Step 8: When to make the first Prototype

Once we’ve got a bit of balance into our game, it’s time to make a playable prototype.  How good should the quality be at this stage?  As rough as possible, as long as it doesn’t negatively affect game play.  If your game has cards in it, then it’s not wise to just cut up pieces of paper to make them because you’d be able to see right through them and that possibly could affect how someone plays the game.

For a first prototype it’s best to keep it simple.  If you can get away with using cue cards for your cards, then do that.  Don’t spend time at this stage of the game creating any artwork or even a design layout.  After making so many prototypes for so many different games, there is one constant for all of them – you will make a lot of prototypes for each game!  The first prototype needs to be playable enough to see if your concept works as intended.  If your game has a board, don’t spend time gluing it to carboard at this stage.  For now, it’s fine that your board is just paper.  Tape it together if you need to, but not much more than that is needed.

First Prototype for Box Office:

Here’s a first prototype for a game of ours called Box Office.  You can’t get much more basic than this!  Cue cards with cubes for dice and bingo chips.  The concept of this game is intriguing (a game about scheduling movie release dates to maximize profits!) but we haven’t found the balance between simulation and fun yet!

First Prototype for The Dig:

We had this one idea for a game about digging up artifacts around the world.  We appropriately called it The Dig.  In our head everything seemed perfect.  We spent our time balancing the game and then proceeded to make cards using the computer and a lot of clip art.  There were 32 pages of game that had to be printed and cut out!  The prototype looked really good and when we played it we realised that it did not play at all like the game that was in our head. We had to go right back to the drawing board and nothing from our first prototype was useful at all.  Lesson learned!  Get that first prototype made as quickly as possible so you can test the concept before investing too much time making it look pretty.

-Jay Cormier

Oh “The Dig”. It will forever have a special place in my heart. A deep dark pit of doom kind of place. Seriously though, this is the one area where Jay and I work so well together. Jay is more of a hands-on kind of guy while I am more of a conceptual kind of guy. Jay’s my motivation to get prototypes made because he wants to get down and dirty and play the game while I want to try to make sure the game is as perfect as it can be before we make a prototype. I’ll be honest – neither is right or wrong, per se, but after working through several games with Jay in this way, his way has better outcomes if you’re working on a team. Sometimes, the differences you have in conceptualizing how a game will work only come to light when you have something concrete to fiddle with (“Hey! What would happen if we had 4 sections per tile instead of 2?”)

As with “The Dig”, we’ve made prototypes that end up getting shelved. But some games, like “Belfort” have come from us making a very very very simple 24-card prototypes that we called “Pocket Games” (now “Games-on-the-Go” or GotG). This was an excellent idea Jay had – try to make a game with as few components as possible. We tried to make games in many genres (tile laying, resource management, area control, etc.) with a self-imposed limitation that it had to be played with a maximum of 24 cards. That, in itself, is a design challenge (and I might have just stole Jay’s thunder … whoops!). But what comes out of having such a quick prototype made is that we are one step closer from concept to reality. We gain a quicker idea of what works, what doesn’t, and what plays well enough to invest more time in.

When your design partner is an 8-hour plane trip across the country, we need to know what our priorities are when we meet. Having these GotG prototypes lets us decide within a few hours if a concept is worth our while. And some, like “Belfort”, became instantly high priority after a few hours spent with 24 cards and some paperclips.

Remember – everything has to start somewhere. There’s noting like actually holding cards in your hands, be they cut out of recipe cards or made out of old playing cards, printed on a colour laser or written on with a marker, to help you bring your game from the spark of an idea into something much more.

– Sen-Foong Lim

Using one of your game ideas from Game Design Challenge in Step 5, make a quick prototype and playtest it to see if it plays like you intended.  Don’t focus on art at all, just make sure it’s fairly balanced and go!


Step 6: Does your theme match the Game?

We wanted to design a card game that had partners in it as we were big fans of the game TIchu.  We came up with some interesting mechanics that made the game feel like we were playing volleyball.  Knowing that games based on sports are hard sells (how many jock/geek combo people are out there really?!), we came up with an idea to turn it into a game about juggling.

When we made the prototype we made the pictures on the cards with higher numbers, harder things to juggle – like chainsaws, raw fish and even cats (hey have you every tried to juggle cats?  Steve Martin can tell you how challenging that can be).  We thought this added a fun element to an otherwise logical game.  We called it Up in the Air (as this was years before the George Clooney movie came out).

I had the chance to show this game to R&R Games at a convention and after playing a few rounds the gentleman to whom I was showing it said something like, “I’m sure this is a fine game, but I thought it was going to be more of a goofy game based on the fact that you’re juggling cats.”

This was an important lesson for us to learn. Does the 30 second ‘elevator pitch’ for the game match the game play and mechanics?  So we could have taken this two ways – either make Up in the Air’s theme a bit more serious or make the game play more goofy (or a third option would be to ignore the feedback and try showing it to another publisher!).  We decided to look into the mechanics as we wanted to keep the partner aspect and the goofy juggling concept – but were wondering how to make the game play goofier.

We brainstormed a bit and one wacky idea that was thrown into the mix was, “since it’s about juggling, what if there was some sort of dexterity or balancing aspect to the game?”  Now that’s a silly idea for a partner based card game, but something about that idea got us thinking about it.  We had yet to design a dexterity game and we tried to think of what it would look like.

After more brainstorming and then prototyping, we came up with an amazing idea that involved cards and balancing blocks.  However, now the theme of juggling cats didn’t fit at all with these new mechanics so we abandoned that theme altogether and renamed it Junkyard.  Not only did we abandon the theme, but even the partner aspect was abandoned as the game had changed so much and it didn’t need that any more.

So far Junkyard has been shown to 5 publishers including Hasbro and Mattel.  We’re still waiting to find a publisher that wants to publish the game.

The lesson we took out of this experience was to make sure the title and theme match the gameplay mechanics.  Does the title sound like a kid’s game but in actuality it’s a pretty challenging strategy game?  Or vice-versa?  Think about the games you’re trying to get published and if the title and theme matches well with the game play.


For each game that you’ve designed, write down the title, theme and a one sentence pitch on how you’d explain it to someone else.  Objectively analyze if that matches the kind of game that it is when it’s being played.