The 3 Distinct Stages of Prototyping

3 Prototypes-01

When I started working on my first design I made a monumental cock up and, after speaking to other designers, I’ve discovered I’m not alone in this.


It’s really easy to get excited by your first design and you want to get stuck in as soon as possible. You know it’s going to need some playtesting, but (and stop me when this sounds too familiar) you know it won’t need much playtesting because it’s such a well thought out idea and it’s going to work like this and play like that and generally just be awesome. So, might as well get started on that prototype now, right?

Cue a large amount of time spent crafting a beautiful prototype, painstakingly cutting out cards and tokens, googling around for hours looking for the perfect image to represent that particular action, taking whole weekends laying out flavour text and icons and health points on decks of cards. Hell, even getting things 3D printed. This will be awesome.

Your first playtest comes along, you get all excited and roll out this beautiful prototype.

At this point I would like to quote the excellently named Field Marshall Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke when he said

“No plan survives contact with the enemy.”

Now, I’m not saying that your playtesters are the enemy, but the point is that as good as your plan (i.e. your design) is, it won’t survive first contact and this is almost always true of game design. Within a short amount of time you’ll soon realise that your design is…ok…but it needs a lot of work. And a lot of that work is going to involve changing a lot of your components. Components you’ve spent hours and hours working on.


So this brings us on to the focus of this blog, and the answer to two questions I see a lot from first-time designers. How much effort should I put into prototypes? and When do I start working on a ‘proper’ prototype.

I’ve spoken to a lot of designers on this issue, used my own experiences and taken some lessons from a few UX (User Experience – websites, apps etc) designer friends of mine to come up with this blog post.

Now, I want to make it very clear here, this is by no means a perfect system and it won’t work for everyone, neither will it be perfect for each game. But it’s a baseline to work from and it’s doing well for us now.

When it comes to board game design there are three stages of prototyping:

  1. Player Journey
  2. Tone & Feel
  3. Real World

If you’re going to self-publish on Kickstarter than you’ll need to go all the way to stage 3. If you’re planning on pitching to publishers then you may only need to go to stage 2, it depends on the publisher. Most don’t want you to have spent money/time on art and components because they’re likely to change that after they’ve picked it up from you.

Each stage of prototype has a distinct purpose and therefore the quality (and time invested) of the prototype will reflect the need of that stage. Let’s explain those stages a little further.

1. Player Journey

Stage 1 - Player Journey (thanks to Chris Renshall for the image)
Stage 1 – Player Journey (thanks to Chris Renshall for the image)

Purpose – Does your game take the player on the journey that you want them to experience?

Quality – Handwritten components on scraps of paper. Stick-men drawings. Borrowed components from other games, all homemade.

Replace Rate – Very high (You’ll go through many changes and versions of this prototype)

Explanation – At this stage all you want to know is this: Does the game facilitate the experience I want players to have? If you’re designing a 2 player real time war game then do players feel the experience of commanding units across a battlefield? If you’re planning a 4 player party dexterity game are your players laughing? Are they all involved? Before you put any special effort into the prototype you need to make sure the Player Journey is grounded and what you’d planned for it to be. If your players aren’t having that experience then you may find that you need to change some rules or components drastically so it’s better that you don’t have a strong attachment to your prototype because you may be reluctant to ditch a whole deck of cards that need to be re-done because it took you a whole weekend to make! It’s much easier (and less emotionally damaging) to ditch a stack of post-it notes you’ve handwritten than a deck of cards you spend all weekend cutting and sticking.


2. Tone and Feel

Stage 2 - Look and Feel (testing the look and feel of Ghostel, inc some 3D printed ghost meeples)
Stage 2 – Tone and Feel (testing the look and feel of Ghostel, inc some 3D printed ghost meeples)

Purpose – Does your game have the ‘tone’ and ‘feel’ that matches theme to experience?

Quality – Still mostly homemade, images and icons taken from clipart/google, printed text, cut out and stuck together, early custom components in clay/play-doh, 3D printed.

Replace Rate – Low (There’s going to be some tweaks but little complete replacements)

Explanation – This is the point at which your theme, images, iconography and custom components should start to match the experience of the game. For playtesting purposes you’ll find images off google, print some cards, make an early version of a board and potentially get some custom components made out of modelling clay or 3D printers. Your playtesters should now be getting a good ‘feel’ for the game and how it’s going to end up looking and playing.

3. Real World / Reviewers

Stage 3 - Real World (Example of the final artwork on the cards of Ghostel)
Stage 3 – Real World (Example of the final artwork on the cards of Ghostel)

Purpose – Showing the world what this game is going to look like as a finished product.

Quality – Professionally made if possible, places like The Games Crafter and such.

Replace Rate – None (your game should be very close to finished with minor polish required)

Explanation – This is the prototype you’re displaying at conventions and sending to reviewers. It should have some examples of the actual artwork involved in the game (even if it’s just one picture). Components should be as close to actual as possible, produced by card-printing machines rather than stuck together. If people are going to back you on Kickstarter then this should be as close to what they’re going to get as possible.

Again, this isn’t the same for every game and every designer, but it’s a baseline to start with for people new to the game (heh). That first stage is the most important one, and the stage at which most effort is usually wasted, often leading to dejection and a design being abandoned, which is a shame.

I’d like to end with two quotes that I think are good to keep in mind throughout this process.

“Don’t mistake speed for precocity: the world doesn’t need wrong answers in record time.” Cennydd Bowles

Don’t rush into stage 2, spend time in stage one refining the game not the prototypes.

“A good designer finds an elegant way to put everything you need on a page. A great designer convinces you half that shit is unnecessary.” – Mike Monteiro

Says it all really.

I’ve had some terrible experiences with prototypes, if you’ve had any I’d love to hear about them in the comments!

If you know any budding designers and you think that this blog post may be useful to them then please feel free to share it with them.

A big thanks to a few people: Wil Grace for his UX talk where he described the different stages of website prototypes which inspired this blog post. Rich Palmer who has taught me much in the ways of user experience which helped shape this blog post, and Bevan, Tony and other friends for putting up with my many terrible prototypes

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