March Guest Interview – Jamey Stegmaier

Written by Alex Harkey

One of our initiatives at Games Precipice is to learn from established game designers and learn from their design decisions and thought process as their work achieves publication.

Tuscany

This month we are thrilled to be joined by game designer and Kickstarter trailblazer Jamey Stegmaier. In the fall of 2012 he co-founded Stonemaier Games with fellow designer Alan Stone as a result of the success of their first game on Kickstarter entitled Viticulture: The Strategic Game of Winemaking.

Last year, Jamey ran a record setting campaign of Euphoria: Building A Better Dystopia. Stonemaier games spent the remainder of 2013 publishing and delivering on their promises for both Viticulture and Euphoria.

Over the past 18 months, Jamey has written a series of in-depth Kickstarter lessons to help prospective campaign managers organize and deliver successful projects, using the same proven approach of Stonemaier Games.

Games Precipice: Thank you for taking the time to join us, Jamey. Since the arrival of Viticulture, connoisseurs have been anxiously awaiting Tuscany: Expand the World of Viticulture.
For those who are not yet familiar, can you update us on the history of Viticulture and uncork the mystery of Tuscany?

Hi Alex, thanks so much for these questions. Let’s start with Viticulture, a game we Kickstarted back in October 2012 and released in June 2013. It immediately sold out to distributors, which was a pleasant surprise. Up until that point we had been brainstorming expansion ideas, but we were really busy developing Euphoria.

So we really started exploring designs for Tuscany in June 2013, and now we’re in February 2014 with a near-complete expansion pack to Viticulture.

GP: I remember reading about an expansion project to Viticulture in several interviews last year. How has Tuscany been aged to perfection during the development process?

As our expansion ideas accumulated and developed, we realized that we could either take the traditional approach of releasing one expansion at a time over the course of several years, or we could pack them all in one box. However, it’s daunting to open an expansion (or any game) with tons of different elements, so we needed a way to streamline it.

Fortunately, we were in the middle of playing Risk Legacy at the time, and we realized how clever Rob Daviau was to unlock new elements one at a time. Instead of being overwhelmed with information right away, you get to unlock it in bite-size chunks. In doing so, you give players an experience that’s unique to their copy of the game. Hence the overall format for Tuscany.

GP: One of my original attractions to Viticulture was the rich and flavorful artwork. Did the artwork the first time around inspire any additional ideas in Tuscany?

Tuscany Board

Beth Sobel did a fantastic job with Viticulture’s artwork (also, many of the visitor cards were illustrated by Jacqui Davis, our artist for Euphoria).

I think my favorite element of Beth’s art was the vineyard mat, which to me captures the romanticism of winemaking in a way that is a stark departure from most Euro game player mats. So really, I just wanted Beth to make a bunch of new player mats that would extend from the left and right of the original vineyard mat! Unfortunately the design didn’t quite go that direction, but there are some ways we might see that happen if we hit some stretch goals.

GP: A great challenge in game design is playtesting and evaluating the aftertaste of the experience. How did you decide which elements were ripe for inclusion in Tuscany? Were there any ideas you sadly had to leave out?

So, there are two sides to playtesting: What I call “playtesting” is me playing the game or watching people play the game. Then there is also “blind playtesting,” which is when I send the rules and print-and-play components to a bunch of strangers around the world.

For our games—and in particular with Tuscany, which has so many layers—we always playtest each new element a number of times before sending it to blind playtesters. Fortunately, due to all those layers, we were able to start sending certain elements of Tuscany to playtesters as early as September 2013.

The vast majority of our ideas for Tuscany made it to the blind playtesters. A lot of specific cards were altered or cut before the blind playtesters saw them, but in terms of actual expansions, most were retained. At one point there was a “capacity” expansion that required players to monitor their cards in hand, but it simply wasn’t fun.

GP: Our topic for March deals with “How do we value games?” What do you think is the ideal price point, either absolute or in comparison to the base game, for an expansion?

Tuscany Papa

This is something that’s been on my mind a lot lately, and it’s something I expect to hear a lot during the Tuscany campaign.

Tuscany is an expansion pack, not just an expansion. I think we’re used to paying around $20-$30 for an expansion to a game, and you usually get a new deck of cards and maybe some tiles or cardboard pieces. And then you get another expansion a year later. Then another. Pretty soon you’ve spent $80-$100 for expansions to a $50-$60 game.

We’re taking a different approach with Tuscany. All expansions are in one box. You get everything right away, and it enables you to tell a story by the way you unlock the expansions. Our base price on Kickstarter will be around $45, and our MSRP will be $60-$70.

GP: Some great games can remain inaccessible as the game is so complicated to produce that it ends up very expensive. What’s your approach to making medal-winning games that don’t cost Grand Cru prices?

I suspect that Grand Cru is so expensive because it’s out of print (I could be wrong about that, though). In truth, Tuscany is going to be incredibly expensive to produce—I just got the final estimate from Panda yesterday, and I’m worried about it! The key is to aim for print runs of 5,000 or more games. That way you can keep your cost per unit down and optimize shipping. Of course, that depends on the size and weight of the game.

GP: Expansions are a great way to gradually introduce more complexity and additional replay value. How does Tuscany harvest these opportunities to improve the experience from Viticulture? 

Tuscany is all about improving replayability while maintaining a reasonable level of complexity. I mean, when you’ve unlocked all Tuscany expansions and are playing with all of them (most expansions are permanent additions—only a few are optional/modular), there’s a lot of information on the table. But it’s okay to ignore a certain element—there’s just too much to do, too many options.

Tuscany Meeples

In terms of replay value, many of the expansions contribute to this, but I’ll highlight one of my favorite elements: The special workers.

Each player gets a set of these special worker meeples, each one a custom design. At the beginning of the game, someone shuffles the deck of special worker cards and reveals two of them. Those are the special workers available for each player to train that game if they want (they cost $1 extra, so you can still train regular workers for $4 if you want).

Each special worker has a unique ability that gives players a really interesting decision—not only are they choose where they want to place a worker, but they’re choosing which worker to place there. The various combinations of these abilities make every game feel completely unique. I’ve playtested them a ton in many different combinations, and I still can’t wait to play the next game to see which ones I have access to.

GP: You’ve had extraordinary success with Viticulture and Euphoria, what else is in your wine cave that we should look forward to in the future?

Tuscany Cask

Well, after Tuscany, my hope is to launch a campaign for our Treasure Chest realistic resource pack soon afterwards. We’ve come to really value the tangible aspect of board games, and we want to add something unique to the Euro game space by having resource tokens that look at feel like the resources in the game instead of ubiquitous cubes.

We started exploring this with Euphoria, but the treasure chest will take it to a new level, letting people use these resources in a variety of games. The nice thing is, it doesn’t require playtesting! So it will be a very different, new product for us to produce.

The Precipice of Conclusion: The Lightning Round

  • If you could only take two games onto a deserted island, one you have designed and one you have not, what would they be?
    • That’s tough! It depends on who I’m on the island with. I’ll take the question as you wrote it and assume that I’m the only person on the island. Definitely Viticulture + Tuscany, as we’re developing a solo version of it. And beyond that…man, I don’t play a lot of solo games unless we’re counting my iPad. Lately my game of choice on my iPad has been SmallWorld 2, so I’ll go with that. And a solar-powered recharger.
  • After winning the previous game, which Tuscany expansion do you add most often to the next game of Viticulture?
    • I’m the designer, so I get to add whatever I want. :) The Tuscany expansions are cumulative, so after I add one, I stick with it unless we need to rewind for testing purposes. But I would say that when I open up the final version of Tuscany, the first expansion in the first tier I’ll unlock will be the advanced visitor cards, and after all first-tier expansions are unlocked, it’ll be a really tough call between the special workers and the extended board. Both of those elements escalate the game to a whole new level.
  • What is your wine of choice?
    • Merlot. I like that white wine doesn’t stain your teeth when you drink it, but white wine gives me a migraine within minutes of drinking it, so I stick with red. Or beer.
  • Do you have a Chateau Petrus of gaming, one that you know would make a fantastic addition to your collection but you can’t bring yourself to pay for?
    • That’s a great question. I’m pretty much like that for every game over $50! I recently bought Kemet after thinking about it for months and months, and before that it was Eclipse. Let me think if there’s any game closer to $100 that I would be tempted to get if I were less frugal…I would say the closest I can think of is Mage Knight. I’m just a little daunted by the complexity and playing time—I don’t know if it would hit the table enough to justify the price. I’ve heard it’s awesome solo, though. Maybe I’d take it to the deserted island with me.
  • When an aspiring designer approaches you, what is one tip you could give which helped you reach your immense level of success?
    • I’ve been going to a local game design meetup to help other local designers, and that exact question came up. I would give three tips if that’s okay with you:
      • Read, listen to, and watch everything you can about game design. Even games that you aren’t interested in playing. I specifically recommend the Ludology podcast for game design and Cardboard Edison and Today in Board Games as two blogs that aggregate a lot of other helpful blogs.
      • Play a lot of games. Again, even games that don’t excite you all that much. If you love big, meaty games, try playing small games or large-group social games now and then. Or the opposite if you prefer those games. You’ll learn a lot from playing a variety of games, and you’ll probably realize that the game you’re designing already exists.
      • Get your game to the table. Never in the history of mankind has a game hit the table for the first time and been perfect. In fact, I would wager that no game has been even 20% of what it should be when it first hits the table. Games play out very differently on the table than in your head. As an addendum to this, type out the rules to your game. That simple act of breaking up the rules and trying to explain it textually to other people will reveal tons of gaps and holes in the design.

Jamey: Thank you so much for these great questions! I had a lot of fun with this. Let me end with your question that almost stumped me: What is your Chateau Petrus of gaming, and why?

Pitchcar

    • Alex: When Matt originally wrote this question I really struggled even narrowing down a hypothetical answer. It’s only fitting that we’re now urged to answer it. After much deliberation I’m going to say Pitchcar. I’ve never played it but it looks like such a fun dexterity game that would fit wonderfully in my collection. The problem is I am a bit of a completionist and with all the extra track extensions and expansions I’d be to tempted and the cost would get out of hand quickly.

Terra Mystica

    • Matt: I keep going back to Terra Mystica on this one. It’s a perennial fixture in the BGG top 10, was a finalist for the 2013 Kennerspiel des Jahres (on top of being nominated or winning a bunch of other awards), and has drawn positive comparisons to Small World. But every time I look at the $80 price tag, I think there has to be more game I can get for that much money.
Thank you again to Jamey for taking the time out of his schedule while preparing to launch the Kickstarter campaign for Tuscany: Expanding the World of Viticulture. The campaign launched March 12th on Kickstarter. We look forward to seeing what Jamey and Alan have in store for us in 2014 and beyond.
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2 comments on “March Guest Interview – Jamey Stegmaier

  1. jameystegmaier

    Thanks so much for this great interview! You all ask fantastic questions. I’ve enjoyed both Pitchcar and Terra Mystica, so I hope you get the chance to attain them someday (especially Terra Mystica, which I love).

    1. Alex Harkey

      Thank you again Jamey, we’re appreciative that you were able to stop by for the interview and you’re certainly always welcome anytime.

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