The relationship between our modern video games and their non-digital counterparts is very clear-cut. So for those readers who aspire to create games of their own, it should come as no surprise that non-digital games are a great starting place for honing the craft of game design. And the best place to begin is with the tools. Most gamers probably already have some fantastic equipment in their closets.
No gaming peripheral is more ubiquitous than the six-sided die, and for fledgling game designers it's the best tool to start with. The iconic black and white cubes embody randomness and uncertainty in design. Want a player to not know what's going to happen next? Or simply want to add a little noise to the game's general vector? Keep those players rolling, rolling, rolling.
Any dungeon master worth his weight in gelden doesn't go anywhere without his twenty-sided die. And so it goes for game designers as well. The late Gary Gygax first introduced polyhedral dice into game design as a way to beat the "bell curve" of rolling d6s. In true D&D fashion, different types of die can also be used to generate randomness for different parts of a game.
Playing cards are, by their nature, an empty canvas for game design. If you're designing with playing cards, you're designing with probability. Know the various statistics of the deck (number of cards per color, per suit, etc), and use those statistics and the odds of drawing each card to your advantage. Of course, with hundreds upon hundreds of card games already in existence, there's a lot of systems already imposed upon the meager 52-card deck. Our recommendation? Play the best, and find out where you can innovate.
If you want players to be represented in the game space, then you're going to need pawns. Pawns are used in a wide variety of games, the most widely recognized being Monopoly. This particular set was cribbed from an early version of Kill Doctor Lucky.
Our personal favorite game pieces are Carcassonne's Meeples, dozens of little wooden men in several colors. They're perfect if you need to represent a larger number of player characters in a game (like a non-digital version of Darwinia).
Speaking of pawns, it bears mentioning that Chess sets are terrific for game design. Not only do you have a nice 64-square grid to play with, you also get a literal army of pieces.Pictured is one particular designer's Chess augmentation. And no, we won't tell you why they're smiling.
Call them chips, markers, or tokens. Collections of small identical pieces are great for use as in-game currency, indicators of status, or pieces in an abstract strategy game (like Othello, or Go). We recommend Poker chips, as they already come in a variety of colors. Just, you know, don't eat them.
Play money is not just the name of an awesome book. If you're going for a more complex in-game economy, you might want to consider using paper bills instead of chips and coins (or possibly even using both). Play money exists in many denominations across many, many games. Standard Monopoly money comes in 1s, 5s, 10s, 20s, 50s, 100s, and 500s. The set above is from the game Key Largo (review coming soon!), and features the same denominations.
Word nerds loves games -- hence the popularity of titles like Scrabulous and Bookworm. If you want in on that sweet word-game cash-cow, the easiest place to start is with Scrabble. Here's a fun exercise: take a Chess board, and dump out a bag of Scrabble letters on top of it. Try and find an original mechanic for interacting with letters and words on a grid. Maybe pieces fall from the top. Maybe they rise from the bottom. Maybe there is no grid, and the pieces slowly move from left to right as if on a conveyor belt. The best designs present themselves through play.
As a gamer, the most important tool at your disposal is a predilection for play. Before you even disassemble them, play the games whose tools you intend to use. Observe what makes them fun, and how they go about using those pieces. Then take those pieces and make up the rules as you go along. That's the true benefit to non-digital design. Changing a rule is as simple as changing it -- no coding required. You don't like how something works, you do something different. And most importantly, you keep playing.