When and how often to prototype? This is a question often asked by new designers and one that I think has a simple answer; as soon and as often as possible. There are only a few drawbacks to prototyping and many benefits. Developing an idea in your head is valuable and relatively easy with no material cost. I find that after a few hours or days (depending on how eagerly I am attacking a design) I will reach a wall which limits further development. Putting ideas on paper or into physical form allows for both more complex design and also allows you to see if it actually works. I am also a hands on person so I find joy in the cutting and pasting aspect of prototyping.
Another issue in prototyping is how fancy to make your prototype? Having a nice looking game is beneficial as it allows playtesters to engage more and gives the designer something they are excited to share. One drawback is the cost of ink or printing and a larger pitfall is feeling that “Oh I just printed this new set I don’t want to make changes, even though they are needed.” Some balance is needed here and I think having a gradual progression to a more polished prototype that matches the polish of the design is a good way to go. With a rough design you can and should have a rough prototype (scrap paper with writing in magic card sleeves, rough drawings on cardboard etc…) As your design becomes more refined having better materials, images and bits will help you and playtesters stay motivated and involved. Of course this is all relative to your personal tastes and those of your playtest group so the only major warning is not to spend two days making an elaborate prototype of an untested design, which when tested proves unplayable and then getting frustrated and stopping work on it altogether.
Deadlines can be of major assistance with prototyping as they force you to actually get your game made into a playable form. No time is quite as productive as right before a deadline and even though you may not feel ready you will get ready. The best deadlines I have found as a budding designer are for the Gamestorm and KublaCon conventions. For both of these conventions I submitted games to contests and was pushed to create a workable copy. I cannot stress enough the great motivation that comes with a deadline. So even if it is self imposed or something as casual as next weeks game night I urge all you designers to set deadlines and goals and get something on the table.
(March of the Ants first board – The rough prototype.)