Journey of the Changing Board Game Prototype

by | Oct 12, 2016

The evolution of a crazy notion…

I have never worked on a project the way I have worked on this board game. It’s hard to explain why it takes so long to get something like this done. I have no doubt that there are more efficient ways of doing it but every journey is different and I’ve learned a thing or two since I started this process. Here’s a brief account of what I did. Take what you can from my experience.

In the beginning…

I woke up with an idea for a board game. That was my first step in this crazy experience. I busted out my college rule notebook and wrote down a bunch of ideas and sketched the board. It was a welcome distraction from my mundane programming work and urban monk lifestyle. I had an idea to bring the interesting ideas from my Kung Fu and Tai Chi classes into a microcosm of a board game so folks could learn without being bored to death. After I had a decent outline, I wanted to make a prototype.

First Prototype

After trying to cut out octagons by hand, I quickly lost patience. I also tried using those business card printers to make my own cards. Ugh. What a pain. In the end, I wound up where every arts and crafts project begins: Michael’s Arts and Crafts. I don’t know how much time you have spent at Michael’s but I have spent a fair amount at this point. I like to think I come across as a gentle giant but I get a lot of looks walking around there. I get the same looks at Joanne’s Fabrics. Deal with it folks! I’m crafty.

Painting on Wood

I bought some pre-cut cardboard octagons and some pre-cut wooden squares to make the initial board layout. I also bought some 3/4″ wooden cubes to make player pieces. I then made the terrible choice to use permanent markers to hand draw shapes on the wooden pieces. The moment folks tried playing the game, ink came off on their hands. A brilliant start. Use paint pens folks. Sharpie oil-based paint pens. Do NOT use permanent markers on wood. Lesson learned.

Making Cards

After making some truly heinous looking cards I opted for buying rubber stamps that matched the five animals from Kung Fu. Then I bought ink matching the colors I wanted to use for the cards. I also bought a bunch of those blank card sheets so I could experiment. Do yourselves a favor folks. Go to thegamecrafter.com and send your graphics there so they can print you nice looking cards delivered to you. Don’t be a jackass like I was. I have some great rubber stamps if anyone wants a tiger stamp on the back of their hand.

Play Testing

My first play test for the game was a disaster. I spent a lot of time on the rules and a lot of time on the prototype and people played it for all of 15 minutes before it was declared too complicated. It was too complicated. My gaming group absolutely crushed it with criticism. If you know the board gaming community at all you will recognize this as a typical response. The folks in the gaming community are smart and they don’t have patience for less than great. I tried to take this in stride but it is definitely not easy. At first, Wu Wei came off as a war game with complicated battle tokens and you had to keep track of which direction your piece was facing. It is really easy to design a super complicated set of rules. It’s much harder to make a tight game with easy to understand rules. Many an idea was sacrificed to the board gaming gods. I still have boxes full of old prototype materials.

Stepping Up the Artwork

One of the big complaints was the art. Everyone is used to a professional level game and hand-made prototypes require a certain crowd. Not having that crowd, I opted to hire someone using upwork.com to create the artwork. That’s when I started working with Yan Li on the artwork for the octagons and the one-color elements and animals. My next prototype would be much better looking. However, I made another grave mistake when it came to producing the octagons. I hired a local print shop. This is not to say that local print shops in general are bad but the guys I found were real bastards. I needed something that would be as thick as 2mm cardboard cut into octagons and I couldn’t find anyone to do it. Finally I found these guys to do it and I am ashamed to say that I spent about $5 per octagon. There are 36 octagons in my game so it was $200 per game just on the octagons. It was absolute madness. The damn things were made of plastic. I’m giving you the best advice I can give right now. Use PrintPlayGames.com to make your cardboard prototypes.

Laser Cutting

I went around to various companies in North Hollywood to see who could help me with making engraved wood or plastic and no one wanted the type of job I had in mind. Eventually a small plastics company put me in touch with someone local that did laser cutting for a reasonable fee. This was one of the best moves I made. John Raya has been a great resource for making the tiles and player pieces for my game. Feel free to contact me if you want his contact information. He has reasonable rates and gets things done pretty quickly. My next prototype had circles, squares, and triangles engraved in it. The prototype after that had elements engraved inside those shapes as well. I decided to go this route so I could paint inside the lines. The final pieces will likely be silk-screened onto wood. See what I mean? What a process!

Rule Book Fugue

My next prototype was much more formidable. I had also curtailed many of the rules. The game play was moving much better but the end of the game was still a problem. The people in the lead usually didn’t wind up winning because everyone continued to block them over and over. Also, the learning curve for the game was still steep. At this point I started creating rule books. It is quite a struggle to make rules clear. The other problem is that no one (literally no one) will read your rule book. The material is so dry and most people don’t have a passion for this type of technical detail. This has been a major uphill climb for me. I created over 50 generations of rule books before getting to my first graphic layout. After I finally had the rules down in a graphic layout and was feeling done with the whole thing, the rules changed and I had to adjust, correct and add to this infernal tomb. The rules are nearly done as I write this but I have taken one more step and hired a nice guy named Dustin Schwartz to help me with the final polish. You can find his website here: therulesforge.com

Kickstarting

After making my first graphic prototype, the process became a lot less clear. It really just involved testing and testing and more testing. I wound up with more and more notes and shaved off little things here and there. I went to GenCon and tested the game at the First Exposure Playtest Hall. I sent it to reviewers. In the end, I threw my game up on Kickstarter in a Hail Mary attempt to get the funds to keep moving forward. All I can say is, “Wow”. It was a hell of an experience. Exhilarating and disappointing all at the same time. The game was titled Lineage at the time and we raised $24K of the $40K required. Here’s the link to the archived campaign: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/graywolfgames/lineage-the-martial-arts-strategy-game The reviews can be found there as well.

Manufacturing

After the first Kickstarter I took a little time to recuperate. It’s hard to get so close to something and not quite make it. I do NOT regret it. It gave me a greater understanding of what it takes. As a direct result of my Kickstarter, I interviewed for a job at a game manufacturing company and I have been working there ever since learning everything there is to know about the process of making board games. You don’t have to work for a board game manufacturer to get this knowledge. A lot of manufacturing companies have design guidelines and in-depth quoting processes. I highly recommend checking into this as it may greatly influence the choices you make for your components, box sizes, card quality, etc. Do it sooner than later! Just google “board game manufacturer” and you should be good to go. If you really want to produce a game, this is the only way you will bridge the enormous gap from concept to mass production.

Innovation

I have since added a little piece of ingenuity to my game. I’ve created a two-layered board for the squares and octagons to sit in so the board doesn’t get thrashed during game play. It also makes it possible to pick up the game and move to a new location or to save it for later. I haven’t seen much of this. There really aren’t any octagon/square games out there. Trail blazing! And now thanks to feedback from my play testers I am looking at turning my cards into tracking boards with similar grooves. I’m making cardboard classy again.

Custom Game Tokens

The game also comes with game tokens. In my original prototype these were glass beads. I went so far as to have some 3D prints made of a “Go” piece with elements imprinted into the plastic. This was pretty damn expensive. I highly recommend trying to find a friend that does 3D modeling and has access to a 3D printer. Going through local shops in Hollywood was way too expensive and there’s not a lot of margin for error. It’s better to work with a specialized company online. As soon as I have a recommendation I’ll update this post. In the meantime, I’ve actually modified this component so it’s a simple disc. I’m still planning on having an imprint but it should be much easier to get this going than what I had planned originally.

Useful Software/Learning Curve

I’m planning to have a plastic insert for my game. As a result, I have been learning how to use Google Sketchup. I highly recommend you get your head around his program (it’s free) as it will also allow you to create some simple 3D shapes as graphics, etc. In addition, get a subscription to Adobe Creative Cloud. This will give you access to three very important programs: Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign. Photoshop is great for paintings and photos and textures and that type of thing. Illustrator is great for working with measurements because it does everything in vector. InDesign is essential for laying out a rule book. I’m not saying this is an easy learning curve but if you are a one-man-band like I have been you will need to dive in and learn this stuff

Moving Forward

I really hope I am at the end of all of this but I know that during the manufacturing process there will be minor changes. Often times the reality of color correction, plastic mould creation, and printing limitations will influence the final outcome. I still have to design the back of the box and finalize the rule book and box insert. It takes quite a while to put all of this bed. My goal is to have it all wrapped up before the next Kickstarter in a few months. Wish me luck!