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Designer Diary: Epic Breakthroughs in Viticulture

Jamey Stegmaier
United States
St. Louis
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Board Game: Viticulture
There are two types of game designers: Those who start with mechanisms and later incorporate an appropriate theme, and those who start with theme and later incorporate accompanying mechanisms.

I'm Jamey Stegmaier, and I'm a mechanisms guy.

I collect mechanisms from board games I play, games I read about, and games I hear about. I collect mechanisms from non-board games – particularly sports, smart phone games, and web app gamification. I collect mechanisms from books and blogs about behavioral economics and psychology.

Over time, I've accumulated a list of mechanisms that reflect the "12 Tenets of Board Games" that I believe in. (You can read about how these specifically apply to my game Viticulture in the FAQ section of that game's Kickstarter page.) These tenets are:

-----1. Quick set-up
-----2. Balances – not checks – for close games
-----3. Conflict, not hostility
-----4. Choices, not luck
-----5. Scalability
-----6. Unique production/creation
-----7. Variable turn order
-----8. Fast pace/smooth flow
-----9. Multiple paths to victory
-----10. Point-based end-game trigger
-----11. Reasonable duration
-----12. Replayability

Board Game: Viticulture
I've been designing board games since I was a little kid, so I've been accumulating mechanisms and the above tenets for many years. (I'm 31 now.) So in mid-2012, given the success of certain games I had seen on Kickstarter, I decided to design a game for production.

The vineyard theme was one that I had on my mind for a while. I think the brilliance of board games is that they allow us to be someone we're not for 60-90 minutes, all in the comfort of our dining rooms. We can be kings and farmers, wizards and CEOs (but usually kings).

Few people actually get to own a vineyard, but I know many people who romanticize the idea. There's something universally appealing about rows of grape vines and the end result – wine. Thus I liked the idea of each player taking the role of a vineyard owner. With my mechanisms, philosophy, and theme in hand, I got to work.

The core concept of Viticulture (which was briefly called "Trellis" at the inception of the game design) has remained the same since the beginning: Players plant vines on their fields, produce wine, age the wine in cellars, and sell wine over the course of four seasons per round of the game. However, Viticulture has evolved quite a bit over time – enough for a thesis – so I'm just going to focus here on the epic breakthroughs that other game designers might find helpful.

Board Game: Viticulture
Board Game: Viticulture
Prototypes #1 (on left) and #3A

Epic Breakthrough #1: The Push and Pull of the Theme

The original version of Viticulture was wrought with theme. Although the game wasn't set in a specifics locale at that time (that would come much later), the particulars of the art and science of making wine were heavily engrained into the game. Each player had three different types of soil from which to choose, each of the wines was highly variable in terms of when they gained or lost value, and each of the seasons brought with it a roll of a die that would result in a good or a bad thing happening to all players.

Board Game: Viticulture
The flavor those thematic characteristics added to the game was great, but did they make for a smooth gaming experience? Not at all. The soil was frustrating to new players and didn't add any strategy for experienced players. The way different wines gained and lost value at different times was hard to track and rarely made a tactical difference. And the, those dice. Cool concept, but players felt like they were at the whim of the dice instead of in control of their strategy – which is probably how real-life vineyard owners feel at times, but it just didn't work in game form.

So I toned down the theme. This wasn't a one-time change; really, it came and went in waves. Sometimes I'd add more theme (i.e., I changed the cost requirement to plant vines from money to pre-built structures necessary for those vines to grow, and I added a "crush grapes" stage between harvesting fields and having wine in the cellar), while at other times I'd take it away (i.e., grape tokens age just like wine; for a while they spoiled after a year or didn't age, but that discouraged players from harvesting). It's a constant push and pull, but you have to be willing to make the best choices for gameplay in the end.

Epic Breakthrough #2: Do You Feel Lucky?

Board Game: Viticulture
Prototype #6
It was important for me to create a game about choices, not luck. I love the game Agricola, which has very little luck. I admire games with even less luck than Agricola – games like Chess and Rise! in which all players have the same choices.

So Viticulture started off as a game with little luck. Every card was spread onto the table at the beginning of the game so that no player had more information than the others. There was some variability as each game started with a different set of cards, but it needed more variability, as well as the excitement of the draw. Plus, all of those cards took up a lot of space on the table, and it was tough to see the finer print from far away.

Eventually I converted all of that public information into four decks of cards. Drawing cards always involves a little luck, but I made sure that the cards are balanced, and I added a myriad ways to obtain cards to mitigate less-than-desirable draws.

Epic Breakthrough #3: Well, This Is Frustrating

I've learned a lot about the value of playtesting through the design process for Viticulture. I knew it was important, but it has surprised me time after time when I think the game will play a certain way, yet in real life it's completely different.

Board Game: Viticulture
The #1 thing I learned from playtesting was to pay attention to frustrations that players were having, even when better strategy could wash away those frustrations. A lot of the early frustrations came from harvesting vines into wine because you might have two vines on the same field that produce the same value and color of wine, and there was only one slot in the cellar for each wine. My co-designer Alan Stone solved that problem by making the vine values per field cumulative.

Another early frustration came from the way wine orders were filled. At that time, the wine orders were directed toward different countries, the capacity of which depended on each country's actual wine consumption and overall pickiness about wine quality. (Indeed, that version may have ended up offending some people.) The problem was that the countries made it easy for players to jump ahead and stay ahead, and once the other players caught up, the capacity for the wine orders was already filled. Over time, that evolved to wine orders that were specific to the values of wine and were on cards in hand – not on the table – so that each player could work toward his own goals.

Epic Breakthrough #4: Wait, Is This Solitaire?

Board Game: Viticulture
For several months, we had a solid version of the game, but something was missing. We couldn't quite put our finger on it until one day when one of the playtesters said, "I like it, but feel like I just played a game of solitaire."

By trying to limit the potential for hostility, I had removed all aspects of interaction and conflict from the game. Players could do whatever they wanted on their player mats, and they weren't affected by anyone else's choices. They didn't even have to pay attention to what everyone else was doing.

Around the same time, another playtester pointed out that it was getting difficult to keep track of all the different choices. We had taken steps to increase the number of paths to victory and to have the viability of those paths change during the course of the game, but in doing so, there were a daunting number of choices and no good way to keep track of them.

It was the perfect conflux of feedback, and our solution was clear: Viticulture needed a common board, a shared space in which your choices might block other players' primary choice while still allowing them other options, a visual element that would tie all the choices together into one cohesive whole.

So we added a board. We kept the player mats, of course – players still had control over their individual vineyards – but we added a board that made sense of all those choices.

That's when everything really came together for me. Up until that point, I enjoyed playing the game, but only because it was my creation. After I added the board, I genuinely started enjoying the game. I wanted to play it again and again. I wouldn't have launched the Kickstarter campaign if I hadn't experienced that moment.

During that Kickstarter campaign, I was surprised and delighted by our backers' willingness to print and play the game. Although we considered the game print-ready going into Kickstarter, we quickly learned from backers that some of the cards needed work, so Kickstarter became one big blind playtest and the game improved exponentially as a result.

I'm grateful that backers became so invested in the project through their time and money. Our funding goal was $25,000, but we raised over $65,000 in the end. We've spent every penny (and then some) making the game components as high quality as possible. I'd love to hear what you think of Viticulture if you get the chance to play it!

Jamey Stegmaier
Stonemaier Games

Board Game: Viticulture
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