The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Groovy Prototypes

Frank Branham

November, 2000

Within the past two years, after finding that many of the games available are not really suited to my tastes, I have been designing my own board and card games. And I have also been trying to get some of them published, which means creating decent prototypes to send out to various companies. While I have yet to see a game published (sniff!), I have received lots of comments on the quality of the prototypes ranging from, "This looks great" to "This is completely psychotic". (I tend to go overboard and make at least one copy for myself which could never, EVER be produced by a sane company.) But I have discovered a few tools and locations for making prototypes:

  1. A wife who works at a prepress and printing shop. Who has a boss who allows us to abuse their color laser printers on occasion. Admittedly, most of the time I still rely on a nice Epson inkjet. I have an inexpensive 750 Photo Color which can print onto 110 index stock. This is useable enough for early playtest prototypes, and produces nice enough quality for the copies to send out. My wish list includes a 11x17 inkjet so I can print board sections in larger chunks, but these run about $299 and up.
  2. A Xyron cold laminator. ( This $120 gadget is incredibly useful. What it is is a pair of rollers that accepts lamination cartridges. The lamination in this case is adhesive based, so you can laminate a sheet of cards, then cut them apart. Even better, you can get a cartridge that laminates on one side, and puts an adhesive backing on the other. This works great for boards and thicker tiles. (I often use posterboard to back these. It is still fairly easy to cut with:
  3. A paper cutter. Friskars sells a $25 cutter in many craft stores. The cutting accuracy is nice, and sure beats cutting out 6 copies of a card game with 108 cards with scissors.

Of course the other trick is coming up with parts for the prototypes. I have used the following places to prowl for things:

  1. Craft Stores: This has the advantage of being able to browse, and the disadvantage of feeling like you are stepping into another world. (Why is it that you never see guys in craft stores?)
  2. Oriental Trading Company. ( Bliss for a game prototyper. Their catalog is packed with little tiny rubber and plastic things, in very large quantities.
  3. Archie Mac-Phee. ( Used to have a wider range of weird stuff, but has gone more upscale. Still has the occasional oddity like little plastic guys with briefcases.
  4. American Science and Surplus. ( Lots of odd hardware, toys, and surplus weird stuff.
  5. Wood-n-Shop. ( Sells any quantity of little wooden cutouts, with a huge selection. They also have a programmable jigsaw, and will make custom shapes with a minimum order of 50.
  6. Card Modeling FAQ. ( I have yet to use any sort of card models (which are surprisingly sturdy, but a pain to build), but have a few games that doŚmost notably a 1982 game called Voyage to Cipangu which provides gorgeous cardstock 3-masted sailing ships.
  7. Clip Art. In any computer store, there are big boxes with large numbers on the box indicating how much clipart is there. These are really useful, especially if they are in vector format (so they print at any resolution), and if they have an index book (to quickly search for pieces.) The other source of clipart is Dover. For some reason, they will not go online, but Amazon and most bookstores carry the Dover library. Much of the clipart is turn of the century or earlier, so is generally in the public domain.

Game samples: Here are pics of some of my prototypes and the techniques used to create them.

Witches Brew: Board printed on 11x17 laser in sections (at Sandi's workplace), then using a dry adhesive (this is a pain to apply) to back it to matte board. Cards are printed on paper then inserted into card sleeves (for collectible cards) using old Sim City cards behind them to provide stiffness. The glass bottles, frogs, and spiders came from Oriental Trading Company, feathers from a local craft store, and the bones from a place that sells zoological specimens.

Arcana Arcanissima: A retheming of the same game. This time the board is cloth, using an inkjet iron-on transfer in 4 panels to make the board. The tokens are chips purchased at a local game store with labels added from solid label stock and cut with a large decorative hole punch.

Aquarium Derby: For this game, the bits I found provided the theme. Oriental Trading Company sells a mass of glass sea creatures (seahorses, octopi, and crabs) for $1 apiece. The board is created in modular sections tacked onto posterboard with the Xyron. The seaweed is myrtle cut and stuck into wooden wheels and held into place with florist's putty.

Elephant Polo: The board is white denim (I needed the texture to help hold the pieces still) hand painted using fabric paint pens. Elephants are from Wood-n-Shop, with one set stained with a gel stain. The goals are just basswood strips glued together with a mesh fabric attached to provide netting.

Dia De Los Muertos: One problem with inkjets, these images were scanned at 1200dpi, but Illustrator seems to print to an inkjet with random resolution on the bitmaps. The images are engravings by Mexican artist Jose Posada, culled from a couple of clipart books. The border is based on the designs and colors from the paper cutouts that decorate towns during Day of the Dead.

- Frank Branham

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