Interview: Jamey Stegmaier, Lead Designer of Viticulture
Jamey Stegmaier, lead designer of Viticulture, a strategy board game about making wine, took the time to do an e-mail interview with me about his upcoming board game. Stegmaier goes into some really interesting stuff about his design process, how Viticulture works, and his history as a game designer. It’s a really interesting read. If you’d like more information about Viticulture, you should go over to Kickstarter and take a look.
Take a moment and introduce yourself to us.
Hi, I’m Jamey Stegmaier, the lead designer on a game called Viticulture: The Strategic Game of Winemaking and the co-founder of Stonemaier Games in St. Louis.
On your web page, you mentioned that you had been designing board games since childhood. What do you think it was about board games that appealed to you?
Indeed, designing board games has been a lifelong hobby of mine, just as the dream of producing a board game has been a lifelong passion. I think board games have always appealed to me as an introvert because they allow for structured play and interaction. Also, there’s something about looking down on your dominion. Most board games have that perspective, and it’s something that we never get in our real lives. I played a lot of Risk growing up, and I remember getting excited every time I opened that game board. Suddenly I was looking down at the entire world at my finger tips even though the real world was much, much smaller.
What were some of your early game designs like?
I was all about Medieval times back then–knights, castles, swords, armor, etc. Suffice to say, a lot of those early desires were essentially Monopoly with Knights. I added a few extra ideas (the blank area in the middle of the Monopoly board seemed like a big waste of space), but that was the basic concept.
How did you come up with the idea for Viticulture?
Honestly, it started with an amalgamation of mechanics that I wanted to use, followed by the decision to commit to making a board game with the intent of actually producing it. The theme came after that, but I knew instantly that it was the right theme. There’s something about the romanticism of owning a winery that seemed perfect for a board game.
What was the design process like? What difficulties, if any, did you have? Were there mechanics that you thought would be great but just didn’t work when you tried them?
I could write a thesis on this question. Here’s the basic construct of the design process: I design something, play it out in my head, then play it with real people, and it plays out completely differently than the version in my head. Repeat. I’m sure any game designer can attest to that. The key that I found is to be attuned to the frustrations and instincts of your playtesters (and yourself when you playtest). If no one ever uses a certain path to victory, make it more viable or cut it. If people keep saying, “It’s frustrating when…”, alleviate their frustration. If you keep finding yourself making the same mistake over and over again, change the rules to what your instinct is telling you to do.
You mention that you really concentrated on making Viticulture replayable. What do you think makes it so replayable for you?
Here’s the thing about Viticulture: Your paths to victory are ever-changing. There are some constants, like the wine orders can fill to jump forward in victory points, but they’re on cards, so they’re going to be different in every game. For everything else, you may have a brilliant plan, but the decisions made by other players or the cards you draw may make other plans more viable. A lot of it comes down to the four decks of cards, which add a high level of variability to the game. And the rest comes down to the choices the other players make year by year, game by game. Every game will feel different.
You mention on your Kickstarter something about trying maintain the balance between “overly complicated and cleverly complex”. How do you know when you find that balance?
Great question. It’s tough to know that as the designer, because nothing seems all that complicated to you if it’s your own game. You have to look to the playtesters to determine when that balance has been found. I think Agricola is a good example of a game that can both be complex and complicated. The base game is complex because of all the various choices you can make that affect the short- and long-term. But if you add in two hands of 7 cards each per player, suddenly you have a very complicated game—dare I say even too complicated. It’s just so much information to track that it’s hard to pay attention to what anyone else is doing, much less yourself.
Do you find that you go to similar creative spaces when you are writing and designing board games, or are those different ways of thinking?
I write a daily blog and fiction, and I would say the creative space needed for designing a game is very different, simply because other people are necessary for a game to be a game. I think I’m more open to other people occupying that creative space when it comes to games, whereas I don’t want other people co-authoring my novel. Hence my inclusion of Alan in the design process of Viticulture—it’s been great to have a partner in creating this game.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
Sure, there’s one thing that I haven’t discussed in any of my interviews, and that is the mechanic of secrecy. It’s something I undervalued early on in the design process—I wanted all information out there in the open. But what I discovered is that having secrecy—i.e., cards in hand—helps players focus on a specific strategy rather than just grabbing what they can from the common pool. By limiting the information a player has at any given time, you’re making the game more interesting and strategic for everyone.
Where can people find more about you and Viticulture online?
The best place is to go right to our Kickstarter page, but you can also go to our Board Game Geek page for more info. Thanks so much for reading this, and I’m happy to answer any questions you might have.
That wraps up my interview with Jamey Stegmaier of Stonemaier Games regarding their upcoming strategy board game about wine-making Viticulture. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the interview and Viticulture down in the comments.