Simple, Clean, and Fast

A common sentiment I read over and over is for designers to "make ugly prototypes!" This seems to be a rallying cry and I'd like to quietly (mostly due to my low readership) stand up and offer a counterpoint. I realize I'm splitting hairs, which is petty, but it's an important distinction. I don't think you should make ugly prototypes for a second longer than necessary. Instead, I think this should be our rallying cry as designers:

Make your prototypes aesthetically functional, simple, and easy to iterate upon. Do not make ugly prototypes.

There's a flow to this, though, and ugly does have its place; the starting point. Here are the general steps in your prototype's visual life.

  1. Create a quick and dirty prototype. Suggested format: blank index cards and pencil writing. You need these when you're sure of nothing, when the game is so bad you'll be erasing stuff mid-test to fix it.
  2. Quick and less-dirty prototype. Throw away the smudged marked cards from your last few tests. Use nicer hand writing and give it a little more love.
  3. Functional and Simple prototype. It's time to give your testers something a little bit better. Printed, plain white cards with easy to read numbers and simple iconography. I think this is where you should spend the majority of your development.
  4. High-End Prototype. I let myself do these if I really love the game or I have a moment of weakness, or I'm going to GenCon to pitch. I've done this for YorkFarmageddon, and a couple of prototypes I shouldn't have. Many people go to TheGameCrafter.com far too quickly to print out your prototype. DON'T. You'll be rendering them useless far too quickly if you leave step 3 too soon.

Perhaps the distinction between number 3 and number 4 is why people stress the "keep it ugly!" so much. But, for the sake of this post, I think you should spend most of your time in step 3 and I don't think it should be ugly.

I can only speak from my own experience, and what I say is merely my opinion. Remember, everyone's got one. But, the moment in development to begin taking your presentation more seriously comes more quickly than people think. It's very easy to say the publisher will handle the art, the publisher will handle the graphic design, the publisher will handle the rules. But, I'd argue thinking about the full experience of your design will not only enrich your prototype, but better your chances of finding that publisher.

Constantly seek to broaden your designer skill set! You'll be amazed at how it improves the rest of your abilities. It may seem unrelated, but all of this helps you craft better experiences and games. Stop saying "make it ugly!" and think about how you can make sharper games from head to toe.

Rough

I'm only able to test with chicken scratch on index cards for so long before I exhaust my testers' patience and hit my own quality bar. For one, a lot of time is wasted reading my handwriting and I've found people tend to give a game with handwriting a less-than-fair shake when evaluating it. People tend to treat the game like a joke, and to a degree, it is.

Playtesting is a gift and a favor. Every time. Remember that! Do your best to remove all notions that what your testers are doing is not worth their time.

Flip

You don't need to spend weeks perfecting your layout. You don't need to be an artist. You can use the Drawing program on Google Drive, free, to quickly create something. This lets you experiment with space and card usability. Use simple, clear typefaces, and get a feel for how much room you have. You can also use Inkscape. Or GIMP. Both are free! I just found another called Pixlr using a Google search.

Sample

If you're worried about your tuning values, and you should be, leave those spaces blank and write them in with a pencil. This saves paper, time cutting, and allows you to quickly try new things while still presenting something that isn't distracting.

Bomber_Hogs_Front

You can use Game-Icons.net and The Noun Project to quickly obtain clean iconography to test your system. I've tried hand-drawn icons and it's a waste of everyone's time.

unnamed

When you're testing your prototype, the most important thing is to get feedback on the game and the actual experience. The closest you can reasonably get to a quality prototype, the better the feedback. Not everyone has vision or the ability to imagine something better. Sometimes they need a leg up. This isn't their fault, but it's an opportunity for us as designers to create something simple, functional, and easy to use.

Some good steady rules for building quick prototypes:

  • Add a stroke/border to your cards to make them easy to cut.
  • Get a paper cutter and some sleeves. You can buy a bunch cheaply on Amazon.
  • Use a simple typeface that's easy to read.
  • Use 12 or 14 point font size. Challenge yourself to create text as large as possible. Like having a 140 limit restriction in Twitter, you'll find it forces you to get creative and razor sharp with your text.
  • Remember to leave space for illustrations. In most cases, people will want art there.
  • If you think colors and icons will be a part of the game, begin testing with them as soon as possible. Get some colored pencils for the dirty phase, but upgrade to some free, open-sourced icons quickly.
  • Remember how people hold and fan a hand of cards. Put important info in the top left corner, not the top right corner.
  • Use white backgrounds to save on ink.
  • Leave room to write in number variables by hand. Use an eraser to update on the fly.
  • Take advantage of blank labels. You can type on them, print them, then label them on an existing card when you need to make more significant text changes. You should see the scrapbook that were my Farmageddon cards.
  • A good rule, for me, is to try to mimic the Google home page. It's not flashy, fun, or sexy. But, I can easily identify things and go about my day.

Google

Go forth, broaden your skillset, and make your prototypes aesthetically functional, simple, and easy to iterate upon. Happy designing.

Comments

Thanks Mark. We are 100% in agreement. Good visuals have served you VERY well.

It's hard to argue with how logical this is.

I agree that prototypes should be pretty when playtesting with potential players. For me, once the game is going to those who will not be able to see past the ugly design it is already past step 3.

I continue to encourage designers to use ugly prototypes because if you believe in a game you want to make it pretty. You have to remind yourself not to too early. You guys sound like you have a great method, but not everyone does. Many people get attached too early and don't want to iterate because it 'feels like it's done'.

Like anything balance is needed.

I say this every time this subject comes up: visual design is part of the play experience. You are not adequately testing your game if the (ugly) graphic design in your components is hindering the play experience instead of helping it.

And of course, you did hit on the other big point I try to make: it is way, way easier to get people to sit down to playtest a pretty prototype than an ugly one.

Great post as usual. Thanks for outlining the process that mostly had been in my head. I like to look at the design elements of board games I love and find easy to teach and incorporate them into my design. Like having icons in the upper left and right corners for left and right handed players, simple color-coding for parts of the game that belong together, etc. The last time I made a prototype game was 5 or 6 years ago so I appreciate all the updated links that I don't have to scout out myself now. Now if I only had some time to develop a game!

Thanks Christian. If you ever have questions, just ask!