Design Toolbox

Around age ten, I designed my first game. A couple sheets of printer paper haphazardly taped together, a few dozen connected squares snaking across them, and effects like “giant boulder, move back 3 spaces” scrawled next to arrows pointing at the spaces affected by them. A die stolen from Monopoly and pawns stolen from the gravel driveway, and my Indiana Jones game was complete.

Flash forward a few years and Until Dawn was put together in pretty much the same way; old L5R cards marked up with a Sharpie and components Frankensteined together from parts of dead Euro games. Harbinger was even fancier: a printed Excel sheet.

I’ve always appreciated the low barrier to entry of boardgame design. It allows me to focus on the design of the game rather than the medium used to create it. The path from idea to alpha prototype can be incredibly quick, which allows you to playtest early as well as easily try out new ideas, implement changes, or sometimes make sweeping overhauls with very little effort.

There are, however, a few programs and systems that over the years I’ve become dependent on, and wouldn’t work on games without. These are those:

1) Vassal

I am not a crafty person. I can’t put stickers on straight, I can’t color inside the lines, I can’t cut along a straight edge. I can’t read my own handwriting. Not only am I bad at these things, I actively don’t enjoy them. Many a game idea is stopped dead at the point where making a prototype is the next step.

Vassal is basically a virtual table that allows you to take a pile of images and give them some rules and definitions. So a big board image is put in the back and can’t move. A deck of card images is piled face down in the corner and randomized. You can make tokens, player boards, hidden stashes, and even automate some of these things (though generally Vassal games do not “know” the rules or enforce anything).

Learning Vassal and building a module for a game can definitely be slower than MacGyvering together a physical prototype, but it has some additional benefits beyond avoiding the trip to the craft store.

One, you avoid the trip to the craft store. This can’t be understated.

Two, ease of storage and no components. A Vassal mod is a single zip file, so no shelf space required. You don’t have to scrounge unplayed games for pieces, or buy a pack of card sleeves so your miscut index cards can actually be shuffled.

Three, accessibility. With two spawn running around, gaming time is limited and leaving a game out is a myth. If you have five minutes you can load up a playtest game, move some pieces around, leave yourself notes in the chat about things to look at or fix, and save your place when someone inevitably throws up on your foot or runs their head into the piano bench again. If you save your game as a log, you can go back at any time and click through every move you made and note you left.

Four, playtesters that don’t hate you (as much). I’ve found it much easier to find and keep playtesters when all they have to do is download a 10 meg file and they’re ready to play. On top of that, they can do the same thing: save plays as logs, write notes, and you can click through every game they play and dissect to your heart’s content.

Five, you end up with a Vassal mod. If you keep your mod maintained, then the mod and your game are playtested and advance together toward completion. When you’re done, you’ve got a tested Vassal mod for your game, ready to go. I’ll write something in the future about whether having a mod for your game is a good idea, but yes it’s a good idea.


If you’re going to use Vassal, then you’re going to be spending some time making image files. They don’t have to be pretty, but they do have to exist in order for Vassal to use them.

GIMP is a free raster graphics editor. For someone who knows what they’re doing, there are probably better options out there, but for throwing together quick ugly prototype images, I’ve yet to run into a problem GIMP couldn’t solve. Including the problem of having no money to buy software.

Plus, when you Google questions about using it, you always get some fun results.

3) All Things Google

This may be an obvious one, but Corvid Games exists almost entirely on Google’s servers. Rules are Google text documents, card lists are Google spreadsheets, playtest questions are Google forms.

This means I can work on any file from any device or computer. I can share individual files or entire folders with team members. Documents can be commented on by multiple readers and editors, and everything’s kept organized and clean. You can upload any file you want, so I’ll save the newest version of the Vassal mod to the playtest folder and now everyone has access to it.

And though I’ve only just started doing this on one new game, I’ve been involved in many playtests that use Google groups as a means of organizing playtesters. It gives a quick snapshot of who your playtesters are, gives an easy way to communicate to everyone, and gives playtesters and designers a forum to discuss the game without clogging people’s e-mails.

With these tools I’ll do 90% of the work on a game, from the initial idea to minor corrections on a well-tested prototype. Having tools that you feel comfortable using means you’re more likely to use them. Being burdened by the medium of your work takes energy and concentration away from the work itself. If I had to schlep it out to the driveway to quest for quartz pawns for every prototype, Indiana Jones would have been my opus.