So you’re thinking of making some games, but you have nothing to make them with. Here’s what to get or look for to make your very first game-making.

First things first — don’t cannibalize the games that you care about. They’ll be difficult or impossible to play without the pieces, and you don’t really want to be shuffling around dozens of pieces between multiple prototypes just to play one game.

Second, there’s no such thing as a perfect kit, just one that works for you and your design process. If you’re making games with minis in them, your kit will want to have a lot of different minis in them. If you’re about to make the next Sagrada, you’ll want to add a lot more dice. (As a full disclosure, links go to Amazon, and they are affiliate links. They are also exactly what I would buy if I lost my own toolkit and had to start over.)

Third, this kit can be as small or as large as you like, but it should be contained and organized. By ‘contained’, I mean it all packs up / packs away in a box or container. By ‘organized’, I mean that things that are alike are sorted or bagged together in some way.

Finally, the exact contents will change over time as things are used, and that’s OK. You want enough components to make multiple games or to play with different ideas at the same time. Otherwise, you’re taking apart one game to try another.

Here’s a more or less complete list of what I carry with me:

  • A toolbox (fishing or hardware section in most department stores)
  • A bunch of smaller plastic bags
  • Small wooden / acrylic cubes
  • Dice (D6’s in different colors and at least one set of the common dice – D4, D8, D10, D12, D20)
  • Meeples in lots of colors aplenty
  • Card sleeves in lots of colors aplenty
  • Tokens aplenty
  • A set of poker chips
  • Blank cards, playing cards, or Magic: The Gathering commons.
  • Game board
  • Chipboard of all shapes and sizes
  • Sticker paper

If you’re starting from scratch, you can buy enough components to make several games for well under $100 USD — heck, even $50 USD will go a long way if buying online.

Wait, a toolbox? Really?

Game design 101: build a toolbox full of bits

Yep! Beyond the fact that they come in plenty of sizes, they come with a carrying handle and lots of smaller ways to organize the space. (I personally took the organizing tray out in favor of bagging everything. Saves space and weight – both critical things for a digital nomad like myself.)

How big? Mine is about 30cm long, 15cm tall, and 10cm deep. It’s pretty crammed right now, even with components aplenty scattered in 10 prototypes.

A couple of recommendations – one smaller, one larger:

A bunch of smaller plastic bags

This assumes you’re going to bag the bits to organize things, but it also helps organize things in your prototypes while playtesting.

You probably have a few of these around the house / apartment, but make it a point to pick up some more at your local grocery store or department store.

Small wooden / acrylic cubes

Again, don’t raid the games you love! This is one of those things that are better to buy in bulk online, but you can get started by raiding games picked up at the Goodwill / second-hand store / charity shop or look in larger hobby or craft shops. BGG has a lengthy list of games with lots of cubes, but only get them used unless you like overpaying.

Dice

Game design 101: build a toolbox full of bits

Whether used as counters, rolling, or any of a hundred other uses, dice are amazing. Sadly, few games at the thrift shop will have more than a handful, and mismatched dice just aren’t as sexy. Look for copies of Tenzi for 40 dice (assuming it’s a complete set), and know that paying per piece at the game store is the most expensive way to stock up.

I did mention at least one set of the common dice – D4, D8, D10, D12, D20) — these can get expensive fast since they’re more likely to made from metal or otherwise be like gamers bling. Play with these relatively common dice to play with different probabilities and options beyond the standard D6’s.

Meeples in lots of colors aplenty

Sadly, I couldn’t find anyone on Amazon just selling a big bag of randomly colored meeples… and games at second-hand stores tend not to have a ton of them, either. On this one, I’ll defer to a more specialized gaming source for the best price I’ve seen. If you’re shopping from the US, PrintPlayGames and The Game Crafter have competitive prices and wide selections as well.

Card sleeves in lots of colors aplenty

Game design 101: build a toolbox full of bits

Unless you have a compelling reason to use a non-standard card size, go with poker-size cards (2.5″ x 3.5″, 63mm x 88 or 89mm) or tarot-size cards (2.75″ x 4.75″, 70mm x 120mm). There’s a ton of options for the former as sleeves go.

I used to print prototypes on card stock (250-300 gsm paper), which was honestly a mistake. Anything that keeps you attached to a prototype — anything that makes it harder to let go of them — can be a problem when it’s time to change them. Print on regular paper and sleeve your cards with a Magic common or some playing cards. More on those in a second.

Ultra Pro and Dragon Shield are the two better known brand names. Ultra Pros are cheaper, but have a little circular hologram in the lower right corner that can be a little annoying. Dragon Shields are more expensive but nearly indestructible — as a bonus, they come packaged in a fairly sturdy cardboard box instead of the usual plastic wrap.. I’ve heard good things about Paladin’s sleeves, but haven’t tried them first-hand.

While you might see other brand names at your friendly local game store, I’ve bought Ultra Pros and Dragon Shields in many countries around the world and had very few issues with them. Whether you prefer the glossy or matte look, pick one type and stick with it.

Search ‘Ultra Pro Sleeves‘ or ‘Dragon Shield sleeves

Tokens aplenty

Perfect for any number of game activities like keeping score or area control. These are probably the easiest things to find in games at second-hand stores, though you might find yourself playtesting a game with tokens of different shapes and colors! If I were to start all over again, I’d just pick up a bag of tokens like these, if only for the uniformity:

A set of poker chips

No, we’re not playing poker here, but the chips are perfect for any number of game mechanics and themes. Aim for the sets that don’t have numbers pre-printed on them or interlocking ridges, and don’t bother with the kits that give you the green mat, the roulette wheel, etc.

Blank cards, playing cards, or Magic: The Gathering commons.

These go in the sleeves along with the card to give it the correct thickness, so pick these up en masse wherever you can. The game manufacturers at conventions will have some sample cards in their sample boxes, and a deck of poker-sized playing cards is rarely more than a couple of US dollars or euros. If stocking a brand new toolbox, I’d head to the closest dollar store and pick up about 10 to 15 decks that have the same exact back.

If you’re a Magic player and have a ton of commons just sitting around (or know someone who does), this is a great solution as well.

The best options on Amazon are either bridge-sized cards (about 0.25″ or 6mm narrower) or more expensive than other options. PrintPlayGames.com offers the best option if you just want blank cards.

For earlier on in your playtesting, you might find dry-erase cards to be helpful. Great for changing values on the fly and the like.

Game board

Another component that’s easy to find in thrift-store games. Yes, you can buy them online brand new and blank, but the board is made fresh quite easily with sticker paper. Print it off first, then attach it.

Chipboard of all shapes and sizes

While I’m sure there’s a more technical term, chipboard just refers to the thicker type of paper / cardboard used for coins, counters, points, and so on. They don’t need sleeves and they don’t bend. My favorite thrift-store finds for chipboard are ‘Memory’ games and almost anything of a kids nature made by Ravensburger. They’ve used the same pattern on the back of many tiles for what might be decades…

A few other helpful tools outside the toolbox…

As a digital nomad, my life has to fit into two (hopefully not-too-overweight) suitcases and a computer backpack. Space, as you might guess, is at a premium. These are all things that make it into the checked luggage

  • Double-sided tape and super glue (pretty easy to find)
  • A4-sized cutting mat and utility knife (for making precise holes in things
  • Sticker paper (for covering game boards – I don’t use it as often since my games rarely have boards, but yours might)
  • Brads (AKA butterfly fasteners AKA fasteners – for making dials that rotate on each other)

Over to you

What’s in your toolbox/