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Interview: Jeremy Burnham

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Jeremy Burnham is a freshman designer whose first major game, the unique deck-builder Stack & Attack, is currently seeking support on Kickstarter.  With an analytically-minded background and as a new family man, Jeremy has eye for kid- and family-friendly gaming in hopes to hook new and casual players into the hobby.  We here at iSlaytheDragon appreciate Jeremy taking the time from what must be a whirlwind schedule with his first crowd-funding campaign to sit down for a few questions.

Jeremy, from what I understand, cavemen didn’t have a very sophisticated vocabulary.  So explain Stack & Attack to us in one Neanderthal-style sentence.

“…Lorff tower tall  …Fregg tower taller  …Lorff throw rock!”

Okay, so engineering stacks of rocks is admittedly more complicated and takes further description.  In that case then, give us your “elevator pitch.”

Stack & Attack is a stone age-themed light strategy game for casual gamers and families (ages 8+) for 2-4 players that plays in 30 minutes.  Players fight for the favor of the gods by stacking stone piles to the sky.  Each turn you decide whether to gather new rocks, stack the rocks you have, or throw them at another player’s tower.  It’s a fun blend of modern deck-building, direct attack, and interesting card-stacking mechanics.  The first Neanderthal to reach a tower height of 15 wins the game!

Is this your first design?  What was your source of inspiration and motivation for creating Stack & Attack?

Like many first-time designers, I had been working on a variety of different game ideas for years without ever pushing one to completion.  Each of these ideas grew increasingly complex as I worked through them, to the point where they were painful to teach and impossible to balance.  I decided to shift my focus to just two features – simplicity & fun – and design a game around these themes.  I pitched these concepts to my team during a marathon brainstorming session, and we proceed to generate a laundry list of terrible ideas.  Toward the end of our ordeal my teammate Chris sarcastically remarked, “Why don’t we just stack rocks and throw them at each other?”  Amazingly, the idea stuck and became the game we have today.

How did the game evolve from that first genesis of an idea through a prototype and on to the version currently on Kickstarter?

First, we removed the “violence” aspect by having the cavemen throw rocks at each other’s towers, rather than directly at each other.  This was a better fit with our theme and target audience.  Once we had the theme, we decided to develop two games in parallel – one that involved building multiple stacks of physical components (we used coins in our prototype) and one that involved building a single stack of rock cards.  We thought the card stacking mechanic was really fun and interesting, so we decided to scrap one prototype and stick with the card version.  We play-tested the game extensively at a local board game design meet-up group and had a challenging time balancing the combat rules.  Early on games fluctuated between 90 minutes and 5 minutes, as players decided either to attack every turn or to never attack at all.  Eventually we came up with a set of rules that was both easy to learn and fun for our target market.

So it sounds like the stacking element is what makes your design unique.  Can you explain that in a little more depth?  Are all rock cards worth one rock?  Are some rocks more stable than others?

Rocks come in three sizes – small, medium, and big.  Big rocks cost three times as much as small rocks to acquire, stack, and throw, but they add three to your tower height (rather than one) and have substantially better attack and defense values.  When stacking a rock on your tower you cover up the flavor text and title of the rock below, but leave the artwork entirely exposed.  For that reason the size of the image on the rock card is very important to how it functions in the game.

Additionally, rocks come in two different shapes – flat and round.  The flat rocks are more stable for stacking, and hence are better for defense.  The round rocks are more aerodynamic and easy to throw, and are therefore better for attacking with.


And how easy is it to knock down another’s tower?!

When attacking an opponent, you decide what rock to throw and where on their tower you’d like to aim.  Aiming low could lead to a devastating hit, but also greatly reduces the chances that you’re successful.  The attack value of the rock you throw is compared to the defense value of the rock you target and every rock stacked above it.  Players can use effect cards to boost their attack and defense values.  Then both players flip two cards from their deck, adding the respective attack/defense values to their total.  This adds an element of “engineered luck”.  The better the quality of your deck, the more likely you are to have a high attack/defense draw.  This mechanic also forces players to keep their decks full of cards (rather than thinning them out), because you can only reshuffle your discard pile into your deck at the end of your turn.  Many great towers have been turned to rubble because their owners ran out cards to defend themselves with.

You mentioned dabbling in other designs prior to Stack & Attack.  Anything in your background and/or education that you’ve been able to bring to game design that’s helped – or even hindered – your efforts?

Like many game designers, I have a strong analytical background.  I worked as an engineer in an oil refinery for a few years, so many of my previous game ideas revolved around manufacturing operations, supply chain management, and business planning.  I’m now a full-time business school student and the courses I’ve taken on entrepreneurship have really helped me understand how my design choices influence my ability to manufacture and market a game.  I’ve also spent a few summers as a daycare counselor in late high school/early college, which gives me a great sense of what games are fun for kids to play with adults.

So, when you’re not a Neolithic engineer, what other type of board games do you enjoy playing in your free time?

I play a fairly broad selection of games, ranging from complex Euro games to casual filler games.  As heavier games go, I really enjoy resource management games with some cooperative elements, like Le Havre and Brass.  On the lighter side, I love games with simple auction mechanics, like Medici and For Sale.  I play a lot of games with my wife, so I really appreciate games with entertaining two-player variants.  My daughter just turned one, so I haven’t gotten her involved yet.  For a lot of board games I buy the app first, learn how to play, and then buy the physical game to introduce it to my friends.

What else can we look forward to from Jeremy Burnham?  I know Stack & Attack still has its Kickstarter campaign to run, but any other ideas floating around for the future that you’d like to share?

I love the idea of using board games as learning tools, so I’m kicking around some ideas for games that teach business strategy or practical life skills, like personal finance.  The key in this space is designing a game that is educational, fun to play, and easy to learn, because you’re selling the game primarily to non-gamers.  Marketing this type of game presents a host of additional challenges different than those we faced with Stack & Attack, but I’m looking forward to taking them on!

And, of course, the most important question:  if you had to pick one board game to play with a bunch of our cave-dwelling ancestors, which one would you pick and why?

Pictionary.  I fully believe that most cave drawings that remain today are left over from ancient sessions of this party game.  I’d definitely avoid games with dice, which could be seen as “cursed by the gods”, and small tokens, which could be mistaken for sources of food.

Thanks for your time, Jeremy.  And there you have it folks.  Ancient Cro-Magnon Man no doubt played Pictionary!  I suspected as much.  Take that Indiana Jones!  If that revelation isn’t incentive enough to check out Stack & Attack on Kickstarter, then at least head over to their campaign page for its unique and accessible game play.  The campaign runs until October 10 and a pledge of $25 will get a copy of the game.  Hurry now before the opportunity becomes extinct!

[Update: Stack & Attack was picked up through Game Salute in late 2013]

I have lots of kids. Board games help me connect with them, while still retaining my sanity...relatively speaking.

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