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Your prototypes are too shiny

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Cogentesque's picture
Joined: 08/17/2011
oOoooh, shiny.

Cross posted from - I think this is some quite useful information.

The worst possible prototype is an amazing looking prototype.

Ok, the intro line here is a bit of a con (after all, the worst type of prototype is no prototype at all). When I say “amazing looking” what I mean is the shiniest, most chrome filled, graphically superior prototype that looks like it has just popped out of a modern Speil de Jahr winner, Daniel Solis‘s* design cupboard or Brett Gilbert’s* graphical mastery.

Take a look at the attached image:

This is the prototype layout to one of the games Matt and I are working on; a Firefly themed game crossing a deck builder and a wargame that takes place during the Battle of Serenity Valley. The game so far looks to hold up quite well, but the point is that this is a prototype card. The background art is not mine of course, all rights to the firefly comics there. Does it look good? Well I think it does rather. Would I consider changing the layout of it as a prototype? HELL NO! I’m not going to destroy all of this hard work I have put into this beautiful card! This took far too long and looks far too fancy to change.

If you are unwilling to change it, it is not a prototype.

This damned card set us back about 4 weeks of development because I was too stubborn to change it. I thought that entertaining a change of layout (and thus: mechanics) would ruin all of this effort I put into the card, for fear of it being slightly damaged. If any part of you would “rather not” change a part of your boardgame – then you no longer have the right to call it a prototype. This is true of any resource: dice, cards, board, etc that you would prefer not to change. Even if you kind of want to keep it, but maybe you know … whatever. That is as bad; you are biased and you will tilt in your duty as a designer to be empowered to change things, you cannot call something a prototype if at ANY POINT you are committed in keeping something because of any reasons other than gameplay.

Board making guides also suck.

I was really getting into making the board for this prototype as well. I went so far as to buy some “book binders tape” JUST to flex my craft muscles and make a real four way hinged board. The board is really great now by the way. I’m really proud of it and the way it folds all nicely, I spent ages on it. Then the shrill but distant far away voice is heard:

Hey … Sam, what do you think about the idea of not using a board anymore at all?

W- … what do you mean, strange voice of reason?

You secretly know that games downfall is the board, lets try using player tableaus, I’m sure that will really help the game out!

B…but the board i- … it folds. Do you not see? It folds into FOUR sections strange voice, FOUR!! (Sam flips the board between it’s two states in the air as if he were preparing to break the ‘Rubik’s Magic’ world record)

Why a crappy prototype is better.

If you realise you have made a really crappy, rubbish, pencil based, graph paper, style prototype then there are a few points to consider:

You will never feel too attached to the game to avoid changing it
You will focus on the mechanics – as you are no longer bound by the prototypes transient and physical nature
Some of you may actively dislike the look of the prototype – leading to a positive reinforcement or push to change it, if only because it looks so terrible!
You are able to “let it go” if you or a publisher choose to retheme it

Don’t let your pride, your graphics abilities, your fondness for chipboard, your perfectionism or any other such irrelevant desire bind you to something that only exists to be changed changed and improved.

Why does this happen?

Well, in the psychoanalytic theory that Freud made popular: specialised strategies are brought into play by the unconscious mind to deny or distort reality to maintain a socially acceptable self-schema or self-image. This is some awesome-psycho-babble-science for what me and you know as a “Defence mechanism”. The thinking goes that we give insincere rationalizations (we make excuses) for things that we have created because these things have been born of our own hand, and are physical manifestations of ourselves. They are our gorgeous babies. In destroying and changing your babies, you are, arguably destroying and changing yourself, forcing us to concede that something is “wrong” with our babies, and so, ourselves.

This neatly leads on to another interesting point; a lot of designers (myself included) get upset or angry if you criticise our prototypes. If you stop for a minute and think about this, it makes no sense at all. Here you are, with 3 willing playtesters in front of you all keen to help you develop your latest prototype, Ambulance Quest. Now imagine this; they play your game to help you make it better. You say, “Hey, what did you think about the board?”, the reply is an uncomfortable “It is bad, we would prefer player tableaus” and you are sad, hurt, and a little angry. This makes NO SENSE. You asked them specifically for their opinion to help you with the design – and now you are making up reasons why they are wrong “Well, perhaps you didn’t invest enough ambu-cash into the bonus cards…”. This my friends is called Cognitive Dissonance and is prevelant when your mind is aware of two contrasting thoughts. In this case: the amount of work you put into your prototype, and the fact that if all your playtesters says its bad. This is especially the case with very shiny and over produced prototypes.

To Sum:

Save yourself time and stop yourself getting upset; make crappy prototypes.

*Daniel and Brett are two of the most amazingly gorgeous designers I know of, they are both really cool guys as well. I would heartily recommend checking these guys stuff out if you want to see what I think the gaming industry will look like in 2 or 3 years.

Joined: 07/11/2012
Great post. Totally agree.

Great post. Totally agree. Its taken me a few costly (in time and money) to realise that rapid fast and dirty prototyping is by far the best way of doing things.

Joined: 04/30/2013
read it originally on BGG, so

read it originally on BGG, so ill just place the points i raised there over here too, but classier and hopefully clearer

i too agree with the points raised, a primitive prototype is great when your game is still maliable, with rules, layouts, pieces, everything still changing. but when a game starts to solidify, you will have to move on to playtesting with the public, and at that stage your game has to look at least decent.

this image shows the changes my card game went through aesthetically
the earliest on the left and latest on the right.

i almost fell into the trap in my 2nd prototype, wasted time drawing pictures for a bunch of them, in the end i went back to basic level stuff with my 3rd prototype and playtested it publically, it recieved a majority negative result with one of the playtesters calling it a "crappy game made in a day" in his session, and that was about 4 months i had worked on at the time.

the 5th prototype had a borderline but still closer to negative result. i spent a month churning some simple marker sketches depicting fighters and actions of the moves, applied them to my 5th card template prototype, tested again and there was an immediate change in opinion.

my game rules didnt change, playtesting size was about the same with some new faces, but with more solid aesthetic theming, more playtesters found the game more appealing. i will admit that the playtesting size was small and irregular, which might make for inaccurate results:

crappy prototype test with prototype 3:
2 positive votes out of 8 playtesters

no pictures test with prototype 5:
8 positive votes out of 17 playtesters

with pictures test with prototype 5:
12 positive votes out of 15 playtesters

so take from this story what you will, the public seems to always be more demanding that what you expect. when fine tuning your mechanics, what aestherics and components to use, consider the experience of playing your game as a whole after your paper playtests reach their end

Joined: 05/19/2013
And then of course there's

And then of course there's the common wisdom that you don't send a product "too finished" to a publisher, because they'll be planning to utilize their artists and graphic designers anyways.

Joined: 02/01/2013
I agree

I started working too much on my "look" after the rules/mechanics/play were solidified. I may have wasted too much time.

There is a happy balance to be found. From my research, it's all about the rule book. The components and board/map come second.

Knicksen's picture
Joined: 05/18/2011
Tricky question

I think I'm with Laperen - I've had an excellent response to the board design and the general look and feel of my current game design. I think this has created greater interest in the game and I think playtesting has gone well partly due to this.

BGG entry:
Blog / game details:

I have put a lot of effort into creating a couple of high quality prototypes and have enjoyed the process, but I realise that this has been a lot of effort for just one game design. I am realistic about this not being practical in general.

This is also at odds with what is suggested in Lew Pulsipher's excellent Game Design 'Bible' (see Game Design book at and what has been discussed in this thread.

padragan's picture
Joined: 09/24/2010
I both agree and not agree

I both agree and not agree with you.

After having read your article, my conclusion is that the problem is not with the shiny prototype, but with you not wanting to kill your darlings. I actually think a prototype you show to anyone but yourself benefits from being well made, and by that I primarily mean two things A) handling (using cardboard instead of flimpsy paper for instance to keep people from getting frustrated or making a deck you can actually shuffle and handle well) and B) clarity (that is, no confusing stuff that makes people misunderstand things). Anything above that is a bonus.

My point is that the better looking prototype you have, the more will the players concentrate on the actual game instead of being frustrated about flimsy stuff. In short, their reviews get better because they focus on what's important.

So, if you can do this and STILL scrap large parts of your design without hesitation you get the best of two worlds.

But! And I think it's important, I do think there are some darlings that should be left alone. When you design a game you decide what kind of game this will be. I think there's a point in defending your main idea, the core game engine you aimed for. Many things can be ditched, but if you playtest a tile placing game that the testers would transform into a deckbuidling wargame with the same theme I think it's ok to say "That would not be my game anymore. Perhaps such a game deserve a project of it's own, but this is not it." That said, I think you should be ready to question ANY rule, detail or component in your creation. I have transformed quite alot in my own prototype Steamtopia, and even though I've aimed for a "finished" look I've remade tiles and cards several times to make them more logic and to enhance the gaming experience. Yes, it takes time, but I think it's worth it.

richdurham's picture
Joined: 12/26/2009
Nice one

I ended up reading your entire blog over at Thanks for killing my afternoon on a beautiful Sunday! To everyone else that hasn't yet read it: It's entertaining and a bunch of great posts to remind oneself of some of the important bits of game design.

Keep cross-posting!

SugarPillStudios's picture
Joined: 03/25/2013
Great post, thanks for

Great post, thanks for sharing.

I also appreciate laperen's examples that highlight the importance of several iterations of prototypes, rather than it being a single artifact, and the comments about designers needing to develop the ability to kill their darlings.

Another virtue of less shiny prototypes is that playtesters will be less concerned about hurting your feelings, or holding back advice that seem to change the game in far-reaching ways. A rough prototype communicates the state of your game's development, your flexibility in the design, and the amount of feedback that is expected/necessary to complete the game.

Of course, once your fundamental mechanics are proven... you'll want to create more prototypes that help you evaluate how well players are reading state, handling the pieces, and experiencing the more polished version of your game. I guess this is your one point that I take issue: that an unwillingness to change part of your game indicates that you are not working with a prototype. I think each prototype should be designed to answer questions about specific parts of your game's design. As your designs mature, there will become some sacred cows that make up the essence of what the game is about.

Again, thanks for sharing your valuable insights.

Cogentesque's picture
Joined: 08/17/2011
Well sugarpill studios:

Well sugarpill studios: thanks very much for your kind words :) You are very much welcome to the articles and I shall continue crossposting to my bro's at BGDF,


kpres's picture
Joined: 04/20/2013
but they look so gooood

I have found that my friends have less fun when they play a crappy-looking prototype. They simply have more fun with a good-looking prototype. Having fun is the key to getting your friends to play it over and over. It also gets over-the-shoulder watchers interested, if you're playing in a venue like a game shop. Don't be afraid of scrapping integral components of your game if you suddenly have an epiphany about it.

Yes, I understand that when you put your heart and soul into making a beautiful prototype, you won't want to change anything. That hasn't been a problem for me because I realized that the aesthetics are required for the fun to be facilitated. It's required as much as good mechanical design is required. You just have to remove the emotional investment in your game components. If they're not performing well, cut them and find something better.

The trick is to find efficiency. Find an easy way to make a good-looking prototype. Make some templates in photoshop or something. Make something that's easy to print or easy to make. I have a lot of MAGIC cards in sleeves, so when I make a card game, it's easy to cover up the card with a sticky note and slip it back in the sleeve.

I've got three stages of prototype:

1. The Ugly. I make up a quick prototype using materials borrowed from other games and test it by myself to see if the mechanics work.

2. The Bad. I improve the ugly prototype and make it feel and appear decent and I use this prototype for testing parts of the game with one other player. I never test a whole game with this prototype; only phases or mechanics.

3. The Good. I make a good-looking prototype that I can do real playtests with. This is the standard. Components must be easy to replace, because it's a prototype, after all. There may be advanced stages in "the good" when 75% or 90% of the components are just the way I like them. I will set aside the old prototype and make a better-looking one that can be tested with groups of strangers.

ckleach's picture
Joined: 02/26/2013
I agree... but

I see your point with everything you've stated, and for all intensive purposes, you are bang on.

One thing I don't believe every "designer", graphic or game or otherwise, is attached to their work and we probably all have different levels of prototyping in mind. To me, a functioning product is a prototype. A proof of concept is just an iteration, as there are many within the pre-production portion of designing.

That project that is cheesy, penciled, not measured with rough edges and scribbled on could be the proof of concept. So for semantic purposes, those that want to test run mechanics and gameplay, keep it simple for the sake of proving it works. Keep it light.

Because I'm a graphic designer and web designer, I wireframe everything. Wireframing, flow charts, annotations and the like. And in context to game dev, this means I'm building close to spec without the bells and whistles. Using coins instead of chits/tokens, making a game board out of bristol/card stock and not chipboard and tape, using pawns from my Trouble and Chess game sets instead of crafting them out of clay/wax/wood. Tap pieces of paper together and erasing everything I've written about a million times is what works best for me when game designing.

My concept of prototyping might be prettier than most, but it may have taken me the same amount of time pulling together the bits and resources. So let's not make the idea of prototyping be so black and white. My prototypes may look shitty to me, but clean for a first draft to others. It has nothing to do with skill, or caring, or time.

Going above and beyond to order online pieces, shop around for the right elements and spend time and money printing, taping, and writing, then yes...... that's a little nuts and never necessary. But it's all relative. I've seen some prototypes created with index cards. Quick and dirty way to get custom playing cards made. I've seen people type and print at home and paste onto a Dollar Store deck of cards as well. Is that not the same thing, time and money aside? We can't judge iterations by the visual value.

I defend your points but wanted to share it's not about it being cheesy or polish. It's about it being easy to do and most importantly, getting the idea across. If you can do it quick and make it look nice, why the hell would you not?

But then again, I guess that's just me :P

Izraphael's picture
Joined: 01/29/2010

Prototype is used to test the game, so it's a way to look if the experience provided by the artifact is the one that you want.
Prototype must be *functional* to this purpose.
If this includes a strong setting, then you will need a good-looking prototype, there's no escape.

So, if the game focus is on mechanics, like in a classical eurogame, it's ok to have a "crappy" prototype.
You're basically testing abstract concepts, mathematics, and so on.
But if you're testing a game with a strong setting, focusing on a story, or a situation that must be perceived by players to enjoy the game, you *must* help them understand what your game wants.

IMHO, a good-looking prototype helps anyway the players understanding what the game is. Ok, if you are not good with graphic design, just go for plain\vector images and don't go mad with it, but at least try to give your game the right "flavour"... and absolutely spend some time with graphics if the setting is a pivotal point of the play experience.

My 2 cents.

larienna's picture
Joined: 07/28/2008
I wrote an article lately

I wrote an article lately about the artist syndrome:

I cited an extract from the Game Designer Workshop book that clearly stated not to invest too much time in prototype quality:

In early drafts of your physical prototype, we recommend that you pay no attention to the quality of the artwork. Stick figure drawings are the norm. The goal is to rough out system components so that you can see how the game operates on a mechanical level. Spending time on the artwork only slows down the process. Also if you invest too much time crafting the look and feel of the prototype, you might become attached to your work and be reluctant to make changes. Because the protyping process is all about iteration and change, this becomes counterproductive.

Fullerton, Tracy.- Game design Workshop: A playcentric approach to creating innovative games.- 2nd Edition.- Elsevier, Morgan Kaufmann, c2008.- p. 176.

ckleach's picture
Joined: 02/26/2013
You just reiterated what he said

And I don't think anyone here is actually denying that fact. Thank you for citing, and nice site by the way. Very informative.

okutnik's picture
Joined: 06/18/2013
Hello, I just read this post

Hello, I just read this post and would like to contribute my own thoughts based on my experiences so far. I fully understand the points made in the article. I think there is validity in all the points raised, but not all counter arguments were questioned.

I do believe that a game designer in pursuit of developing a successful retail product should invest a good deal in its presentation when taking the project into public testing.

I believe the part of not being attached to your "artwork" is part of the job. If you are a designer then art is not your focus, so why get emotional about it? Artists that are paid to provide their talent should be emotionally attached, not a designer. If you design games for fun, then visual design must be part of the dev experience and I understand criticism is taken closer to the heart. If you are a designer being paid (eventually) to create a retail product, then you are a professional and your efforts in "art" are purely supplemental to getting your design idea across to the game's participants.

So as a professional designer working on visual art for a prototype, why wouldn't you focus your efforts on good presentation? Here are some of my arguments towards investing time in your prototype's presentation:

You only get a first impression once. The initial impression sets the mood for their entire game. A good impression allows a player to be emotionally invested and give more feedback.

You filter all feedback to be as design applicable as possible. I think probably the most important aspect of a designer investing time in presentation is to be able to get feedback in regards to the game's design, and not the lack of understanding. Good visual design and iconography can prevent players misinterpreting the concept of a design goal simply because they didn't quite understand it, thus leading to incorrect and often personal opinions.

Good visual design alleviates the players stress. Prototypes are not finished games, they are more work to play and playtesters understand that when signing up for a session. Good layout, fast information finding, and iconography can really ease up the difficulty of playing what is an unfinished game.

Set expectations. There are a lot of prototypes that just get lost in a designer's shoebox. I believe that presenting something that looks like it took effort sets the expectation that you value each playtester's time they've taken out of their busy lives for you, for free. It shows that their efforts will not go to waste, it may make a difference to something they will eventually see on a store shelf.

I'm not advocating that prototypes should look or be as detailed as a retail game, but there are aspects I consider important when playtesting with people that are not invested in the success of the final product. Aspects such as good layout, basic color coding/grouping and iconography are important.

Illustrations, chrome and mood pieces are not important when the focus is on design. When I decide what sort of art I should include in my prototype I ask myself, (1) What design purpose does this piece of art serve to the playtester's understanding of this mechanic, or (2) What icon or art piece can I insert to visually represent the purpose of this game mechanic?

Of course these are my personal opinions, I have found no way of measurably justifying any of these. I do think anyone willing to invest their time and passion into something is worth a look, even when lacking in artistic quality. I just argue that those capable shouldn't dismiss the extra effort when expecting more from those willing to give.

ckleach's picture
Joined: 02/26/2013
My sentiments exactly

okutnik wrote:
I have found no way of measurably justifying any of these. I do think anyone willing to invest their time and passion into something is worth a look, even when lacking in artistic quality. I just argue that those capable shouldn't dismiss the extra effort when expecting more from those willing to give

Sound opinions, my good man. How can we really measure justifying any of it outside of common practice. If the game gurus and educators say "this", then "this" isn't always set in stone. It is best practice, guidelines that help alleviate foreseen issues and bump up efficiency. I'm an artist, so my art plays a huge role in the presentation and function of the game.

I've read 3 really good books on game design and development as per recommended by teachers of Game Design and they all preach similar tactics, littered with their personal opinions. Ground rules are ground rules, but it's all relative.

It's similar to my field of work: designers vs. developers. Usability vs. versatility. Fashion vs. function. There's always a give or take. Coming from the designers side, my perspective is that the presentation is as important as the proposition. I want someone to gather a sense of expectation (in a way) before they develop the understanding.

We can probably go on about this forever. I'm pretty much happy the way I work and my efficiency has not suffered so I keep rolling. Artist Syndrome will always be a factor IF you are a visual creative. I see it as a blessing. If you're not artistic, don't sweat the presentation. Pencil and paper are you best friends. :P

The Game Crafter
The Game Crafter's picture
Joined: 06/09/2009

You're drawing the wrong conclusion here. Making a crappy prototype won't help if you're unwilling to change. I've played plenty of crappy prototypes that people weren't willing to change. The moral of the story isn't "make a crappy prototype", but rather, "don't be afraid to change".

jerdude's picture
Joined: 07/08/2013
Time vs Money

In my limited experience prototyping, I have to say that the amount of time I had been spending hand-making crappy prototypes was not worth it when compared to the relatively cheap cost of getting nice looking, playable, and affordable prototypes made through services such as The Game Crafter. I found this to be ESPECIALLY true owning a crappy printer that blows through ink way too quickly.

Cogentesque's picture
Joined: 08/17/2011
I agree somewhat The Game

I agree somewhat The Game Crafter, but not entirely - our opinions definitely differ as I do not think the article "Silly" at all. There are many morals to be drawn here, the time-worn adage of "don't be afraid of change" is very important and often overlooked or dismissed. As a rule "don't be afraid of change" is definitely a good idea to follow. The article, though, examines a specific _cause_ of such an attitude. If I simply say "don't be afraid to change" people could simply nod their heads in general vague-ittude and agree it's very important etcetera etcetera. But by pinpointing such a niche and specific case, we can make headway in eliminating a specific _cause_ of people who are unwilling to change. It aims to be a lot more specific than simply saying "don't be afraid of change".

ckleach's picture
Joined: 02/26/2013

TGC wrote:
You're drawing the wrong conclusion here. Making a crappy prototype won't help if you're unwilling to change. I've played plenty of crappy prototypes that people weren't willing to change. The moral of the story isn't "make a crappy prototype", but rather, "don't be afraid to change".

Great point.

ralphthesquirrel's picture
Joined: 12/19/2011
My Rebuttal on Boards & Barley

Hi all,

I'm glad Cogentesque posted his article here because it gives me a chance to share my rebuttal of his article. I really enjoyed his article and it was really useful for game designers. My rebuttal points out the benefits of pretty prototypes. Check it out here:


Cogentesque's picture
Joined: 08/17/2011
By the way Ed I thought your

By the way Ed I thought your rebuttal article was terrific :)

ralphthesquirrel's picture
Joined: 12/19/2011

Thanks very much Cogentesque! And thanks for the inspiration for the article. I think there are a lot of designers out there who aren't sure how far to take the art for a prototype.

In my design process I particularly enjoy the artistic aspect of it, so I'm willing to spend a few hours at a time working on the art. But I have to remind myself not to get too attached.

I've used The Game Crafter to order cards with full art for prototypes before, but I always order a few blank cards as well so that I can easily modify my prototype.

- Ed

The Game Crafter
The Game Crafter's picture
Joined: 06/09/2009

Ed, I agree that personally I like pretty prototypes for all the reasons you listed, plus one more. I think playtesting art, graphic design, and layout is just as important as game mechanics. If you make a pretty prototype you'll get feedback like "I think I would have understood it better if there was an icon over here." But that's a personal preference. The important bit is of course that you're willing to change.

When I was at Protospiel last week a player made a suggestion that was so fundamental that I would have to redo literally every printed component. He said, "Are you ok with that?" I replied "Oh I don't care about these cards. I want to make a better game." He replied, "Good answer."

If you're in the prototyping stage, have zero attachment to the prototype. Consider it a piece of tissue paper that you'll use to wipe bio hazards from your child's face and discard in the same action.

pelle's picture
Joined: 08/11/2008
easy to change

The question is not pretty or not, but how easy it is to change. No matter how you will produce the "final cards" (or even "final prototype cards") make sure the working versions of the prototype cards are made in a vector format and preferably use a tool like this one that allows you to easily modify a template and have it affect all cards in the deck (rather than ever having to manually modify every single card):

(Or NaNdeck or whatever tool you prefer. I use my own obviously.)

Don't make it prettier than what the tool you use will allow you to do without making it difficult to change. Save pixel-perfect bitmap effects in Gimp/PhotoShop until you know you will not make more changes, or future changes will hurt.

Joined: 10/09/2013
Pretty Schmidty! <('-')>

I'm in the middle of producing my first prototype using painted Scrabble tiles. The board is some foam board with a grid I printed off of an excel file. I have player aide boards as well printed off of excel. I do love excel for getting those straight lines. I couldn't draw a straight line if my life depended on it.

Even at this level it would be hard for me to trash my scrabble tiles. It all comes down to whether you are accepting of change and the extra time and effort that that change will necessitate.

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