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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
P.S. If Lewis is still alive, say "Hi" to the old guy for us, will you?
To submit news, a designer diary, outrageous rumors, or other material, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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