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Shared Moments: An Interview with Jamey Stegmaier of Scythe and Charterstone

Jamey Stegmaier may very well be my favorite board game designer. Alongside Alan Stone, he designed the current top two games in the Dixon household: Euphoria (which I recently wrote about) and Scythe. He and Alan Stone also designed the critically acclaimed Viticulture. Stegmaier’s latest game, Charterstone, a competitive legacy game, where you construct buildings and populate a shared village, just released this week. I recently chatted with Stegmaier about his unique approach to game design and his desire to create meaningful moments in the lives of those who play his games.

How did you get into making games?

I have been playing board games since I was a kid and ever since I have been playing board games, I have been designing them. It’s always been a hobby of mine. But the turning point as an adult came when Kickstarter became a viable platform for launching new products. I was fascinated by it, particularly by the board game projects. I thought, “I’ll take my hobby of making board games and try to do something productive with it.” I used it as a motivation to make a real game all the way through and that was Viticulture.

Give me a quick overview of the games you’ve designed.

is a eurogame about making wine in Tuscany.

Is wine-making a personal interest of yours?

It actually was and I made this game because I wanted to attract both gamers, who like strategy and interesting decisions, and non-gamers who might be drawn in by the theme. I like wine, I am not a big drinker, but I like the romanticized idea of wine. Its similar to why a lot of people like farming games. Not many people actually want to work on a farm, but we still romanticise the idea of it.

After Viticulture, I designed Euphoria which is a dystopian worker placement game. Again, I don’t want to run a dystopia in real life [laughs] but I thought it was a fun theme to work around. Then came Scythe, an engine-building, asymmetric, competitive board game set in an alternate-history 1920s period. And now, Charterstone is a competitive legacy game where you construct buildings and inhabit a shared village over the course of 12 games. Unlike other legacy games, at the end of those 12 games, your completed village will have morphed into a one-of-a-kind, variable worker-placement game that can be played again and again.

It seems like everyone I talk to loves Scythe. What’s it been like to create a game that so many people love and that continues to grow in popularity?

It’s been really neat to see. All my previous games—I don’t have many—but they’ve all done well; but Scythe has been an outlier. We’ve sold over 100,000 copies. That number isn’t important to me, but its been really rewarding to see so many people connect with it. You mentioned that you and your wife have connected over it and I love hearing things like that.

The Rise of Fenris is the final Scythe expansion, it adds an 8 game campaign and 11 new modules players can access after the campaign, including a cooperative module.

If you had to narrow it down to one thing you hope people gain from their experience playing your games, what would it be?

The thing I aim for, though I don’t always accomplish it, is memorable moments. I love when you play a game. You set it aside and you play a bunch of other games and a month or two passes and yet you can remember the time you played and “that thing” happened. That’s what I aim for. I want players to have unique memories tied to their experiences playing my games. I want provide experiences that offer opportunities for players to have meaningful shared moments with the people they care about. I don’t always accomplish that. And those kinds of moments are not going to happen every session, but if it happens every now and then, I love to hear that.

Board games in general seem like a special medium for those kinds of connections. Is that part of what motivates you to design in this space?

Yes, that’s a huge part of it. And I’m an introvert, so I like a little bit of structure when I interact with people. Board games sort of provide that structure. And I have seen that with a lot of other board gamers who are either introverts or maybe a little socially awkward. There are plenty of extroverts among [board gamers] too, but I like that games provide a common language for all those different personality types to connect with each other and have a healthy night together.

That’s one of the things I have found interesting about my experience playing Scythe. Its provided several “healthy nights” for me and my wife. She is not a huge gamer but she has found Scythe surprisingly accessible once she got over that initial shock of how complicated it looks the first time you play. How did you manage to make a game that is simultaneously accessible and quite deep?

The goal with Scythe and my other games, a big part of anyway, is the decisions you make on your turn are visually displayed very clearly on your board. You don’t have to remember a rule you read three months ago or that somebody told you. Your turns are very short. So each turn is not like a series of decisions where everybody is waiting and getting bored. Your turn is just one, two at most, pretty quick decisions. Ideally, you can think about these 1-2 decisions before your turn comes around. So with Scythe, I have seen people get in that rhythm where you take a turn and the person next to you takes their turn while you are finishing up and play begins to flow around the table one turn after another. So I think those things help make the game a little more accessible.

Why do you make games? What gets you up in the morning to do this.

There are a lot of different ways to answer this. My goal is to bring those joyful, memorable moments to people. And that is always in the back of my head, but from a design perspective, I am always trying to push buttons that haven’t been pushed before, both by me and by other designers. So I am constantly trying to challenge myself as a designer. There are thousands of board games now. So if I am going to commit a year of my life to making a game, I want it to be special and unique and innovative so that when people spend their hard earned money on it, it means something special to them.

Executive Editor at Penguin Random House. Author of Know Thy Gamer: A Parent's Guide to Video Games and founder of Love Thy Nerd.

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