I recently had the good fortune to spend some time talking to Jamey Stegmaier, one of the founders of Stonemaier Games. Jamey is also the designer of Viticulture, a eurogame that was funded on kickstarter last year and is now getting into the hands of backers. You can find Jamey chatting on twitter, writing a fantastic series of blog articles on the successes and failures of running a kickstarter campaign or in his secret underground lab designing the next great game from Stonemaier.
We were able to spend a little time with Jamey talking about the beginnings of Stonemaier games, the success of Viticulture, as well as his newest game, Euphoria, which is currently in funding on kickstarter. I hope you find our conversation as informative and entertaining as I did.
Jamey: We started off with a product and formed a company around it. The product was Viticulture, which my friend Alan Stone and I successfully funded on Kickstarter in the fall ‘12 to the tune of about $65,000. To protect ourselves as individuals, we formed an LLC called Stonemaier Inc. So really it was more of a legal thing than anything else. Although we already knew that we had other games we wanted to publish, so forming a company to publish them (and perhaps games from other designers) seemed like the logical step. To give us some direction, we created a 3-year business plan with a fair amount of flexibility depending on how Viticulture does when it hits retail stores and how our other games do on the open market.
BGQ: That sounds like a good first move. But of course the games are what’s really important. Your first published game, Viticulture, is scheduled to land in the hands of backers this month. Tell us a little about the game and where people can get it who missed out on the campaign.
Jamey: Indeed, Viticulture has been on a long boat ride from China and should be in backers’ hands (as we speak). It’s a medium-weight worker-placement game in which players take the roles of vineyard owners as they try to build the greatest winery in Tuscany. It’s high on strategy, low on luck, and it plays anywhere between 45 and 90 minutes depending on the number of players (2-6 players). There’s no hostility in the game, but there are plenty of tough choices to make, and everything ties back into the theme. The quality of the components from Panda Game Manufacturing is fantastic–every box is packed with custom pieces. It will be in retailers starting in late May/early June (I’m waiting to release it to retailers until all backers have their copies), or you can pre-order directly from Stonemaier Games at www.stonemaiergames.com.
If you mention that you heard about the game from (Board Game Quest), we’ll give you a $5 discount.
BGQ: Awesome! Thanks for offering a discount to our readers, I hope people take advantage of that.
Are you handling all the fulfillment for Viticulture yourself? If so, are you worried about having to ship out around 1,000 games? It seems like quite the daunting task.
Jamey: All I can say is: Thank goodness for Amazon fulfillment. They’re my secret sauce for order fulfillment. They handle all the storing, packing, and postage, and at a price better than what I could do on my own. I’m using Amazon fulfillment in the US, Canada, and the European Union, meaning I can offer all backers in those areas free shipping and customs. (“Free” is relative, of course–the price is built into the pledge level, but if you live in any of those locations, you’re getting a $70 game for $37 plus $12 shipping.)
BGQ: The campaign for Viticulture hit over 200% of its funding goal. Do you have any advice for up and coming publishers who are about to launch their first Kickstarter? Maybe something you know now that you wish you knew then?
Jamey: Yes, our original goal was $25,000, and we raised $65,980. I do have advice–LOTS of advice! So much that I’ve compiled it in the Kickstarter Lessons portion of our blog. But that’s a lot to read, so let me share one juicy tidbit here for your readers, something that I wish I knew last August before launching Viticulture: I wish I had known that having Kickstarter approve my project meant that they had looked over every aspect of the project.
Kickstarter gets so many projects these days that I think they give your project a quick glance, but things get by them, as did a certain pledge level that I had on Day One that I didn’t know was against their guidelines (it was for entry into a Viticulture tournament with a cash prize). The result was that a well-intentioned backer red-flagged my project about an hour after launch, and Kickstarter removed it from their “Recently Launched” section and all other listings while I removed the reward level. I fixed it immediately, but the project didn’t return to the Recently Launched section, which is a great place to garner early attention. So the lesson here is to have lots of people look at your project preview page in advance, especially people who are familiar with Kickstarter.
What is one of the most memorable things you’ve ever seen a project do?
BGQ: That’s a great questions. I’ve backed over 20 different projects and watched many, many more. One that sticks out in my mind is the Dungeon Roll game that finished up in March. What stands out for that project was how incredible transparent Tasty Minstrel Games was with their project. They gave us stats on traffic to their Kickstarter campaign page, the cost breakdown for manufacturing, and where every dollar of funding would be going. It was a very interesting experience to see the whole campaign unfold from the creators side.
Your next game is currently in funding on Kickstarter, Euphoria. Tell us a little about this game.
Jamey: Euphoria is a true passion project of mine. I love dystopian fiction, and I wanted to encapsulate a dystopian experience in a game. Every mechanic in the game stemmed from that theme, and the mechanics got stronger as the story behind this specific dystopia emerged. The end result is a thematic Euro game where players represent secret revolutionaries in a dystopian cityscape trying to grab control of the world and change it for better…or for worse. Players control a few powerful recruits and worker dice. The numbers on the dice represent worker knowledge, and different factions in the game value knowledge differently. But overall, as this is a dystopia, if your collective knowledge gets too high, you’re going to have issues–your workers are going to start to suspect that they’re living in a dystopian society. Even if you’re not as into dystopian literature as I am, if you’re a fan of Alien Frontiers, Tzolk’in, or The Manhattan Project, I think you’ll greatly enjoy Euphoria. What do you think of those games?
BGQ: There is no question those games are a hit with many gamers. Tzolk’in in particular is a very unique game that seemed to come out of nowhere.
With the two games you are producing, I find your choice of theme interesting. The first was on running a vineyard and the second takes place in dystopian future. That’s not a theme that you see very much on the market today. Both games seem to travel an unbeaten path. Both of your games also seem to tie the theme pretty well to the game play. Can you talk about what made you decide to go that route and if you consider going in this less established direction risky?
Jamey: I have two thoughts about this. The first is a revelation I had while designing Viticulture: All worker-placement games are dystopian in nature. In those games, you have a group of workers who will blindly do your will, day after day, never questioning or protesting. At worst, they starve a little bit. When I had that epiphany, I realized that if I ever made another worker-placement game, it would have to be one where there was a thematic reason your workers were so obedient.
The second is that theme is a tricky thing. You can never please everyone, so I think it’s important to choose a theme that you’re genuinely interested in as a designer. Because you’re going to play the game far more than anyone else. I love the romanticized idea of running a vineyard; I love the idea of being immersed in a dystopian novel. That said, I don’t think that every theme needs a game. In my opinion, like a good book or movie, a good game is a way to dip your toes into another world for a few hours. To test those waters. To be a farmer without getting your hands dirty. To run a train empire without knowing the difference between an engine and a caboose. To fight aliens or dragons without risking your life. Some themes are overdone; others will never be toe-dip worthy. I want all of my games to pass the toe-dip test.
BGQ: Are you doing anything differently in this Kickstarter campaign vs the Viticulture kickstarter?
Jamey: Pretty much everything! I’m much better prepared for this one, and I’m applying everything that I learned from running Viticulture and by studying Kickstarter over the last year. It would be easier to say what I’m doing the same: I will treat every backer as a person, not a number. That means that I will try to connect with every person who backs Viticulture. It means that I’ll communicate openly, honestly, and quickly to all requests and questions, and I’ll try to address potential requests and questions even before backers bring them up. It means that I will stay true to the money-back guarantee that formed the backbone of the Viticulture campaign–that’s our way of telling backers that if they trust us with their pledge, we’ll deliver a fantastic game to them (because if we don’t, they can get their money back). To me, Kickstarter is all about forming relationships with backers, and that’s exactly how I intend to run the Euphoria campaign.
What do you think about the Euphoria campaign? What are we doing right, and what would you have done differently?
BGQ: I think you are doing a lot right with the Euphoria campaign. As someone who has spent over a dozen years in Marketing I’ve learned a lot. And one of the things I think a kickstarter campaign needs is to give people a reason to open their wallets now instead of waiting to get it online later. You hit that mark right off the back by giving backers a discount off MSRP. You further eased their worries by offering a Money Back Guarantee. Personally I’ve backed a few games I wish had that option. And I like that you kept things simple. I don’t need 20 different backer levels with t-shirts and coffee mugs. There is an old rule in online sales: keep the least amount of barriers to purchase. You made it easy for people to find the game backer level.
So hypothetical question for you. Say I’m an average gamer. I’m looking over your Kickstarter page for Euphoria, but I’m on the fence about being a backer. What can you tell me that will push me over the edge to becoming a backer?
Jamey: I like this question! Average Gamer, I could sell you on the interesting mechanics in the game, the quality of components, the art, the fact that it plays well for couples and larger groups. I could sell you on the way I’ll treat you as an individual, not a number, during and after the Kickstarter campaign. I could refer you to the reviews from Crits Happen, Geek Dad, and Father Geek so that you know from unbiased third-party reviewers how the game is.
But I won’t do any of that. All I’ll say is this: We offer a full money-back guarantee to our Kickstarter backers. If you back the game on Kickstarter and don’t like it, you can return it within the first month of receiving it, no questions asked. There is no risk to you. Our commitment is to make a fantastic game and deliver on our promises, so if you trust us with your pledge, we’ll reciprocate that trust on the back end. We genuinely care that you’re happy with your pledge. That’s why you should be a backer.
BGQ: Do you have any games in the works for after Euphoria? Maybe give us a hint as to what’s on the horizon?
Jamey: I have a design I’ve been working on for a 4-8 player game with lots of interaction that I’m really excited about. Alan’s working on a prohibition-era game. And we both have lots of ideas for a large Viticulture expansion pack if we see the game do well on the open market. Oh, and we’re always keeping an eye out for other talented game designers out there.
BGQ: Do you have a goal release schedule for games? Right now it seems to be about 1 per year.
Jamey: Designing and producing a game takes a lot of time, and this isn’t my full-time job. I’d love to get to the point where we produce 2-3 games a year. But quality is really important to me. You can have 500 games in your collection, but you might only play 10 of those games on a regular basis. I want our games to be in that 10. If that means that we only make a few games and focus only on those games, I’m okay with that. I’ll always have the itch to design more, but I’ll probably just aim to design and publish one game per genre.
BGQ: Do you have any plans to add a lower cost, “filler game” to your catalog of games? Or is your main focus going to be on medium-heavy weight board games?
Jamey: I don’t know if making a filler game appeals to me all that much, but a lower-cost game for a larger group that plays in under an hour is definitely on the horizon. That’s what the 4-8 player game is.
What’s on the horizon for you and Board Game Quest?
BGQ: Thanks for asking. We’ve started expanding beyond just doing our weekly reviews. We offer more frequent gaming news, our kickstarter of the week recommendations and top “10” lists to help people who are just browsing for new games. We will also be at Gen Con this year reporting on all the happenings at the convention.
That’s about all the time we have with Jamey, I want to thank him for graciously taking the time to talk with me. He provided some great insight into the background of trying to get a game published.
Don’t forget to check out Euphoria on kickstarter right now. You can get a copy of the game by pledging $49 (MSRP $70). The game reached its funding goal on day 1 and is on pace to hit an astounding 2505% (via kicktraq) of its funding goal. And if you want to check out Viticulture, don’t forget to mention Board Game Quest for your $5 discount.