Jamey and Grant Discuss Everything (Pt 2)
A discussion with Jamey Stegmaier and Grant Rodiek (bold)
Euphoria is your new game, live on Kickstarter now. What is Euphoria? What do we need to know?
Jamey: Euphoria is a dystopian-themed worker-placement game set in the not-so-distant future. Each player is trying to grab control of the dystopia using worker dice and recruits with special abilities. Play time is 15 minutes per player, and the cost to back 1 copy is $49 (shipping and customs included to the US, Canada, and the European Union).
Why this theme? What excites you about it? Why do you think it’s exciting for others?
Jamey: I LOVE dystopian fiction. Ready Player One, The Hunger Games, Oryx and Crake, Wool, Pure, and classics like Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World. I love the sense of discovery as I read dystopian fiction: How does the new world work? Why did it end up this way? I find it easy to get immersed in dystopian worlds because they aren’t that different from our own. A lot of them take controversial issues from the modern day and exaggerate them. And I really like that the protagonist in dystopian fiction is up against all odds, and yet he/she truly does have the power to change the world. In Euphoria, you are that protagonist.
I’m honestly not quite sure if others find dystopias as exciting as I do. From a gaming perspective, it’s not on the level of sci-fi as 4x space-themed games, but it’s also geekier than a wine-making game. I’m curious to see how people respond to it.
What are a few of your favorite dystopian novels?
I loved the Hunger Game series and read them all in about 4 days. I read Fahrenheit and 1984 in high school but don’t remember them too well. My favorite is probably the Avery Cates series by Jeff Sommers, which I read last year. It focuses on an assassin, Avery Cates. The first book is The Electric Church and is highly recommended.
Jamey: I just requested a Kindle sample to check it out. Thanks for the recommendation.
What was your inspiration? What did you set out to create?
Jamey: I had a few different inspirations. One was the dystopian theme as I described above. Another was dice. I love rolling dice, but I like games with less than 20% luck, so I wanted to find a way to incorporate dice in a low-luck way. Alien Frontiers and Kingsburg provided some early inspirations in that area. Also, the flow of the game was really important for me. I wanted to make a game that didn’t have rounds or phases, one that fluidly moved from one player to the next. I wanted to make a game where you didn’t have to calculate a new first player every round. And as a bonus, when you eliminate rounds and phases, a game that could easily last over 2 hours averages around an hour instead. I want to play games multiple times on game nights, so that was part of my goal.
Your KS page proudly boasts 60+ blind playtesters. How did you gather these people? What was your process?
Jamey: I am very, very fortunate that many Viticulture backers were willing to playtest print-and-play versions of Euphoria. I put out a call to playtesters in an e-mail, and they responded in droves. After many months of development in St. Louis, I had my artist and designer make the game board (the board art is needed to make sense of the game), and I uploaded the PnP to dropbox. I asked all playtesters to play it at least twice (or not at all), because in my opinion it’s nearly impossible to get a true feel for a game while you’re learning to play instead of playing to win. After the original blind playtest, I revised the game based on the feedback and posted the revised version for a second round. Then a third round. That may sound fast, but when you have 60+ people blind playtesting your game and you’re playtesting the results in the meantime, it doesn’t take long to figure things out. What is your playtest process like?
I’m fortunate in that I work at a game company, so I’m surrounded by peers who love games, are very sharp when it comes to game design, and who aren’t afraid to give me honest feedback. I often schedule lunch sessions (I design games that are 60 min or less) for 2-4 people, set it up, then watch people play.
I also try to attend events like Gencon and Protospiel where I gain access to a lot of new people really quickly. Another favorite trick of mine is to play with people who aren’t gamers to figure out ways to improve usability and accessibility for the game. For example, if my girlfriend isn’t confused, then gamers really shouldn’t be confused.
Finally, I try to put the games in my PPP blind playtesting program. I’ve tried the PNP route, but if the game is beyond a certain size, most people won’t bother (I don’t blame them). My future games will be much simpler than York, so perhaps PNP will become more viable?
Jamey: I was pleasantly surprised that so many people were willing to print and play a full color game with so many components. And that’s great that you’re surrounded by people at your company who are willing to play your games. I like the tip to playtest games with non-gamers.
Tell me about your “dice faces represent knowledge” mechanic. How did that come about? How did it evolve?
Jamey: Great question. This brings me way back to why I decided that dice needed to be the workers. In a dystopia, the more knowledge people have about their society, the more likely they are to run away. That’s a common ingredient in almost every dystopia, so I knew I needed to capture it in Euphoria. Dice were an easy call there: The numbers on the dice would represent worker knowledge. So in the original version, all of your workers started with 1 knowledge, and if they ever got up to 6, you lost the worker because they knew too much. However, it wasn’t all that fun, especially since there was no dice rolling in the game--rather, the dice simply served as a way to track knowledge. I went through lots of iterations to figure out how dice rolling could be exciting without being too lucky, and still factor in knowledge. The end result is that your individual worker knowledge matters when placing workers. There isn’t a single spot on the board that limits you based on the number on your worker die. But your recruits make an impact there. For example, the Wastelander faction wants its workers to have high knowledge. They’re all about researching and memorializing the old world. So many of the Wastelander recruits give you a bonus if your worker has the highest knowledge of any worker on a certain area on the board.
The idea of your worker knowledge getting too high and workers escaping also made it into the final game, but in a different way than the original version. Individual worker knowledge doesn’t matter, but collective worker knowledge does. You start out with two workers, and every time you roll your workers, you look at them and add up their knowledge. If it is 18 or higher, one of your workers runs away. You can mitigate that using the knowledge track, which lets you reduce collective knowledge...but the same track can also increase your knowledge. So it serves as a check and balance for players who want to go after more workers.
You mentioned the Wastelander faction. Does your game have different factions? Can you explain these in greater depth? What does it mean to be a faction in Euphoria?
Jamey: Sure, the game has three different factions (and it might have four if we meet a certain stretch goal), each of which is physically separated from one another. The Euphorians live in a city called Euphoria where the buildings are slathered in gold...at least, the buildings where the elite live. Everyone else lives below them, working long days on the generator, where they produce electricity on giant hamster wheels to support the lavish lifestyles of the elite. The Euphorians hypocritically claim to value equality, so Euphorian recruits often give you bonuses if your workers interact with workers of equivalent knowledge.
The Wastelanders are those that were unprotected when the old world ended. They are survivors to the core, and they have the scars to prove it. They’ve rebuilt their society using the remnants of the past, sculpting a city from trash and clay. They covet the relics of the past, and thus Wastelander recruits--especially those with high knowledge--specialize in acquiring artifact cards.
The Subterrans are the final faction. They anticipated the apocalypse and dug deep underground to avoid it. There they found an underground winter untainted by the chemicals in the air and an abundance of stone to build a new subterranean empire. The Subterran overlords like to keep their people in the dark--literally and figuratively--and thus they give you bonuses when your workers have lower knowledge than other workers.
How do players choose their factions? Your game plays with 2-5 (6 with a Stretch Goal). How do you dole out factions?
Jamey: Players don’t exactly choose their factions--rather, they choose their recruits, and the allegiances of the recruits impacts you. So at the beginning of the game, each player is dealt four random recruit cards. They pick two and discard the others forever. They then reveal one of the recruits--that is their active recruit. You only get to use the bonuses of your active recruit. The other recruit remains hidden until you or other players unlock all recruits of that faction.
Neat! It’s organically woven into the experience. It sounds very dynamic, which I like. Tell me about the player interaction. How can I affect you?
Jamey: There are a few different ways you can affect me. The most common way is on the temporary use action spaces, which are all over the board. If you place a worker on one of those action spaces and I want to place a worker there, I can do so, but it bumps you off the board. That lets you delay the use of one of your turns to retrieve your workers from the board. I’ve found that the mechanic works really well because it’s fun to get bumped off the board, but you never feel blocked from a space that you really need to use.
The second way is the commodity-gathering areas. These are areas where collective worker knowledge affects what you receive when you place worker there. They all follow the same pattern: If the total knowledge of all dice on the Generator is between 1 and 4 after you place your worker there, you get 1 energy and 1 Euphorian allegiance point. If it’s between 5 and 8, you get 1 energy and you lose 1 knowledge on the knowledge track (as mentioned above, that’s a good thing). And if the total is 9+, you get 2 energy and you gain a knowledge on the knowledge track. The thematic idea there is that the more workers that pile on, the more energy they’re producing on the generator, but because there are so many there, they’re going to exchange information with each other. I’ve found that this mechanic scales really well for any number of players.
The third way is perhaps the most fun element of the game: Constructing markets. There are a bunch of different markets you can build in the game, but they’re placed face down during setup so no one knows what they are. Each construction site requires either 2 or 4 workers and specific resources to build the market, so you can attempt to build one alone, or you can collaborate with other players. When a market is complete, you flip it over to reveal what it does. Each market has a penalty on it that applies to each player who didn’t contribute to the construction. For example, the Registry of Personal Secrets affects Freedom of Privacy. If you didn’t help build it, for the rest of the game (unless you go out of your way to overcome the restriction), you have to play with all of your cards on the table for all to see. All of the markets are thematically tied to the dystopian theme, and some are harsher than others. So in building markets, you’re restricting what other players can do, causing them to think on their feet and pivot in their strategies.
The art, from what I can tell, is a very functional dystopia. Definitely Hunger Games or Fahrenheit-451. Your campaign talks about the apocalypse, which in my mind involves asteroids or nukes or alien invasion. Do you see your apocalypse more as the cataclysmic event that lead to the foundation of this dystopian society? How do you feel these two pair together? Walk me through your thoughts.
Jamey: Interesting question. I’m using the word “apocalypse” broadly--it’s more like a sweeping change that changes the world into a dystopia. Sometimes it’s caused by something cataclysmic like the examples you gave, but sometimes it’s just a change in world order. That’s one of the most interesting things about dystopias to me--the people in charge of the dystopia are doing what they think is necessary to prevent the world from collapsing again. Right and wrong aren’t black and white--they’re a mix of grey.
In the Euphoria campaign, we’re giving people the chance to help us decide the sweeping change that will create the world of Euphoria. I’m going to pit slightly outlandish apocalyptic scenarios against each other head-to-head via backer survey until only one remains. By the time you publish this, you should be able to see some of those scenarios--which one are you rooting for?
I voted for alien invasion and robot takeover. I'm not a fan of mutants and bipedal dolphins seems to diminish your fiction.
I know you’re an avid reader. What books did you read to prepare you for this game, if any?
Jamey: In addition to all the dystopian fiction I read, I consume a LOT of content about board games: reviews, blogs, podcasts, and videos are all part of my daily diet. I like reading many different takes on the same game, and I like hearing from designers like yourself to learn about your processes and insights. I know that I can’t play every game, so all of the amazing content out there serves to reinforce my existing knowledge of board game design and publishing. Do you have a go-to gaming blog, podcast, and/or YouTube channel?
There are two sites whose content I always consume: Shut Up & Sit Down and Drake’s Flames. I think the key reason I enjoy them so much is the humor and quality of their writing. SU&SD is founded by a few writers whose work I’ve been reading for quite some time. They are hilarious, but most importantly, instead of just walking me through the rules, they go over the experience of playing the game. Why it’s delightful, what makes it special.
I read Drake’s because he’s brief and inappropriate and funny.
I should listen to the Plaid Hat podcast because I’m obsessed with those guys. I’m a huge fan of their games and greatly inspired by their success.
What are your favorites? What am I missing?
Jamey: I 100% agree with those three recommendations. I would also add Board Game Reviews by Josh, iSlaytheDragon, The Opinionated Gamers blog, Metagames, The Little Metal Dog show, the Ludology podcast, the Long View podcast, Tom Vasel’s reviews reviews (I like his enthusiasm), Ryan Metzler’s reviews (he’s incredible good at explaining how to play a game in a short period of time), and Undead Viking’s video reviews (I like his side tangents). There are many more, but this list is already getting unwieldy.
I actually read Josh’s reviews sporadically. Did you know he was one of my first blind testers for Farmageddon? He gave me some frank, harsh feedback (privately) for the game that fundamentally guided me towards fixing it. I’m so thankful he did so.
Anything you wish to add?
Jamey: I think that’s it! Thank you so much for taking the time to create this interview. I’m happy to answer any questions your readers have--I look forward to the conversation.
If you have any follow up questions for Jamey, post them in the comments below! You can check out Euphoria’s Kickstarter page. $49 gets you the game shipped free to the US, Canada, or EU!