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Commentary on Games Design

The benefits of crappy prototypes


The worst possible prototype is an amazing looking prototype.

Ok, the intro line here is a bit of a con (after all, the worst type of prototype is no prototype at all). When I say “amazing looking” what I mean is the shiniest, most chrome filled, graphically superior prototype that looks like it has just popped out of a modern Speil de Jahr winner,  Daniel Solis‘s* design cupboard or Brett Gilbert’s* graphical mastery.

Take a look at this:

serenity layout

This is the prototype layout to one of the games Matt and I are working on; a Firefly themed game crossing a deck builder and a wargame that takes place during the Battle of Serenity Valley. The game so far looks to hold up quite well, but the point is that this is a prototype card. The background art is not mine of course, all rights to the firefly comics there. Does it look good? Well I think it does rather. Would I consider changing the layout of it as a prototype? HELL NO! I’m not going to destroy all of this hard work I have put into this beautiful card! This took far too long and looks far too fancy to change.

If you are unwilling to change it, it is not a prototype.

This damned card set us back about 4 weeks of development because I was too stubborn to change it. I thought that entertaining a change of layout (and thus: mechanics) would ruin all of this effort I put into the card, for fear of it being slightly damaged. If any part of you would “rather not” change a part of your boardgame – then you no longer have the right to call it a prototype. This is true of any resource: dice, cards, board, etc that you would prefer not to change. Even if you kind of want to keep it, but maybe you know … whatever. That is as bad; you are biased and you will tilt in your duty as a designer to be empowered to change things, you cannot call something a prototype if at ANY POINT you are committed in keeping something because of any reasons other than gameplay.

Board making guides also suck.

I was really getting into making the board for this prototype as well. I went so far as to buy some “book binders tape” JUST to flex my craft muscles and make a real four way hinged board. The board is really great now by the way. I’m really proud of it and the way it folds all nicely, I spent ages on it. Then the shrill but distant far away voice is heard:

*Hey … Sam, what do you think about the idea of not using a board anymore at all?*

W- … what do you mean, strange voice of reason?

*You secretly know that games downfall is the board, lets try using player tableaus, I’m sure that will really help the game out!*

B…but the board i- … it folds. Do you not see? It folds into FOUR sections strange voice, FOUR!! (Sam flips the board between it’s two states in the air as if he were preparing to break the ‘Rubik’s Magic’ world record)

Why a crappy prototype is better.

If you realise you have made a really crappy, rubbish, pencil based, graph paper, style prototype then there are a few points to consider:

  1. You will never feel too attached to the game to avoid changing it
  2. You will focus on the mechanics – as you are no longer bound by the prototypes transient and physical nature
  3. Some of you may actively dislike the look of the prototype – leading to a positive reinforcement or push to change it, if only because it looks so terrible!
  4. You are able to “let it go” if you or a publisher choose to retheme it

Don’t let your pride, your graphics abilities, your fondness for chipboard, your perfectionism or any other such irrelevant desire bind you to something that only exists to be changed changed and improved.

Why does this happen?

Well, in the psychoanalytic theory that Freud made popular: specialised strategies are brought into play by the unconscious mind to deny or distort reality to maintain a socially acceptable self-schema or self-image. This is some awesome-psycho-babble-science for what me and you know as a “Defence mechanism”. The thinking goes that we give insincere rationalizations (we make excuses) for things that we have created because these things have been born of our own hand, and are physical manifestations of ourselves. They are our gorgeous babies. In destroying and changing your babies, you are, arguably destroying and changing yourself, forcing us to concede that something is “wrong” with our babies, and so, ourselves.

This neatly leads on to another interesting point; a lot of designers (myself included) get upset or angry if you criticise our prototypes. If you stop for a minute and think about this, it makes no sense at all. Here you are, with 3 willing playtesters in front of you all keen to help you develop your latest prototype, Ambulance Quest. Now imagine this; they play your game to help you make it better. You say, “Hey, what did you think about the board?”, the reply is an uncomfortable “It is bad, we would prefer player tableaus” and you are sad, hurt, and a little angry. This makes NO SENSE. You asked them specifically for their opinion to help you with the design – and now you are making up reasons why they are wrong “Well, perhaps you didn’t invest enough ambu-cash into the bonus cards…”. This my friends is called Cognitive Dissonance and is prevelant when your mind is aware of two contrasting thoughts. In this case: the amount of work you put into your prototype, and the fact that if all your playtesters says its bad. This is especially the case with very shiny and over produced prototypes.

To Sum:

Save yourself time and stop yourself getting upset; make crappy prototypes.


Awww yeeeaah. You should see the “Wolf” cards.

*Daniel and Brett are two of the most amazingly gorgeous designers I know of, they are both really cool guys as well. I would heartily recommend checking these guys stuff out if you want to see what I think the gaming industry will look like in 2 or 3 years.


6 thoughts on “The benefits of crappy prototypes

  1. this is a lesson I learned the hard way. My first game design I got all into graphic design of the cards and board and spent so many hours on designs that were destined to change. That design eventually failed to go anywhere.

    Not only do you have the emotional commitment to a real graphic design, but if you change anything major after the hours and hours of work put into the design, you have to repeat all those hours and hours of work to update your prototype.

    I’m working on a design now and I’ve kept to the bare minimum. I still use a computer and print my cards because i find that easier than scribbling on paper and I can still mark the cards, but it’s all white and very basic, unattractive layouts that are easily modified with new functions.

  2. Must very reluctantly agree. Current WIP has a very nice prototype, and I’m making multiple copies. It’s like cement that’s been poured and started drying. I can’t change it now…

  3. Pingback: Bonus Trading Post Post | Boards and Barley

  4. Pingback: The Benefits of Pretty Prototypes | Boards and Barley

  5. Pingback: A very smart article on prototyping your game | I Design a game - The meta shenanigans experience

  6. Pingback: Metal Snail Idea Workshop » Back to the Drawing Board (Making games fun by taking out all the features)

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