Meaningful Decisions: Jamey Stegmaier on Board Game Design Choices

Jamey Stegmaier is the co-designer with Alan Stone of Viticulture and Euphoria, both of which have had successful crowdfunding campaigns.

Jamey the Kickstarter project creator has gotten a lot of attention for his innovative advice for fellow project creators, but we wanted to hear from Jamey the game designer.

In a new series we’re calling Meaningful Decisions, we’ll ask designers about the design choices they made while creating their games, and what lessons other designers can take away from those decisions.

In the first installment, Jamey discusses putting a twist on familiar game mechanisms, the effects of placing limitations on players, and managing a game’s economy of resources.

Both Viticulture and Euphoria are worker-placement games. What did you do–and what can other designers do–to make a common game mechanism fresh and interesting?

The number one thing I think designers can do to keep common game mechanisms (I always say “mechanics,” but I like your use of “mechanisms” better) is to play and familiarize yourself with other games. If you don’t know anything about other games, every idea you think of will be fresh to you, but not to anyone else.

Obviously you can’t play every game, and you certainly can’t own every game (even if you want to). But there are a wealth of videos, podcasts, and written reviews out there to let you know how other game mechanisms work. I try to learn about at least one game a day that I wasn’t aware of before.

Then, when you sit down to design, take all that knowledge and don’t make the same thing someone else has made. I’m inspired by many mechanics, but I try to put my own twist on them–I’d never want to flat-out copy a mechanic. For example, Fresco’s wake-up mechanic was an eye-opener to me. It’s brilliant. But I put my own twist on it–instead of penalizing players by making things cost more if you wake up early, I simply made the rewards better the later you wake up in Viticulture.

When you play a game you love, it’s tough not to let mechanisms from that game bleed over into your game. That happened to me many times during the creation of both Viticulture and Euphoria. I think that’s where having a strong theme really helps pull you back to what makes your game unique and special. If you don’t have any theme–or if the theme is flexible enough to be anything–then it’s much easier to be overly influenced by other games.

In playing Viticulture, there are so many things players want to do as soon as possible, but they’re only given a limited number of opportunities to do them. What effect does placing limitations on players have? How can designers use limitations to create interesting decisions? Are there pitfalls to be aware of?

I’ve played soccer all my life, and in my old age, I play pickup soccer about once a week. Sometimes when we play, we don’t have any sidelines. The field is as wide as the grass will allow it. In other games, we have very defined sidelines using cones or lines in the grass. In a free-flowing, casual game like pickup soccer, you might think that the version of the game without sidelines is better. But it’s actually the opposite–it’s much more fun to play with the restrictions that sidelines add to the game. Suddenly you have to craft your strategy within a defined boundary. The flow of play is smoother. And when you just barely save an errant pass from going out, it feels really good–it’s an invisible line in a meaningless game, but it feels good to know that you used your abilities to keep the ball in bounds.

This analogy applies to board games. Limitations force you to think on your toes. The mere fact that you don’t have infinite choices lets your brain comprehend the choices you can make, which helps you create a strategy. Choices can be overwhelming and can lead to analysis paralysis, so if you limit them, you free players to relax and have fun. In Viticulture, players are limited by money, number of workers, and number of available action spaces. At the beginning of the game, this leads to a limited number of actions you can take. In fact, we divided Viticulture into seasons so your actions are even more restricted. That way you’re not faced with 12 choices each summer and winter; rather, you’re faced with 6, which is much more manageable.

The main pitfall to be aware of is that you never want players to feel helpless. Their choices should be their own, not at the whim of the game or the other players. Euphoria has a mechanism with the markets that restricts players who didn’t help to construct the market. In early versions of the game, those restrictions were permanent–there was no way out of them. But it made players feel helpless–they had no choice in the matter. So we added a way for players to get out of those penalties at a high cost. Let players be surprised, and keep them guessing, but make sure they feel like they have control.

Certain resources, goods and actions in Viticulture seem to be more important at certain stages of the game–earlier or later, for example. Does this contribute to the “story” of the game? How can designers create economies that value various things differently at different points in the game, but still retain a balance over the whole?

In Viticulture, money is very scarce early in the game, and by the end of the game when it’s easy to get, it’s not worth anything. Vine cards have a similar impact–they’re very helpful early on, but you rarely have a good reason to draw them in year 7 or 8 of the game. You’re telling the story of growing a fledgling vineyard into a full-grown operation, so it makes sense that you start off with less.

I think the key is to give players access to all the resources they need so they can make choices about when things are valuable. For example, Dominion could have a rule that says, “You can’t purchase victory point cards in the first 4 rounds.” Instead, the game gives you access to them at all times–it’s up to you to choose when to start acquiring them.

I don’t know if there’s a broad answer for how designers can create economies that value various things differently at different points in the game. I think this is one of those areas where you really have to playtest the game hundreds of times, trying out different strategies each time. That way you can realize if you need to make a resource more or less available.

Also, I think it helps to have a really good metric about how much everything is worth. I have a metric for the wine order cards in Viticulture and a metric for the recruit cards in Euphoria to make them as balanced as possible. It amounts to a spreadsheet that shows that value of actions, resources, money, workers, etc. That way you can be completely objective when you’re creating cards–you know that 1 worker always equals 3 coins and 3 coins always equals 2 cabbage and thus it should take 1 worker to get 2 cabbage. The metric isn’t always linear, as certainly things are worth different amounts at different times in the game, but you can mitigate that by creating cards that give players multiple choices (i.e., “Choose two: Gain 1 worker, 3 coins, or 2 cabbage”).