Interview Oct 8, 2013

Jeremy Burnham of EGRA Games has his game Stack & Attack on Kickstarter now for only another 48 hours as of the time of this post. Jeremy shares with us a bit about this caveman themed deckbuilder in today’s interview:

GDC: Give us an overview of your game and how it’s played.

Jeremy: It’s the middle of the Stone Age, and things are pretty rough.  You decide to turn to the gods for help, showing your devotion by gathering stones and stacking them to the sky.  However, the neighboring tribes are jealous of your creation.  They race to build taller towers of their own, while lobbing rocks in your direction in an effort to knock over your incredible construct.

Stack & Attack is casual deckbuilder where players gather, stack, and throw rocks in a race to reach the top.  Rocks come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and are boosted by a selection of effect cards that a player can add to their collection.  Stack & Attack differs from most deckbuilders in two very distinct ways.  First, players reshuffle their decks only at the end of every turn, not when they run out of cards.  Secondly, the spare cards in your deck play a critical role in your ability to defend yourself and attack other players.  These two rules strongly discourage traditional deck thinning and force  each player to manage the size and quality of both their tower and their deck.


GDC: What innovative mechanic or creative idea distinguishes your game from others?

Jeremy: Aside from the non-traditional deckbuilding mechanics, the biggest breakthrough in Stack & Attack comes from its innovative rock (card) stacking mechanism.  The concept is simple.  The size of the artwork varies from one rock to the next, reflecting its stacking height.  When a rock is stacked on the tower it covers up the title and flavor text from the card below it.  The attack and defense value are printed at the bottom of the rock card, so they remain exposed for determining combat outcomes.  When a player attacks, they choose where on the opponent’s tower they’d like to target.  The defense value of the rock targeted is added to the defense of every rock stacked above, so aiming low increased the potential damage but lowers the likelihood of success.

GDC: Tell us about the spark or inspiration for this game.

Jeremy: The seed idea for Stack & Attack came more from frustration than from inspiration.  My team had been brainstorming for weeks, and hadn’t gotten anywhere.  We’d come up with idea, start working through it, and throw it out after a few days later because it was uninteresting, unfeasible, or unfun.  At the end of a rather painful three-hour brainstorming I put out a call for a game idea that encompassed two things: simple and fun.  Sarcastically, my teammate Chris threw out the idea, “why don’t we build stone houses and throw rocks at each other”.  At first the idea didn’t gain much traction, but after thinking about it for a few days we decided to give it a shot.

GDC: Let’s talk about the design process. Tell us a bit about the iterations the game has gone through and the refinements you’ve made along the way.

Jeremy: Each member of the team was given one week to come up with a game concept that fit the theme.  From this two strong concepts emerge – the game that would become Stack & Attack, and another game that was modeled with piles of coins stacked next to each other.  Although at first the game was horribly unbalanced, we loved the card stacking mechanism and decided to keep working on it.

Our first full prototype was made in Microsoft Excel with images I drew in Paint and copies from Google Image searches (Check out the image to the right).  We were incredibly lucky to be able to tap into the vibrant game design community that exists in Boston.  We took our game to their meet-up sessions, and they immediately tore it to pieces, pointing out more flaws than we thought could possibly exist.  It was a humbling experience, but extremely valuable for us.  We took our game back to the drawing board, made a bunch of changes, and tried it out again.  So began an iterative process were we folded the feedback we receive into our game, making a better and better product each time.

GDC: What has been your biggest challenge in designing this game?

Jeremy: Balancing how attacking works was by far the most challenging aspect of designing Stack & Attack.  We knew if attacks were too weak no one would do them, and if they were too strong no one would be able to build anything.  Either way, the game would break down.  At the same time, we wanted to keep the attacking runs as simple as possible, while still allowing for difficult decisions and interesting choices.  Most modern strategy games don’t use direct attack, so we didn’t have a lot of recent examples to model our game after.

GDC: Let’s shift gears and talk about you. How did you get into game design?

Jeremy: As a child I designed a lot of games, most of which involved rolling dice and moving around a track.  As a teenager I played a lot of CCGs, but largely left board games off to the side.  I rekindled my interest in game design ten years ago while working at a summer daycare.  I designed a game called “Mad Market”, which was like Monopoly but with more interesting market mechanics, and played it with 8 year olds all summer long.  Around the same time I began to discover modern strategy games, and I realized how much more you could do with the tabletop medium.  Over the next decade I began to jot down ideas, assemble crude prototypes, and collect interesting game pieces, building up to the day where I decided to design my own game for publication.

GDC: What is your greatest moment as a game designer?

Jemery: Not necessarily a design moment, but seeing the first copy of my game sold in a retail store was definitely a huge milestone for me.  After finishing the design and commissioning the artwork for Stack & Attack, we decided to print up some very expensive Beta copies of the game to see if reviewers and retail stores would like them.  We were selling them for half of what we paid for them, but we were very excited to see that a few local retailers were interested in picking up a small test batch.  After making a sale I decided to stick around the store for a few minutes and look for other games to buy.  I looked over saw a customer pick Stack & Attack off the shelf, which was a magical moment for me.  I looked at him and said, “I’m a big fan of that game”.  A conversation ensued, in which I explained that I was designer and Stack & Attack was my first published game.  After he bought that copy I felt for the first time that I was running a real board game company.

GDC: Tell us a little bit about your life outside of game design and gaming: family? work? other interests?

Jeremy: I live with my beautiful wife and wonderful one year old daughter in Cambridge MA.  I’m a full-time graduate student right now, although I’ll be transitioning back into the corporate world in a year.  I play a lot of sports – most notably volleyball and the Track & Field throwing event – as well as watch a lot of college football.  Oh, and every year my friends and I build a six-foot tall gingerbread house at Christmas.  It’s an interesting tradition that grew way out of proportion as the years went by.

 GDC: Do you have any works-in-progress or game ideas you would like to share?

Jeremy: My other games are mostly just concept right now and are nowhere near production.  I love the idea of using games as learning tools, so I’m always coming up with games that teach people about personal finance, or career choices, or things along those lines. I’ve worked through a few iterations of a game about the oil & gas industry, but it inevitably ends up far too complex and time consuming for people to enjoy.

GDC: What games have you been playing lately? What have you liked, what have you disliked, and why?

Jeremy: I played Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar game recently, and was actually a little disappointed.  There was a lot going on throughout the game, and even some of the experience players seemed to be in a perpetual state of confusion.  One guy gave up half way through the game and ended up with a negative score, and I ended up winning by a lot despite not really knowing what I was doing.  For me, a lot of modern strategy games have a big disconnect between mechanics and theme, and this was no exception.  I often find myself asking the question “why am I getting victory points for this?”.  This is something we tried to avoid with Stack & Attack.

I find myself buying more and more board games as IPad apps, learning the rules, and then buying the physical game to play with friends.  This happened with Medici and Le Havre, and is about to happen with Stone Age and Ascension.  The combination of convenience, low cost, and ease of learning makes this route difficult for me to avoid.

GDC: Share your favorite game you haven’t designed and why?

Jeremy: I really like the cooperative/competitive duality of Brass, although with my gamer group it rarely comes out due to the long playtime.  Le Havre has some of this as well, although it is not as pronounced.  I’m going to try and incorporate this element into the next big-box strategy game that I develop.

GDC: One word of advice to your fellow game designers?

Jeremy: Here’s my recommendation for first-time designers who haven’t published anything yet – set a hard deadline and budget by which you have to produce your first game.  This may sound incredibly counterintuitive, but it is actually a very useful thing to do.  Tell yourself, “I have five grand to spend, and by the end of nine months I want to have five copies of a finished game with professional artwork circulating among reviewers”.  Use those constraints for motivation, to encourage planning, and to force you to make hard decisions.  I often see other indie game designers fall into “analysis paralysis” – they continually tweak and re-tweak the same game for years, never taking it beyond the prototyping stage.  Game designer tend to be very critical of their own products, focusing more on a few flaws than on everything else that’s right about their game.  And remember, no game is perfect for everyone!  Identify your target market, gather as much feedback as you can, then make a decision and run with it.  There’s a lot to be learned about game design from the production/marketing/fundraising process, even if your first game isn’t a blockbuster success.

GDC: Anyone you’d like to give a shout out to? (playtesters, design mentors, your friendly local game store, etc.)

Jeremy: The Cambridge Board Game Design & Prototype Circle, for providing an incredible design resource for indie developers in the Boston-Area.  Four retail stores – The Games People Play, JP Comics & Games, Eureka Puzzles & Games, and Myriad Games – for inviting me to pitch my game despite my lack of industry experience.  The folks at Game Salute, for helping me navigate the challenges of my first Kickstarter campaign.  And most importantly, all of the reviewers and playtesters who played the game, provided feedback, and supported my efforts along the way.

GDC: Tell us how (and where) we can find you (social networks, BGG username, website, cons you plan to attend).

Jeremy: Stack & Attack is on Kickstarter now; check out our page and support us if you like it!  You can learn more about Stack & Attack at our BoardGameGeek page, where you can view the rulebook, download the B&W Print & Play files, read reviews, and look at some of our game images.  Additionally, you can follow our developments on Facebook and Twitter (@EGRAGames).  We look forward to hearing what you think!

GDC: Thanks Jeremy! Please take a look at the Stack & Attack Kickstarter page and support this great game.



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