If you create your own games, you have ideas that need to be tested. Create a lab space for yourself by keeping a game kit around, with some basic components in it that can be used for just about any mechanic you have in mind.
Game parts aren’t very expensive, and you don’t need much to get started. Here are five of the most useful, most versatile components, along with sources and, if you need them, even cheaper substitutes.
Many board games involve cards, and many more games can be played with cards alone. Blank index cards are of course the cheapest option next to cutting your own out of paper, but blank playing cards have a sturdier feel – and, unlike index cards, they often have a dark center layer between two white layers, so you won’t see dark ink through one side to the other.
I keep dice around anyway, but you’ll definitely want them to be part of your prototype kit. There’s no other randomizer as intuitive to players as dice, and though it’s hard to find a substitute for them, they’re decently cheap if you’re not picky. Chessex sells dice seconds by the pound for $20 (D6 only) or $32 (variety of polyhedrons); RPG dice sets of one each D4, D6, D8, D10, and D20 can be had for $4-6 in plain colors, in your local game store or on Amazon. Buying D6s only is cheaper than buying a variety of shapes, but once you’ve played with different shapes, you’ll want to have those options. Dice need to have certain weight in order to function properly, so I don’t recommend making them out of paper.
There are several reusable game mats out there. Chessex’s battlemat is well-known and well-loved, with a grid on one side and hexes on the other. Draw on it with wet-erase markers, and then wipe it clean with a damp towel. While you’re working out what you want your board to look like, you can draw on the mat, play a test turn or two, make changes, play some more, etc. Paizo’s flipmat is cheaper, and also comes in a variety of terrains (which is cool, though not an asset for the particular purpose of putting together a prototype kit).
If you don’t want to spring for a game mat, any glass-like plastic surface should accommodate wet-erase marking – even, in a pinch, an overhead transparency taped to a piece of cardboard.
Many small, common objects can be used as game tokens, from coins to bottle caps. Vinyl-coated paperclips are particularly appropriate, since they tend to come in a variety of colors, which is handy when you need to keep track of which pieces belong to whom.
Generic wooden game pieces are inexpensive, though – even the ones that look like people – and so much fun to play with. The Game Crafter offers a plethora of choices, with most wooden pieces just ten to fifteen cents each. I have sets of their wooden people and flat discs in four colors. The charmingly German Spiel Materiel has elegant pawns in different sizes, as well as buildings and, occasionally, more unusual pieces like toucans (though I haven’t seen any lately).
5. Storage & sorting
This one may seem optional, but with lots of tiny pieces in your kit, you’ll spend much less time hunting for the right bits if they’re separated from each other. A tackle box is a great choice, though William points out that some tackle boxes come with a greasy anti-rust coating that you definitely don’t want on your game pieces. Tackle boxes range from under $10 for smaller plastic trays to over $100 for big fancy toolbox-like contraptions with multiple trays.
Tiny zip-top bags are disproportionately useful, and can turn a shoebox into a suitable home for your prototype kit. These bags aren’t likely to be on the storage aisle of your supermarket, but you can sometimes find them in hardware stores. If not, they’re easy to find online, often sorted with beading supplies. Amazon sells them in many sizes; they tend to run about $5-7 for several hundred. I find the 2×3″ and 3×4″ sizes to be usefully small while still accommodating for adult hands.
There you have it. Of course there are plenty more components that you might want to add to your kit (timers, spinners, money), but these basics should have you covered for many, many ideas to come.