My first introduction to Stonemaier games was when a friend insisted I play Viticulture. Another overly complex, boring euro, I thought, but I entertained him anyway. What a masterpiece!Intuitive and thematic, despite being a medium-heavy Eurogame. Since then, Stonemaier games has established a strong following and rapport with Kickstarter backers, recently with a 1.8 million-dollar campaign for Scythe, and now buzz is beginning for their first Legacy-style game, Charterstone. Many thanks to Jamey for the interview! (Beware: way at the bottom of this page are some Pandemic Legacy spoilers, with plenty of whitespace and warnings in between. Beware, though, before you scroll to the bottom.)
I assume you’ve played both Risk Legacy and Pandemic Legacy. What did you think as you played those games?
Indeed, I have. Risk Legacy was my favorite gaming experience of 2013, and I had a great time with Pandemic Legacy in 2015 (we played through the entire thing in a few weeks). I really enjoyed the sheer amount of innovation in both of them. I love the idea of starting with a simple ruleset and adding complexity with the various unlocks. I love the surprises. And even though I had my doubts, I found myself loving the idea of permanence in both games. To me, permanence wasn’t a gimmick—it was a carefully crafted feature to enhance the player experience.
You advertised Tuscany as a “Legacy-style expansion” to Viticulture and now Charterstone is a Legacy-style game. What does the “Legacy” phrase mean to you? How wide are the parameters of the definition?
There has been some debate as to whether or not Tuscany is actually a legacy expansion, which is understandable. The legacy concept in Tuscany is that every time you play a game (or every few times), the winner of the game selects a new expansion to unlock and permanently add to every subsequent game. It’s the opening of each new expansion that amounts to a permanent change to the game, hence the legacy element. However, there’s nothing preventing you from putting that expansion back in the box and not using it again, which is why some see it as not a “real” legacy game.
In those regards, permanence in Charterstone is truly permanent. You peel building stickers off cards and permanently put them on the board. You open tuckboxes with new content that will never go back in those tuckboxes. And so on.
So, to me, “legacy” amounts to a permanent change that persists from game to game.
What separates Charterstone from other Legacy games? I know there’s nothing “destructive” – did you experiment with that at all? What elements will seem familiar to Risk Legacy and Pandemic Legacy players?
So, I want to emphasize here that I love Risk Legacy and Pandemic Legacy, and I’m incredibly excited about Seafall and Gloomhaven. Each of these games does some unique things, as does Charterstone.
In Charterstone, you’re building a village with other players, where buildings are the action spaces (it’s a worker-placement game). Each player has a “charter” that only they can build in, but you can place your workers in any charter. The buildings start out on cards that you can unlock/draw in various ways—when you have the resources to build them, you peel off the sticker and place it on the board. Hence the “additive” nature of the game. It doesn’t feel like a good fit to destroy things in a game that’s about building.
There is a plot of sorts in Charterstone, kind of like the plot in Pandemic Legacy. The difference is that Pandemic Legacy tells a specific story that you follow. In Charterstone, the order of the story is highly variable depending on what players unlock. There’s no sequence—players are in control.
The last thing I can talk about is what happens after you’ve unlocked everything in Charterstone. With Pandemic Legacy, Risk Legacy, and from what I’ve heard about Seafall, you play a campaign and then you’re done. I enjoy that sense of completion in those games, but in Charterstone, it’s a new beginning for your fully formed game board. From that point on, instead of playing as the same charter each game, you’ll randomly deal out the charters and play the game just as you would any other board game. There will still be plenty of variable elements to keep the game fresh each time you play (like the variable elements in Terra Mystica and Tzolk’in).
It seems that other Legacy games require serious “investment” among the players, both time-wise and emotionally. As I understand it, each game of Charterstone is designed to be pretty quick (20-60 min?). How do you balance that garnering type of investment and payoff against a game with a time frame indicative of a “quick filler”? Is Charterstone able to play both of those rules?
The playing time varies based on the player count and the number of workers you have (workers are unlocked throughout the campaign). I don’t think it will feel like a quick filler. The idea is moreso that you can play multiple games in a row if you want (and still have time to play other board games). Those playing times will probably be adjusted a bit as I collect blind playtest data, but that’s what I’m aiming for.
You’ve talked a lot about the “worldbuilding” done with Scythe. Is Legacy play the natural evolution of worldbuilding?
I think legacy is one aspect of worldbuilding. For example (no spoilers), in Pandemic Legacy, Rob and Matt designed a world where a specific plot happens, and players interact within that plot. That plot is the world they’ve built for players to interact in, and the players make permanent changes to that world—those changes become a part of the world.
In Scythe, Jakub Rozalski built the world that players interact with. It’s a world of mechs and farmers, of a mysterious factory and robust characters. You play the game within that world, and then you put the game away. When you open up the game again, you start over with the same world and play again. So players are coexisting within that world on a plateau—the world is not malleable.
Speaking of Scythe, it’s on its way out in the world now, right? How does it feel this time around, compared to the release of Viticulture and Euphoria? Do you have a mental “regimen” you go through to prepare yourself in these moments just before a game is unleashed upon the world?
It’s getting close! I’m writing this on May 5, when assembly is wrapping up in China. It feels similar to Viticulture and Euphoria in terms of logistics, as that’s mainly what’s on mind at this point. The pieces have been in place for a while now, but there are certain things that can’t be arranged until all pre-orders are final and you know the weight of all the components.
As for preparation for release, my sole focus is on my backers. I hope we sell the game to distributors and retailers so non-backers can discover and enjoy it, but my backers come first (as do pre-order customers). I want to make sure that the journey they embarked on with me last year ends with a moment of joy when they open the package for the first time.
It seems to me that your games continue to expand in scope with each release. How has your playtesting process evolved as you’ve moved from Viticulture, to Euphoria, to Scythe, to Charterstone? How do you even balance a Legacy game?
The process has changed extensively from game to game (Tuscany and Between Two Cities are in there too), with the biggest change being in the way I blind playtest. I completely underestimated the value of blind playtesting when I worked on Viticulture, so I did a lot more of it for Euphoria. Scythe is completely asymmetric game, so I knew I’d need a ton of blind playtesting (we ended having over 1,000 recorded blind playtest sessions).
Charterstone isn’t to the point of blind playtesting yet, but I think it will be smaller and more focused than Scythe, as I’ll need the same groups of people to play a number of sequential games. As for balance, part of it involves the same rules for balancing any game, but I think part of it is also creating self-balancing mechanisms. For example, in Pandemic Legacy, if you lose a game, you get to put more “funded event” cards in the deck the next time you play. If you win, you remove funded event cards. That’s a self-balancing mechanism.
Between Two Cities is your first “outside design” – how has that process gone, now that the game has been out there a while (and garnered some awards nominations)? Do you think you will continue to publish games outside of your own designs?
I can’t speak highly enough of how great Ben and Matthew have been. I got really lucky that they were the first outside designers I worked with, because they were so open to feedback, and they were able to get the game to the table hundreds of times—basically, they relied much more on data than intuition, which proved me, as the developer, wrong at important times (and proved me right at important times too). They’re awesome, and I’m excited to see what the next iteration of the expansion looks like (so far I’ve only seen an early version).
I’m definitely open to publishing games outside of my own designs. It’s gotta be a game I really love for me to spend the amount of time and money that we do on our games. I’m spending most of Gen Con hearing pitches from designers, so maybe I’ll find some games like that.
You are one of the Kickstarter success stories, and I think one of the most unique aspects is that I don’t think people view your company as a “KS company” or an established company that “just uses KS for preorders” (said in a derogatory way). Somehow, you’re viewed as an established company, but your KS campaigns are seen as “legitimate.” Am I correct in that assessment? Is this entirely accomplished through community-building (see next question), or are there other factors that you think led to this?
I’d like to think that. 🙂 Though, I’d like to think that all KS campaigns are legitimate. I try to be very intentional about using Kickstarter. If something isn’t a good fit for it, I don’t use it (like for my recent Moor Visitors and Token Trilogy campaigns, both of which were done in different ways, and neither on Kickstarter).
That’s an interesting question about how peoples’ perceptions of Stonemaier and the influence I have on those perceptions. It’s tough to answer, because I think those perceptions might vary broadly from person to person. I do have an overarching philosophy (make it about them) that helps to guide me when I make decisions. The basic idea is that instead of making decisions based on what I want or need, I try to make it about what’s best for the customer.
One way I’ve viewed your success is somewhat in parallel to my own job as a professor at a Christian, residential liberal arts college. Our culture is -very- focused on residential life and the idea of “intentional community” among faculty and students, meaning that we’re going to their games and concerts, eating lunch with them, etc. – in other words, supporting them holistically and not just academically. I view you as having the same work ethic, living in “intentional community” with your customers via social media (e.g. avid blogging, the -name- of your book, recent viral post about helping an Aussie customer). This conversation in academia, though, always becomes a tough one regarding the balance of home life and work life. To that end – how do you stay sane? How do you separate work life from home life? Or do you choose not to?
Yeah, I really like that example of intentional community. I hadn’t thought about applying that term to the way I interact with people in the gaming community, but it’s an apt comparison.
I have very little separation between work life and home life. I’m single, I work from home, and I work a lot (7 days a week, often 70-80 hours a week). But I’m also acutely aware of my needs, and having such a fuzzy/nonexistent line between work and home can often help me address those needs. For example, this afternoon I felt a headache coming on, so rather than working through it, I took a nap. Now I’m working again, and I’ll continue to do so until I go to bed at midnight. There are few office environments that would give me that kind of flexibility.
What’s the biggest challenges you’re facing right now regarding 1) development of Charterstone and 2) Stonemaier games as a company?
Charterstone: The real challenge in these early stages of designing Charterstone is the amount of work that goes into prototyping the game, only to have that prototype rendered unusable for future playtests. I’m working on some ways to prevent that from happening to the extent it currently does.
Company: This was hard to think of, as I’m really happy with the way things are flowing in my company right now. So I rephrased the question as follows to help myself: What’s something other companies have that I wish my company had? Like, say, Fantasy Flight. What do they have that I wish I had? The one thing that comes to mind is submission playtesters. That is, when I’m at the local playtesting stage, I have a number of people who—quite kindly—are often willing to playtest games of my own design. They’re friends. It’s harder to get those people to playtest games submitted to us. Very few games even get to that stage, but when they do, I wish it were a little easier to get them to the table (particularly games that require more than 2 players).
What are you reading/watching/playing/enjoying lately?
I’ve had the pleasure of watching 3 excellent DVD movies recently: Spotlight, Creed, and The Big Short. I’m also super excite to see Captain America on Saturday. In terms of new-to-me games, I’ve had some incredible experiences with Ora et Labora and TIME Stories (the latter isn’t new to me, but the latest module is). As for books, I’ve been reading a lot of fantasy. I really liked the conclusion to a trilogy called The Emperor’s Blades, and I’ve become a huge fan of Brandon Sanderson. I’m currently reading his book Elantris (but secretly I’m waiting for more Stormlight and Mistborn).
Just to have the dates right… is Viticulture now eligible in Germany for the Kennerspiel des Jahres this year? (I’m doing my prediction ballots soon…)
Indeed, Viticulture has been released in Germany. There are so many other great games out there that I can’t imagine it being considered for any big awards, but I’m very appreciative of Feuerland (and Uwe Rosenberg) for helping us release it in that way in Germany.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Well, I’ve been doing all the talking, so I’d love to turn it around to you for the last question. Could you tell me about your most memorable moment playing a legacy game? Full spoilers are allowed as long as you preface them.
And per Jamey’s request (he encouraged me to share), PANDEMIC LEGACY SPOILERS FOLLOW!
My biggest memory of Pandemic Legacy was simply the catharsis given by tearing a bunch of stuff up. My partner in crime was a little freaked out (he rarely trades or gets rid of games, so you can imagine), but I had him tearing up a few things by the end. And since we marathonned the whole thing in one weekend, we have some pretty cool pictures, like this one: