Prototyping, or How to Buy a Game that Doesn't Exist Yet.
Today's post concerns an often overlooked aspect of card game making: high-quality prototyping. Most designers are familiar with the early stages of prototyping; you see a lot of scraps of paper with hand drawn symbols and keywords, created just as fast as ideas were pitched. These prototypes are critical for newborn games, because they encourage experimentation. Nobody has to feel bad about letting go of bad ideas when they only took 2 seconds to implement. The weak point of these protos is, of course, the 'wow' factor -- they don't have it. A designer can see past the ugly exterior into the bright future of a game; a playtester, not so much. It is just too difficult to look past the hard-to-read card text, irregular shapes, and crumply edges of a first draft game. They can't see the forest for the trees.
The solution, then, is an upgrade. Once the game is playable -- that is, once it has somewhat concrete rules and a standard deck -- designers can make semi-permanent cards. These usually take the form of computer-designed (or carefully hand written) paper cards, usually in card sleeves with a trading card or playing card behind to give them some rigidity and a uniform back. It is at this point that the game can be shown to playtesters (though not potential buyers or investors) for feedback. Where the last version was spur-of-the-moment on-the-fly development, adjustments made at this stage should be planned just a bit more. Create the deck, play for an evening, then make necessary changes all at once. The ease and low cost of creation make modifications easy, while the robustness of the cards makes it easy for your play testers to focus on the game itself.
After a while, though, these handmade cards begin to fall flat. A home printer can make decent cards while you are experimenting with graphic design, but eventually, you have to pick something and start showing your game to people. For this, home printed cards in sleeves will not do. You need a real prototype, with cards that look more or less like the ones the game will ship with when it goes out to customers. There are a few options for this, but I really only recommend one: find a short run printer.
There are a few companies that specialize in print runs of less than 100 copies. These printers don't typically use offset lithography printing, due to the high cost of creating plates (although digital lithography, like the process used for creating the named Coke bottles, is becoming a popular option). Instead, companies like makeplayingcards.com and thegamecrafter.com use large format digital laser printers to make cards on the cheap. Once coated and cut, these cards look and feel almost just like traditional playing or trading cards, but at a fraction of the cost. The result id a deck of cards with a professional look and feel, at a cost that makes it feasible to continue to make changes and upgrades.
If you are working on a game and you have made it to the point that you want to start advertising, be sure to get yourself a professionally produced deck. The value of having something that feels like a real game is absolutely worth the cost, and it will make players much, much more likely to become buyers.
Have a prototyping hint you want to share? Go ahead and tell us in the comments!