Ok, on to the nitty gritty!
The first and biggest tip for prototyping is a simple one: SCROUNGE. After all, the easiest way to make any game component is...don't make it! Ride the coattails of someone else, and pilfer bits with abandon. (I mean physical bits, not 1/8-of-a-byte bits.)
If you've got a game collection, pop open the boxes and look for tokens, dice, markers, and other pieces that might serve a need. Just remember what you take, so you don't end up in a situation a few months down the road where you have a table full of people rarin' to go for an Axis and Allies game and then you suddenly realize you don't have two tanks to rub together because you “borrowed” them all for your Wildebeests vs. Wehrmacht prototype you cobbled together in a fit of misguided inspiration one lazy Sunday when the air conditioning was failing. Been there, done that!
A great source for spare parts is your local thrift store. There are usually many board games to be had for only a buck or two each. And some are actually worth it! Also, if the weather is good, look for garage sales and the like.
|“The Fruits of Your Labors – A Functioning Prototype!”|
If your prototype needs a board, old cruddy board games fit the bill nicely—usually the boards are nice, sturdy chipboard. You can print out your own game board on normal paper and then just spray fix it or tape it onto the sacrificial board. I'll talk more about boards later.
A last note about scrounging: don't stop at games. There are a surprising number of household items that can serve as game components. Stores like Pier 1 and the like usually have a good selection of potential game parts, too - decorative items like glass beads, polished rocks... whatever. Basically, just keep your “eyes” on every time you're in a store. You'll start to see game innards all around you, and this doesn't necessarily mean you need therapy.
Another source for good potential game parts are the toy aisles at supermarkets, Target, and the like. There are usually little packaged assortments of vehicles, toy soldiers, farmyard sets, etc., that can be an inexpensive boon for the practicing designer. Earth only knows how many Toy Soldier homebrew games there are out there.
A lot of the above might just sound like common sense... and it is. Just be resourceful, and you can keep the amount of work to a minimum by preventing the need to custom make every part of your prototype.
Rollin' up Yer Sleeves
When it comes down to it, you often can't avoid some actual layout and assembly time because you will need very specific items for your game. The most common - “the big hitters” - are cards, tokens/counters, and gameboards.
Many, many games feature a mechanic that involves cards. Even though you are prototyping a digital game, cards can be used to recreate many mechanics involving a random draw element - events, treasure finding, monster encounters, and the like. Although dice are obviously the cat's meow as far as representing abstract randomness goes, sometimes cards are better for specific random applications. For instance, if there are 20 possible events that can happen to the player, you could use a 20-sided die and a look-up table in your prototype, or you could just make 20 event cards. Is one event more common than others? Easy, just make more than one copy of that event card and seed the deck appropriately to get the distribution you want.
With the usefulness of cards comes, sadly, a difficulty factor that is commensurate. Cards can be some of the most backbreaking and frustrating components to make - that is, unless you know a couple tips to make your life easier.
Cards are tricky for prototypes because often you need the cards to stand up well to wear (repeated playtests) and also you usually need them to shuffle well. Shuffling well means that the cards need a good weight to them and they also need to have very precise edges - uneven cuts result in “trick decks” where certain cards catch on your fingers more than others. These “trick decks” are also known as “shoddy workmanship” decks, and “my 6-year old uses scissors better than you” decks. At least that is what they are referred to in professional circles.
There are a lot of different ways to make cards, but so far the very easiest I've found is this:
|“Cards, Cards, Cards”|
Counters and tokens can be almost as maddening as cards; actually, they are really more maddening because cards get pretty easy using the above procedure.
Counters and tokens should be laid out similar to cards. However, a few layout tips:
|“A Sheet of Counters is A Sheet of Counters by Any Other Name”|
Ok, boards are the last of the Big 3. Boards are a bit funny because there're many different ways to make them, and it's heavily dependent on your available resources and technology. Probably the best option is to print out your board in one piece on a large format plotter, preferably color. Since most of us don't have access to those, perhaps because we no longer work for engineering companies where we can slip an extra print off now and again, a more common option is just print your gameboard out in tiled format. Regardless of which way, your next decision is whether to mount your board or not. There's no need to—you can always playtest with simple paper printouts. Not mounting the board also means that changes can be made and then you just hit “Print” and you're back in action again. If you do decide to mount, probably your best option is to reuse a board from some cruddy board game you find at a thrift shop. They're all set-up to fold and everything! Other options are matboard and foam core.
An altogether separate option is to just draw your gameboard and eschew the computer altogether. This really comes down to preference. If you are a pencil and Art-Gum TM type, or a drafting lead and engineer's scale type, then go for it. Also, sometimes drawing your own board can simply be quicker than using a com-pewter. I only draw boards manually when I am in a huge rush or delusionally tired, but that's just because I have “limited artistic ability”, which is a euphemism for being a crappy drawer.
|“A Perfectly Suitable (if ugly) Hand-Made Board”|