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Designer Diary: The Seeds of Stardew Valley: The Board Game

Cole Medeiros
United States
San Francisco
California
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Microbadge: Magic Realm fanMicrobadge: GUBS: A Game of Wit and Luck fanMicrobadge: Web of Spies fanMicrobadge: I design games for the love of itMicrobadge: 5 Year Geek Veteran
Board Game: Stardew Valley: The Board Game
"If you're reading this, you must be in dire need of a change..."

So begins Grandpa's letter to you as you set out to start a new life in a little place called Stardew Valley, arriving at an overgrown farm filled with memories and hope. Stardew Valley the video game has captured the hearts of many. It's a special place where we can relax, make friends, fall in love, and build something special — and the fact that Eric Barone keeps pouring more love into it keeps it rich and alive season after season.

From gallery of MrJade

When I first spoke with Eric about creating a Stardew Valley board game, neither of us knew exactly what it should be. We were introduced by a mutual friend. I remember feeling a little bit nervous, chatting while we played Stardew together online. Here was the man himself, ConcernedApe!

I was more than a little intimidated by this amazing thing that he had made, but as we spoke about Stardew and about how fun it would be to see it as a board game, the conversation became very easy. We knew Stardew had all the makings of a great board game experience: lots of resources and items, characters and locations. So much lore just waiting to be put to paper — but despite our excitement at the thought, we still had no idea how to capture all the cool little bits that work so well as a video game.

From gallery of MrJade

Right at the beginning Eric said something to me that I never forgot. I was asking him, who is this board game for? Who was the "target audience", as they say in the biz. But he wasn't interested in starting that way. He said, "Let's just make a game we love to play." It caught me off guard at the time (though I am not at all surprised by it now) as this is very much his style. Through intuition and lots of hard work, just keep moving towards something that you think is fun. Iterate and explore and be honest with yourself about what is working or isn't. It seems so simple, but it's very profound. With this in mind, we got to work.

From gallery of MrJade

I had already been playing Stardew Valley quite a lot, but now I started a new game, setting my sights on the Community Center. I missed a seasonal fish and had to wait for the following year. I fished a lot, I grew crops, I explored the Mine. I did everything I could think to do and took a lot of notes. I used Tabletop Simulator to brainstorm and discuss ideas.

From gallery of MrJade

I started to outline what felt like the core of the game: resources and building; relationships with characters; plants, animals, discovery, and collection. My first prototype was not even a playable game — just some pieces and cards near a clunky looking board. Tracking the time and the seasons seemed very important, so I had a track for that. The Community Center Rooms had big tiles you flipped once you restored them. It was very fiddly, but it was a step towards something, and it got the conversation moving.

From gallery of MrJade

Over the next year or so, we would move through something like 15+ different iterations. These were wildly different games and ultimately not the right direction. Eventually something started to emerge and it stuck, and we began to iterate on the smaller systems and mechanisms. We wanted each area of the game to feel different. Fishing should not feel the same as mining, for example. Foraging was originally an action, but then became a free action that happens during movement. The board was originally broken up into regions, but the foraging rule converted it into locations with paths.

We always knew we wanted a game that was highly collaborative, so we needed to make sure people could discuss their intentions, then be left to carry them out. Stardew is a game about connecting with people and places. We wanted that to happen every turn.

From gallery of MrJade

I remember Eric said of an early prototype, "I want more items. I want epic loot." Originally I wasn't sure how we'd do this because I didn't think of all the stuff you gain in Stardew as "items" or "loot" so much as tools or structures you build.

But it became clear over time that we could take pretty much everything you use in the video game to be either a discarded single use or an ongoing upgrade or ability, so that's where we landed. Certain things had their abilities changed and adjusted. (One early playtest revealed a set of items that could create an infinite loop of forageable gathering, oops!) Starting Tools went through a whole slew of variations, some with tech trees, some with resource costs, and more, but we eventually found what they could do and also how to make each Profession feel unique and interesting. Lots of playtesting and excellent feedback by wonderful playtesters.

From gallery of MrJade

We used Tabletop Simulator a lot. It's a fantastic tool for prototyping, playtesting, and very fast iteration. We could never have tried so many things so quickly without it. I highly recommend it for game designers to prototype with.

That recommendation comes with a few words of caution, however: Playing board games digitally takes longer. Everything is slower, and it's harder (for me at least) to keep track of all the info and components on the "table", so it's difficult to gauge the true pacing in Tabletop. Also, when you finally do make a physical version, some things that work well digitally do not work as well on a real table (for example, stacks of tiles or pulling tiles from a bag too frequently). The point is, the physical prototype is critical and you should expect it to feel very different if you prototype heavily in Tabletop Simulator.

From gallery of MrJade

Slowly our game stopped changing. I continued to find little tiny tweaks: the wording of an ability or the cost of an action. Eric was concerned that the game was too easy. It was a valid concern as we won a lot. Ideally a co-operative game should defeat you the first time, be a close loss the second try, and from then on continue to be close.

One day we started losing. I was elated.

From gallery of MrJade

I would continue to test the game for another year. It underwent a lot of additional changes to hammer out the rest of the mechanisms.

I went back to the drawing board on several different areas of the game. I don't even know how many times (though I have a list of 1,357 edits that were made after I started keeping track).

I came up with a lot of things that didn't work at all. Originally there was monster combat involved in the mines, chit pulling involved with fishing, foraging was not a free action, and on and on. Sometimes I came up with excellent ideas, but they were way too complicated. I condensed down the strengths of these ideas and tossed out the weaker parts to arrive at what is currently in the game.

From gallery of MrJade

From gallery of MrJade

From gallery of MrJade

Once the gameplay itself seemed to be settling, we started seriously investing in the artwork and graphic design of the game. I reached out to a handful of very talented folks. (Please take a look at the credits in the rulebook as I highly recommend every one of them!)

I am sitting here trying to tally up all the unique pieces of art that were created for this game, and I can't figure it out — several hundred pieces at least. That does not include icons or textures or all the small touch-ups that were done to many pieces to adjust them to fit with the graphic design and layouts. Villagers were probably the most heavily revised, not because we didn't love what we got from Gus (one of the main artists), but because each character was so important to Eric.

From gallery of MrJade

Icons were very important to the language of the game and underwent a lot of exploration to get them right. We focused a lot on silhouettes to make sure everything read as cleanly as possible, even when small.

From gallery of MrJade

I was very nervous about the board artwork. The map of Stardew itself is so critical. I wasn't sure how we were going to pull that off, but Alex (another one of the artists) brought the perfect level of zoom and attention to detail. I was blown away.

From gallery of MrJade

From gallery of MrJade

The look and feel of the game was so important to us. I'm extremely happy with where it landed.

The first print run sold out in a little less than a day. We thought we had ordered enough to hold us for a little while, but we dramatically underestimated the demand. I was eager to meet that demand and reprint quickly, but Eric was wiser than me. He said, "Let's gather some feedback and see how we can make it even better." That took a little time, but I'm very glad we did it. The reprint has some nice improvements that we feel will enhance the experience — not least of which is the additional tray for storage of all the pieces!

The new print run is now available for purchase at our Shopify site. For those of you in the EU, UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, it'll land in stores shortly. (We'll post more info when we know more details.) We really hope it brings you joy and is something your friends and family can enjoy together.Stardew Valley: The Board Game is a game we love to play, and we hope you feel the same.

Cole Medeiros

P.S. If Lewis is still alive, say "Hi" to the old guy for us, will you?

From gallery of MrJade
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Tue Nov 16, 2021 1:00 pm
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Designer Diary: The History of GUBS

Cole Medeiros
United States
San Francisco
California
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designer
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Microbadge: Magic Realm fanMicrobadge: GUBS: A Game of Wit and Luck fanMicrobadge: Web of Spies fanMicrobadge: I design games for the love of itMicrobadge: 5 Year Geek Veteran
Board Game: GUBS: A Game of Wit and Luck
The Gub characters began a long time ago. They have been in my life for so long that I can't even accurately pinpoint the date of their creation. Perhaps it was 1992. I was in the fourth grade, a big fan of doodling figures on my school work, and Gubs, in their original form, were easy and fun to draw.

I remember the card game first appeared late one night several years later. I was up into the evening, drawing little Gubs and Mushrooms and Tanks. (Yes, before Toad Riders the primitive Gubs rode around in little cartoon tanks.) The first set of cards were made from cut-up index cards, cut into uneven squares covered in pencil drawings and an abundance of spelling errors.

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We played the game more and more, and cards were added. Eventually I wrote up the rules. A few times I'd sit down and redraw all the cards, attempting to make them better as my artistic skills slowly grew.
Eventually Gubs evolved, and a story was built around them. They lived in the forest, rode moths and lived in mushrooms, fighting to survive in a dangerous world. This back story appealed to me and others. Rules were tweaked and cards added. The game grew. My friends and I played it all the time, and everyone knew all the rules even though they were not yet written on the cards.

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In 2002, I began working with Darin Quan to create some professional artwork for GUBS. It was the first step in a long road to creating a good-looking prototype. The first drawing he sent me was the Omen Beetle (then called the Grey Beetle) and I remember being so excited to see it. It was the first time my creation took on a professional look. I was thrilled.

Over the next year or so, Darin would draw up the remaining 30 or so drawings. The sketches he did were in black and white, so I set about using Photoshop to add color.

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At this time I was doing a lot of research to find a company where I could print the game, but didn't find much within my price range. I tried printing the cards onto business card sheets, but the printing never lined up correctly (much to my continued frustration) and I gave up on that idea.

Aaron Peterson, a good friend of mine, and I scoured the Internet for some kind of temporary solution, believing a paper die cutter (like a cookie cutter but for paper) might be the answer. I eventually found pre-perforated card stock which I could print the cards onto myself, then punch them out, so I ordered that.

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The process to make a prototype was very time consuming; because the card stock wouldn't go through my personal printer, I took it to Kinko's and put it into the color copier. I then color copied (using master sheets printed on regular paper) all the artwork onto the card stock, sending it through the machine twice to print front and back. Half the time the machine ate my pre-perforated pages and spat them out destroyed. Half the time the printing did not line up right on the card stock. It took hours.

Once I had a few printed correctly, I would hang them all up, spray seal them, hope they'd dry without streaks or random bits of dust sticking to them, punch them out carefully so as not to tear the corners (a painstaking process), and finally sand down the edges of the cards to be smooth. All that work took about 10 hours per deck to produce the very first prototypes.

I started shopping the game out to different companies. I contacted Steve Jackson Games, Days of Wonder, Looney Labs, and Mayfair Games to mention just a few. Days of Wonder told me they were busy on Shadows Over Camelot at the time and Looney Labs was not accepting submissions. Mayfair, however, looked at the game quite closely, eventually even requesting a prototype to playtest. I sent them a deck and, after some deliberation, they decided it did not fit with their current line of projects.

That was when I decided to self-publish.

I contacted Custom Playing Cards R Us and started getting templates from them. This was in 2005. I then spent a year working on the box art and the card layouts and final rule changes. After that I spent another year working on the rule sheet. It went through eight drafts and many, many playtests – not the game, mind you, just testing which rule layout made sense to people. It is very difficult to explain a game, even one as simple as GUBS, in only two pages of easy-to-read text.

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Finally, with everything finished on my end, I had to work with the printer and also a lawyer to get things set up. GUBS was already copyrighted, but the name needed to be trademarked, which was finished in 2007. Custom Playing Cards R Us was incredibly helpful and patient, but the process took a long time to get everything set up correctly. Proofs were sent back and forth many times.

Once everything looked good, I gave the final okay and waited for about four weeks before the decks came back: 14 huge boxes – a total of 1000 Gub decks – nearly filled my living room! And that's how the game was created.

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Since then we've taken the game to several trade shows including DundraCon, KublaCon and ConQuest Sacramento. It's been taken by other people to conventions around the United States, even making it to Gen Con via some assistance from others. Byron Roberts of Kanga Games has been toting it around Taiwan and the Philippines. Even despite nearly no advertising, GUBS had made it all over the U.S. and the world. We nearly sold out of the original batch of decks and were looking into ordering another.

Board Game Publisher: Gamewright
Then, in 2010, Gamewright happened!

Gamewright contacted me and expressed interest in carrying GUBS. Since then we've been working together to revamp the decks and re-release a new and improved version of the game. Now Gamewright's beautiful version of GUBS has been released in a metal tin with all-new artwork, adorning the shelves from FLGS to Barnes & Nobles.

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Once again, the Gubs have evolved. This is nothing new. Gubs have been morphing throughout their long history, and for those of us who fell in love with the fleshy, mouth-less variety rest assured that that species is alive and well. They are hiding, and Gamewright's much more colorful variety has flourished. I have grown to love their friendly smiles and yellow bellies. The new decks are beautiful, and reside in a sturdy metal tin for better traveling.

The game has come a long way, and I am thrilled to read about friends and families enjoying it together. It's a heart-warming feeling, so I guess the moral is, even though game design can be a long road, don't give up. If it's what you love, it's worth it.

Cole Medeiros
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15 Comments
Thu Mar 8, 2012 7:56 pm
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