My games design process starts with a spark of an idea, either theme, mechanics or a combination of the two. This usual sets my head to buzzing with a whole raft of ideas, from mechanics, artwork, market segments, and the inevitable riches that will follow from the million copies sales it is bound to achieve. At this stage I have to ride the wave of unrealistic optimism and get as many of the ideas down as possible before I forget them all. In the past this means getting to a notebook as fast as possible and just dumping all my thoughts onto paper. These thoughts will mostly be theme and mechanics ideas, with maybe a mission statement for the game describing which sector of the market I'm aiming for, target play time, etc.
Recently I've started using a draft email to myself as a virtual notebook that I can access from anywhere I've got internet access, without having to remember to cart the notebook around with me. I've found this really useful, but it has it's strengths and weaknesses like anything else. It's quick to use, and very portable, and also allows editing as your ideas change over time. The downside is that sketching images of design ideas, card layouts, tile distributions, etc. is much slower than scribbling something quickly with a pencil.
The ideas keep coming and the game will evolve pretty quickly at that stage with everything potentially open to change. Over a few days I get enough down (and have enough ideas) to begin the prototyping journey. I've a lot more ideas down on paper than prototypes - lots of these ideas fail at the first hurdle as I come to the conclusion that they won't work, won't be fun or just lose interest in them. After the first year or so of running Reiver Games I went off games design, aiming instead to position the company as an independent publisher of games by other designers. For some reason, I'm back in the designing mood.
If the game keeps my interest enough to make it off the paper of my notebook, the next stage is to make a paper prototype. The early prototypes are just something that you can play (probably by yourself) to work out the worst of the kinks. There will be loads of them and at this early stage everything is still changing constantly, so you want to make something that's playable but doesn't require too much effort to construct. Normally I do this all with pencil and paper. I take sheets of A4 paper (similar in size to US letter I think) and literally tear them down to size. Cards are a sheet folded into 16ths or 32nds, player boards might be a sheet folded in half (i.e. A5), a game board might be two sheets taped together (or a sheet of A3). There's no artwork, just enough text/iconography drawn on with a pencil to be playable. I use pencil rather than pen as I fully expect to be rubbing things out and then re-drawing/writing them after every test game. Using paper for cards is definitely sub-optimal from a play point of view (they are very hard to shuffle!) but this version isn't really intended to be played by anyone other than me, and rather than spending tens of hours cutting out and making pretty card ones, it's more important at this stage to make sure this early game idea actually works enough to play with other people (which is when the real playtesting begins).
The game I'm working on at the moment (Codename: Vacuum) is a card game in the Dominion vein, i.e. it has hundreds of cards. I started making a starter set of cards a few weeks ago and got to just about enough to start testing it to see if the basic premise works before I came down with a filthy cold and then we had Christmas. I'm back home again and I'm already thinking of changing up my process for this game.
Folding and tearing all the cards, then drawing on them the basic layout is a lot of work when you do it hundreds of times. To add the fact that this version is almost unplayable in terms of shuffling is making me think of cutting to the chase and making the Phase II prototype straight away. Or at least Phase 1.5. This would be made out of craft card (about 220 gsm) and be partially printed with a basic card layout to reduce some of the drawing drudgery. I'd still leave the game without any artwork and write the game text in pencil to make it easy to change as I work out the strengths and weaknesses of the various cards.
I still have the Adobe InDesign software I bought for Reiver Games, so I can use that to quickly knock up the card outlines and cutting guides, print those out and then fill in the text with pencil afterwards. I also got an A3 inkjet printer that was capable of printing on card - specifically for printing prototypes - so I'll be able to print them at home too. I've got three days before I have to go back to work - time to get cracking!
What is your process? What steps do your designs go through? What tools do you recommend?