Meaningful Decisions: Jamey Stegmaier on Design Choices in Euphoria

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

In this edition, we talk with Jamey Stegmaier, co-designer with Alan Stone of Euphoria, about cooperation in a competitive game, point structures, player freedom, presenting information to players, and more.

Even though Euphoria is a competitive game, players are encouraged to cooperate in several ways, such as by jointly completing the constructed markets, advancing the allegiance tracks and digging the tunnels. How did you identify areas in your design where players could cooperate?

In Euphoria, the idea of competitive cooperation stemmed from the theme. Classic dystopias often have individuals who leverage each other to rise up the ranks. I knew I wanted players to build things in Euphoria, and I had several factions (allegiances and tunnels), so in both areas I saw opportunities for players to have shared interests.

What should designers who want to incorporate some form of cooperation into a competitive game keep in mind? How can the two playstyles work well together? Any pitfalls to watch out for?

For me, the key thing I look at is, “How can I give players self-serving choices that also benefit other players?” In a competitive game, players aren’t going to cooperate or collaborate just because it’s fun or thematic. It has to be self-serving. I think the great thing about games that mix the two together is that it creates positive interaction between players. Instead of blocking other players, you actually benefit the most by working together in certain areas.

The biggest pitfall, though, is that such cooperation doesn’t necessarily scale the best at all player counts. Euphoria has much less of this cooperative interaction at two players. It still works, but it’s more about doing your own thing (like most Euro games) than working with your opponent…since there’s only one opponent in a two-player game!

Each star-shaped territory can take a limited number of authority tokens, which forces players to diversify their actions rather than hammering on a single strategy. Why limit players' options in this way?

I wanted to encourage players to build interesting engines and combos, but not to let anyone run away with a particularly powerful engine. That’s why there are limits—you might have a good thing going that will net you a few stars, but once that territory fills up, you need to be able to think on your feet and have a backup plan in place.

Do some games need to give players more or less freedom of choice? How can a designer determine the right level of player freedom for their design?

I think it varies widely based on the game, but I would say for most games, limiting players through increased costs is the best way to go. For example, in Tzolk’in, the designers could have made a rule saying, “You can never place a worker beyond the third space on a wheel.” But it would have been an arbitrary rule, one more thing to remember in a complex game. Instead, they added a cost (more corn) and a limitation (each previous space on the wheel must be filled up), giving players the expensive choice to go as high up on the wheel as they want.

As for the right level of player freedom, I always like to return to the fun. If players would have more fun with more or less freedom, I’d make adjustments based on that.

In contrast to most games, you win Euphoria not by gaining points, but by getting rid of authority tokens. What purpose does this serve in the game's design?

Right, Euphoria amounts to a race game—you’re racing to place your 10th star before anyone else. If you do, you win. This is largely a thematic design choice. The stars represent your control over the dystopia, and if you’ve reached the tipping point, you wrest control away from your predecessor.

This serves a few purposes in the game’s design: One, it removes the need for giving the game a set number of rounds (in fact, Euphoria has no rounds, just turns). I don’t like it when a game tells me how many rounds I have unless that number is strongly thematic. The stars double as an end-game trigger. Two, I generally just don’t like points in my designs. I put up with them, but they’re so abstract. Who is awarding these points? What’s their real-life equivalent? There are lots of different ways that we gauge success in real life, but “points” aren’t one of them—they’re a game construct.

How can a game's point structure influence players' experience?

This race element creates a lot of tension. The game is always moving forward, never backward (there is no way to lose stars). It also gives players the immediate satisfaction of completing an important goal every time they place a star, as there are only 10 of them. The downside—particularly in that there is no hidden reveal at the end of the game—is that sometimes you can see that a player is about to win, and there’s nothing you can do to stop them. I think that’s more a flaw in the game’s ability to let you impede another player than in the star system itself, though.

You’ll actually see the next evolution of this system in Scythe. The end-game is triggered by stars (achievements in different categories), but scoring happens after that in the form of an accumulation of wealth based on each player’s end-game state (plus money they earned during the game). Unlike victory points, money is a concrete, real-life gauge of success.

The board in Euphoria is laid out to emphasize the thematic purposes of the worker spots, rather than grouping them by their strategic functions. For example, the commodity-generating areas are found near each associated faction's location, rather than in one place. Why did you choose this type of layout?

Well, mostly out of ignorance. :) I made the mistake of describing the art of the world to my artist and having her illustrate it without any influence from my graphic designer, Christine Bielke. At the time, I thought my graphic designer could just plop the design down onto the art, no problem. As it turns out, it’s a big problem!

That said, even if Christine had been involved earlier in the process, I probably still would have requested that each of the factions be separated into their individual areas, because that’s what the world of Euphoria looks like (or maybe I just can’t see it any other way at this point).

How can designers increase the usability of their games, and when should thematic or strategic considerations take precedence?

Work with your graphic designer to plan the layout of the board before your artist does anything! Learn from my mistake. :) I really think that’s the key, because if you work with your graphic designer, they’ll help you make sure the board is intuitive to players, and then your artist can make it beautiful through thematic illustrations.

Beyond that, study the things other board games do to make actions intuitive (or unintuitive). Players shouldn’t have to remember anything—everything should have a visual cue. For example, in Euphoria, the three types of action spaces have different elements to them to show players the differences between them: One is big and solid (lots of workers can go here), one is square and solid (one worker, can’t be bumped), and one is square with a dotted line and an arrow (one worker, can be bumped).

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SENIOR INVENTORS: Steven Cole, John du Bois, Richard Durham, Matthew O’Malley, Isaias Vallejo

JUNIOR INVENTORS: Stephen B Davies, Luis Lara, Behrooz Shahriari, Aidan Short, Jay Treat

ASSOCIATES: Robert Booth, Doug Levandowski, Aaron Lim, Nathan Miller, Marcel Perro

APPRENTICES: Gino Brancazio, Kevin Brusky, Keith Burgun, Kiva Fecteau, Scott Gottreu, JR Honeycutt, Brad Price, Marcus Ross, Diane Sauer