Building prototypes is time consuming, tedious, and often expensive. So, you might be wondering: How good does your prototype have to be? How much money should you be spending? And how many copies should you make?
Out there in the design community there are different schools of thought. Some people say you should spend as little time and effort as possible on your prototypes. Other designers want their prototypes to be indistinguishable from published games.
Clearly, there is no one single answer for all people and all situations, but this piece will give you some things to consider and some examples to compare to.
My perspective comes from my experience with self-publishing, and then as a game developer for Breaking Games.
From what I’ve seen, I think there are four possible stages for prototypes:
- The “it just needs to hit the table and get out of my head” version. And it’s probably broken. Production value? Like the cost to cut paper. You only show this to super close friends or play solo.
- The “game design night” version. You’ve banged on it, it needs to have clear symbols now, and chits that make it a bit more worth the time of your gaming group.
- The “can take it to a con” (or protospiel) version. This is similar to game design night, but you are in fact showing it to the public. Therefore, this step generally involves putting it in a box. Believe it or not though, you can still have all sorts of temp things – rulebook doesn’t need to be as polished, or temp pieces can be involved because you are still the host at any game session.
- The “send it to a reviewer” version. Now this is the money version. It should look like the game, as much as possible. Someone else will pull it out of the box, without you to caveat anything. It’s at this stage where I’d make sure the rulebook has been through it’s paces, laid out as you intend, the pieces are all representative of the final, there’s some level of art if not all of it. (This depends on KS vs non KS, but this is a reviewer we’re talking about! Pictures they take of it, no matter if they offer a disclaimer, will live on the internet).
I’m a game designer on a limited budget; so, I develop my own prototypes. Creating a prototype is an element of game design that satisfies some of my creative needs. The main purposes for my prototypes are for playtesting and then for showing to publishers. When I get to the stage of seeking a publisher I try to have a polished prototype. I playtest my games at conventions which helps to make people aware of the game, and I use prototypes to present at publisher-designer speed dating events. Here’s an example of a prototype of the game Breaking News – Through the Generations in the presentation stage.
I turned to the Gamecrafter to make two prototypes for Be There Witches? partly because the game components were fewer and also because the components fit Gamecrafter’s templates. I must say I have more confidence in my Gamecrafter prototype when pitching to a publisher.
I make tons of preliminary prototypes that are each just a proof of concept. Once I’ve really hashed out a functional game, I try to make my prototypes functional, clear, and also aesthetically pleasing.
For The Manhattan Project: Energy Empire we did most of our playtesting and pitching with only two prototypes. This allowed one copy to be loaned out to other playtesting groups, and later to submit to a publisher, while always keeping the second copy to work with. These prototypes were updated approximately seven times prior to getting the game signed with a publisher.
After the game was picked up by Minion Games, during development, we did most of the work with about four prototypes. Each of these prototypes was pretty expensive (approximately $60 to $70), not because of any kind of fancy printing or boards, but because this game has a TON of components – something like 500 components.
For my first game, Stones of Fate, I used the Game Crafter to make prototypes, as did Cosmic Wombat Games once they signed the game. Stones of Fate had very few components, so it was relatively cost-efficient to make print on demand prototypes. I think they were originally about $16 for a full prototype, and much less than that for just the deck of cards. These glossy prototypes really helped this game get noticed.
That was the great thing about Stones, the prototypes were under $20! Can’t have enough of your game out there!
We made nine prototypes for Campaign Trail at $80 a piece. It was expensive and very time consuming work. We made two for Gen Con and the rest for reviewers.
As a publisher rep for Tasty Minstrel Games who receives and has to get people to play prototypes, I find a certain level of production value to be very helpful. If a game is physically hard or annoying to play, it won’t go over well.
More Sample Prototypes
The following images were taken at various events and show playable prototypes. With these examples, you may have better perspective on if your own prototypes are good enough for your purposes.
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14 Readers CommentedJoin discussion
Wow! So many neat examples!
This was a perfect read! As someone who’s currently working on a proto for their first game, I find myself asking the question ” how polished does a prototype need to be for playtesting?” This will definitely help.
Great, Jason! This is the kind of need we like to satisfy in our League posts.
Where’d that cool zeppelin mini come from? Cannibalized from another game, or is there a resource out there for folks who might want a few (non-custom) minis to go with a prototype? Thanks!
The zeppelin comes from Breaking Games’ Letter Tycoon – cool isn’t it? Peter Vaughn, an editor of the League of Gamemakers is also the Development Director for Breaking Games. He might be able to give you info on what was involved in getting it for Letter Tycoon.
Hey there, thanks for the interest! The zeppelin is indeed a custom mini made for Letter Tycoon. Our friend and fellow leaguer Chris Strain modeled it, and then we made in China. This zeppelin is a limited edition golden one we made for the release of the game, as the game comes with a black version. We are considering another color to offer at print and play so that more gamemakers can include in their prototypes!
Thanks for this post. It’s great to see the many examples of various prototypes.
In general, I find that the polish of your prototype should not exceed the polish of your game rules/mechanics. When someone sees a rough prototype with handwritten components, handcut paper, etc, they enter the play testing session with adjust expectations. They already get a sense that the game is in its earlier stages. Play testers will also be more forthcoming with their suggestions and criticism, knowing that you haven’t spent a significant amount of time and money in developing your prototype.
Apologies if you’ve already answered this before, but… has any League member created, or does any know of, Microsoft Office-based templates for things like cards, tiles, boards, etc? I don’t have or know how to use the various Adobe Creative Suite tools, and I’d love some tools that would help me get very basic prototypes made (without resulting to Sharpies and stick figures).
Eric, I do use an older version of Adobe Photoshop and download different size card templates from Game Crafter. I can then create a jpeg file which I Insert into a MSWord doc. Here’s the format that the templates come in:
You can download Game Crafter templates without ordering any cards.
Peter Vaughn might have some other suggestions, he’s an editor of the League.
Hope that helps some.
If I should have in hands a prototype of gameboard, already playtested and already showed during fairs in Torino, Genova and Milan with good results, would you be so kind to suggest me How and to whom it can be sent in order to receive a valuation?
I thank you very much in advance for your possible reply
I have not had any experience in doing submissions to publisher without their requesting a prototype. There probably are some publisher out there will accept unrequested prototype, but I don’t know them. Were any publishers at the fairs that you have play tested your game? If you know that a publisher is going to attend a convention or fair, you may be able to contact them & request to present your prototype to them. I hope this is of some help.
These are some great looking prototypes. You really have to bring your A-Game (pun intended) if you want your stuff to get noticed. Thanks for the informative article.
We appreciate your interest in the article and the League of Gamemakers.