The first time I made a prototype I started by creating loads and loads of cards. I had a dream about a magnificent 4X game with space battles to dwarf Star Wars, more planets than an astronomers wet dream and a technology tree that would put western culture to shame.
So I created loads and loads of cards. That I designed in Illustrator. One card at a time. And printed out nine to a sheet. And cut out by hand. Once card at a time. And put in card sleeves with a Magic card as a backing. One at at time. (This last one was actually a good idea.)
And it took way more time than one would think. But I was happy. For almost a week I did nothing but cards, cards, cards, every waking moment. And then I was finished. And then I discovered that I didn’t have any game to go with the cards.
I had taken the looks of a game, the outward attributes, and thought that it was all I needed to have a game. Turns out that a game made all out of spit and polish turns to polished spit real fast. There wasn’t even anything there to playtest!
The experience of striving for something futile, wasting time and effort, put me off designing games for months. It felt like I had wasted the potential of my game, the glorious image I’d seen with my mind’s eye. I had taken it and fumbled, dropping it into a hell of endless monocolor cards.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that this was the first step to the core of my game designing skills: do the least amount of work necessary in order to subtract the dross from the decent ideas. Nowadays I think up twenty ideas for any one that makes it to a solo playtest, and weed out four through solo playtests for every one that makes it to a public playtest. (Meaning that I’ve got 80 ideas, with at least some form of rules, mechanics and theme for every game I show my playtest group.)
Designing, like writing, is a numbers game. You need to discard a number of non-workable ideas before you have something that will fly. There was a famous mystery writer, whose name I’ve forgotten, that said that every beginning writer has a million bad words in them and the only way to reach the good words was to get rid of all the bad ones first. Most aspiring writers stop before they’ve reached ten thousand. Only the persistent few manage to chew through their million. Or they become lucky, like Hemingway who forgot all his manuscripts on a train and had to start all over again. Of course, he did end up with a drinking problem.