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Talking Quilt Show with Judy Martin and Steve Bennett

The Inquisitive Meeple
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The Inquisitive Meeple
Talking Quilt Show with Judy Martin and Steve Bennett

Interview with married designer couple Judy Martin and Steve Bennett, on their new game published by Rio Grande Games,Quilt Show. "In Quilt Show, "quilters" collect fabric cards, which can be exchanged for block tiles. The quilters race the clock as they amass block tiles that they can combine into one or more quilts at a time. They can mix block tiles of a single color or a single pattern to make a quilt. Three times during the game, when the clock reveals it is time for a quilt show, quilts are entered and prize money is awarded. At game's end, the quilter with the most prize money wins!"

Steve and Judy, could you share a little with us about yourself and what got you into tabletop gaming?

Steve: Judy and I have been married for 32 years. We have two adult children who play games with us when they’re around. I taught high school English; I managed my family’s furniture stores; and for the last 26 years I’ve worked at home helping Judy publish her quilt books. We live in Grinnell, Iowa and regularly get together with gamers all over central and east-central Iowa. When we’re not doing that, we’re often matching wits in a 2-player game. I’ve always been into tabletop gaming, though the games I play have evolved over the years. Careers and Clue gave way to Risk. There was Scrabble and Boggle. Then there were party games such as Balderdash. Trivial Pursuit was a big phase. For the last 10 years or so it’s been heavily dominated by euros.

Judy: I made my first bed quilt as a 19-year-old college student. In 1979, I got my first career-worthy job as an editor at a quilting magazine. There, I designed quilts and wrote and illustrated how-to articles and quilt patterns. I wrote and published the first six of my 22 quilting books while I was there. After nearly eight years, I left the magazine to start publishing my books with Steve. I, too, have played games all my life. As a child, I played Canasta, Cribbage, Clue, and Careers. After college, Hearts and Risk were my go-to games. Other than playing or designing games, we like to read, watch movies, travel, and eat good food.

Steve: A lot of that good food comes from Judy’s baking! Her desserts are simply amazing. And a lot of our schedule revolves around baseball, whether it’s high school, college, or professional.

What in your opinion makes a game fun?

Steve: The people I’m playing with is the most important fun factor. I would rather play a so-so game with people I enjoy than a great game with people I don’t. That said, I’d rather play a great game with people I enjoy!

I like the delicious agony of wanting to perform 3 actions and only being able to do 2 of them. Through the Desert is a perfect example of this. You can only place 2 camels on a turn, and you desperately want to place 3 or 4 or 5. In Union Pacific it’s either/or. You can either lay a train and take a stock card or you can play stock cards in front of you. Half the time you want to do both, but you have to decide on one or the other. Dealing with that agony or watching others deal with it is fun.

Another thing I like in a game is psychological tension. Two of my favorite games are Citadels and Queen’s Necklace, both brilliant Bruno Faidutti games. In Citadels, I desperately need money and want to take the Merchant. The Assassin is already gone. You might have it and know I need money, so you’ll kill the Merchant. But I know that you know that I know….. I just love that! In Queen’s Necklace, you have 3 gem sales during the game. The game has 4 different gem types. 3 of the types have cards with 1, 2, or 3 gems on them. The value of the gems is affected by their rarity. You want to play enough gems of a type to win the sale, but not so many as to devalue the gem. Tricky stuff. The game also has a lot of cards that can negate a sale, enhance a sale, just generally mess with the sale. Trying to figure out which gems to play and in what quantity is excruciating at times.

Judy:  Like Steve, I like that delicious tension of choosing among actions and the psychological puzzle of anticipating what the other players will do. 

What are some of your current favorite games to get to the table?

Steve: The 4 mentioned above are a good place to start. San Marco, any of the Ticket to Ride games, El Grande, The Palaces of Carrara, Yspahan, Power Grid, Arkadia, For Sale, Dominion, and Puerto Rico are all games I love.

Judy: One of my current favorites is Ticket to Ride Team Asia. I especially like the teamwork there. I am always up for San Marco when we can find a third player. Thurn & Taxis and Kingdom Builder are also favorites of mine. And we’re playing a lot of Quilt Show.

What a great way to segue into Quilt Show. Rio Grande Games recently put out your game Quilt Show. Could you tell us a little bit about what type of game it is and give us an overview on how it is played?

Judy:  Quilt Show is a game that was designed to be accessible to players new to eurogames. We wanted quilters to enjoy the game, even if they rarely play games.

Steve: Quilt Show is a set collection game played over 3 rounds (quilt shows). On your turn you either add fabric to your stash by taking fabric cards into your hand or you use up some of your fabric to make a quilt block. You do that by discarding the requisite number of fabric cards of the appropriate color and claiming a quilt block tile, which you put behind your screen. With every quilt block you make, you take a time marker because it takes both fabric and time to make a quilt.

For the quilt shows, players must secretly decide which quilts to enter. All quilts have to be either a scrap quilt, which is all of one pattern but of any combination of colors, or a sampler quilt, which is all of one color but of any combination of patterns. The quilts must also be one of 5 prescribed sizes. Each of the block tiles has an embroidered point value of 2, 3, or 5. Players also have the option of adding one of their 3 quilting tiles to a quilt. These tiles of 1, 2, and 3 points represent adding extra-special quilting or embellishment to a quilt. The sum of the block points making up the quilt determines its value. The highest valued quilt earns the biggest prize, and so on. The prizes for a show range from $4,000 to $15,000 and are drawn randomly before each show. The player with the most money after 3 shows wins the game. In the event of a tie, the tied player with the most fabric wins. Quilters love that because they are notorious fabric hoarders and there is a well-known joke that the quilter who dies with the most fabric wins.

Judy:  I’m the front runner in the competition to die with the most fabric…

What is the story behind the creation of the game?

Steve: Some years ago I designed a verse-writing game and a couple of irreverent party games that tested very well. So the notion of designing a game never seemed like an impossible dream, unlike winning an Olympic medal or having the number 1 record in America. We had always wanted to do a quilt-themed game to take advantage of Judy’s name in the marketplace. In the early summer of 2009, the Rio Grande Games Design Contest was announced. At the time, we were up to our ears working on Judy’s book, Stellar Quilts. In what is either a testament to our boldness or our recklessness, we decided to drop everything and work on a quilt game for the contest. (Actually Judy and I have a long history of trusting our instincts and doing things that rational people have advised against. For instance, we both quit our good-paying jobs after reading Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella, the book Field of Dreams was based on. “If you build it, he will come,” we would tell ourselves. We wanted to work for ourselves. Our first book, then, was dedicated to Shoeless Joe.)

For about 6 weeks we worked through various incarnations of the game. We wanted a game that would appeal to gamers without scaring off quilters with its complexity. In other words, we wanted a gateway game with a quilting theme. After several aborted starts, we found the framework we needed. Then it was just a matter of getting the details right. So the bulk of the game was created in a 6-week period in the summer of 2009.

As you can probably guess because I am here telling the story, we were one of the winners of the contest. Our prize was having our game published by Rio Grande Games. I wrote more about the process of entering and winning the contest in a Designer Diary.

How was co-designing a game with your spouse? Did it go smoothly or did you guys butt heads a lot? In the end, do you think it brought you guys even closer, as a married couple going through this experience?

Steve: We work side by side at home and have done that for the last 26 years. We like each other. We respect each other. Mostly we defer to the other’s expertise. Occasionally we butt heads over one thing or another, but we always resolve it without resorting to knife fights. Doing a game was simply an extension of our usual working relationship. It was fun. I don’t think it brought us closer as a couple because we’re already close.

The success we’ve enjoyed with Quilt Show is more gratifying for me personally than any of the books we’ve done. Those are all Judy Martin books, and even though I’ve contributed to the process in various important ways, the books represent Judy’s creative genius. With the game I’m front and center with her. It’s kind of fun.

Judy:  Steve and I first starting working together years ago, and I think it has enhanced our relationship. As co-workers, we could see each other's strengths and appreciate each other better.

It was a big thrill for me when my first book was published, and I am really happy that Steve has had the opportunity to see one of his creative efforts published now. Steve is a very creative person, and I don't think he ever expected to be a quilting magnate. I hope this game is just the beginning of a new career direction for him. 

I assume with the way the game plays, that Ticket to Ride influenced you guys in your design. Is that safe to say and were there any other games that influenced your design?

Steve: Actually it started with Union Pacific, also an Alan Moon train game.

If we were going to capitalize on Judy’s name and reputation with quilters, then we couldn’t create an overly complex game. We wanted something that felt comfortable and familiar. The choice of either drawing cards or laying down cards is at the heart of all rummy games. Our personal experience with that comes primarily from Ticket to Ride and UP, but it’s a device card-playing quilters will understand.

We looked at other games for inspiration. It was Union Pacific the led us to fabric cards and quilt blocks. Draw cards or lay down cards, claiming blocks. As we got further into the design process we began to refer to this incarnation of our prototype as the Ticket to Ride version” because that was more of a gateway game than UP. We always viewed Quilt Show as a gateway game.

The idea of 3 quilt shows was drawn from Queen’s Necklace, which I described earlier. We thought 3 shows, which corresponded to that game’s 3 gem sales, sounded about right. We also liked the psychological tension of trying to figure out what to enter as you anticipate your opponents’ choices. If you’ve never played Queen’s Necklace, and unfortunately not enough people have, that tension also exists in the second part of For Sale as you try to figure out which property to play.

A number of people have compared Quilt Show to Alhambra in that you’re paying for tiles with cards and then deciding how to place those tiles in something you’re building. We’ve played a lot of Alhambra over the years, but that game never really entered into our thinking. To the extent that it helps a new player wrap his head around our game, I’m certainly fine with the comparison.

So the short answer is Union Pacific/Ticket to Ride and Queen’s Necklace, with a sprinkling of For Sale.

The game doesn’t just use single color cards and a wild – but also uses dual color cards that can stand for either color. Where did this idea come from and what did you find it added to the gameplay?

Judy:  The dual-color cards come directly from quilting. I make scrap quilts. These may have a color scheme, such as blue and white, but I like to "dance all around" a color, including neighboring colors, such as blue-green and blue-violet, to make a blue quilt really sing. Also, my quilts are made from prints, which, of necessity, are printed from contrasting colors or values. We added the dual-color cards as a way to speed up the game when we added the tile-laying component. I actually envisioned dual-color cards printed with two different values of turquoise (a mixture of blue and green), for example. The artists interpreted the dual colors with a green motif on a blue background. This surprised me, as it was not exactly what I intended. However, the artists' interpretation works better for those players who are not well versed in color theory and may not have a perfect grasp on which colors are neighbors on a color wheel. I am really pleased with the artists' vision here.

I have to say my favorite piece of art in this game may be the little shaped color pins (which also doubles for those that are color blind) in the fabric swatch found on the cards. Was the game always color-blind friendly and was there a specific reason you added it to the game?

Judy:  Our first prototype had icons for each color. The little shapes were just some that I found on a font, to allow us to simply typeset them. The idea of turning these into pinheads was just another example of the creative genius of the game’s artists, Mirko Suzuki, Martin Hoffmann, and Claus Stephan. I suppose we were sensitive to the needs of the color blind because our daughter has a disability. She has taught us much over the years.

Speaking on Quilt Show's art. If I am not mistaken Judy had a lot of say in the art, to make sure the art really had the feel of quilting. Could you give us some examples of how her suggestions gave it a more authentic feel?

Judy:  Because I already have a following in quilting, it seemed like a good idea to make a game that would appeal to quilters. That required a level of authenticity. The block tiles are my designs from quilts in my books. I chose designs that would make secondary patterns when similarly patterned blocks were placed side by side. I did this because I thought it would be fun for the players to discover these in the quilts as they made them. In the Diamonds are Forever block, this secondary pattern is a small eight-pointed star that forms at the juncture of 4 blocks that are turned just so. This is one of the things that quilters enjoy as their quilts develop, as well.

Other than that, my artistic input was minimal. I provided a photo of a sewing machine at the request of the artists. Many quilters now use electronic machines with touchscreens, but I chose a basic model. This was not for the benefit of quilters, but for people who still imagine quilters as blue-haired ladies stitching the old fashioned way. I did suggest that the artists substitute a rotary cutter for the scissors that appeared on an early rendition of the player screen. That was for the benefit of quilters, who rarely cut cloth with scissors these days.

Steve: As Judy said above, the 6 block designs are all original designs from some of her recent books. Judy is the premier quilt designer in the world. She has published more than 1000 original quilt and quilt block designs.
Judy’s genius as a quilt designer, and it is a particular kind of genius, is in making the beautiful possible. She does the complex trigonometric computations to find sizes for complex shapes that can be cut with a rotary cutter and ruler. One time we ran Judy’s computations by a Grinnell College math professor, and he verified her numbers. He was awed that she could do what she was doing. That’s an example of why she is held in such esteem in the quilting world. Given Judy’s deserved reputation in quilting, we felt it would have been wrong to use traditional designs. If I sound like a proud husband, it’s only because I am!

Another aspect we see in the game was it features a time element to show that it takes time to make these quilts – they also trigger the scoring rounds. Do you remember where the idea of this came about?

Judy:  We needed a mechanism for timing the quilt shows. We had tried several things, such as cards built into the deck, as in Union Pacific. We needed to be sure players would have enough tiles to enter a quilt in a show. In the end, the thing that worked most consistently was taken directly from quilt making. Quilters are always racing the clock to finish their quilts in time for a show. It does take time to make a quilt, so why not take "time" when you take a block tile? Our first prototype had small clock tiles for this purpose. The time markers ensure that a reasonable (and consistent) number of blocks have been distributed before each quilt show.

How does the 2-player Quilt Show differ in overall feel compared to the 4-player game?

Judy:  I like the two-player game better. Each additional player adds to the game time, and, this being a simple game, shorter is probably better. Also, the multi-player game adds some chaos, as the fabric cards and tiles can change so much between one player's consecutive turns. Some players will probably prefer the multi-player game for this reason. To each his own.

Steve: 2-, 3-, or 4-player, I don’t have a preference. I think it scales well. As Judy said, each player adds time to the game, but I think the feel of the game is essentially the same regardless of player count.

We tried hard to make it a game that scaled well. We envisioned this as a game a couple might pull out as they wind down after the kids are in bed, or a game you might play when your in-laws visit or you have friends over for dinner. And since the game has come out, I’m learning that people are also playing it with their young children. I think that’s a versatile game!

What was the best piece of feedback you received from a play tester when you were still prototyping the game?

Steve: We had carefully balanced the block cost with the point value of the block. But when we tried it, everything was unbalanced. One player said something to me that should have been totally obvious to me: It’s not the fabric card cost of the block relative to the point value; it’s the turn cost of the block relative to the point value. We went home and fixed it. After that, everything flowed.

What has been the biggest change from the early prototypes to the Quilt Show now on store shelves?

Judy:  The biggest change from the early prototypes is the introduction of block tiles. This allows the players to feel more like quilters laying out a quilt. The game originally had cards for both fabric and blocks. A single block card could represent a quilt, though it didn't much look like one. The tile game takes a minimum of three block tiles to begin to look like a quilt. The introduction of tiles necessitated changes to the game play to allow the faster collection of fabric and blocks. We changed the turn action from drawing two fabric cards to drawing three cards. We added the dual-color fabric cards, and we changed the tile-drawing action to allow a player to take multiple block tiles in one turn.

What was your favorite part of designing the game?

Judy:  I really liked Jay Tummelson's incisive questions and suggestions when we pitched the game to him at the Rio Grande Games Design Contest. His asking, "Would a quilter do that?" helped us look to the theme for answers when tweaking the game mechanics. 

Steve: Designing any game is an exercise in problem solving. Finding solutions to the various problems is satisfying. For instance, the precise timing of the quilt shows wasn’t working for us, but we found a solution that fit the theme. That was immensely satisfying.

What was the most challenging part of designing Quilt Show?

Judy:  The most challenging part of designing Quilt Show was transforming it from a card game to a tile-laying game. When Jay Tummelson suggested we do this, we agreed it was the right thing to do. Initially, we thought we would have to revise all aspects of the game. We tried several unsuccessful iterations before we decided to make the tile game as close to the original game play as possible.

Steve: Yeah, that was a challenge. The other big challenge was simply waiting for the game to come out. Once we decide what Judy’s next book is, it’s usually less than a year before we have the book in our hands. We understand the process and we control the process.

While there are many similarities between publishing books and games, there are many differences, too. We don’t fully understand the process of publishing games, and we certainly don’t control the process!

Box components. Photo by Bob Albright.

I have to ask – there is another quilting game that has come out this year – Patchwork, which is a different style game. Have you had a chance to play it and if not is there any interest to try it out?

Steve: We’re aware of it but haven’t actually seen it or played it yet. The reception to Patchwork has been very good, as would be expected from such an iconic designer as Uwe Rosenberg. I hope to get a chance to play it soon. From what I’ve read, it sounds like Patchwork is more of an abstract game with a quilting theme.

Judy and I think Patchwork helps us in that it helps make this surprising theme of quilting seem more mainstream than it otherwise would, particularly because it is endorsed by such a popular and respected designer.

Judy, who has published many quilting books, seems to be known in the quilting community. So, how has the response in the quilting community been for Quilt Show?

Judy: With my connections in the industry, we’ve gotten a lot of coverage. We feel good about the reception so far. The quilting world, like the real world overall, includes some people who are inclined to play games and some who wouldn't consider it. I think we're making enough of a splash to whet the interests of those who might like the game.

Steve: Having Judy Martin’s name on it is a big plus. That gives Quilt Show instant credibility in the quilting community. It’s gamers who will drive the bulk of Quilt Show sales, but quilters represent a significant minority.

When you step back and look at the finished product, what makes you the most proud that you designed this game?

Judy:  I like seeing that colorful box with our names on it, right next to Ticket to Ride and Dominion in our game cupboard. It's fun to hear from gaming friends that they know other gamers who are enjoying the game. 

Steve: I’m most proud of how the mechanics spring organically from the theme. This was true of the game we originally pitched to Jay. It was more true after we tweaked the game based on questions and comments he made. And it was even more true after Jay pushed us into making it a tile-laying game. Quilt Show is one of the best marriages of theme and mechanics in the hobby. Not everyone will like the theme or the mechanics, but I’m really proud of how well they fit together in this game.

What was it like, after all these years, finally getting the game done and in your hands for the first time?

Judy:  For Steve, I think this was like Christmas and the White Sox winning the World Series all rolled into one! I loved seeing him so excited. I was anxious to see the quality of the components and to play the game with real cards you could shuffle. (Our prototypes had hard-to-shuffle cards. It was a hassle.) I loved demoing the game and seeing gamers whom we had never met getting into it!

Steve: It was a major rush. It was also a relief to finally have it done. The reception to Quilt Show at Origins was incredibly gratifying.

Finish this sentence in 12 words or less.  Quilt Show is…

Judy:  ... a fun gateway game with a unique, immersive theme.

Christmas is around the corner, what makes Quilt Show a great Christmas present?

Judy:  The holiday season is a time for families and friends to gather and enjoy one another's company. Games are brought to tables that only occasionally see them. Quilt Show is simple enough for casual gamers, and it is perfect for the many families that include quilters. In fact, we have seen crafters of all stripes and females in general react with pleasure and surprise to see a typically feminine pursuit validated by our game. 

Steve: But let me emphasize it’s not a game strictly for quilters or crafters or women. To the extent that it gets casual gaming quilters or crafters or women to play games is a win for everyone who enjoys games. And I’ve seen tables of men playing and enjoying Quilt Show.

Speaking of Christmas, do you have any games on your Christmas list this year?

Judy:  La Boca is on my wish list. It's a quick and lively game that makes a great filler for times when you are waiting for another table to finish on game days.

Steve: That’s helpful for me to know….

I’m not usually a fan of trick-taking games, but I’ve played Diamonds twice and really enjoyed it. If I owned that, I could see it getting a lot of play. Another one I haven’t played, but I think would be a hit at our house is Cinque Terre, a pick-up-and-deliver game set in Italy.

As we wrap this up, is there anything else that you would like to add?

Judy:  Quilt Show is selling well and will be reprinted early next year, possibly with a couple of foreign partners. That fact alone makes this a good Christmas at our house!

Steve: If you’re a publisher and looking for an insanely fun verse-writing game, contact me. Ditto if you want an irreverent party game.

Judy: Thank you, Ryan, for thinking of us and for asking such good questions. The Inquisitive Meeple should be on everyone’s subscription list.

Steve: The boardgame community is amazing. Judy and I feel privileged to play games with the people we play with and to interact with the community. Thank you to everyone.

Thank you both, Judy and Steve, for taking time out to do this interview! For those intrested in Quilt Show, it is currently out right now and is published by Rio Grande Games.

What's that you say? Inquiring meeples want to know more?
You may want to check out these links:

Judy's official quilting website

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Quilt Show fan - mb

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