I never thought that I would be the kind of person to make acquaintances online and even friendships (gasp) in some cases. Is that normal now? Regardless, over the last few years of immersion in several online communities I’ve become more comfortable with the internet as a means of human interaction. I’m glad that I overcame the obstacle presented by the stigma of online communities, for several notable reasons. Most recently and to the point, I somehow meandered my way along the world wide web into contacting Jamey Stegmaier of Stonemaier Games, and as some of you may already know, the creator of the very popular board game Scythe.
Over the past couple of months I’ve enjoyed an ongoing conversation with Jamey, and remain extremely impressed at his interest in, well, everything. Seriously, if you take a moment to peruse his frequently updated and ten year old blog you’ll find Jamey’s thoughtful commentary on topics ranging from the environment to food, television shows to relationships, writing and yoga pants, he has got something to say, and it’s worth reading. How he has time for most of what he does, I am not sure I will ever understand.
Yet, he still managed to carve out some of his valuable time to answer a barrage of questions from me for Mech*Spectrum. I recently shared some of the inspiring mech artwork of Jakub Rozalski that influenced Jamey, inspired him really, to create Scythe. Naturally I wanted to know more about him and the direction he sees for Stonemaier Games.
Jamey, Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. You say you’ve always loved game design and have created games for as long as you can remember, even as a child. What was the first game you remember making?
The first tabletop game I recall designing is called Medieval Quest. You can see a photo of it on this blog entry from a while ago. I designed it when I was around 7 or 8 years old, and like many of the games I designed in my youth, it was strongly inspired by a specific published game (in this case, Monopoly).
According to several interviews, although game design has always been an interest of yours, you didn’t really pursue it until friends pulled you in to work on an expansion of Settlers of Catan. Certainly you must have been engaged in some design process or outlet to have had that opportunity, or are you just that lucky?
Ah, I should clarify: Catan was my first exposure to Euro games as an adult, and I loved it for several years before playing anything else. During that time, I thought it would be fun to design an expansion for it, so I did. However, I just got to the first part of the design process: I wrote the rules and made a prototype. I’m not sure if we ever actually played with it. It wasn’t an actual published expansion or anything like that.
That explains why I couldn’t pin point it on BoardGameGeek! You launched a successful crowdfunding campaign for your project, Euphoria and as they say the rest is history. Has your design process become more efficient and refined since Euphoria and are you more confident in what will work, or is every project like reinventing the wheel?
My first successful tabletop game Kickstarter project was actually Viticulture, back in August 2012. That’s what launched Stonemaier Games. You’re right that Euphoria took it to the next level, though, raising $309,000 to Viticulture’s $65,000. Euphoria was what eventually allowed me to start working full-time for Stonemaier.
As for being more efficient, it’s hard to say. Euphoria’s design from start to finish took me only about 9 months, but it could have used another round of blind playtesting to catch a few mistakes among the recruit cards. Since then I significantly increased our efforts during blind playtesting. I would say I’m better at catching that kind of stuff myself now—even early in a design process, I can recognize elements that won’t work (playtesting is required to figure out what does work). Also, a lot of my time now is spent running the day-to-day operations of Stonemaier Games, so in some ways I have less time for design.
Regarding Scythe, you’ve stated that there will be one final expansion after the Wind Gambit. Have you accomplished all that you hoped to with Scythe and do you foresee continued merchandise, such as new or variant miniatures or boards in Scythes future?
My intention is for the third expansion to be the final one. I guess I shouldn’t completely close that door, but I think Jakub (the artist and worldbuilder) wants to focus on other worlds. That said, if someone designed and tested a new addition for Scythe that I thought was really cool and that people seem to want, I would consider publishing it.
Reading up before speaking with you I saw that you were in contact with Jakub at an early stage in the development of 1920+. We know Scythe was inspired by Jakub’s paintings, but certainly your feedback and collaboration must have fed his creative process as well. How much did world building for Scythe and 1920+ overlap?
Jakub had created about a dozen illustrations in his 1920+ universe before we started talking about Scythe. The vast majority of the world came from Jakub’s mind. The only influences I had were (a) I asked him if there could be more than 2 factions, and he created the others, and (b) I suggested that there be a reason that all of the factions were converging on this one area, and he thought of the Factory.
Something that stands out to me about Scythe and 1920+ is the uniqueness of mechs in a past, albeit alternative past, setting. Personally, I enjoy history for what it is and the lessons it offers, and look to science fiction for its anticipation of what may be, for better or worse. What is it about this world, and narrative that grabs our attention so powerfully?
For me, it’s something about how the images are close enough to reality that my mind fully accepts the world. It’s like looking at a piece of history I never learned about in school.
Speaking about world building, how important is that to you in the game design process. I’ve seen your overall process in several interviews.
-cycles of playtest and revision
But what’s in your mind? What’s inspiring you? Aside from fun, are you after a certain experience, or are you trying to share a world that has caught your imagination?
I’m inspired by a lot of stuff every day, both thematically and mechanically. Like, I’ll often be reading a book or an article, watching a movie or TV show, or playing a game/watching game reviews, and something will stand out as an idea or mechanism I want to explore. My friends sometimes chide me during game night because I’ll run over to my desk after my turn to make some notes. 🙂
You generally regard yourself as a designer of Euro style games. Scythe has certainly done very well within that specific genre but it has also attracted attention from gamers who might not normally consider a euro game their cup of tea. Do you see a broadening of Stonemaier Games’ target audience in your future? And do you think that Euro games are becoming more mainstream in general? Will various boardgame niches cross pollinate, in the future?
I do think Euro games have become much more mainstream in the last few years. I think part of the reason is that we’ve seen designers and publishers really elevate their efforts to incorporate interesting themes and compelling art, graphic design, and components into Euro games.
I’m open to publishing any game that meets our core requirements (there’s a pretty long list on the submissions page of our website). The key for me is that a Stonemaier Game must at least attempt to capture the imaginations of its audience.
Your next game, already creating anticipation, is a legacy city building game called Charterstone. Legacy play is new for Stonemaier. What do you hope to accomplish with legacy mechanics that are unique from your other projects?
I’ve been more and more intrigued by integrating stories into my games. Some of the best stories and memorable moments I’ve had came from legacy and campaign games, so that’s a big part of the reason I wanted to try to design such a game.
My first exposure to any legacy game was Risk: Legacy, and in hindsight it almost seems an odd format for legacy features, but it worked. Can you provide us some insights as to how you’ll create a unique legacy experience for Charterstone? How will it differ from other legacy games?
In Charterstone, you’re building a village with other players, though it’s a competitive game. The buildings you create are permanent stickers placed on the board, and the things you decide to build determine the stuff you unlock. It’s kind of a classic Euro approach to a legacy game, which hasn’t been done yet. It also plays 1-6 players, a first for legacy games. Also, the game is designed to be infinitely replayable after the 12-game campaign is over, which is unique to legacy games. Charterstone is one of only a few legacy games that aren’t based on existing games, and I kept the rules really streamlined to make it easy for players to get into it. Last, there are a number of surprises that aren’t in other legacy games, but I don’t want to spoil them here. 🙂
We’ll be watching!
Given your ever expanding creative tool chest and the interest Scythe has created within the mech verse, is there any chance we will see other new directions from Stonemaier that might further appeal to markets beyond your normal customers?
We’re considering some options, but it’s too early to discuss them at this point. I’ll say that it’s possible. 🙂
Do you have a determined development plan moving forward, or are you following inspiration?
I don’t plan too far into the future. Like, I know what the rest of our 2017 looks like, and I have a few games and expansions in development for 2018 release. Beyond that, I try to stay pretty open, as my tastes change, the industry evolves, and we get different submissions all the time.
What other genres would you like to explore?
Well, my current goal is to design a cooperative game, as that’s a new challenge for me. As a designer and a developer, I like the challenge of something new and different (both for me and for the industry—I don’t want to create something that could just as easily be a dozen other published games).
I think there is a place in the market for meaningful cooperative games. Do you have a topic in mind?
It’s interesting to use the word “meaningful” here. I think one thing that many cooperative games do well–something that adds meaning to the experience–is that they teach communication and teamwork skills. So even with the genre left undefined (I haven’t revealed that information yet), I think my cooperative games will share those meaningful elements with others.
One of the themes that is consistent in your work is world building. Do you actively look for new worlds to serve as backgrounds to game themes or mechanics that you have in mind for a project, or do worlds inspire the theme and the mechanics for you?
Ever since Euphoria, I’ve been fascinated by building worlds or building within worlds (like in Scythe). So yes, I’m always looking for new worlds that would make a great place for gamers to inhabit for a few hours. Usually when I find a world or am working on a world, the world inspires the mechanisms and some mechanisms inspire the world.
One last question. You are famously accessible and interested in your following. As a matter of fact I think we first spoke in comments on a post in the Scythe Facebook Community before I was even aware of your role in its development. How on earth do you find the time to stay in touch with fans and keep producing new work? And how important is that involvement to your continued success?
It’s tough sometimes to strike the right balance! I go many days without doing anything creative because I’m focused on running Stonemaier Games (a big part of which is outreach). Fortunately, I know that whenever I put my computer to sleep so I can create worlds and games, there are lots of people who know my games well enough to answer questions in my absence. I think that’ll continue to be important in the future as the Stonemaier community grows.
And it is sure to grow a lot from what I see. I’m looking forward to playing through Charterstone with the kids on family game night. Thanks, Jamey for taking the time to talk. We appreciate your involvement with the gaming community and will look forward to following your work further.