Sunday, March 8, 2015

Interview with Jamey Stegmaier, Matthew O'Malley & Ben Rosset about Between Two Cities

Jamey Stegmaier, Matthew O'Malley & Ben Rosset

Hi everybody! I’m here with Jamey Stegmaier, Matthew O’Malley, and Ben Rosset who currently have a Kickstarter up for Ben & Matthew’s Between Two Cities.  Jamey Stegmaier is half of Stonemaier Games and the designer of Viticulture, its expansion Tuscany, and Euphoria and is one of the leading experts on Kickstarter best practices.  Ben Rosset is the designer of Mars Needs Mechanics, Brew Crafters, Brew Crafters: The Travel Card Game, and co-designer of Between Two Cities.  Matthew O’Malley is the designer of Diner, Battle of Wits, Knot Dice, and co-designer of Between Two Cities. Phew. That’s a lot of designer cred in one interview! Thanks for talking with me, guys!

So let’s jump right in and talk about the project. Matthew, Ben, tell us all a little bit about Between Two Cities.

Ben: Between two cities is a 20-minute tile drafting and city building game for 3-7 players with a 2-player variant. It’s a competitive game with a double partnership mechanic. Each player partners with the player to their left to build a city together, and the player to their right to build a different city together. Therefore each player is part of 2 partnerships the entire game. At the end of the game, each city is scored, but you only receive points for the lower scoring of your two cities. The player whose lowest scoring city is the highest wins. This encourages you to put equal amounts of effort into both of your partnerships, and creates a very cooperative feel within a competitive game.

That’s not a mechanic that I’ve seen elsewhere, but I agree about the cooperative feel in the game. When I played at Metatopia, I was always thinking about what I could do best with my partners - and how to best communicate that information to them without really communicating with them. Jamey, how’d you find out about Between Two Cities? And unless I’m mistaken, this is the first game Stonemaier is releasing that you didn’t design. What made you want to have this game be the first?

Jamey: Indeed, this is the first Stonemaier game not designed by me. We’ve been looking for a game that’s lighter on rules but just as deep as our other games for quite a while, and I had the good fortune of asking Ben what he was working on while we were chatting at Gen Con in 2014. He casually mentioned a game he was testing at the time, and it sounded interesting, so I invited him to bring it by. I played a game with him and Matthew and knew right away they were onto something big.
Agreed! I love this game. And having played various prototypes with Matthew, I know that you’re big into trying out different mechanics for games and seeing what sticks. Ben, I know that you guys are part of the same playtesting group, so I’m guessing it’s the same for you. What are some elements that you tried out for this game that just didn’t work out?

Ben: The double partnership mechanic was always the core of the game from the beginning. The big “aha!” moment came when we tried the “only score your lowest” scoring method. At first, we just had players add up the value of both of their cities to determine their final score. But this allowed players to focus solely on one partnership and ignore the other one. That wasn’t the feeling we wanted, so that scoring method didn’t really work. Once we changed the scoring method, the game immediately became something much more. From there, the rest of the game came together quite quickly, and we were basically finished with the core design within a couple weeks. (Development took another 6 months).

Matthew: We also tried giving players goals (hidden or visible), but we ran into two problems with those. First, we discovered that the decisions tended to disappear if certain tiles were just better for you - you would always choose those tiles if you were able. Second, we discovered that the players didn’t trust one another any more, because something good for one player might not be good for the other.

And trust is really a critical factor in this game - that the person is going to do what’s best for both of you, not just for them. This was the first game you two have co-designed that has been published, correct? What was the co-designing process like for you two?

Ben: It was terrific! Matthew and I have enough in common as designers to make the partnership work, and enough differences to make it flourish. I’ve loved the co-designing process and I look forward to continuing to design more games with Matthew in the future.

Matthew: Co-designing was fantastic. We both kept pushing the game forward, and Ben has a great sense of how something will play. He also does frequent check-ins to make sure the game is progressing in the right direction, and that helped us from going too far down the wrong path several times.

City tokens for Between Two Cities
By the way, I think it’s nifty that your first cooperatively designed game has such a cooperative feel to it. And the wrong path? Any pitfalls in specific that you helped each other to avoid?

Ben: I think Matthew and I are really good at playing devil’s advocate with each other. That really helps to make sure we stay focused and aren’t making decisions based on one person’s personal biases.

And Jamey, how much influence did you have over the final design? Once it became a Stonemaier game, is there anything that left - or entered - the picture?

Jamey: Ben and Matthew are the game’s designers, and they’ve put a ton of work into the game--not just in the original design, but also with prototyping and playtesting. My role was (a) to try to make it as marketable as possible, which meant tweaking the theme a little bit and making sure the game had some eye-catching components like the city tokens and (b) to develop the game a bit to make sure it was as fun as it could be (normally a developer also looks for balance, but Ben and Matthew are very data driven--they know balance). I think pretty much every tile has received some amount of makeover since the originals I saw at Gen Con--some small, some big--and the duplex tiles were something we worked on together. Ben and Matthew were a pleasure to work with throughout the process.

That’s excellent! I can hardly wait to see the final result, especially after all of the stretch goals the campaign seems like it’s on track to hit! You’ve all seen your share of Kickstarter projects - but I know every project is unique, too. Anything unexpected about this campaign? Or anything that sets it apart for any of you?

Jamey: Every campaign is a new experience, and I try not to take any of my backers for granted, especially those who say things like, “I’ll back everything you put on Kickstarter.” I feel a huge responsibility to not let those backers down and to retain their trust.

Between Two Cities is a little different than our other projects because the price point is lower. It doesn’t change all that much, but it’s interesting seeing the project inch forward pledge by pledge instead of in $100 chunks like on Tuscany. Also, Between Two Cities is a streamlined game, and it works because it’s a streamlined game, so there’s not a lot of room for huge stretch goals. I think we found some creative solutions that will improve the game, though.

Well, I’d hardly say the campaign’s inching forward! You guys funded very quickly, and you’re just blowing through those stretch goals! For those “creative solutions” you mentioned, are those the variations on the tile art and the automa deck, or are there some that haven’t been published yet? Or do we just have to wait and see?

Jamey: Right, all of those creative solutions are currently listed in the stretch goal list (there are no other secret stretch goals or anything like that). Like, we could have made each tile exactly the same, but then we realized that the game might look cooler on the table if each tile looked a little different from other tiles in the group. And the seating randomizer was something we brainstormed and thought it would be fun to leave it in the hands of the backers. With board game projects, you want to enter the campaign with a fully playtested game, which we did, but something like the seating randomizer will require very minimal testing.

Current tile art - with variations to follow from stretch goals!

Makes sense. I know how hyperfocused you have to be during a Kickstarter, but what’s up next for all of you?  Any news you’d like to break at the Nerds’ Table?

Ben: Well, I haven’t publicly disclosed this yet, but it’s not really a secret, either. I’m working with Randy Hoyt from Foxtrot games on a game called Stranded, which is an old design of mine that Randy has really helped me breathe new life into. He and I are co-designing the game together now, and we’re hoping to get it to the point where it’s ready to be published. If so, Foxtrot will publish it. I’m also working on development of Homebrewers, which is a thematic prequel to Brew Crafters, but with very different mechanics from Brew Crafters.

Matthew: My focus is entirely on Between Two Cities right now, but I’m very excited that I’ll be running my own first Kickstarter soon. Knot Dice, a dice set full of games, puzzles, and art, will launch on April 2.

I’m looking forward to all of those, too! And I haven’t had a chance to play any of Randy’s games, but I did back Lanterns on Kickstarter. What games are you playing these days that you didn’t design that you’re really enjoying?

Matthew: My wife and I have really been enjoying Finca, and I've been having a lot of fun with XCOM and Eight Minute Empire: Legends.

Jamey: I’ve been introduced to a lot of solid games recently--I wouldn’t say that these are games that I’m super excited about, but I respect and appreciate the designs. Games on that list are Alchemists, Hyperborea, Machi Koro, and AquaSphere. What about you?

This is going to sound like sucking up, but in all honesty, I’ve played a lot of Diner and Brew Crafters: The Travel Card Game lately! And, I just picked up a copy of Convert by Yodeo Games at Dreamation a few weekends ago, and I’ve been really enjoying that. What about you, Ben?

Ben: This may shock people who know me, but I’ve playing a lot of social games lately, like One Night Ultimate Werewolf. There are a lot of fans of those types of games in my gaming group. At first I definitely resisted, but I’ll tell you, One Night Ultimate Werewolf has been growing on me. I really look forward to it now!

Well guys, thanks so, so much for sitting down with me at the Nerds’ Table and letting me toss some questions your way.

Doug Levandowski is a game designer for Nine Kingdoms, which will be launching a Kickstarter for their party game, Keep Calm, soon. When Doug's not designing, interviewing, marketing, or sleeping, he's teaching English to a bunch of amazing high schoolers. They're working on Macbeth right now, which is his favorite play to teach. You can find him on Twitter (@levzilla or @ninekingdoms) and on the web (

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