Scythe, Crowdfunding, and Board Gaming: an Interview with Jamey Stegmaier

By Steve McCue on

About Steve McCue

Steve played a ton of video games on the SNES and PS1, a bunch of D&D when 2.0 was all the rage, and Magic: The Gathering around the turn of the century, but has been out of the loop for a while due to "responsibilities" and "parenthood". Geekly has helped him feel like he's got a gaming group of his own once again.

 

Board Gaming as an industry has begun to evolve. While the classic mass production games like Monopoly still exist and bigger companies still design and produce games the traditional way, a new breed of game designers and publishers has found a new way to fund their projects via crowdfunding.  Enter Stonemaier Games and Jamey Stegmaier, who, if they aren’t already, certainly must be in contention for the “Kings of Kickstarter” title. Stegmaier, whose book, A Crowdfunder’s Strategy Guide: Build a Better Business by Building Community, came out back in September is clearly no stranger to Kickstarter, and has been the driving force behind 7 Kickstarter campaigns that total $2.9 million dollars in funding. $1.5 million of that total has been raised by Stonemaier’s most recent, and still active, Kickstarter for their latest board game Scythe. To find out more about Scythe, Stonemaier Games, and Stegmaier himself we sat down with the man and picked his brain.

Steve Mccue: As of today, the Scythe Kickstarter had raised $1.5 million with an initial goal of $33,000. Do plans exist to cover such an amazing success?  What does an overwhelming response like that mean for Scythe?

Jamey Stegmaier: When I plan for a project, I make sure that my manufacturer and fulfillment centers can handle the capacity if the project goes big. So they’re ready for Scythe. On my end, it just means a longer spreadsheet and more time on customer service, but I generally enjoy that.

What about Scythe sets it apart from other board games?  Did you set out to create something that hadn’t been done before?

I set out to make a great game that I’d want to play. The one element that (from the beginning) I wanted to introduce to gamers is the idea of resources being kept on the map instead of off to the side on your player mat. If you produce grain on a farm, that grain token stays on the farm until you spend it. It’s a little thing, but it makes a big difference in the way you view your empire.

 "Jakub Rozalski’s art set the tone for the entire game"

“Jakub Rozalski’s art set the tone for the entire game”

You’ve created a very distinctive backdrop for Scythe.  How do you hope all that time and attention devoted to world building will impact a player’s gameplay experience?

I hope players take on the role of the character as they explore the land, especially when they have encounters. There is a strong economical side to the game, but the most memorable moments are when you draw an encounter card, show everyone the scenario art, and go through your options. I want a player to consider—even just for the briefest moment—to make a decision on an encounter card based on who they are in the game instead of what the optimal choice is.

You’ve said the Scythe is at its core an “order of operations” game.  Tell us more about what that means, and how that makes Scythe different from other board games.

It means that the actions you can take are very similar to other players, but the order in which you take those actions starts a decision tree that is completely unique and probably will never be replicated in exactly the same way. Like, if you make a certain upgrade on your third turn, the entire game is going to feel different than if you made a slightly different upgrade or if you made that same upgrade on the seventh turn. I wouldn’t say that Scythe is unique in this way—it’s just an element of other games I really enjoy, so I wanted to integrate it into Scythe.

“A game can be fun for lots of different reasons, but I think they all come back to giving players interesting choices.”

What is your favorite element or mechanism in Scythe?

I think my favorite thing about Scythe is that it’s a rewarding game, not a punishing game. That is, every time you do something, the game rewards you in one or several ways. Thus, even if you’re not playing well, you’re still getting this positive feedback and this feeling of forward momentum. This is built into pretty much every system in Scythe—the upgrades, mechs, buildings, bolstering, popularity track, enlisting…every element.

Most of your games, and Scythe in particular, evoke a very specific vision of time, place, mood, and setting.  Was there a specific inspiration for the aesthetic of Scythe?  If so, what was it, and how do you make sure the gameplay itself matches that idea?

Yes, Jakub Rozalski’s art set the tone for the entire game. Jakub had started building the world of Scythe well before I reached out to him for the board game rights. He was inspired by a war between Poland and the Soviet Union in the 1920s, and that formed the basis for the art. Throughout the design process, I always returned to the art—namely, the feeling of the art—as I was making design decisions.

Scythe eliminates some of the opportunity for luck or chance to play a role in determining the winner.  How does the removal of variables like those impact gameplay?  Does it create a more immersive experience?

It creates an experience where players feel like they have control over what they input into combat, even if they may not know the outcome. While we tested versions of combat that involved output randomness like dice, they weren’t a good match for the overall feel of Scythe. Thus I do think it’s more immersive for this specific game.

“I want to make games that capture peoples’ imaginations—perhaps it’s that goal that has led me to some great themes so far.”

Some game designers focus on creating difficult games, some on aesthetics, mood, or setting.  In a previous interview you’ve described your signature design element as “flow”.  Is the tempo of a game a conscious element you take into account when designing a game?

Definitely. The reason I think flow is so important—in addition to keeping downtime to a minimum—is that it helps players stay immersed in the game. There aren’t gamey elements to pull you out of the theme if turns flow into each other one after another, the tension and momentum building. I take this into account in every game I design.

In the past, with games like Euphoria, Stonemaier Games has really excelled at choosing a theme and then executing based on that theme.  What do you think allows you to do this so well?

Maybe I’ve gotten lucky? Or perhaps it’s that I try to pick unique themes that excite me, aren’t overdone, and are marketable. I want to make games that capture peoples’ imaginations—perhaps it’s that goal that has led me to some great themes so far.

What does your creative process look like when it comes to designing a new game? Do you tend to follow inspiration and build around that?  Or do you first find the setting, game mechanic or something like that as the core?

It usually starts with weeks or months of brainstorming lots of ideas—theme and mechanisms—with pencil and paper. The two get mashed together from the start—one doesn’t trump the other during that stage.

Was there ever a game you tried to design, but that didn’t meet your expectations?

That’s a great question. The answer is YES. 9 out of 10 games I design don’t get beyond the first prototype because the “brilliant” idea just didn’t translate well. One that comes to mind was a large-group social/bluffing game where you knew everyone else’s hidden role…except your own. I just couldn’t get it to work.

It’s obvious that you’ve got passion for what you do, and a passion for encouraging others to get up and chase down their own dreams.  Who is the ideal target reader of your book, and what is the ideal way reading it would impact his or her life?
The target audience for my book, A Crowdfunder’s Strategy Guide, is anyone who is ready to take an idea they’re passionate about and turn it into a reality. I think the book will not only inspire them, but it will also significantly increase their chances of success, help them avoid a lot of mistakes, and give them a perspective on how treating people well can actually be a really great business strategy.

GeeklyInc is somewhat crowdfunded-we put out content in different forms, and most of our contributors started as members of the community.  Some folks reach into
their pockets to help cover production and upkeep costs through Patreon.  Do you see this sort of model as applicable on a larger scale?  Can we realistically crowdfund space exploration, or promising cancer research in a way that allows people to decide how to tackle important, but overwhelmingly large and long-term projects?

In a way, our taxes are a form of crowdfunding. Your tax dollars already go to NASA and cancer research. The difference is that you don’t have much say other than who you vote into office. I’d actually love to see more of a crowdfunding element to voting, with certain constraints in place to make sure the boring stuff like bridge repair still gets funded. As for Patreon and other ongoing funding platforms, I think they’ll be good on a very small scale, but I don’t think they’ll ever cover costs for major media operations.

What is your vision for Stonemaier Games?  Planning to take over the gaming world?  Be a microbrewery of super-high-quality products that are somewhat limited in production?  Neither?  Both?

I like to think of Stonemaier following the Days of Wonder model: Release a very small number of games each year, but continue to support past games so they’re not just relegated to “cult of the new.”

 Board games and board gaming have in some respects evolved to an unrecognizable degree from Milton Bradley classics we played with our parents and grandparents.  Where do you see board games in the next decades?  What will games have then that will confound us while our grandchildren play them after Thanksgiving dinner?

I wish I knew! I’d try to make those games if I did. I think we’re going to see some truly remarkable components over the next 5-10 years, things that seamlessly integrate technology into games in a way that still feels very much like a board game.

“I think my favorite thing about Scythe is that it’s a rewarding game, not a punishing game.”

What do you think makes a good board game?

Interesting choices. That’s really the key. A game can be fun for lots of different reasons, but I think they all come back to giving players interesting choices.

Best board game of all time? Defend your answer against an imaginary comments section populated by The Internet.

Best? That’s hard to say. My favorite board game of all time as of today is Terra Mystica. I think the biggest complaint The Internet might have about it is that some of the factions are slightly imbalanced, but to them I say that you should buy the expansion and do a faction auction. Problem solved!

So, you’ve made a deal with the devil for eternal life, but you can only pursue one passion for all eternity: what will we find you doing next Monday at 8:00am?

You ended with the oddest question of them all, didn’t you? To answer this quite literally, I hope to be sleeping on Monday at 8:00 am (I wake up around 8:20 every day and walk 10 feet over to my office). If I could only pursue one passion for all eternity, it would still be board games…I really love what I do.


 

For more information on Stegmaier or Stonemaier games check out stonemaiergames.com Board gaming enthusiasts can also follow him on his twitter or on like his blog on Facebook

Readers wanting to know more about Scythe should drop what they’re doing and head over to the Scythe Kickstarter

Editor’s note:  Multiple GeeklyInc contributors and editors have backed Scythe and previous Kickstarters by Stonemaier Games. This past weekend I was able to play a demo version of Scythe via TableTopia, and I can safely say that Scythe is not a game to be missed. The Kickstarter for Scythe ends in 31 hours, go get yourself a copy. You won’t regret it. – Brad

 

 

 

2 comments

  1. Great interview. Those are some of the best questions ever. Actually got me thinking… if I could only pursue one passion for the rest of my days, what would it be?
    Cheers for the insights into Stonemaier Games. Looking forward to getting my greedy hands on the box!

  2. Hi Oliver! Thanks for the feedback and the kudos! Jamey has done so many interviews, and Brad and I wanted to mix things up a bit and give some (hopefully) novel and though-provoking questions to elicit some deep and interesting answers.

    Very glad you enjoyed the interview!

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