Don’t Forget Simple Tools

I started this list, the list that became this article, about three years ago now and just added to it over time. Then I’d remove things when I saw I wasn’t using them any more, and I’d always call into question if I was being silly, right? Like, notepaper and pens, duh, obviously you know you can use those.

But you do know that right?

Like, if you’re making a board game you can take a piece of printer paper and draw your board on it. You can use a circle stamp to make the spaces if you want them reasonably consistent. You can just make things with pens and paper and sticky tape like you’re a little kid and nobody can stop you.

Still, if I’ve had the draft for years I either need to finish it, or delete it, and thus, I want to present to you a handful of cheap tools I’ve bought from the supermarket for making things that I have found useful.

an icon of some scissors

Things Made Of Cardboard

  • Blank business cards
  • Index cards
  • Gift boxes

Cardboard is durable, and you can shuffle it easily. Because it’s firmer than typical paper, you don’t want to need to fold it, but it can absorb heavy pen texture. This makes it great for when you want something simple and bold and absolute. Lots of detail? You want a finer pen, but if you have like a laundry marker pen, get some index cards, because they won’t just soak through or risk being destroyed by absorbing the marker.

One technique I use index cards for is story structure. What I do is I write down the things I know I want – scenes I know I want, lines I know I want – and give each one an index card. Then I shuffle them up and look at them and then spend some time sorting those cards.

The process tends to present holes, and it tends to present clumps. Some things have to happen in some order, some things have to happen near one another, and some things have to happen without one being involved with one another at all.

This technique is useful for me when I want to see what a story has or what a story needs. Where are my gaps? What can I do to fill those gaps? How can filling those gaps present me with opportunities? And once I have some things clumped up, what can I do to make them relate to one another better? The cards can then have further notes added to them – like I can add notes on each of these things.

Ways To Write And Draw

  • Some high-contrast fine-tip pens
  • A big heavy sharpie style laundry marker that can show up at a distance
  • Some cheap coloured pencils or textas (markers, for Americans)
  • Some variety of erasable pencil

Speaking of writing things and writing on things, I recommend getting these, like, supermarket quality, writing implements. I have a pack of fine pens I got from Simggle for I think four dollars Australian that I have been using for years, because they have a nice range of colours that contrast with one another and stand out on white paper. I have a big chunky sharpie that I use for the index card titles, too.

Colour is useful because when you’re prototyping, you may know you want things to stand apart from one another but not know why. You don’t necessarily need to know the flavour of an interaction to want to see it in action. Thinking ‘well I’ll just write on them’ – it’s easier to just scribble a blob of colour on them, that gets out of your own way and you don’t have to spend time thinking of five different symbols when you start working.

Paper Things

  • Sticky Labels/Laundry Labels
  • Dot Stickers (coloured circles, you can usually get them in packets)
  • Cheap notebooks

Cheap cheap cheap, this is important, you don’t need to spend money on something nice and prestigious or good looking or transferable. Cheap means you don’t mind if you rip pages, cheap means you can scribble, cheap means that you when you use it to note something down you’ll know you need to transfer it somewhere soon.

I have a bullet journal, which I use to track things, but the thing with using that for me is that I want it to be constantly available to me. Using the thing I’m using every day, and making space in it for game designs is fine, it’s part of the diary sense of the whole thing. But for projects, things you want to hand to other people? Get a 99 cent exercise book and just fill it up.

Dot stickers fill the same role as the pencils, but they’re more consistent and a consistent size. Laundry labels are great for when you’re modding printed cards or misprinted things – just write the change on the label, and slap it on the prototype. It won’t look pretty but it’s not necesary to. Also can work as a ‘tape’ that you can write on.

Other Board Games

Chances are you live somewhere near a second-hand store, a salvos or what Americanese people are familiar with as a ‘thrift store,’ so named because there’s a weird kind of protestantism going on in everything over there. In these stores, you will usually find one or two board games. They will almost certainly be incomplete, and probably not something you care to own. It’ll be like Bible Couples Trivia The Board Game or Hectionary, The Pictionary With Six-Sided Tiles or something. These things can be seen as terrible games for a terrible price (ie anything) or you can look at them as a cheap way to get yourself a box, cards cut to a standard size, and some markers or maybe even a board.

When you’re digging into games as systems, when you’re trying to make something making something out of something else is a fine place to start. Dice are usually pretty good as just dice, and even if they say ‘lick ‘on one side you can still make rules about what ‘lick’ means. These are often extremely cheap and they come in their own box that contains them.


You don’t need these to be great or high quality devices. I’m confident you have your own level of what you tolerate, but the point here is not to give you a big pile of shopping list material to go buy that will make you a Great Prototype Designer. The point here is that there are cheap things you probably already have