First, I want to post a few life updates: I quit my day job about two months ago and have been splitting my time between remodeling our home and game design. While both are taking longer than expected in many ways I have been very pleased with the results. Especially with how much I've learned and how rewarding both endeavors have been. I cannot thank my friends and family, especially my wife, for their love and support as I have transitioned into my new normal.
For this post I wanted to provide an easy framework on the prototyping process of board game design. There is nothing revolutionary about this process but having a concise outline may help others. I'll go into details of my specific process under each section but the important part is the general steps of the process itself. I will go back and edit the individual sections as others share their ideas along the way. We will use Stitchcraft in a few places as a working example as it is easy to relate to.
I'm convinced the best way to get good polish in a game is incremental testing through multiple prototypes. During the first prototype, we can get an understanding of core play patterns and what is, or isn't, connecting with the players. Every incremental prototype from there should eliminate whatever gets in the way of the core pattern while supporting it in new ways. Even if players are frustrated at times this isn't necessarily bad. Its good to understand what is frustrating them and if it is good for the overall health of the game. Thoughtful analysis will assist in making every subsequent version closer to the final game.
For the first version we should just focus on the core play pattern we want players to experience and vision of what we want the game to be. To find the former, just ask the question "What do we want a typical player turn to look like?". For Stitchcraft this looks like: Draw a card then take two actions with the goal of building a set or series of cards on the table. Actions and card powers should all guide players through having nothing on the table to end game. In order to remain true to our vision it helps to understand the type of game that supports both the chosen theme and mechanics. Stitchcraft is a tableau building strategy card game themed after merchants with magically infused tapestries putting on a trade show to secure sales from the market crowd. Everything from art aesthetics to mechanics connect with this identity of the game and seek to remain true to this core vision.
Subsequent versions should aim to improve on the good while mitigating or removing the awkward. Less is more in most game design perspectives and this is a lesson that is difficult for me at times. I don't mind admitting this. Figuring out how to remove one's ego from the work will help in the long run. If something isn't working for the players, even if we love it, try leaving it out of a version and see what happens. This last tidbit has helped me immensely with Sanctuary Saga and has led to the game play to evolve much faster. As we make modifications to the base prototype we should keep in mind what we want to learn from each version. By setting these micro-goals we will learn how to continue sculpting the game into toward the chosen vision. Once we are comfortable with the changes we have made with clearly defined questions it is time to fabricate the current draft.
One of my favorite parts of working with other designers is learning how they implement on a physical prototype of their game. This can range from paper slips glued over playing cards, to paper/card stock in card sleeves designed for CCGs (this is my approach), and going so far as printing on professional grade card stock with high quality printers. This last is generally reserved for final prototypes for sending out to reviewers/promoters/game publishers.
To make my prototypes, which are usually exclusively card based games, I use Publisher to create the cards themselves. The files are saved in a Version level folder (0.1, 1.2, etc). Major changes that affect the core of game play get a new version whole number while smaller changes stay within the root folder. This just helps me stay organized in the event I want to go back and get a system used in a previous version without having to worry about lost work.
Something to decide early is how much art we want on our prototype. I actually spent a lot of time in Sanctuary Saga on identifying art I could use and creating the images. That was important to me for two reasons: since the theme relies heavily on immersing the player in an 16-bit game it was necessary to show instead of tell AND I love playing games with art! While this took significantly more time it kept me excited and engaged as the creator while also connecting with players on a personal level. Many Con attendees have come to my table SPECIFICALLY because of the art on the board/cards.
Once the files are made I use a Brother HL-L8360CDW laser printer with 110 lb card stock. We need to put it in the bypass tray as the tray 1 setup isn't good for paper this heavy. These are printed out in batches and cut using a lever paper cutter (well worth the investment). One set of Stitchcraft is 80 cards plus power set pages while Sanctuary Saga core set is around 500 cards depending on the draft. Figure out what you need to print with each iteration without creating duplicates can save yourself on ink/toner, which is by far my biggest cost when prototyping.
This can be the tricky part: do we play solo as multiple players or do we have an organized group who is willing to test? A core group to provide feedback on each iteration has been helpful for me in the past and those groups are as good as gold or better. When personal lives get busy it can be necessary to test specific changes solo but this can be susceptible to silo thinking. Its important to get out of our own head every other iteration or so. If not we run the risk of spinning our tires down the wrong roads when what we're doing doesn't connect with players.
During the play test sessions make sure we are going back to the specific questions we want to answer with the current iteration of the game. If we aren't getting those answers as clearly as we want there may be issues with the changes themselves or we may need to revert some of the changes to get a more focused look at different adjustments. Again: try to leave our ego in the other room while observing. Another thing that can be difficult. Ultimately we want to craft a game that fits our vision that others want to play and enjoy.
I did want to take time for a quick note on play tester feedback: it is not all created equal. Not everyone likes the type of game we are designing or has enough gaming experience to provide salient feedback. The information we receive from testers is just another piece of the puzzle that we, as the designer, need to digest and assign merit. We will also often receive opposite feedback from testers across the same weekend. Where is the truth? Its almost always subjective. My litmus test is generally which feedback is most in alignment with my original vision and play pattern. Also: beware scope creep and ensure you are almost always cutting/modifying content as opposed to adding new content.
Rinse & Repeat
After we've gone through the process we just take the information garnered in the testing phase and apply it back to the design phase for our next iteration.
If you think this has been valuable information please feel free to share this on your social media. I'd love to provide other similar snapshots of my business practices. If there is something you want to know please drop my a message and I'd be happy to do a similar post!
Godspeed and happy gaming.
Kevin + Boris