Making the Prototype

Courtier Design Article #2
by Philip duBarry

In my last post I talked about the beginning of Courtier, originally called Henry the Great. In this installment I want to describe the prototyping and development process. Often budding game designers are given this sage advice: make the prototype from anything you can find as quickly and cheaply as possible. This truism has a lot going for it. You don’t want to spend ten hours making a logo for a game that doesn’t work. You don’t want to spend good money on clever-looking components for a game no one will ever get the chance to play. I’ve done both, to some degree.

The idea is to figure out if the design process should continue—do you have a game that pretty much works? Is there a glimmer of promise? So far, the advice holds. You’ve been able to create a halfway playable game in record time and for a bargain price. Now you’re ready for Stage II, the point where we must venture beyond the conventional advice.

By the time I assembled a working prototype for Henry the Great, I began to sense my growing need for playtesters. My family and friends had fulfilled that role for the last couple of years, but my needs were increasing just as their endurance was shrinking. If you are a game designer you need playtesters, too. That’s where Stage II enters the scene. Playtesters do not want to play ugly games. Uwe Rosenberg or Friedemann Friese might be able to generate burning enthusiasm with only three hastily-scrawled napkins and some croutons, but the rest of us need to add some production value to our prototypes.

During an early playtesting session, it became obvious that the cards needed to be color-coded. Forcing players to navigate their way through twenty-two different characters and eight different sections, all in black and white, qualified as sadistic torture. Stage II involved adding color and improving the graphic design of the components. However, I soon began to understand that my audience was not really the playtesters, but the publishers who would ultimately judge my game. This brought me to Stage III.

At this point I had done prototypes for my other designs, both the published ones and a few other games that have yet to find a home. I wanted Henry the Great to stand out from the pack and flex my graphic design muscles. I chose a black background and an old painting for the cover. The board featured parchment and my first attempt at icons. The cards also looked much more finished. The result was a prototype I could be proud of. This version finally won some much-needed attention.

So here is the updated advice for prospective game designers: make the prototype quickly from anything you can find. Once you have a game, improve the prototype enough to interest playtesters. Once you get a finely-tuned game, make it shine.

Check back next week for the next installment: Pitching the Game.

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Author: Edward Bolme View all posts by
Edward Bolme is one of AEG's developer/producers, and the brand manager for Tempest. He is also a novelist and a 25-year veteran of the hobby gaming trenches.