Every tabletop game has to start somewhere. Before the first set of samples come back from China — and before the pitches are made to potential backers or publishers — you've got to have something to playtest. What a designer needs is a prototype, a playable physical copy that can do double-duty as part rough draft and part public demo.
I've had the pleasure of playing a few hand-made board games over the years. I've even made a run at building my own, so I have an idea of just how time-consuming and challenging making a physical game can be. More than anything though, I just find board game prototypes especially charming.
There's something about laying out the only existing copy of a project, taken straight from the hands of the designer, and experiencing it for the first time.
Gorilla Games' Jeff Siadek was kind enough to send me his prototype for Battlestations: Second Edition last week. With his already successful campaign coming into the final 48-hours on Kickstarter, I figured it would be an excellent opportunity to show you what a board game prototype looks like first hand. Along the way, we can get a feel for what his final product is going to be like.
Most of the components in Battlestations seem to have been printed at home. The game board features custom art glued down to bits of other Gorilla Games' products, which have been harvested and repurposed. There's lots of tokens as well, and a mix of new art and what seem to be parts taken from a surviving copy of the 15-year old original version of the game.
There's also a few decks of cards inside the box. Some of them are just bits of cardboard roughly torn off along their edges. Others are printed on computer paper, cut out and then sleeved in plastic with generic playing cards behind them to provide stiffness.
What really stands out about this prototype are the miniatures. The final version of the game promises more than 40 miniatures, and the campaign's unlocked stretch goals mean that number has expanded to include a total of 11 alien races. Inside the prototype box I was sent there were more than 30 miniatures, all created with a 3D printer and then hand-painted.
While they're pretty low-resolution, they give a great sense of the scale and posture of the final miniatures featured in the Kickstarter art.
Laying it all out, I got a great sense of the scale of the game. Players take the role of the crew of a spaceship on the run, each with special skills and an important job to fulfill at their battlestation. Each ship is built by connecting smaller square tiles in a number of different configurations. There are enough tiles provided that I could build three or four ships at one time, and there were rules for docking and teleporting between them all for hand-to-hand combat.
There's even some light role-playing in Battlestations. The prototype comes complete with character sheets, a deck of perks and equipment. There's even a star-system scale side board that details ship-to-ship combat. It's honestly quite a bit more sophisticated than I initially expected.
Watching the flashy Kickstarter pitch video, which you can see below, it's clear to see that a lot of polish and attention to detail is going into the final product. The renders of the miniatures look fantastic, and they've promised dozens of missions designed by an assortment of industry figures. But it all started with this singular prototype, cobbled together by hand with scissors and glue, edited and corrected in places by Siadek with a Sharpie.
Every time you see a new project go up on Kickstarter or hear about the latest tabletop release by an established publisher, know that somewhere out in the world is a hand-made prototype that looks an awful lot like this one. A lot of time and energy went into making it, and later playtesting it. That final product, while it probably looks slick and plays a lot more smoothly, will never have quite a much character as the original. And that's one thing that makes tabletop gaming something very special.