How St. Louis-based Stonemaier is changing the (board) game
Winemaking, birds and dystopia don’t typically come to mind when you think of board games.
But St. Louis-based Stonemaier Games is changing expectations about board games. Stonemaier co-founder Jamey Stegmaier told St. Louis on the Air that he got into game design wanting to make games that could appeal to anyone, whether they’re a hard-core gamer or not.
“I wanted to cross over into people who maybe hadn't tried out modern hobby games yet, and wanted to try them for the first time,” Stegmaier said.
For his first game, the Kickstarter-funded Viticulture, he chose a focus that he thought would have broad appeal to both gamers and casual players: winemaking.
“There are a lot of really good, highly acclaimed farming tabletop games. There's something about it that appeals to many hobby gamers,” Stegmaier said. “And so that was why I didn't feel too worried about trying out a game about running a vineyard, because it has many similarities to farming.”
Since then, Stonemaier Games’ sales have exploded, with its bird-themed game Wingspan alone selling more than 1.3 million copies. The unconventional idea was pitched to Stegmaier by a bird lover named Elizabeth Hargrave, who’d designed the game as a passion project while working as a health policy consultant. Stegmaier was quickly sold on the idea.
He said he was impressed with how Hargrave had created bird cards whose functions in play aligned with the birds’ real-life characteristics.
“There's one bird in the game — this is a real bird in the real world — that doesn't have its own nest. It lays its eggs in the nests of other birds. And it has those birds do the work to take care of those eggs,” Stegmaier said. “And Elizabeth took all those little fanatic ideas and captured and encapsulated them into the mechanisms of the birds.”
Since Wingspan’s release, Stonemaier has had other hits, with many games selling hundreds of thousands of copies.
Stegmaier said that he thinks board games are important in the digital age, and that the possibility for true connection is one reason people turn to games even when they could be immersed in their phones or TVs.
“I love being able to turn off those screens or turn off my phone and just focus on creative problem-solving on the tabletop with a beautiful game in front of me, something I can pick up in touch with my hands, as opposed to just a mouse or keyboard,” he said. “And where there are people around the table looking me in the eyes, face to face, which I know we don't always get during the pandemic.”
He added that it’s a great way for people who are more introverted to have comfortable social interactions.
“I'm an introvert myself, but I do love being around people,” Stegmaier said. “And I find that games offer a really nice, structured interface for me to have a great time with my friends. And I think games are really, really great for introverts in that way.”
Stegmaier noted that one of the most important things he considers as he makes a game is its accessibility, ensuring that anyone could be able to play, and that after the first game, they want to play again.
“How can I make the rule book short and succinct enough but have great examples so that it's easy to learn? And how can I pick the right game length so that the game doesn't overstay its welcome?”
Stegmaier’s job may sound fun, but he described it as entailing thousands of decisions, from the cost of unusual components to making sure someone who’s colorblind could still enjoy the game.
For all of the work’s complexity, at the end of the day, he said Stonemaier Games remains focused on a simple question.
“Every little decision about art and graphic design, and how we build our communities around our games, and how we market them and how we price them — all of those decisions — everything comes back to: Can we bring joy to people?”
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.