Scythe Box

BGR Interview – We talk with Jamey Stegmaier About Scythe and Crowd-Funding

In All, Interviews, Scythe by Zach HillegasLeave a Comment

Ever heard of a little game called Scythe? If you’re part of any gaming communities or follow tabletop news, chances are you have. For those unaware, however, Scythe is a game that was recently funded by a Kickstarter campaign, to enormous success. Designed by Jamey Stegmaier, and published by his company Stonemaier Games, Scythe aggressively blew past its funding goal, gaining twenty times the amount of its $33,000 funding goal within the first day it went live. Scythe would continue to gain backers, eventually reaching $$1,810,294 in backer money before the campaign finally ended.

Scythe’s story is an incredible testament to the power of crowd-funding, an area in which Jamey Stegmaier has extensive experience. More and more, crowd-funding machines (the most notable being Kickstarter) are helping to bring creative dreams to life, and the board gaming world has been gifted a veritable share of gems that may never have had a chance to shine if not for their generous backers.

Jamey Stegmaier’s first Kickstarter was for Viticulture in 2012, and was met with success. His publishing company, Stonemaier Games (co-founded by friend Alan Stone) has since gone on to publish Tuscany (a Viticulture expansion), Euphoria, Between Two Cities, and a “treasure chest” of premium components that are compatible with various Stonemaier games. All of these projects were funded via Kickstarter, and Scythe, of course, is now on its way. For more information, you can visit the official website of Stonemaier Games here.

After the roaring success of Scythe, we reached out to Jamey and we were able to conduct an interview with him about Scythe’s campaign, the game itself, and other aspects of the crowd-funding model.

First off, congratulations on your roaring success with the Scythe Kickstarter Campaign. Looking at the numbers, this campaign completely eclipsed your previous projects both in the number of backers and funds contributed. As someone with plenty of crowd-funding experience, what was your reaction when Scythe took off so quickly?

You’re absolutely right, Scythe quickly eclipsed not just the day-1 totals of my previous projects, but also the totals for those entire campaigns! For example, Tuscany raised $450,333 on Kickstarter in about 25 days. Scythe raised $650,000 in one day! 🙂 I had high hopes for Scythe to have a strong start, and I had a feeling from the buzz around the project that it would have a good first day…but I definitely didn’t realize it would be that good. I’m so grateful for the many thousands of backers who choose to support Scythe from the beginning, especially since we didn’t have any of the early bird reward gimmicks you sometimes see on Kickstarter projects.

In your book, A Crowdfunder’s Strategy Guide, you put heavy emphasis on treating your backers as people, and putting the needs of the community first. What are some ways that you implemented this philosophy during the Scythe campaign?

That’s a great question, something I try to revisit as my campaigns have grown over the years. A lot of it is about being present in the comments section of the project page. Other than when I was sleeping and eating, I had one eye on a computer screen solely devoted to the comments for the duration of the campaign, allowing me to reply to almost every comment within a few minutes.

Another example—and one of the great things about Kickstarter—is that I like to give backers the chance to enhance the game itself. Scythe is mechanically a finished game, and most of the art and graphic design is done, so there wasn’t a lot of wiggle room. However, there was one ideas that several backers brought up involving plastic clips to hold together the standard board and the extended board. While I didn’t think the clips were necessary, it didn’t hurt for me to check with my manufacturer to see if they were feasible and functional, and it turns out they were. So we’re adding those clips to ever backer copy of the game.

[Note: click here to see Scythe’s Kickstarter page]

Every crowd-funding campaign is unique, and comes with its own lessons and new experiences. Is there a lesson that you learned during Scythe’s campaign that you would apply to future projects?

Yeah, I always do a post-mortem report about lessons learned. Here’s something that caught me off guard: The digital demo version of the game on Tabletopia had a big impact on the project. When Tabletopia contacted me a few weeks before the campaign, I basically said, “Sure, if you want to make demo version, feel free to do so, but it’s not a big deal.” Well, it was a big deal! I don’t have the stats yet, but anecdotally there were a lot of backers who took the game for a spin on Tabletopia before deciding to back it. I will definitely try to work with them and/or Tabletop Simulator in the future for other board game campaigns we launch.

Up until now, your games were well-known and well-received. However, after Scythe, it’s safe to say that you’re now indisputably a big name in the board-gaming community. Was there ever a moment where it felt surreal to see such a staggering amount of people excited about your work?

Oh, I’m still small beans in the big salad that is the board game industry. But yes, the entire Scythe campaign was staggering in the support we received. 17,739 is enough to fill a basketball arena! My only hope is that I get to meet and personally thank all of those backers someday.

You’ve come a long way since your first project. If you were to compare your first Kickstarter board game campaign with that of Scythe’s, how did the two experiences differ from each other?

My first campaign was for Viticulture (August 2012), which raised a little over $65,000 from 942 backers. For that first campaign, a huge part of its success is attributed to friends and family giving the project a strong start by backing on Day 1. I spent the first day of the campaign individually e-mailing every person I knew to tell them about the campaign. Without them, the campaign probably wouldn’t have gained the traction and attention of other backers. I also messaged every backer during that campaign within an hour or so of receiving their pledge to personally thank them for the support.

I loved being able to implement those personal touches to friends, family, and strangers, but it’s quite nice to not have to appeal to friends and family for help now, as many of them aren’t going to play a game like Scythe (though I have gotten my extended family into lots of other board games). I also miss the individual thank-you messages to backers, but that’s really hard to scale. I still personally respond to every message that backers send to me, but I rarely initiate those conversations these days.

Having good name recognition and a resume of excellent board games in the past is surely something that helped Scythe to pick up the momentum that it did; for somebody trying to crowd-fund their first board game, what would you say are some of the barriers to entry, and what would your advice be to help overcome them?

Absolutely—having previous campaigns and games under my belt helps a lot with consumer confidence. That’s a good question about barriers to entry for a new tabletop crowdfunder. I would say the biggest is getting people excited about your game well in advance of the crowdfunding campaign. As a small fish in a big sea, that’s tough. But I think it’s possible to do by simply (a) being active in the board game community (online and offline) and on board-game blogs/social media and (b) to be very open about your game. Don’t worry about people stealing your idea; rather, be extremely open about the theme, mechanisms, and process so other people can get excited about it with you and even offer you some pointers. Also, try to get a few pieces of final art for the game elevated to the front page of BoardGameGeek. A great visual can drive a lot of interest for the game.

Not every Kickstarter campaign is a swan-song. Many games don’t reach their goals, and unfortunately, sometimes they’re legitimately great games. What are some of the main reasons, in your opinion, that many Kickstarters don’t get funded? Do you see any trends in failed campaigns, particularly ones that are promoting otherwise high-quality games?

There are lots of reasons, but I’ll name three of the most common:

1. You haven’t built up a crowd in advance. Just like I talked about above, the day you launch on Kickstarter shouldn’t be the first time people hear about your game. That early momentum gained from Day 1 backers is huge.

2. Your art and graphic design aren’t good enough. I see this all too often. As creators, we’re a little blind to the decisions we’ve made about the visuals in our games. It’s so important to check with people who don’t care about your feelings to see if your art and graphic design are as good as you think they are.

3. Your prices aren’t good enough. If you’re a first-time creator with great game, but you charge too much for it, you’re going to have a tough time getting funded. Budget and plan with precision, then pick prices that make backers feel like they’re getting a steal (though make sure you don’t lose money—that’s why the budgeting is so important).

[Note: In a later email, Jamey mentioned that high shipping costs would have been a fourth point here]

You’re an adamant believer in the power of crowd-funding. Going onward, what kind of a role would you like to see Kickstarter play in the future of tabletop gaming?

Well, I think Kickstarter is and always is just a platform for creators to use as they wish. I don’t think Kickstarter itself should change its role for any specific industry—it’s here to serve creative projects across dozens of categories.

But if you’re asking about the role I’d like Kickstarter creators to play in the future of tabletop gaming, I think one of the biggest changes we’ll continue to see is innovation in terms of game components. I’ve seen so many games on Kickstarter that break the mold to create new components that we’ve never seen on the tabletop before. Traditional publishers do this too, but I think Kickstarter creators take it to a new level.

Can you give an example? Given the limited budget and connections that Kickstarter designers have compared to big publishing companies, it would seem like it might be more difficult to make unique components. 

Well, I think Kickstarter creators are under the same constraints as any publisher for manufacturing minimums—in that way, we’re all on the same limited budget. But Kickstarter is ripe for premium products. Scythe is a great example of this, if you don’t mind me saying so. A traditional publisher would only produce the version I listed at $59 (it’ll have an $80 MSRP). But on Kickstarter I’m also able to gauge demand for three special reward tiers with a variety of components most publishers wouldn’t even think of putting in their games…unless they were on Kickstarter. That’s what I’m talking about.

You have a strong track record of personal interaction with your fans. You answered just about every question in your Reddit AMA, and then spent the rest of your day conversing with fans in the comment section of Scythe’s Kickstarter page, often about things completely unrelated to the project. You follow hundreds of gaming blogs, big and small, and I’ve often seen you acknowledge them on Twitter. As a representative of your own publishing company, how do you think that both publishers and the community can benefit from such a personal level of communication?

Thanks, yeah, that level of communication and availability is integral to the way I run Stonemaier Games. To me, it’s letting people look Stonemaier Games as human and personal instead of a distant, faceless company. The benefit this provides to the publishers is that it’s one of several core ways of building brand loyalty. Personally, this is just how I want to treat people. I want to have a genuine connection with them and add value to them if I can. Like, take this blog. I’m not writing this to promote Stonemaier. I’m writing it because I like your website.

We appreciate that! Let’s talk about Scythe. According to your top-ten list, you have a keen love for Euro elements, which was certainly reflected in the design of your past games. While Scythe appears to have Euro elements, it also has miniatures, asymmetry, and conflict, quite a departure from the style of your previous games. You’ve mentioned how Risk: Legacy and Kemet are among your favorite games; did these play a role in your decision to create a 4X game?

While Risk: Legacy opened up my eyes as a designer to the world of legacy games (which Scythe is not), Kemet really exposed me to how combat can work in a Euro game. Before Kemet, I stayed away from games with direct conflict because it always seemed like the weakest player got picked on, or players could attack each other out of spite instead of strategy. But with Kemet, everyone attacks everyone from start to finish. No one falls too far behind, and while you could feasibly target someone just because you don’t like the way they look at you, it’s very rare. I tried to emulate those aspects when designing combat and player interaction in Scythe.

In your games, you’ve experimented with popular modern board game mechanics, and you’ve refined them in your own unique way. You’ve mentioned that “flow” is an important part of your design philosophy; in Scythe, for example, you’ve created a unique action system that does away with rounds and phases. Furthermore, there is conflict, but there is no unit or player elimination. What is another popular mechanic in modern board games that you think could be improved upon?

That’s a great question. One that I recently talked about on my game mechanism YouTube channel is drafting. Drafting is a fantastic mechanism, because it gives you lots of interesting choices, player interaction, and simultaneous choices. But the one big problem is that it’s not friendly to new players, because right from the beginning of the game they’re faced with a ton of information that makes no sense to them, and other players can’t help much because the hands are hidden. My proposed solution—which only works for some types of drafting games—is to have a pre-draft round where players are giving the exact same hands of cards, and they take turns playing those cards in the order of their choosing. That way new players can see what the various cards do and experienced players still have interesting choices in terms of the order of the cards they play during that round.

With the bears, mechs, and alternate-history 1920s, Scythe has one of the most unique themes I’ve ever seen. What was something that helped inspire Scythe’s theme, and how much of a role did the theme have in designing the gameplay?

Scythe’s theme comes entirely from Jakub Rozalski’s 1920s series of artwork, which is grounded in a real war between Poland and the Soviet Union. He embellished this world with mechs and started sharing his artwork on Facebook and Artstation. When Kotaku featured it last year, I contacted them to see if I could design a game in that world. The world and the art—especially the feeling conveyed by the art—was the driving force behind every mechanical design decision I made while developing Scythe.

[Note: If you’re interested in viewing more of Jakub Rozalski’s work, you can check out his website here]

Overall, we’re very excited for Scythe, and we appreciate that you’ve taken the time to answer our questions. To wrap up, if you had to give one piece of advice to aspiring readers/designers, what would it be?

Play a lot of games! Seriously. Lots of games of all differnet types. Like, if I had given up on games with direct conflict, I never would have discovered Kemet, and Scythe probably wouldn’t exist. There’s something to learn from every game I play.

About the Author

Zach Hillegas

Zach is an avid tabletop gamer, and he created Board Game Resource out of his love for the hobby, and his desire to see more people come into it. When he's not writing for or managing BGR, Zach might be hanging out with cats, hiking a mountain, spending time with his lovely wife, or writing about video game stuff for Insert Gamer. Zach has also enjoys creating digital character art. You can check out his (long neglected) gallery here, or follow him on Instagram at @artworkbyzach!

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