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The Siren Song of the Paper Cutter: Tips and Tricks from the Trenches of Paper Prototyping
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The Siren Song of the Paper Cutter: Tips and Tricks from the Trenches of Paper Prototyping

by Tyler Sigman []

September 13, 2005 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

Makin' Stuff

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:

  • Lay out the cards using your program of choice. Certainly, if you are a closet graphic designer or artist, use InDesign, Quark, Illustrator, or even Photoshop to mock-up your cards. However, don't fret if you aren't of that persuasion—you can make very serviceable cards just with MS Word. Check out the DRAWING toolbar.
    • Standard playing card size is 3.5” x 2.5”. That's a nice, comfortable size that can fit a lot of content and has a good aspect ratio and a feel people are familiar with. You can fit 9 to a 8.5” x 11” page when mocking up—three rows of three.
    • If you don't have a lot of content, don't be afraid to do a smaller size card. You probably want to keep the same aspect ratio as the standard size, but not a big deal. A smaller size card means you might be able to fit more cards per page, which makes life a bit easier production-wise.
    • Make sure to include the card borderlines on your template. You'll be cutting to them. (duh) You don't need to allow any room between card edges—just butt them up right next to each other.

“Cards, Cards, Cards”
  • Print the cards out. Use standard 20-24 lb. multiuse paper. There's no need to use 110 lb. cardstock or thicker, because of what you'll do in step 4. If you want card backs, just print the card backs out as their own sheet(s). Don't bother duplexing and trying to line the card backs up with the card fronts on a single piece of paper. It's a royal PITA and you really don't need to do it (see step 4).
  • Cut the cards out.
    • The absolute best tool you can use for this is a rotary paper cutter, such as the ones Dahl makes. A rotary paper cutter is more accurate and has better motion than a guillotine paper cutter. The guillotines can pull your paper as they cut, especially if the blade is rather dull or you are cutting more than one page at a time. Scissors work, too, but are even less preferable than the guillotine because they take longer. So, think of the three cutters as forming a transitive relationship (for you game mechanicians out there): rotary > guillotine > scissors.
    • Don't worry about being exact in your cuts. This is a huge deal, and will save you tons of time! This will be ok, because...
  • Place your newly cut cards into card protector sleeves. These sleeves can be purchased from any specialty games retailer, and also from some mass-market stores. The sleeves are used by collectible card game players to prevent Cheetos and Mountain Dew from sliming their Magic and Pokemon “investments”. I use Dragonshields, but UltraPro makes a selection of card protectors as well. You want fairly sturdy ones—some cheaper card sleeves are so thin that they aren't very good. Using the card protectors serves three important purposes:
    • Promotes shuffling by adding extra weight to your paper cards.
    • Promotes shuffling because the card sleeves are all exactly the same size. Your jagged, unevenly cut paper cards sit inside, and don't screw up the perfect geometric consistency of your finished deck. Ah, as Einstein said, there is symmetry in mother nature after all.
    • Prevents Cheetos and Mountain Dew from sliming your prototype “investment”.


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:

  • Good token sizes are 0.75” square. 0.5” square starts getting pretty small. 1” square is great if you don't have too many tokens or if you have plenty of room on your gameboard. Bigger than 1” square is only really good if you are doing something special with your counters/tokens that requires them to be “bigguns.”
  • I tend to butt all counters of a common group up right next to each other. But I put some page space between different types of counters. A bit of space will help during cutting (see step 4). If you've ever seen die-cut counter sheets in boardgames you buy, arrange like that.
  • Print the counters on normal paper or on 110 lb. cardstock. Then you really need to affix the paper to something heavier. There are two great options here, depending on your tolerance for stinkiness...
    • “The Stinky Option”. Go to your local DIY home improvement store and purchase some of the cheapest self-adhesive linoleum tile you can find. Buy the 12” x 12” size, which can usually be found for less than $1 each. Now, remove the adhesive liner and press your printed sheet down onto the tile. Press it down nice and evenly and try to avoid air bubbles—use a brayer if you have one (artist speak for tiny little roller). Linoleum tile has a terrific weight and feel and is very resilient to handling. Sadly, the adhesive is, well, STINKY! When you have your prototype out, expect people to give you looks, that seem to say “What is that cheesy smell?” You need to develop some convenient ways to drop an explanation into casual conversation and thereby exonerate yourself from embarrassing social faux-pas. I recommend such subtle cues as “! Isn't this prototype stinky? It's the linoleum tiles. The epoxy or somethin'. Ick!” Repeat this to every passer-by, and over the company intercom if necessary. Or, don't explain and suffer the shame. As game designers, we must take one on the chin for the good of the game sometimes.
    • “The Non-Stinky Option”. Use spray adhesive to mount your counter printouts to matboard. Matboard is relatively cheap—especially if you can buy damaged sheets or sheets with visual flaws (which don't matter to you). Matboard is very durable and not toooo hard to cut. Another option is foam core, although that is harder to cut overall.
    • Regardless of which of the above two backing materials you used, now use a hobby knife and a steel rule and cut out your rows of counters. Use a sharp blade, and try hard not to perform any inadvertent amputations. It's easy to get careless while cutting out counter row #26. So stay alert and don't bleed on your nice print job. Once you've cut out your counter rows, I find the easiest way to cut out individual counters is by using scissors. A good pair of scissors is up to the challenge of a series of 1” cuts; they just don't work well for cutting the initial rows out. When you're cutting with the scissors, you'll find that sometimes it causes the counter edges to curl up a bit. Experiment with placement of the counter on the scissors blade—you can find a sweet spot where the cut is still possible (doesn't require too much force) but the counter doesn't really get curled up.

“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”


Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

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