Prototyping Tabletop Games
Today, I wanted to walk through the tools and tactics I use to create prototypes for my in-progress tabletop game, Diabolical! Be forewarned, this will be a fairly nuts-and-bolts type guide that may be uninteresting to those not interested in prototyping their own games.
- Google Sheets for game content
- Google Docs for game rules
- Notebook and pens / pencils
For the physical prototype
- Cheap playing cards (I use this bulk pack from Brybelly.)
- Full-sheet labels (Don’t bother with name brand ones. They’re too expensive. I get these from Best Print.)
- Various colors of Sharpies
- Ideate changes
- Update game content
- Print content onto labels and attach to cards
- Mess around to see how things work, maybe make some additional tweaks
- Update and print rules
- Play test
1. Ideate Changes
Since designing a game is an iterative process, I usually start by reviewing notes from previous rounds of play testing as well as survey feedback and figuring out what issues need to be addressed to make the game more enjoyable. For example, maybe the economy is messed up and players don’t have enough resources to take the actions they need at a given point in the game.
Once I’ve identified these issues, I will brainstorm ideas on how to address them. In the previous example, maybe I add in more resources to stimulate the economy, or maybe I just make those actions cheaper. All of this typically happens in a notebook where I include sketches, diagrams, content breakdowns, etc. to help myself figure out where I’m going with things. Once I’ve come up with a plan to address the issues, I will move on to updating the game content.
2. Update Game Content
I keep all of my game content stored in Google Sheets (their equivalent to Excel) to help keep things organized and structured. Each round of modifications gets its own number so I can easily track where I’ve been in case I need to retrace my steps. When updating, I duplicate the previous version’s spreadsheet, rename it to the current version number, and make my modifications from there. Organizing content in Google sheets is great because I can easily share and collaborate with my business partner James, so he knows what I’m thinking game design-wise while he works on art.
I also create independent sheets within the same workbook for each type of card. Structuring the document this way also helps me with a later part of the prototyping process which we’ll cover in a minute. Below is a screenshot of a spreadsheet I’m using for the current iteration of game content:
3. Print content onto labels and attach to cards
This is where InDesign really shines. It has this really wonderful feature called Data Merge where you can create one basic version of a prototypical object (e.g., the base version of a Minion card) and then link it to a .csv data file which I download from my Google Sheets. Once I link the file to the prototype object, all I have to do is hit a button and it will output all versions of that object for each row in the data file. You can find Adobe’s guide on how to use Data Merge here.
Here is an example of what it’s like to turn a prototype object into a set of cards with Data Merge:
Okay, so it may not look that exciting, but it’s pretty awesome that I can quickly export all the cards I need — styled exactly as I want — without having to manually copy and paste each piece of content. Have image-based content? No problem! Just put the file routing for your image in a spreadsheet cell and it will place that for you as well. This feature is invaluable.
Once I export the cards, I simply print them on to full-sheet labels, cut them out with scissors, and stick them onto cheap playing cards. I print the labels at 2.25" x 3.25" so that the labels are inset an eighth inch on all sides of a standard playing card. This makes them easy to place without having to worry about them spilling over an edge and sticking to each other.
Many designers will use slips of paper put into card sleeves for their prototypes. While that has some advantages I prefer this model mostly because I don’t have to worry about the paper sliding out and the cards feel more “real.” Cost and time investment are similar since I can just stick a new label on top of the old one as I update prototypes.
Here’s what the printed product looks like:
Obviously, it’s not beautiful. However, being able to quickly throw together a prototype like this and get to playing it makes it much faster and easier to improve the game over time.
4. Mess around with it
At this point I’ll just start playing around with the prototype to see if the new rules work the way I thought they would in my head or if there’s any critical flaws that need adjusting. I do this before updating the rules document as I will frequently tweak a mechanic or rule as I mess around and find what’s most efficient or feels best within the context of the game.
You’ll notice in the previous image I scribbled some stuff out and added some colors to help differentiate the cards. These kinds of rapid changes usually come from insights I gain while playing around with the prototype. Any obvious misses are easy to adjust at this stage.
5. Update rules
At this point, I’m ready to update the rules document with the adjusted rules for the current version. I keep my rules in a simple Google Doc that I can quickly update and share with James. Just like with the content spreadsheets, I always duplicate this document and rename it with the current version number so I can retrace my steps should I need to. Here I add the new rules (or modify the existing ones) to align with the changes I made in the previous steps.
6. Play test
This is the most important part of the whole process as it helps me validate what’s working and what’s not with the current version. It also helps to inform step 1 of the next cycle where I figure out what the most important issues that need addressing are. If you’re interested in how I do my validation process, you can read this two part series on how I measure success while working on my game.