Evolution of a Prototype

In this edition of Meeple Speak, Nicole Kline, tells us about the the evolution of the game RESISTOR_.

Evolution of a Prototype

by Nicole Kline

Hi! I’m Nicole Kline, one half Cardboard Fortress Games. Anthony Amato is the other half – and my other half as well. We had our first commercial release this year, a two-player card game called RESISTOR_. We went through Kickstarter in March, and were picked up by Level 99 Games during our campaign. The game started shipping to backers in September, and will be available in stores in October. It’s been an exciting ride.

What I’d really like to talk about is the evolution of our prototype. RESISTOR_ began simply on strips of index cards, drawn with single and double lines. It evolved into an elegant game on tarot cards with rich, unique art and a box that functions as part of the game. But maybe I should go back even further than that – to where it all began.

RESISTOR_ was borne from a game jam at Philly Game Forge‘s weekly event Philly Dev Night. They hold monthly jams, and the jam theme in August of 2013 was, “Choose an Oasis song title and make a game out of it.” Whether you hate Oasis or not, you should take a look at their song titles, because they inspire a lot of creativity. The song we chose was called “Roll it Over” which was what lead immediately to the flip over mechanic. Anthony’s line of thinking was, what if you had cards that were double-sided, and you had to flip them over to try to connect a line? And what if those cards were in your hand, but you could use yours or your opponent’s?

Those are the basic gameplay mechanics of RESISTOR_, which were thought of that very first night. We took index cards, cut them up into strips, and drew lines in the center – some had single lines, while others had double lines. The goals of the two players were simple: one had to connect the single lines across, while the other had to connect the double lines. The game ended up going from single and double lines to red and blue lines – we made the strips larger as well.

First prototype

The game jam judging was a week later, and we ended up winning. Our prize: an Ouya that never showed up. That was ok, though, because the real prize was that we realized that we had a game people liked playing – a game people encouraged us to develop further. So we did.

Prototype 2

For the next prototype, Anthony made a sheet of squares with red, blue, and red and blue lines on it that he had made in Photoshop. We got those printed on sticker paper at a local copy shop, and made the first set with index cards. But it was becoming clear that having the design in the middle of the card wasn’t going to work. Your opponent needed to clearly see that information, and with the image in the center, it was impossible. We also realized index cards were very easy to see through, so for the next iteration, we used watercolor postcards, which were thicker and sturdier. We cut the watercolor paper into even strips, about an inch wide, and then cut the squares out and attached them to the ends of the strips. To prevent players from looking at both sides of the cards when they drew them, Anthony made a tiny box that would hold the cards upright while covering just the design on the end, which would end up being an inspiration to make our final box. This version of the game was about the size of a stick of gum. (This was also what we designed our Print and Play after, which you can download for free.)

Prototype 3

The biggest problem, at this point in time, was trying to determine how points were scored. In the initial game, it was just a point build up, which didn’t have a smooth ending, and often lead to a runaway leader issue. So then we made it more like a tug-of-war, with the points going back and forth on the board, like energy pulsing through a wire. None of that seemed to work very well, but once we got into our heads the idea of the resistor, which would flip multiple cards, that changed the strategy of the game – and took us back to the original idea. To fight against runaway leader, we implemented healing as well, and by then, the game mechanics were nearly finished.

Prototype 4

It was around this time that the theme of the game came to be. We made the game in August; by September, we were up to our third prototype, and brought it with us to PAX Prime. We weren’t there as exhibitors, but as media, covering the show for Warp Zoned. While we were there, we talked to Christopher Badell, creator of Sentinels of the Multiverse. Our friend Jason Tagmire had said to look him up while we were in Seattle, so we introduced ourselves and asked him for advice.

I’ve said this a million times, but it’s worth the sidenote: people in this industry are, for the most part, absolutely some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. Christopher was working his booth and told us he could talk for five minutes. Twenty minutes later, he was still emphatically sharing his experiences with us and giving us advice. It was twenty minutes I’ll never forget, because it was the start of a beautiful friendship, and I’ll always consider Christopher to be one of the people I’m grateful to have as a mentor.

One of the most important things he told us was that games need theme. Some games are abstract and can survive without a theme, but it’s rare, and we should definitely figure our theme out. From there, we were able to talk and figure out what we wanted the theme to be, and once we had that worked out, all that was left was creating the art for the game.

Anthony started working on the art when we got back from Seattle, as soon as we decided on a theme. We went back and forth quite a lot, with ideas like colonies of ants, veins pushing blood back and forth (an idea we’d like to revisit later), and, of course, the ubiquitous trains. But the one we kept coming back to was the idea of circuits and energy pulsing back and forth across the table. We decided on the supercomputers theme and talked a lot about War Games; Anthony researched computer parts to get ideas for the artwork. He also made a list of the names of famous computers, which inspired the names of ours: DEEPRED and BLU9000, which you may recognize from DEEP BLUE and HAL3000.

Prototype 5

By February of 2014, Anthony had much of the artwork done for the cards, and while we didn’t have a printed version, we were able to show digital versions during a Show and Tell at IndieCade East. As with the earlier prototype, Anthony did this work in Photoshop as well.

By the time we got our first deck of cards printed, the artwork for them was mostly complete. We got several decks printed at a site called Printer Studio, which was reasonably priced but took a very long time to send us the cards. We ordered the game on tarot-sized cards, because we felt it would be easier to see the design at the tops of those cards than it was on poker cards.

It’s important to note here that, as we understand it, artwork being complete at this stage is fairly rare. Anthony is an artist, and having an artist in the company means that the artwork can be done earlier than it would be for a studio that doesn’t have an artist on hand. We have also done this with our other games, including our modular board game, Kobolds, as well as our dice game, Kismet. Our experience has been that making prototypes attractive tends to interest the audience more, and draw in people more quickly. That may seem like common sense, but it makes a world of difference.

Unfortunately, one of the biggest issues we had was the box. We couldn’t put the game in a normal tuckbox – part of the gameplay itself is that you are only allowed to see one side of the cards at all times. So how could we create a box that would allow you to see one side of the card and prevent you from seeing the other, while simultaneously allowing your enemy to see the other side and not yours?

Prototype 6

We also had to keep in mind that we would need something that wouldn’t be awkward on a store shelf. Our friend, Adam Friedman, owns Redcap’s Corner, our friendly local game store. We put some ideas past him and he hated them all – until we revisited our standup box from our watercolor prototype, which is where we got the inspiration for our final box design.

Anthony came up with that box idea, which was, as I said earlier, elegant. The box is designed to be laid flat during play. It has a small hole in the top of it. The inner box has no lid and the top is shorter than the cards. The bottom of the inner box slides into the hole in the outer box, much like a cartridge. Players draw cards from the inner box and can only see one side, while their opponent sees the other. It was perfect!

The only problem was that there was no company that would allow us to make a small run of the boxes. So while we were able to order our initial decks from Printer Studio, we couldn’t order the box. Anthony ended up crafting the boxes by hand out of cardboard, and made the initial mockup for what we wanted the box to look like, which he then printed on sticker paper and adhered to the outside of the box. These were also printed at our local copy shop, which we were beginning to frequent often.

The box was great, and we sleeved the cards, because at this point, we were submitting the game to events, and taking it all over the country. We didn’t want the game to get totally trashed, though it did get pretty banged up, especially the handmade box. But I definitely fell in love with this version of the game.

As we approached the end of 2014, we were getting ready for our Kickstarter, and ordered a dozen decks from The Game Crafter to send them out to reviewers. We switched to The Game Crafter because we needed the prototypes quickly, and TGC had a much faster turnaround than Printer Studio. Also, Anthony had been very active in their chatroom, and the connections he made there made us even more eager to try out their services. In the end, we definitely recommend them over Printer Studio, who took way too long for what they offered.

We didn’t sleeve these, which meant the new box had to be much smaller, and at its new size, it was easily pocketable and much sleeker. It was impossible to sleeve the cards now – even if we were to keep the box at the larger size and put in an insert, it didn’t fix the issue with the inner box, unless we included an insert that sat in the middle of that box as well. It was cumbersome, and in the end, we actually did really like the box at its smaller size. Out they went to reviewers.

Once we ran our Kickstarter in March of 2015, the game was nearly finished. The rules had proven to be the most difficult part of the entire process – not just writing them, which was a Herculean task, but also fitting them all onto a small, accordion-folded piece of paper that would be included within the box. We wanted to have them be on paper that looked like old dot matrix printer paper, complete with faux holes on the sides. Our intention was to make sure that every aspect of our product was in the theme of 80s style computers. We wanted everything to be consistent – the box was like a computer that you fit a cartridge into; the rules were like dot matrix paper; and all of the art was reminiscent of that time period. Everything in the game should reinforce the theme. At that point, the box design was still being honed, and there were several cards we were going to add if we made those stretch goals, but for the most part, the game was finished.

Then, something extraordinary happened: we were offered a deal with a publisher. Level 99 Games asked if we wanted to be their first outside game designers, and we agreed. This didn’t change much physically with the game – we had to add their logo and some information from them onto our box, and they helped us with our rules – but it did mean so much more in terms of fulfillment and distribution, and we were relieved to have that off of our plates.

We contacted about a dozen companies for quotes on printing, and decided to go with AdMagic, best known for Cards Against Humanity and Exploding Kittens, but who have also printed dozens of other games. We worked with them to create our final copy of the game, and their templates and team were easy to work with.

In the end, our final box was small and portable, sleek and attractive, with the inner box fitting perfectly into the outer box. The instructions turned out better than we ever could have dreamed. And the cards, with their winding circuits and shining resistors, fit perfectly in every way.

It may seem silly for me to be so positive about my own game, but it’s my very first game to be released into the wild, and honestly, I couldn’t be happier. It’s been an incredible two years, and watching the game go from a tiny slip of a thing on index cards to a game on my friend’s game shelves is indescribable.

Final product

A couple of final points – I want to emphasize the ease with which RESISTOR_ was made – and also emphasize that this isn’t normal in game design, from what we’ve seen. At some point, the game just built itself. Other than the scoring issues we had, the game was nearly finished with the very first prototype, and barely needed any iteration at all. This isn’t the norm, and it’s not an experience we’ve had since then, which has been fairly frustrating. Why can’t every game we make be like this one? But this ease allowed us to get the art done so much more quickly than we normally would have. The hardest part of the entire process was writing the rules, and that was because it was difficult to discuss card orientation and faces without adding in a lot of diagrams. We didn’t want to make the rules overly long, but didn’t have much of a choice.

Finally, your best resources to make prototypes are:

-any office supply store (think index cards, markers, and stickers). We bought most of our stuff at a local Staples, though we’ve also used Amazon quite a bit.

-any store that offers copying (for printing on special papers if you don’t have your own printer at home). We used a local place called Campus Copy Center, because we live in a part of Philadelphia that is packed with Universities.

-The Game Crafter (an excellent place to order custom designs of your game).

We also used Printer Studio, which is slower, and for our latest game, we got quotes from Print and Play. But in the beginning, if you don’t have your own printer, chances are your local copy shop is going to become a second home. Oh, and while it’s not actually part of making the game itself, we made all of stretch goal buttons by hand (using U Make Buttons products) and ordered our stretch goal stickers from Sticker Mule, which I can’t recommend enough.

That’s our experience with the prototype for our very first commercial game! RESISTOR_ can be ordered online at Level 99 Games’ website, or you can pick it up at your friendly local game store at some point in October 2015. I hope you enjoy it!


Your turn. Share your thoughts: