Michael here! Today, I wanted to talk a bit about prototyping, focusing on what I use to get ideas out of my head when they first come to me.
Game ideas come and go every day, floating through the sky, crashing into our heads and making us think “hey, that could be something interesting to work on”. Sometimes you’re walking down the street and little more than a nebulous concept pops into your mind, only to disappear back into the ether again. Sometimes it’s 3 in the morning and you wake up in a cold sweat thinking you’ve got next year’s Spiel des Jahres. It’s kind of a sliding scale, to be honest, but you never know when something will strike. Ideas alone, however, aren’t the most useful of things - no-one can see an idea, no-one can play it - and if you’re going to do something with your idea, you need to turn it into reality. Most designers will have a box full of stuff to hand that’ll help them quickly throw together a concept, and I thought it’d be a good call to share what’s in my Prototyping Kit, so next time you think you’ve got an award winning game idea you can start working on it as soon as possible.
First, and most important, is a notepad and pen. An idea’s worthless if you can’t remember it, so get yourself a pad and a pen that goes everywhere you go. When you leave the house in the morning, make sure you throw your pad in your bag. You might not write anything in it for days at a time, but when inspiration strikes, you’ll be grateful you have something to write with on you. Game ideas are tricky things to nail down - they scrabble about in your mind for a few moments and have a tendency to disappear - so managing to scribble down even a few words about what you’ve thought about can be the difference between recalling a concept later down the line and never coming back to it again. I find I’ll often throw down a few very rough sketches too, illustrating how I think the game set up might happen, or how a turn plays out. Regardless of what you’re thinking, express it however you can and get it down on paper. Capture it as quickly as you can!
Next, you’re probably going to need things to write, draw or print on. You’ll need paper. Probably a lot of it. You can generally get packs of 500 sheets pretty cheaply, and this’ll see you right for a while. On top of that, grab any thin cardboard that would normally go in the recycling and cut out the larger rectangular panels - cereal boxes are great for this, especially. While you won’t be using them right now, it’s good to have a stack available if you need to make boards; more on that in a minute. You should also get hold of a pack of blank playing cards, which are normally sold by the hundred (though you can get packs of a thousand for not much more of an outlay).
You should also have a selection of bits at your disposal. In the past I’ve been known to dive into games in my collection and pillage wooden tokens or pieces out of them, and that is entirely fine… but I quickly learned that’s an easy way to lose pieces from games you love. Instead, you’re probably better off with a bunch of cubes and pawns. Counting cubes (also called centicubes) are perfect - you can get a massive tub of them for not much money, they come in a variety of colours, and they can represent anything from a range of resources to stand-ins for minis. The ability to click them together gives them a versatile nature, so let your imagination run wild. I also like having a variety of pawns available, again in a selection of colours - and as they’re visibly different to whatever you might make with the cubes, it’ll make your life easier when you’re looking around your hand drawn play area trying to find your player pieces…
On the subject of hand drawn, you can’t go wrong with a bunch of Sharpies. Sure, other markers are available, but these things write on pretty much any surface, come in a rainbow of colours, and are reasonably inexpensive. You don’t need a massive pack of them, even just a basic set will do, and they last absolutely ages too. Keep an eye out at your local stationery store or supermarket, as you'll see them on offer quite frequently.
I’d class everything so far as an essential, but there are also a few things you could pick up that will make your prototyping life a little easier. Card sleeves are not exactly cheap for what they are, but they can be used in so many ways aside from just protecting your cards. Need to make a change to a card icon but don’t want to make up a whole new card? Grab a scrap of paper and stuff in into the sleeve over the card. You can even write on the sleeves themselves to make changes or track points, but be sure to use a dry erase pen instead of your Sharpies… they won’t come off! See if you can get hold of a couple of packs of both clear and coloured sleeves - you’re sure to find them invaluable.
A good pair of scissors is great, but I’d actually suggest getting a decent sized cutting mat, a metal ruler and a couple of scalpels as well - sometimes you want to get precise with your cuts, and scissors won’t do the job as exactly as you like. You’ll find them particularly useful a bit later in your creative process, when you’ve gone through a few iterations of your idea and are looking to put together something sturdier to test with others. This is where all that cardboard you’ve been saving comes in handy - draw or print up your board, then stick it to your ex-cereal box using a can of spray mount to give it some sturdiness!
With all this stuff at your disposal, you’ll be turning your ideas into reality in next to no time. Of course, the trick is actually to stick to the idea, develop and test it to within an inch of its life… but that’s a post for another day. Meanwhile, what’s in your prototyping kit? A system that works for one person might not necessarily for another… Are you the ‘raid older games to find bits and boards’ kind of person, or are you all about surrounding yourself with fresh sheets of paper and piles of pristine cubes? Let us know and we’ll see you next week!