I started this article a long time ago and it’s sat in my drafts folder for months. I’m working on the same task today and figured I would finish what I had written about the subject and get it out there, instead of waiting until I could finish everything I want to write on the subject.

I’m working on playtest kits for some card games right now. It’s not my first time doing so, but I think it’s my smartest time. Here’s some notes on how to build playtest kits more easily.

What are the goal of playtest kits? Playtesting the game, of course! You want to spend as much time as possible playing and analyzing that play, and less time building and rebuilding kits.Here’s some priorities when breaking that down:

Playtest kits should be:

  1. As easy to make as possible.
  2. Quick to modify on the fly.
  3. An accurate representation of the current state of the game rules and all card text.
  4. A factual representation of the physical game item (correct colors, rough icons, etc.)

Here’s the game-specific stuff you need to build a playtest kit:

  1. A spreadsheet or database that contains all the necessary information for each card.
  2. A list of how many of each card you need to print.
  3. Printable cards, 9 per page. There are a million ways to turn your spreadsheet/database into a printable page like this. As you can probably guess, I use InDesign for this. Data merge is hot!
  4. A copy of the rules to be printed. These rules should be in a state where a group of people who have never played the game can lean the game from them.

Here’s the stuff you’ll need from your Game Designer’s Toolkit:

A whole bunch of excess cards from dead CCGs. Go to your local game store and say “Hey, I need a 800-count box of the absolute worst, dead, totally terrible CCG cards you can get me, from a variety of terrible CCGs.” Your game store clerk will say “Are you serious?” and you say “Yup! What do you want for them?” You should be able to get this box of cards for 10 bucks or less—many game stores have boxes of these cards that haven’t sold in years. If the store offers to sell you more and you have the storage space, go for it. You want the games from a variety of CCGs to make your different playtest sets easier to tell apart if you use clear sleeves.

A smaller bunch of CCG sleeves. There are two routes to take with this: the cheap clear sleeves that Ultra Pro sells for a penny each, or the nicer colored/opaque/textured sleeves that typically run about 5 cents each, retail. Advantages to the penny sleeves: they are cheap and you can use different CCG cards in them to easily distinguish between different types of cards in your game. Advantages to the more expensive sleeves: they typically shuffle better, slide around less, and can take more wear and tear. I prefer the Ultra Pro matte sleeves, as they’re quite durable and don’t get marked very easily. You’ll need a few different colored types of sleeves to distinguish between different types of cards (or different games, or different versions of games.) If you want the nicer sleeves but are on a budget, ask your local game store to sell you all the sleeves that, for whatever reason, have not sold well to the local player community. If you’re willing to take those slow-moving sleeves off their hands, they may well cut you a bargain. They might also have a bunch of used sleeves that they’ll sell to you cheaply—many people who sell off their CCG collections leave the cards sleeved, and so stores end up with boxes of these used sleeves (if they don’t just throw them away.)

Cheap printer paper. This paper will be going inside a sleeve and against a card, so it doesn’t need to be sturdy. I think I paid $16 for 2500 sheets last time I bought paper: if each of those sheets turned into 9 playtest cards, that’s 22,500 playtest cards you can build before you need more paper.

A printer. I have a HP 2605dn color laserjet. Being able to do color is very useful in playtesting, and the cost savings over time for a laserjet printer are very clear over an inkjet.

A paper cutter or scissors. You’re going to be cutting a bunch of paper, and a proper paper cutter will make your life better. A paper shredder for all those scraps is great too, if you’re not a recycler.

A bunch of counters. Most games require counters of some sort, for life or other resources. During playtests, poker chips usually do a great job of this. If you’re getting fancy, print out graphics and glue them to both sides of a poker chip.

Sharpies in a couple different colors for annotating cards during play or between sessions. Reprint them when the annotations become more confusing than the lack of them!

Print all the cards, cut them out, fill every sleeve with a CCG card, and then add the paper cards. Double-check the proxies with your list of cards, and you’re good to go!

One final word on organizing this stuff: make sure all of your playtest files have dates on them, and keep all the physical components in a single bag/box/container, with a list of everything that should be in it and the playtest kit date/revision number. There are some large deck storage boxes designed for Magic: The Gathering that are big enough to fit 100+ cards and some other components, or you can simply use the smaller white 400-count card storage boxes.

This may seem like a lot of stuff to buy and have kicking around, but you can get it all for under $50, and most of it is reusable!