Iterating prototypes

Since I haven’t addressed it yet, I want to talk about the experience I’ve had so far with creating prototypes.

We never really started with the sort of hand-made, pen-and-paper prototype that most designers start with. I already had decided on all the components I wanted to make and I wanted it to look good from the start, so I ordered some blank playing cards (, some blank hex tiles (, and a blank board ( Samantha and I spent an afternoon or two writing out all the cards, I printed and glued the tile faces to all the tiles, and ordered some custom dice ( This last part was dumb. While the guys at did a fine job, and I was able to get the 8 dice I wanted for about 50 bucks, it was a needless expense. It was too early in the process to order such specialized components. We’re not even using those dice any more.

Honestly, we should have started with an ugly, pen-and-paper prototype and saved some expense. I’m confident that we could have discovered changes we’d have wanted to make even before committing to buying blank cards and tiles. In any case, you can see some photos of the first prototype on the Photos page, and Sam has written some about that already, so I’ll get my point: that it was obsolete pretty fast. After a while testing with that first version and collecting a list of changes that couldn’t be made by scratching out text on our handwritten cards, we ordered a fully printed version. The cardboard parts all came from, and the cards I had printed at Why split it up? Really it’s only because I don’t like the card designer interface at The Game Crafter. I found it impenetrable, and their help videos only convinced me further that it was needlessly complicated. MakePlayingCards had a simpler interface, and incidentally more card sizes as well.

The cards came out as good as I could have hoped and they arrived in about a week and a half (I’m pretty sure they print them in China). The cardboard components, on the other hand, took over a month. I appreciate that The Game Crafter has an order status page, where you can see the progress of your order as it’s being printed, but it failed to explain why my particular order sat at #7 in the production queue for three weeks. It wasn’t until I called them on the phone that I learned there was some kind of material supplier problem, and they were out of cardboard or some such thing. I’m not writing this blog post to disparage The Game Crafter. In fact, I have ordered more components from them since, but come on! Out of cardboard? That’s the one thing you know you’re going to need!

So after a month of waiting for the board and tiles, we finally get the package, and the tiles are wrong. The total number of tiles was correct, but there were several different designs in varying quantities and they had printed extras of some and none of others. So I sent them an email with some photos of the incorrectly printed tiles, and they sent replacements after another week or so. Again, I’m not trying to bash The Game Crafter here. I get that these things happen and I appreciate that the service they offer exists at all. But if you work with them you should be aware that you can’t count on them if you need a prototype printed for a tight deadline.

It was certainly not the most cost-effective design process, but It’s worth mentioning that having a professionally printed prototype made getting testers to take it seriously a lot easier. I’m not sure that justifies the expense, but I do think that confidence is worth something.

All told, I think this second prototype cost about $180. Expensive, I know. That’s $50 for the custom dice, around $70 for the cards, and $60 for the cardboard components. I have no idea at this point how those prices would translate to a full production run. I know custom components come at a premium, but I suspect that a lot will have to change before the production cost would be low enough for a retail run.

After a few months of testing, we decided that we had enough of a backlog of changes that we’d have to replace everything but the plastic miniatures. So it was back to MakePlayingCards and The Game Crafter for another round. We reduced the number of cards, but did so by increasing the number of tokens. We also decided that the custom dice we had been using weren’t necessary. This meant that the total cost of the new version dropped significantly, but mainly because we didn’t need custom dice. For this version, we decided that six-sided d3s (1-2-3-1-2-3 dice) could do everything we needed dice for, and I found some pretty cheap ones on eBay.

I should mention that this time, The Game Crafter came through on our cardboard components within a totally reasonable amount of time (about a week and a half) and the print quality really is very high, if a bit shiny. So it’s back to testing with this third iteration of the prototype game. I’ll take some time later to write up the design changes we made through these three versions, which is what I meant to do now, but this post is long enough already.