Q&A: Jamey Stegmaier on Scythe and the Philosophy of Creating

When Jamey Stegmaier isn’t making millions of dollars on Kickstarter off his board games, he’s helping other people make millions of dollars on Kickstarter.  Designer of acclaimed board games like Euphoria, Viticulture, and its expansion Tuscany, Jamey runs his own publishing company, Stonemaier Games.  

Last year, the company brought in almost two million dollars with its Kickstarter campaign for Jamey’s latest project, Scythe, an economy-focused 4X game set in an alternate-history, post-Great War Europe where rival factions compete to control the technology that fueled the war.   Scythe was a collaboration with Jakub Rozalski, whose art juxtaposes pastoral scenes of postwar reconstruction with massive war mechs that were left over following the conflict.

Jamey runs a blog, Kickstarter Lessons, where he shares what he’s learned running multiple successful crowdfunding campaigns.  Much of his wisdom on this matter made its way into his book, A Crowdfunder’s Strategy Guide.  Jamey spoke with us over the phone about his design process for Scythe, his experiences with Kickstarter, and life as a designer.

You mentioned in a Reddit AMA that you like to focus on flow in games.  How do you create that flow?

Well for me, it really comes down to two things.  One is keeping each player’s turn pretty short so there’s not much downtime between turns.  And the other part is instead of using what I consider “inorganic constructs” in games like rounds and phases, I like for one turn to just flow into the next.  So I take a turn, then you take a turn, then someone takes a turn, and so on and so on until the game ends, instead of saying, y’know, I take three turns this round in phase one, and then you take three turns—stuff like that.

You talk about rounds and phases as inorganic constructs, but is a turn not just as inorganic?

In a way it is.  Any game is abstract in some way, and so choosing the level at which you abstract it is pretty important.  That’s just the level of abstraction I’m okay with—having an inorganic turn, opposed to all players just doing whatever they want whenever they want, which would be chaos.  There are games that pull that off very well, but not engine-building Eurogames that I know of.

What was the hardest design decision you had to make creating Scythe, and how did that impact the game?

This is a slight cheat, this isn’t a singular decision, but the hardest element of Scythe to design by far was the combat system.  It went through so many iterations—at least 25-30 iterations—where it started out being slightly dice heavy, and then it got really dice heavy, and then I got rid of more and more dice until there were no dice, and even at that point there were all these little changes to make sure the players would be incentivized to have combat and attack every now and then, have a reason to do it, but also that it wouldn’t take over the game.  It was really tough to get that balance right.

You can see that in the game, it’s a very delicate balance.  Moving on, Scythe is unusual among 4X games for having player characters that you control that you’re supposed to identify with.  The mechanics of 4X games can be very depersonalizing—it’s hard to feel a solid connection to a character when you’re controlling so many of them—so how did you fight back against that when you were designing Scythe?

Well, Scythe was an art-first and world-first design.  I noticed in a lot of Jakub’s art that there were a few persistent characters.  As he and I developed the game more and more, he really stuck with these few characters that you see in all of the art.  I wanted to put players at least partially in the perspective of those characters.  I wanted those characters to feel unique.  That’s why I have the encounter system in the game, where you stumble upon a scenario and you have to deal with it and get something good out of it.  And the characters are the ones who get a bonus out of the Factory, a thematic element of the game where you don’t know what’s there—it’s an element of discovery when you get there—and I wanted players to see that through the eyes of a single character instead of a horde of units.

I think that was a good decision.  So you decided to go in this direction because you started noticing all those consistent characters in the art, or did you feel like from a game design perspective it was necessary?

At least the inspiration of it came from the art, and then it just seemed to be a good fit for the game mechanically as well.  In one of the earliest versions of the game, every player would control a lot of different, unique characters, where each character had different abilities, and some were farmers but each farmer was different from the next, and some were cavalry, or individual units, or mechs.  I wanted players to connect with those characters.  When someone died in the game I wanted them to actually feel it.  But from a design perspective, it became too much to do to track all those different characters, and if you can’t track all those characters then you’re also not gonna care about them.  So that’s where I got rid of all them and just focused on the three different unit types, one of them being a character that you can embody.

Scythe has proven divisive.  There are tons of people who love it, myself included, but there’s also a pretty vocal group who dislike it, including a recent review on Shut Up and Sit Down.  I’m curious—do you find yourself being affected by the negativity, and if not, how do you deal with it?

Yeah, that’s an interesting question.  With the Shut Up and Sit Down review, maybe I thought of it a different way.  He said that he’s enjoyed playing it, and he’s played it several times—usually people don’t play a game they don’t like more than once—but he did have a bunch of caveats, y’know, he used the word “plodding” a lot.  So yeah, when a reviewer I respect and really like doesn’t like the game, it doesn’t feel good.  I don’t think in general it affects me in any big way as a designer, unless I get very specific, constructive feedback.  I wasn’t able to get that from that particular review, but there are reviewers that I read where they have very specific things—I think the Secret Cabal guys didn’t like combat all that much, and they had specific reasons why they didn’t like combat, and so that was constructive for me to hear.  But if Scythe had come out and no reviewer had liked it, and no person liked it, yeah, that’d be really, really rough.  But I make games because I want people to have fun with them and find joy in them, so whether reviewers are the ones that like it or gamers, I just wanna find someone who enjoys the game.

Somewhat related to that—you are very active on BoardGameGeek [an online board game forum], more so than most creators I’ve seen.  Many creators choose to stay out of online communities, mostly because they find it to be a little negative, a little draining.  How has your experience compared?

Well, it’s evolved over time.  When I started out with Viticulture and Euphoria, I would not only be on BoardGameGeek to answer questions and clarify things, I would also read all the reviews that anyone had written on BoardGameGeek.  I would basically give defenses. In my head I wouldn’t be defensive, but if someone had said they didn’t like something, I would try to explain why I had done that in the game and why there was a purpose behind it, and not say that they were playing it wrong, but just encourage them to play it the way that I intended it.  But that wasn’t good for me, I guess emotionally, and it wasn’t good for community-building either, because it just made people uncomfortable to voice their opinions.  I guess from their eyes, they saw me getting defensive about stuff.  And so after Euphoria, I really started to stay away from commenting on reviews on BoardGameGeek, and even to a certain extent reading reviews on BoardGameGeek.  Occasionally I’ll read something if I think there’s something interesting, but usually I just try to focus on answering questions and clarifying stuff.  I see my role as just a living rulebook, essentially.  Or if someone has a design question, they wanna know why I did something in the design, then I’m happy to answer that as well.

I feel like your willingness to engage with the community is probably part of the reason why you’re so successful on Kickstarter, because people have a lot of faith in you.  Do you feel like that’s the case?

Yeah, I think Kickstarter is all about trust.  A big part of trust is communication, so people know that they can ask me a question and they’ll actually get a pretty quick and honest answer. I think that goes a long way in building that trust and making someone feel comfortable giving me their money.

You wrote a book about how to be successful on Kickstarter.  And in that book, you describe your core philosophy, which is “Make it about them.”  How has this mantra affected your life as a board game designer and as a crowdfunder?

In general, whenever I need to make a difficult decision, or even like a daily decision that I don’t have an immediate answer for, it’s helpful to have something like that to go back to that I know I believe in.  I continue to write this Kickstarter Lessons blog, and it’s tough to do it because I work a lot running a board game company.  But when I sit down to write it, I’m reminded that I like to do it because I’m making it about other people.  I’m not gaining anything by writing these entries, other than having a way to hash out my ideas, but it’s something I’m giving to other people and hopefully they’re benefiting from it.  And so I kind of just remind myself of that, and then do it, and I’m always happy that I did it afterward.  So whenever I have something like that, where I’m struggling, it’s actually really, really helpful.

I’m curious if that’s made its way into your design process as well.  Has there ever been an example of a time when you were trying to figure out what kind of decision to make, and your core philosophy helped you find an answer?

Yeah.  And I think any designer may connect with this—when I design a game, there’s often an element or a mechanism that I am really excited about and that I think is really clever.  Sometimes, as clever or as unique as it may be, it may just not be fun.  And oftentimes when I’m getting feedback from playtesters, maybe the first time someone points out that it’s not actually fun, I don’t fully hear it, like I hear it but I’m like, “Oh, but it’s so clever!”  I need to hear it from someone else—usually it takes two people, maybe three sometimes—then I’m like, oh, I’m not making this game for me, for my own cleverness.  I’m making this game so other people can have fun with it.  In that way, it definitely helps with the game design process.

What was your first Kickstarter experience like with Viticulture, trying to get your name out there and get people to pay attention?

It was a learning process.  I think I did a few things right that helped the campaign become a success, but there were a ton of things that I wish I had done better.  I wish I had been more engaged in the board game community well before the campaign.  I was playing games, but I just wasn’t as active a part of the community.  But at the same time, I think I took some of these core principles, making it about the backers, being there as pledges were coming in, and I think that made a big difference.  So It was very much a learning experience, but it was also fun—it was fun to have random strangers supporting something that I was really passionate about.

And that leads me to my last question.  The sense I get from you—and you’ve said this outright in previous interviews—is that you truly love what you do.

Yeah.

So my question is, how do you build that passion, and how do you maintain it during tough times?

Hmm.  That’s an interesting question.  Building the passion…my passion for board games is just, it’s innate in me.  It’s like asking me why I like chocolate, I just like it.  So I don’t know about that.  To maintain passion, there are a couple different ways, but I think the main way is making time to continue to play board games from other publishers and other designers.  And a fair amount—I host a weekly game night, I usually play games sometime on the weekend.  And that’s a conscious decision, because I love playing games, and even though I could be working through that time, it’s important for me to keep that passion alive, and give that passion room to grow, just by playing games by other designers.  And there are ancillary benefits, as a designer.  But just making the time to just play published games is really good for me, for that passion.


This interview has been edited for clarity, brevity, and content.  This interview was conducted on March 3rd, 2017.