Step 10: Pretty up your Prototype: Stage 1 – The Computer

Before showing any game to playtesters I like to have as pretty a version of the game as possible.  This is my preference and might not suit all tastes, however I do know that a more polished prototype does improve gameplay.

  1. Players might feel more like they’re in your theme than if it was just text scribbled on cards;
  2. They will be able to recognize certain patterns or types of resources or cards easier because they share the same colour or symbol and
  3. Your playtesters will take you more serious when the prototype looks like you spent more than a half hour on it.

So how nice are we talking?  At this stage we’re still just talking about doing everything yourself.  Don’t take anything to a printer yet!  This stage will require some computer skills and while you don’t have to be an artist, you will need a good eye for layout and presentation.

Corel DrawYou’re going to need some sort of drawing program.  For all of our art we use a program called Corel Draw.  This is a vector based drawing program which means you can resize your images without losing any resolution.  Adobe Illustrator is another fine vector based program – whatever you’re comfortable with is fine.  Even if you don’t have these programs you could use PowerPoint or even Word (but be prepared for a lot of frustration!).  Drawing programs make it easier to line things up and duplicate your efforts easily.  There is a learning curve, but if you plan on becoming a designer then you should get to know at least one drawing program.

We like to add some flavour to our prototypes by adding clipart.  Used poorly though and clipart can be quite ugly, but if you only use it to help tell your story and make your game easier to play, then use clipart for sure!  If we need an elf or a gun or a train then we look it up in our clipart program.  We like to ensure that anything that needs a symbol to help players recognize it has it.  So instead of saying 3 Gold, we’d rather show an image of 3 Gold coins.

These clipart packages are better than just searching online.  Searching online for images you will come across two challenges.

  1. Most of the good clipart is not free.  You will have to either pay for the good stuff, or use clipart with watermarks all over it.
  2. Most of the clipart you find online will not be vector based.  Mostly you’ll find jpgs and gifs.  The challenge with this is that you cannot resize these images very well without them getting blurry – but more importantly, you can’t alter anything about them at all.  For Night of the Dragon I found a great clipart of a Dragon, but I needed it to be red as all the other colours were taken by player pieces and if it was the same colour as a player it would add too much confusion.  Because it was vector based clipart I was easily able to change the colour.  If I had downloaded that from online then I would be stuck with the colour it came in.  Note: If you don’t have a vector based drawing program, then you’re going to have to use jpgs and other compressed images.

Clipart packages can be pretty cheap now and is a very integral part of our game design process.

Coin, clipart example, prototype

One other tip about working with a computer for game design: when you come back to your drawing program to make some tweaks (and oh it will happen…a lot!), I highly recommend to resave the file as a newer version (v1, v2, v3 etc…).  This way if you ever need to revert back to an older version for some reason, you won’t have to waste time recreating something you already created.  This has helped us a lot as we have often had to revert back some aspects of some games as we were making prototypes and playtesting.

-Jay Cormier

As we are finding out working with more and more graphic designers (i.e. people who know more than we do about graphics), one key to strong design is “flow of information” or, put in another way – how well is the information conveyed from the cards or board to the players?

We think a lot about this when we’re doing the graphic design portion of things.

For example, if you look at the cards for “Belfort”, the originals have crappy artwork, but the layout is clean and consistent – especially the costs. They were all made in a specific order so that you could easily scan down the left side of each card and compare costs, even when the cards were fanned out in your hand.

A little forethought goes a long way with this, because it makes the game not only nicer to look at, but easier to play. And one of the biggest detractors in any game – for Jay and I, anyway – is downtime. Whether it be caused by “analysis paralysis” when there is too much information getting all jumbled up thus slowing down your decisions or by players having to look here and there and everywhere to get the information they need, it’s all bad. Good layout of the information on your cards, board, player aids, etc. can take seconds or even minutes off each players turn. And while that doesn’t seem like much – imagine if there are 5 players, each having 6 turns in a game… Simple math will tell you that shaving 30 seconds off each player’s turn will save you 15 minutes of total game time, which can definitely influence how quick some gaming groups are to pick up a game to play. We often make player aids with charts etc. to better consolidate information so people can compare and contrast costs, benefits all in one place.

We also spend a lot of time trying to come up with clear and instantly recognizable iconography for anything that gets used consistently through a given game. Jay’s example of the Gold Piece above illustrates a very common, repetitive icon – I’m sure we’ve used that specific one in over 75% of our prototypes so far, in fact! Icons are so much quicker to scan through than text – which, even though you may be a quick reader, you still have to decode. And if there is a lot of text on a card, it takes that much longer to decode it all and distill what might be important to you this turn. If you can have it presented to you in as few icons as possible + a few choice words to impart the gist of the card, that is infinitely better than having it spelled out for your in pure text, in my opinion.

While a picture can say a thousand words, solid graphic design can speak a thousand languages. With the hope for localization of our games to other countries (Germany, here we come!), we always try to keep any high-cost components (things that would need to be die cut, etc. like decks of cards, boards, etc.) to be as text free as possible to minimize the amount of translation that needs to be done. Whenever possible, we like to use icons in place of text.

SO! While your prototype doesn’t have to have Quentin Hoover level artwork on the cards (He’s one of my favourite MtG artists), well-thought out and strategically planned graphic design can help playtesters to understand and play the game faster and better. And that’s one step closer to getting a prospective publisher to accept a submission from you – the cleaner your game is from the moment they get it in their hands, the better shot you have of taking it all the way to publication.

-Sen-Foong Lim

Step 9: Importance of Solo-Playtesting

You’ve got a prototype made and now it’s time to try it out.  The first person you should always try a brand new game out with is yourself.  If it’s a four player game then simulate all 4 players and play as each one when it’s their turn.  Play as if you had no knowledge of the other players’ cards or information.  This will give you a general idea if your concept is working.  Sometimes you don’t need to play the entire game to understand if something’s not working.

Santorini is a tile laying game we designed that involves shipping resources around islands on ships.  I wanted to make a tile laying game that had different rules on how you could match tiles together.  The first prototype allowed players to place tiles such that it covered up one corner of a tile already in play.

After solo-playtesting it I soon realised that this would lead to a riducolous amount of Analysis Paralysis (a state where gamers spend more time analyzing what they should do rather than playing – not good!).  Back to the drawing board! As mentioned in a previous post, this is why it’s good not to put too much effort in your first prototype.

Through Solo-Playtesting you will almost always find something about the game you can improve.  For Night of the Dragon players play cards to move their pawn in the direction they want to go – towards the mountains, desert, sea or forest.  When I printed out one of the first prototypes I realised I couldn’t fit the entire board on one sheet, so I printed each of the four land type areas separately.  When I cut them out and laid them next to the board I realized that we could add a whole new aspect to the game where players could rotate the world and have each land type area move one spot clockwise.  This ended up being a crucial aspect of the game that came from Solo-Playtesting.

The good thing about having a partner in designing games is that you always have 2 playtesters!  The trouble with our situation is that we’re on either side of the country, so we still rely on Solo-Playtesting before taking it to the next step.

-Jay Cormier

While Jay and I do a lot of the design together via the internet, we both engage in solo playtesting sometimes once a first prototype has been made – we will share the artwork and will each print and cut out a copy. Playing with yourself isn’t as silly (or explicit!) as it sounds. There are a ton of relevations you can have just by making the prototype and moving pieces around on the board. Jay’s example re: NotD is a good one because if he never made the prototype, we never would have come up with the very interesting rotating knives…I mean map…er…rotating map concept. I have to admit, though, that Jay is the king of making the prototypes and trying them out, moreso than I am. Some of it’s incompatibility of software. Some of it’s lack of time. But we always post our findings to each other via our forum and work through the issues with each other online.

There is honestly, however, nothing that takes the place of actual hands-on game play to really work things though. In playing things solo, you can work out many kinks prior to you bombard your friends and relatives with the inevitable call of “Hey, I got this new game I want you to try out…”; very rarely (exception: “The Dig”) do Jay and I get anyone else to play our games without at least one of us (or both) spending a ton of time playing though many many turns of a game to see if it’ll stick. So solo playtesting is a great step to ensure that what you unleash on an unsuspecting gaming public is at least worth their time and effort to come to games night!

– Sen-Foong Lim

Step 3: Be Versatile

Continuing with our acronym, let’s delve into the second letter. Another aspect I attribute my success to is having Versatility.

I like almost all types of games – party games, strategy/Euro games, word games, family games, video games. There are a few types of games I’m not interested in like military simulation or miniature wargaming or collectible card games (though I was a huge Magic geek back in the day).
When Sen and I decided to make our own games, we didn’t really talk about this, but neither of us cared what kind of games we made – as long as they were good ones. Some of our ideas would be kid’s games and some would be serious “Gamer” games. Our goal was to get a game published – any game, so we made a ton of different games, in a ton of different genres.
Being Versatile also went a long ways to keeping us motivated as I mentioned in my previous post. But there are even more benefits to being versatile.
We had one game called Bertolt Lost his Marbles and was a kid’s game that had four animal characters running around a board picking up marbles and trying to avoid a troll. The game wasn’t working for us because it was just too many things going on for a kid’s game.
This lead us to think that we should move this game into a more gamery game. Of course the theme didn’t make any sense any more so we changed it up. We changed the four animal characters into four wizard apprentices and the marbles were turned into Dragon eggs. The Troll was obviously turned into the Dragon and we now had ourselves a more gamery game called Night of the Dragon! We shopped it around (more on this in future posts), but it has yet to get picked up.
Years later I was working on a game design competition (the benefits of these will also be in a future post) for ToyVault’s release of the Piecepack game with another partner. Piecepack, if you’re not in the know, is a specific set of components that can be used to make any number of your own games. Since every game uses the same components, the games are often more abstract and less themey.
We were stuck on a design for this competition and eventually I thought of Night of the Dragon. We borrowed the movement mechanic from that game and fit it into this Piecepack game. It worked perfectly and this game, called Cream of the Crop, won the competition and is coming out in the latter half of 2010.
By being Versatile we were able to leverage our ideas and use them in other genres and styles of games. Think about your game ideas currently. If you’re stuck on one of your ideas, maybe it’s in the wrong genre and you should try seeing if the mechanics would be better suited elsewhere.