Board game designer talks Jamey Stegmaier

In August 2017 I had the chance to sit down and speak with Jamey Stegmaier of Stonemaier Games. He broke into the scene with the winemaking game “Viticulture” and is the designer of the critically acclaimed strategy game “Scythe”.

Karsten: First of all let’s go way back into your past. What board game did spark your interest in playing and later designing games?

Jamey: I think my first truly lasting impression was “Scotland Yard”. It’s far from the first game I played, but not only did it inspire me to design my own version of it, but it’s also the only game I played as a kid that I still truly enjoy as an adult. It was well ahead of its time.

Karsten: Was there a game or a certain mechanic in recent times where you’ve been blown away in a similar way?

Portrait Jamey Stegmaier
Jamey Stegmaier

Jamey: Oh yes, absolutely! I have an entire YouTube channel devoted to discussing my favorite mechanisms in every game I play. A game I’ve been playing a lot of lately is “Near and Far”, which has a number of clever mechanisms, but one of my favorites is the way it uses hearts/health to mitigate unlucky skill-check dice rolls.

Karsten: But after years as a publisher evaluating any possible new board game – can you still really enjoy them? Or is it more like “been there, seen that” and analyzing the mechanics?

Jamey: It certainly is different now, especially the first time I play a game, as I’m both trying to learn it and learn from it. But that’s just a new level of fun for me now. I’m constantly amazed at the innovation and ingenuity of my fellow designers.

Of course, I have games that I will gladly play over and over simply because I love them. A few of my favorites are “The Castles of Mad King Ludwig”, “Isle of Skye”, and “T.I.M.E Stories”. What are your 3 favorite games right now?

Karsten: I love the simple but effective mechanism of “Forbidden Island”, “Trickerion” just for the awesome artwork and also “T.I.M.E Stories”. Loving the way it uses the old “Fighting Fantasy” books mechanics in a modern way. It’s always hard to design a game with a fresh approach to the genre. How do you typically start a new project?

Jamey: Pretty much any game starts with a sudden inspiration. I have a list of hundreds of such inspirations, some for theme, others for mechanisms, and a few for art, worlds, IPs, or even specific components. The idea is actually the easy part—it’s everything that follows that takes time, energy, and resources.

“My fear isn’t about other people pigeonholing me.”

Karsten: It has to be a huge list, cause your games show a vast thematic array from winemaking to legacy games, alternate universes and more. Were you afraid of being pigeonholed? “Hey, that’s the guy with the goblin worker- placement games!”

Jamey: My fear isn’t about other people pigeonholing me, but rather about me pigeonholing myself. I don’t want to design something that I’m already comfortable with, nor do I want to design something that already exists in a dozen different iterations by other designers. Out of respect for all the gamers out there, I truly aim to create something new and unique every time I commit to a design.

Karsten: So far you surely proved that you can. Would you give us a sneak peek at what new projects at Stonemaier Games we can look forward to?

Jamey: The main things we’ve announced are “Charterstone” (a legacy village- building game) and “The Wind Gambit” (a new expansion to “Scythe”). I’m currently working on in some capacity (either as a designer or developer) several cooperative games, a tableau-building game, a partnership game, the third and final expansion to “Scythe”, the “Euphoria” expansion, a small “Viticulture” expansion, and a few accessories to existing games.

Karsten: Speaking of accessories, after your first two games you released the “Treasure Chests”, a set of high-quality components. Did you expect the success it had or was it more of a gamble?

Jamey: It was a bit of a gamble, though the idea originated when people kept asking to buy the realistic resources in the fancy Kickstarter editions of “Euphoria”. So I knew there was interest in high-quality resource tokens—I just didn’t know exactly how much. In fact, we’re still making and selling them, so I continue to learn how much demand there is for them!

Karsten: It must always be nerve-wracking if you don’t know the outcome. There are always people that tell you “that doesn’t stand a chance” or “you can’t do it this way”. So to all naysayers: What do you think is the biggest myth in game design that has to be debunked?

Jamey: That’s a tough question! I’ll try to answer specifically in terms of game design, not publishing or crowdfunding. Something I hear designers saying a lot is that it’s important to get the game to the table as soon as possible, like within hours of having the idea. While it’s possible this method works for some designers, and I’m definitely an advocate of putting together a prototype and playing it early and often, I think it’s actually more important to leave time for proper brainstorming and researching between the inception of the idea and the first play test.

“Especially with early playtests, I’m usually exhausted afterwards.”

Karsten: Did you yourself ever have any playtesting sessions with one of your games where you got out and questioned everything?

Jamey: Oh, absolutely—I’ve had hundreds of playtests like that! 🙂 Even when a game starts to function well and take a definite shape, I constantly question the mechanisms and thematic integration as I try to make each aspect of the game intuitive and fun. But especially with early playtests, I’m usually exhausted afterwards, as it sometimes feels like nothing worked and everything needs to change.

Karsten: Did you experience in these sessions difficulties in designing a game to fit different cultural markets? Are there any pitfalls?

Jamey: That’s a great question—I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that! I’m curious to hear your perspective on this. I try to incorporate quite a bit of diversity in to my games so people can connect with my characters, which I think helps on an international scale. I also try to be sensitive to cultural faux pas, and it helps that we have playtesters all over the world to help me identify them.

Karsten: Well apart from obvious political themes or other taboos it’s often the little details where you can stumble. For example, in China the number 250 is rarely used because it also means that someone is nuts. But shouldn’t there be more games with specific regional themes opposed to the many overexploited themes?

Jamey: I didn’t know that about the number 250! Very interesting. As for regional themes, that’s actually something we stumble into with Scythe to a certain extent—there aren’t many games with Eastern European themes. I’m all for games implementing mythology and lore from cultures around the world. The challenge is finding the right theme and mechanisms to capture the imaginations of gamers, but I think it’s possible to do that in any region.

Karsten: Most designers try to get inspiration from other arts or activities. What do you do to clear your head? Any unusual hobbies?

Jamey: I wouldn’t say they’re unusual, but I often get ideas from books, movies, and television. To clear my head during the day, I’ll exercise. At night, reading helps me turn off my brain and fall asleep.

Karsten: Did you at any point regret the decision to make your hobbyist passion for board games to your daytime job? Were there any difficulties or lows and how did you overcome them?

Jamey: I’ve certainly had my fair share of moments where I wasn’t having fun, but I wouldn’t say that I’ve regretted making Stonemaier Games my full-time job, and the fun/interesting/challenging moments have far outweighed the darker ones. One example of a difficult moment (something I blog about here) was when I didn’t properly estimate in advance our tax payment this year. It was— and, honestly, continues to be—a pretty big blow to my morale, as it sucks to have such a larger percentage of money taken away from us. That’s money that I’d rather spend on making games for people. I’m happy and fortunate that we’re profitable, but it has completely changed how I’ve looked at money. It’s a work in progress, as is everything I do. 🙂

Karsten: Oh yes, the little tax thing is also a pleasure here in Germany. It makes the profit margins way smaller so budgeting is crucial. You wrote very often that customer satisfaction comes first, no matter how painful the costs are, cause customer loyalty is a big thing for publishers. So the more professional you get the harder it is financially to put this into practice?

Jamey: That’s a keen observation, and it’s absolutely true. I’m always cutting our margins tighter than they should be because I want to charge reasonable prices for our games. Like, “Scythe” should be a $95 game, but I didn’t want to charge more than $80 for it. “Charterstone” should be an $80 game, but I didn’t want to charge more than $70 for it. Meanwhile, I’m trying to put the highest quality components in our games, because I want people to cherish the tangible experience of holding and moving our components. Those two concepts— reasonable MSRP and high-quality components—are in diametric opposition to each other, so it’s very true that the more professional we get, the harder it is to maintain sustainable profit margins. But I try to remind myself that if our financial decisions aren’t sustainable, then we no longer get to make games, and then we really aren’t servicing our fans. It’s just discouraging that even when we make a profit, which enables us to survive as a company and make more games, the US government takes half of the profit! 🙂

“Stonemaier no longer uses Kickstarter.”

Karsten: So do you think is crowdfunding projects a better way to minimize these financial risks especially if you don’t go with the mainstream?

Jamey: For some publishers, yes. Stonemaier no longer uses Kickstarter partially because there are also significant risks associated with crowdfunding, particularly worldwide fulfillment. I’ve seen fulfillment centers who have done a great job in the past put hundreds of thousands of dollars of inventory at risk with no repercussions. The same could still happen when I’m sending a shipping container to a distributor, but the freight company is liable if something happens to that container.

Karsten: With your blog and your most recent book “A Crowdfunder’s Strategy Guide” you are very open about the successes and mistakes you made on Kickstarter and share a lot of knowledge for free. Can you name a person that had tremendous impact on you to realize your dream becoming a publisher?

Jamey: It’s really hard to name just one, so let me name a few Kickstarter creators who really inspired me in the early days, as well as a few designers who continue to inspire me. The creators are Michael Mindes (Tasty Minstrel Games), Patrick Nickel (formerly of Crash Games), and Paul Bender (Greater Than Games). As for designers, Rob Daviau, Alexander Pfister, Ted Alspach, and Uwe Rosenberg have had a huge impact on me (and they’re all incredibly nice people too!)

Karsten: That’s something that distinguishes this industry from others. Most publishers have also been active players before getting into the industry. What crucial advice would you give to newcomers trying to make it in this business?

“It can repel people if you suddenly are only interested in yourself.”

Jamey: I could give a lot of advice here, but I’ll focus on one tip: If you were a fan of games before you got into the industry yourself, please let yourself continue to be a fan. Just as it can repel people if you suddenly are only interested in yourself and your games, it can attract people if you show love and passion for other games, designers, and companies. I think James Hudson is a great example of this (Druid City Games). He clearly puts a lot of work into his games and company, but it’s clear that he truly loves many other games, publishers, and creators as well. That makes me even more excited to support what James does—I was a Day 1 backer of “The Grimm Forest”.

Karsten: There are a growing number of established publishers going to Kickstarter with projects that most probably would sell well without the help of crowdfunding. What can small independent publishers do to avoid being gradually superseded?

Jamey: I think it’s important to remember that crowdfunding is more than just funding—it’s also a great way to raise awareness, build community, gauge demand, improve the product, and optimize worldwide shipping. As for smaller publishers—and particularly new creators—I think the key is to do your research (my Kickstarter Lessons and others). Build an enthusiastic community well in advance both by helping others and sharing your passion with the world, find a fantastic artist and graphic designer, and do something unique that helps your game and campaign stand out.

Karsten: Board games are definitely on the rise again. Some say it’s only a trend, some see it as an ongoing counter movement to everything becoming more and more digital, virtual. What do you think, how will the board game sector evolve in the next ten years?

Jamey: I’ve only been in the industry for 5 years, so it’s hard for me to predict 10 years into the future for my company, much less the entire industry! 🙂 But one thing I’m excited about is that anyone who is just getting into game design now has such an incredible breadth of amazing games to play and learn from as they hone their design skills. I think we’re going to see some fantastic games as a result over the next 5-10 years.

Karsten: And we’ll hope to see a lot of them from you. It was great talking to you Jamey, thanks for being with us.

Jamey: Thank you! Is there a certain type of game (theme, mechanism, designer, company, component, etc) that you’d like to see more of in the future?

Karsten: Well, I always love to see more games with a strong but replayable story mechanic for a greater immersion.

Jamey: “Strong but replayable story mechanic.” That’s difficult to design! 🙂 I think the difficulty is that replayability often comes from randomness and variability, but there’s a very different feel to a game that has specific things in specific places versus randomly placed objects and randomly generated maps. I think this is why Zelda: Breath of the Wild has gotten such great reviews while No Man’s Sky failed. However, there are some games that still manage to have a strong but replayable (and re-discoverable) story mechanism, like Eldritch Horror and even Pursuit of Happiness.

Thanks so much for this chat, Karsten! I greatly enjoyed it.

Boardography of Jamey Stegmaier

  • Viticulture (2013)
  • Euphoria (2013)
  • Scythe (2016)
  • Charterstone (2017)

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