you use to make these early prototypes? Read on!
Common Tools for Prototyping
The Roughest of Drafts
These are prototyping materials I would suggest for the first few prototypes of your game. These will be the cheapest materials you can use to start to see your game in the physical world!
Materials for Cards
We've all used index cards to study for that big test back in the days of lectures and pop quizzes. Those same index cards can be used to represent the cards in your game! These can be found in just about any department store or office supply shop for only a few dollars. They've already been cut to card size (okay, maybe a little bigger if you're not going for tarot-sized cards) and requires minimal work to make into your game! Simply write the text of each of your cards onto the index cards and you're good to go! This isn't the most durable material on the list but it should be good for at least a couple of play-throughs.
Cardstock is another affordable tool of game design commonly found in office supply shops. These will have different thicknesses depending on what you decide to go with (I use 65lb cardstock) and should easily print on your home printer. The nice thing about cardstock is that you can print just about anything you want on it so if you have art you want to show off, go ahead and print it on cardstock! The downside: It takes a little more time and effort to have your prototype ready to play than if you use index cards. If you're using cardstock to prototype cards, you will have to cut all of the cards out yourself. This can lead to slight unevenness in your card size. We'll get into what you can use to cut those nice straight lines later in this article so hang tight!
Standard Printer Paper
Most people with printers have a stack of standard printing paper lying around. Like cardstock, you can print your cards with art and cut them to size, however, they're not durable enough to shuffle without crinkling them. All isn't lost if you really want to use standard paper though! You can still print your cards on standard printer paper and use card sleeves to make them durable enough to shuffle and play with! Read on under the next item on this list for an explanation of how.
This is my favorite tool for early prototyping! Card sleeves protect your prototype from damage so that it can withstand multiple game sessions AND they're reusable! You can use them on your cardstock prototypes to squeeze a few more games out of your prototype or you can use them with an existing card game. Let me explain: card sleeves are commonly used to protect cards in games like "Magic the Gathering", whose cards are, coincidentally, perfect for prototyping! You can save some money and have great shuffle-ability by printing your cards on standard printing paper, cutting them to size, and sticking them in card sleeves with cards from an existing game! Just make sure all of the cards you use are from the same game so that you have a consistent card back if your card sleeves don't have an opaque backing.
Materials for Boards
If you have a game idea that requires a board, this is a great way to prototype your board game, especially if your game requires a big board! You'll have to roughly design the look of your board and have a print shop like Staples of FedEx to print it as a poster. It's not the most durable material unless you laminate it (which can be costly) but it's a good place to start! Just be sure to smooth it out before you play (most print shops will roll these up). This might not be the cheapest option, depending on your local print shop, but it'll certainly look nice!
Foam Core and Poster Board
If you prefer a thicker material for your board, foam core (also known as presentation board) is for you! You can find foam core in your local dollar store or office supply shop. These are large and thick which makes them difficult to print on so you will have to either print on standard paper and tile it on the board or draw directly on the foam core. If you choose to print on paper, choose a paper size depending on the size of board you have in mind. If you have a bigger board size in mind, for example, look at 11"x 17" paper. Paste the paper using spray or brush on adhesive. I, personally, prefer spray adhesive as it provides an even coat so there won't be weird lumps between the board and paper. The same method can be use on poster board. The difference between poster board and foam core? Foam core is a foam sheet between paper, which makes it much thicker than poster board. NOTE: Be careful when handling foam core! The foam core remembers any "trauma" you put it through and so it will retain all scratches and dents!
How Do I Cut Out My Cards?
You've decided to print your cards on standard printing paper or cardstock. Great! Now how do you cut out all of those cards? There are several methods to get that nice straight cut! We'll go over them now!
The first tool that comes to mind when you have to cut paper is your good, old pair of scissors! These are effective, especially if you're cutting out odd-shaped pieces, but they are also the least accurate with the highest chance of screwing up your cut! That's not to say you shouldn't use them - some people are superb with scissors - but if you're like me and you have a hard time keeping a steady hand, you'll probably mess up a lot so maybe print out a few extra copies of each page of cards.
This method actually requires a few more tools. You'll need a self-healing cutting mat (found in any arts and craft store), a metal ruler, and, of course, an xacto knife. It might seem like a lot, but it will give you a straight cut every time! First, you'll lay your cutting mat on the flat surface you'll be cutting on. Lay the page with the cards you want to cut out on the cutting mat, lining it up to the grid on the mat (Do one page at a time if this is the first time you've used this method!). Line your metal ruler up to where you need to cut, press down on the ruler so that nothing moves and cut along side it with the xacto knife. Please be careful when using this method as xacto knifes are very sharp and can cause some gnarly injuries!
These are awesome! After getting one for my birthday, I've pretty much abandoned all other methods. These come in 2 different forms: the portable trimmers that can cut a couple sheets at a time (shown in the photo at the start of this article), or the guillotine type that can cut stacks of paper and make you feel like an executioner. Whichever you have, they're pretty easy to use and allows you to cut several sheets at a time while guaranteeing a straight cut every time! If you have the guillotine type, just be sure to watch your fingers!