A Free Training Workshop for Cardboard Prototyping

It's often difficult to teach paper prototyping in a way that convinced students that it's worth learning. In this post I'll outline a technique of teaching the topic through board games. I hope you find it useful!

This is a modified version of a post first published on Meeple Like Us.

You can read more of my writing over at the Meeple Like Us blog.



A couple of years ago I wrote a special feature on Cardboard Prototyping. It was a discussion of how I and my colleague Mike Crabb were using board games as a mechanism for teaching the intricacies of paper prototyping within our user centred design module. It’s a post that I like a lot, and a technique that I think worked extremely well. It’s just a nice, self-contained island of an idea in the ocean of thoughts that is this blog. Over the years though some people have asked me for some more information around the topic. They want to know what they need to make it happen, and what games they should use for instruction and so on. So I thought I’d use today’s special feature to expand a little more on the idea and give you a kind of curriculum for cardboard prototyping. In fact, I’m going to write it exactly like the kind of module descriptor that you’d see in any university, except that the content won’t merely be indicative. If you wanted to run a course on cardboard prototyping, my advice is that it should look something like this.  Mrs Meeple has had great success using paper prototypes of games for induction purposes in a college setting. This might be useful if you’re a school, or you're holding a corporate event, or you're a library, a university, running a board game jam, or a community centre.  Basially if at any point you want to run a fun learning activity aimed around the idea.   It's a self contained workshop but there's no reason you couldn't run it as a series by working your way through each of the recommended games. I hope at least some of you find it useful!

Course Title

MLU001 - Cardboard Prototyping

Aims of Course

To provide the participant with the necessary skills, techniques and perspectives to explore user interaction requirements.  This is done through the use of paper prototypes of popular board games. Designs will be tested in groups, allowing participants to explore issues of usability. Experimentation within these designs will allow participants an opportunity to examine and iterate upon the solution space for a product.

Legal, Ethical and Professional Considerations Of this Course

This is a CC-BY 4.0 document. Feel free to use it in whatever way, shape or form you like. I’d appreciate a link-back to the page if you do, and I’d appreciate even more being told about how it went. The intention of this material is not to encourage piracy or to provide participants with the skills needed to avoid buying games.   The paper prototypes produced through this exercise will be far inferior to actual published games, and participants should be encouraged to purchase copies of those titles they especially enjoy.   Affiliate links to the Amazon page for each game are provided for that reason.   It's recommended that those demonstrating the course also buy a reference copy that they can use for the purposes of instruction. This is a legally and pedagogically appropriate exercise.  Rulings are clear that game mechanisms cannot be copyrighted, only their expression.   However, a lot of work goes into the design and development of any successful game.  It should be emphasised throughout that participants are building on hundreds or thousands of hours of effort and this is in no way a replacement for purchasing the games.

Formal Prerequisites

None. No technical skills are required to make a paper prototype.

Informal Prerequisites


Learning Outcomes for the Course

  1. Examine, analyse and employ the technique of paper prototyping within a heavily qualitative environment.
  2. Examine, analyse and employ the rhetoric and conventions of game design to explore user satisfaction.
  3. Make use of a variety of techniques to assess the effectiveness of low fidelity game designs.

Consumable Course Material

For this course, demonstrators will need to make available a range of prototyping materials suitable for developing low fidelity games. An illustrative, but not exhaustive, list is:

All that is needed is a pile of paper and some pencils, but the more components you provide participants the more experimental they can be with the prototyping. A useful approach is to raid old Monopoly sets and other superfluous games and strip out whatever they have that could be repurposed.

Course Delivery

The course is delivered in a number of two-hour or longer sessions. A single session is sufficient to illustrate the basics of the concept. Two sessions will be enough to demonstrate functional understanding. Additional sessions allow for greater exploration of the subject. An indicative schedule for this course is provided below. There are no lectures within this course, but demonstrators are expected to explain how each game works before it is prototyped. It is recommended that this is done by showing the published game and its components and working through a round or two of play. Access to rules documentations, ‘how to play’ videos and more is considered an important part of the provided learning resources.  Video resources in particular should be provided in advance so as to make best use of available class time. Participants work together in groups, the size of which is determined by player-count guidance from the website BoardGameGeek.  Participants will be given tight time-limits for each activity, and so as part of the briefing they should be reminded that while it’s fun to play a game, having fun is not the intended outcome of the sessions. The procedure for each session will be as follows: First hour

  • Introduction or recap of the key aims and objectives of paper prototyping (approximately five minutes)
  • Introduction to the game for the current session (approximately ten minutes, although depending on the game it may take longer)
  • Provision of suitable prototyping material (approximately five minutes)
  • Activity – groups replicate the game as it exists using materials provided (approximately ten minutes)
  • Activity – groups play the game with their prototype (approximately twenty minutes)
  • Activity – groups iterate upon their prototypes to fix problems (approximately ten minutes)

Second Hour

  • Have each group discuss what they found fun about the game, and what they didn’t (ten minutes)
  • Have each group identify two game elements and associated components (good and bad) that they believe contributed to their view (five minutes)
  • Have each group rip up / destroy each of these components (five minutes, perhaps with some cajoling. Really get them to destroy it, not just put it aside)
  • Activity – redevelop the game with improved versions of their destroyed materials. No limits on what those improvements might be. Encourage experimentation (approximately fifteen minutes)
  • Activity – play the game with their new, revised prototype (approximately twenty minutes)
  • Groups note results and conclusions (five minutes)

A third hour, if available, can be spent in several productive ways:

  • It can allow additional iterations over the design (repeat the second hour)
  • It can allow more time to develop and play prototypes (make each suggested timing longer)
  • It can allow participants to see what other groups did (rotate membership around the groups)

Note here that the time limits are not linked to the specific game chosen. The idea is not fora participants to play a game, but to evaluate a prototype. As such, it doesn’t matter if a game is played through to the end. Some games are chosen not for the fun they are intended to provide, but the lesson they impart with regards to the limits of low fidelity prototypes. Not every game is supposed to be a success. If multiple sessions are available, I recommend the use of a weekly work-log where everyone makes a note of what they did, the reasons behind it, and the lessons learned.

Course Syllabus

The following games, ascending order of suitability, are recommended for the session structure outlined above. Notes on what participants should be expected to understand from each are included. Each game also includes my own observation as to whether a game is fun as a paper prototype. If running public outreach sessions it would be more appropriate to focus on these. I will provide a list of ten, all of which I and/or others involved in our UCD module have used in the classroom to successfully teach the specific lessons indicated. I have others I could have discussed, but this seems like plenty. More suggestions are welcome though! I will link to any existing print and play versions of which I know, but I wholeheartedly recommend ignoring these in favour of letting participants work it out themselves.

Game Fun to Prototype References Specific lessons taught

One Night Ultimate Werewolf

Yes Review Teardown Rules Video No specific lessons. A good starter example.
Notes One Night Ultimate Werewolf is the perfect starter game for sessions like this. The prototype is very easy to make. It can be scaled up and time managed easily by having the demonstrator act as the announcer. If you were going to run this workshop as a single session, this would be the game to pick. Experimentation here is going to be easy because it allows participants to take a boring role (a villager) and see what happens if they put in a role of their own design. This lets people explore the social context in which the game functions, because roles in ONUW are driven by people.


Game Fun to Prototype References Specific lessons taught


Yes Review Teardown Rules Video No specific lessons. A good starter example.
Notes Telestrations works perfectly as a starter paper prototype game, largely because it started off as a kind of folk game. ‘Eat Poop You Cat’ is a game of writing something weird and folding it over. The next person looks at the previous fold and draws what was written. They then fold it over and pass it to the next person that guesses, and so on. Telestrations works great in these kind of scenarios as a warm-up – I wouldn’t necessarily use this and One Night Ultimate Werewolf to begin a course like this, but I’d definitely use one of them. They both also scale up to large groups, because you can handle it by number of rounds as opposed to number of players. One thing I would say though is that you do have to be careful – all it takes is one person that decides to draw or write something inappropriate and it’ll spread around the room like a toxin.


Game Fun to Prototype References Specific lessons taught


Yes Review Teardown Rules Video Preventing information leakage
Notes Skull, like One Night Ultimate Werewolf, is an excellent starter game for sessions like this. However, it does have one additional element that will be relevant in the development of low-fidelity prototypes – preventing information leakage. Writing skulls and roses on paper will almost certainly permit people to see through the thin material, and so part of the refinement process of the prototype will be to deal with this. Solutions include folding paper over, colouring in the back of each ‘card’, or using alternate components such as playing cards.  However, participants may find that these have side-effects that impact on information leakage.   For example, the distinct pattern of pen-strokes used to colour in the back of a card might be identifying.  Fold size might be identifying.   If you have blank cards available, I’d recommend getting participants to play through with paper first to illustrate a key consideration of paper prototyping - low fidelity doesn't mean no fidelity. Skull is also likely to be useful in exploring the limits of paper prototyping. Giving players special cards with unique powers is unlikely to result in a better game but it’s valuable for people to consider why their changes seemed like a good idea but didn’t work in practice.


Game Fun to Prototype References Specific lessons taught

Love Letter

Yes Review Teardown Rules Video Paper Prototype Kit Game Mechanisms and Game Balance
Notes Love Letter is an ideal prototyping game because it has very few moving parts but all those parts are amenable to experimentation. The roles in One Night Ultimate Werewolf are social constructs that people need to inhabit. Love Letter’s different cards are all more nakedly mechanistic and allow experimentation with the game rather than with people. As such, the card powers with whichparticipants might experiment are going to have a significant impact on the balance of the game, and can show the nuance of analysis needed during exercises of this type.


Game Fun to Prototype References Specific lessons taught

The Resistance

Yes Review Teardown Rules Video Social Context Dependency
Notes One thing that the Resistance shows prominently is the importance of social context in evaluation. Just because a prototype works and works well, it doesn’t mean you’ll get a fully representative experience. Group mix makes a difference. You might play the Resistance with one group and have no fun, and find it’s the best thing ever with the next group. For The Resistance as an exercise, it’s worth taking a bit of time to discuss differences in individual perspective throughout. Not everyone will find it fun and it’s deceptive to trust how ‘the table’ feels about a game versus how individuals at that table feel.


Game Fun to Prototype References Specific lessons taught

Billionaire Banshee

Yes Review Teardown Video Framing and Tester Consent
Notes The base game of this is not suitable for children, although a paper prototype can be as age-appropriate as you like. Billionaire Banshee is a game that might not be appropriate for all audiences, although you can certainly easily frame it in ways where it would be. It’s a game about discussing with people whether or not they'’d date a fictional person with a specific perk and a specific quirk. ‘They are the world’s greatest cook, but they used to work on death row and liked it’. That sort of thing. However, this an occasionally transgressive activity and thus it teaches two important specific lessons:
  1. How a prototype is pitched is as important as what the prototype is
  2. Consent and comfort of testers is vital, and you should be on the look out for things that are making people uncomfortable.
Billionaire Banshee can easily be recast. ‘Would you give this person a job?’, ‘Would you be friends with this person?’, ‘What do you imagine this person’s history would be?’, 'roleplay out how you would woo this person' .  Prototypes here don’t necessarily explore changing the game, but changing its presentation.


Game Fun to Prototype References Specific lessons taught


Sort of Review Teardown Rules Video Reluctance to experiment
Notes Spyfall has a problem when you try to play it as a paper prototype. It’s not that it needs lots of content, but rather it has lots of repetition in its content. For each location you add to the game, you need to repeat the location cards to match player count. It’s a game that is technically perfect for paper prototyping, but effectively a chore. When the prototype is put together, the game works just as well as it does in the published version.  What you will likely find here though, and participants in the session should consider, is the reluctance they have to destroy components or make changes to the design. The more effort people put into their prototypes, the more they’ll kick against the idea of getting rid of bits of it. That means that for some games, paper prototyping is unlikely to be a good technique for rapidly or widely  exploring the solution space of an idea because the inertia on change is too high.


Game Fun to Prototype References Specific lessons taught


No Review Teardown Rules Video Content critical mass
Notes Codenames looks like it should be perfect for paper prototyping – it’s just words on cards, with a grid overlay. However, it almost certainly won’t work because Codenames requires enough content to make everything function. Shifting around the same twenty-five cards is going to converge the table towards the same repeated talking points and what fun there is in the design itself will not materialise. Codenames works, in part, because it comes with a massive pile of words and a large number of solution grids. This makes sure that the space of the discussion remains functionally infinite. The more time you need to spend on the circumstances of making a paper prototype, the less appropriate a tool it is likely to be. The less effort you spend on the prototype itself, the more time you can spend exploring the ideas it represents.


Game Fun to Prototype References Specific lessons taught


Yes Review Teardown Rules Video Paper prototype kit Incremental development
Notes The base game of this is not suitable for children, although a paper prototype can be as age-appropriate as you like.  It's also possible to curate the standard cards in the main box to ensure there are no obviously risque elements. Funemployed is the game you’d use to follow up Codenames to show an alternate approach to this issue. Codenames requires new content in blocks of twenty-five, because otherwise the change between one session and another is minimal. Those twenty-five are also contextually linked in tightly coupled ways – you need to have some ability for players to determine meaningful connections between them.  The choice of words has to take that into account. Funemployed though has loosely coupled content, and the fun comes from trying to build a coherent argument from incoherent elements. This means it’s much easier to do this incrementally, and also in parallel with playing through the prototype. Consider an old fashioned game of Charades where people would write down words and put them in a bowl. Funemployed can work this exact same way with people adding in new jobs and new resume talking points when they have a good idea or when it feels like some novelty is required.  Fundamentally there’s no real difference in architecture in the prototypes of these two different games, but one works and the other doesn't.  At least, not easily. It’s the looseness of how the game elements are coupled that makes one ideal fodder and the other one a difficult sell.


Game Fun to Prototype References Specific lessons taught

Tiny Epic Galaxies

No Review Teardown Rules Video Prototype Kit The limits of low fidelity
Notes I’d only recommend this if you have blank dice available. There is a very comprehensive paper prototyping kit that you can get for Tiny Epic Galaxies. It has everything someone would need. They just need to construct it. However, the lookup table that is used to convert standard d6 dice rolls into Tiny Epic Galaxies specific iconography means that the cognitive cost of playing the paper prototype is extraordinary. Almost everyone will come away from this game thinking it’s rubbish because it was too difficult to play.  The experimentation that you do here is that you give participants blank dice and let them draw the iconography onto the faces. Try again with the right components, and the difficulty plummets. It becomes very enjoyable.  The lesson here is that just because a testing session fails, it doesn’t mean there’s anything necessarily wrong with the design. Sometimes the problem is with the very fidelity of the prototype, and you need to investigate whether that’s the case before deciding something doesn’t work. Otherwise you’ll throw away perfectly good solutions.



Assessment Plan

It’s really not that kind of course. Formative only.

Further Reading

  1. Teaching with Boardgames - Cardboard Prototyping
  2. Use Paper Prototyping to Design Your Games
  3. Prototyping 101: The Difference between Low-Fidelity and High-Fidelity Prototypes and When to Use Each
  4. Low vs high-fidelity prototyping debate
  5. Lessons from a course on serious games research and prototyping
  6. Paper Prototyping Workshop
  7. Stop Talking and Start Sketching: A Guide to Paper Prototyping


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