31 January 2014 | 28 Comments
If you’re creating a board game Kickstarter project, it’s really important to send out prototypes to third-party reviewers (make sure to read this and this) well before the campaign starts so backers can have an unbiased opinion upon which to base their pledge. It instills confidence in a backer, even if the review isn’t 100% positive.
Reviewers are pretty forgiving when it comes to the quality of the prototypes–they understand that one of the reasons you’re putting the game on Kickstarter is to raise money for nice art and graphic design. But the quality of the cards themselves can make a big difference.
Thus I invited a game designer friend to share his wealth of knowledge about card prototyping here. Michael actually let me write a guest post on his blog ages ago during my Viticulture KS campaign, so I was happy to invite him here during his current Kickstarter campaign for a light kids game called Otters. Thanks Michael! You can take it from here.
If you design board games, you probably are going to need prototype cards at some point. I’ve tried a wide variety of card prototyping methods, and Jamey has been kind enough to give me a forum to tell you about my experiences in order to help our fellow designers with their own design processes.
Super simple: Use regular playing cards
The absolute easiest way to test out a game that requires cards is to use cards that you already have from another game – most likely a standard deck of playing cards.
For instance, when I was first testing my game Otters, I just grabbed a couple of decks of poker cards. The game consists of otter cards of value 1, 2 and 3 plus some playground cards that go from 2 to 10 in value. It was easy enough for me to pull out some aces (ones), twos and threes to represent otter cards and other number cards to represent the lakes, just to see if this would work at all.
I did the same thing with another design I’m working on for a game called Mansion Builder; I gave each player their own suit with ace through ten to represent their bidding cards.
Finally, while I haven’t actually gone this direction myself, you could even use a lookup table for customized cards. You could write down translations for what each poker card represents, such as “Ace of spades = Vampire lord, two of spades = zombie thrall…” It would be a bit of a pain in play, but you only need to make a single lookup sheet, which would be easy to change (especially if you do it in a spreadsheet). This is really only usable for solo playtesting or testing with VERY patient friends.
Advantage: Zero crafting work. You already have these on hand.
Disadvantage: Zero customization, unless you’re willing to do the lookup table. Really only works well if your game just requires small numbers and a few “suits”.
Simple and ugly: Index cards / business cards
This is where a lot of designers start: Grab a stack of index cards or business cards that have blank backs, and start scribbling on them. Just write directly on the card. Feel free to use different colored markers or even crayons or colored pencils as needed.
I haven’t actually used this approach myself, mainly because I tend to skip to the next approach.
Advantage: No technology required. Easy to change individual cards. Fairly inexpensive.
Disadvantage: Time consuming (you need to write each card one by one), especially if you want to make multiple sets. Not great for shuffling. If your handwriting is as bad as mine, these are also going to be ugly.
Pretty simple: Slips of paper with sleeved cards
This is many game designers’ bread and butter card prototype: Make an Excel spreadsheet (or word processing document or image file) with text (or even images) of your cards, print it out, cut the slips of paper apart, and put them in sleeves with Magic cards or other game cards.
This is the method I used for the first version of what became Chaos & Alchemy, as well as pretty much every design I’ve done so far.
Advantage: Quick (assuming you’re comfortable with something like Excel, especially is you already have a template like this one to use). Easy to change numbers on a bunch of cards at once. Can be pretty if you want to invest the time. Fairly inexpensive (especially if you already have sleeved cards). Pretty easy to shuffle and play with. Easy to make in large numbers. Can change individual cards on the fly with a pen.
Disadvantage: Requires a computer (so less useful “in the field”). Not for the technophobe. Requires card sleeves (reusable, but there’s a cost if you don’t have them). Much easier if you invest in a good paper cutter. A bit time consuming to cut and sleeve all those cards. Some people don’t like shuffling sleeved cards (they’re a bit thick).
A step up: Printing on card stock
This is an approach that I know many designers use, but I don’t. You can print directly onto heavy card stock, cut the cards up, perhaps round get corners, and call it a day. The only time I’ve personally used this approach was for playtesting Jamey’s upcoming Viticulture expansion (Viticultures uses mini cards, which don’t lend themselves well to sleeves or direct printing on blank cards, since I don’t have blank mini cards).
Advantage: Doesn’t require sleeves, stickers or blank cards, so it’s inexpensive. Can be very nice looking. Usable with any size of cards. Pretty quick and simple to print and cut.
Disadvantage: You need the right card stock if you want shuffling to feel good. Rounding corners is fiddly, but if you don’t do it the cards will feel a bit weird. Unless you’re more precise than I am, the cards will be slightly different sizes.
A bit messier: Stickers
Now we’re getting fancy. When I was testing Alchemy Bazaar in 2013, I wanted nicer-looking cards, so I ordered a bunch of blank Avery name badge labels on Amazon and a bunch of blank playing cards from The Game Crafter. I used the Avery Word template to create a Photoshop template for my cards, and I started putting nicer-looking icons in the cards. I printed them on a color inkjet printer, peeled off the labels and stuck them on the cards.
Advantage: Nice-looking. Thinner cards than you get with sleeves. Fairly easy. No need for sleeves or a paper cutter. Good shuffling experience.
Disadvantage: Expensive (mostly for the stickers, less so for the blank cards). Similarly time consuming to sleeving. More time consuming to create the files if you’re going graphic-heavy (unless you’re an InDesign whiz, which I am not). Shuffling can feel just a bit weird, especially if you put new stickers over old ones.
Tricky but good: Printing on blank cards
This has replaced the stickers for me. I’ve figured out (after many false starts) how to print directly onto blank cards (the tutorial is here). I can do everything that I can do with stickers, but better. This is how I make my nice-looking prototypes now. I even made my own version of Hanabi when it was out of print (I’ve since bought the real game).
Advantage: Looks fantastic. Saves the cost of labels. Can even print custom backs if you want. Can still do it at home.
Disadvantage: Tricky to get your template set up just so. A bit time consuming and fiddly. You do need to order blank cards first.
Print on Demand
This is for when you’re getting serious about your prototype, or when you’re actually ready to sell your game. I’ve personally used two different POD services so far, and I’ve played with cards from a third. I’ll go through each of them in a bit of detail.
I’ll note that the basic advantages and disadvantages of all of these POD services compared to the DIY approaches above are similar. With POD, you’ll get a much better looking product, typically of a quality that you could actually sell, but at a higher cost and a much slower turnaround time compared to doing it yourself. You’ll also have to be comfortable enough with image editing software to get your files in the format that the POD company uses.
I love these guys. They print fantastic looking cards with quick turnaround, clear pricing and excellent customer service. This is my manufacturer for the review copies of Otters (and likely for the full print run, unless I end up printing a LOT of copies).
Advantage: Very fair price (especially if you’re ordering 5,000+ cards at a time, which is less than 100 standard poker decks). Can have decks with any number of cards. Great quality product. Great customer service. Quick turnaround. You can sell your game directly via their web site if you want to.
Disadvantage: They ONLY do cards – no tuck boxes, no rule sheets, no other game components. Their particular PDF format is a bit weird (my graphic designer had a hard time getting the files in the exact format DriveThruCards wanted).
I used these guys for the first edition of Chaos & Alchemy.
Advantage: Great quality cards. Reasonable prices. They do have an option for tuck boxes and rule sheets (though I didn’t actually use them).
Disadvantage: Terrible, horrible, no-good, very-bad customer service. Really, it’s abysmal. I flat-out will not do business with them again. Way too many delays, poor communication, etc. Limited non-card component option. You have to make your decks in multiples of 18 cards. Oh and bad customer service – did I mention that?
While I haven’t used them myself, I have played prototypes with their cards.
Advantage: Good quality cards. Options for any game component you want, including real two-piece game boxes of a few different sizes (this is rare to find). Good reputation and a good community of designers surrounding the site. You can sell your game directly through the site.
Disadvantage: A bit pricey. Quality of non-card components can feel a little flimsy (such as boards and boxes). Turnaround isn’t quite as quick as DriveThruCards.
I know these companies only by reputation, so I can’t say much beyond “some designers on BoardGameGeek recommend them.”
For me, card prototyping is now a three- (or four-) step process:
Step 0: If the game can easily be tested with normal playing cards, start there to work out very rough mechanics. Not applicable to all designs.
Step 1: Excel spreadsheet, printed, cut up, inserted into sleeves with Magic cards. This is where the bulk of my design work happens.
Step 2: Print directly on cards when I want nice-looking prototypes to send to blind playtesters demonstrate at conventions or pitch to publishers.
Step 3: Go with DriveThruCards to print final review copies or actual print runs of my games.
I hope this helps other designers with their own card prototyping process. And I hope you’ll take a look at my kid-friendly card game Otters, which is on Kickstarter for most of the month of February 2014! Feel free to reach out to me on Twitter as @ClayCrucible, on Facebook at Facebook.com/ClayCrucibleGames, on my on site as ClayCrucible.com, or via email at ClayCrucible@gmail.com.