20 October 2019
Scythe and Charterstone creator Jamey Stegmaier’s Tapestry is reinventing a tabletop epic: the civilisation game. Will the designer’s modern vision advance the classic genre into a new age?
Words by Matt Jarvis
To take on one of gaming’s biggest genres – the civilisation game – Jamey Stegmaier decided to start small.
“I’ve wanted to design my own take on a civ game for a while, but it wasn’t until I stumbled upon some photos of buildings by sculptor Rom Brown before things started to click with me,” the Scythe and Charterstone designer says.
As a hobby, Brown had been creating miniature models for some of his favourite board games using polymer clay, replacing cubes and tokens in the likes of Robinson Crusoe, Stronghold and Mice and Mystics with finely-detailed facsimiles of food, terrain and more. After happening upon some images of Brown’s work, Stegmaier contacted the sculptor to see if he was interested in creating some buildings for his project, which would later be dubbed Codename Clay before ultimately becoming Tapestry.
“At that point the only things I knew about the game were (a) I wanted it to have some memorably distinct components that would make people feel a sense of pride in their civilisation and (b) I wanted the game to be grounded in reality but not in real-world history: no historical events, people or places,” Stegmaier recalls. “I took those foundational elements and ran with the design from there.”
When it came to building Tapestry’s gameplay on top of Brown’s miniatures, Stegmaier turned to the modern classics of the civilisation genre. This included card games such as Through the Ages and 7 Wonders (Stegmaier’s own favourite civ game), as well as Sid Meier’s Civilization V, the 2010 instalment in the long-running computer game series.
“Among a number of tabletop civilisation games, Sid Meier’s Civilization certainly had an impact as well, largely because I think so many think of it when they think of civ games,” the designer explains. “The primary elements from it that I wanted to evoke were a sense of progression through expansion, technology and increasing income, and the desire to take ‘one more turn’.”
Although Stegmaier wanted his contribution to the genre to evoke the same grand sense of building up an empire over the course of history and juggling competitive expansion with self-sustainability, he also saw an opportunity to strip the genre back to its central thread of advancing through the ages.
“I noticed that a number of so-called civ games that – in my opinion – are actually ‘dudes on a map’ empire-building games, which to me is a different genre,” he says. “I really wanted my civ game to span from the beginning of mankind into the future, which to me meant not focusing on moving units around a map; there is a map and a military component to Tapestry, but on a macro level.”
Tapestry’s cultural progression is split into four key aspects: science, technology, military and exploration. When a player chooses to advance their civilisation, they pay resources to advance along one of the tracks, unlocking bonuses and performing actions related to each as they pass specific points.
“The advancement tracks basically allowed me to incorporate 48 unique actions into the game without ever overwhelming the players, as they only have four actions at any given time, depending on their positions on the tracks,” Stegmaier says, pointing out that Tapestry’s rulebook is just four pages long. “The tracks lead to some emergent narrative, as there are no gates – you can advance all the way on one or two tracks and barely touch the others.”
The exploration track will see players uncovering parts of the map, while technology brings inventions. Researching science allows players to roll a 12-sided die (Stegmaier’s preferred polyhedral) to advance along the matching track – something the designer feels reflects the unpredictable way that some leaps in human knowledge have happened.
“I think they’ll feel like the tech trees that fans of the genre are familiar with, though they’ll also feel a little different since advancing in science, for example, is never blocked by your position on another track,” Stegmaier says.
“The main challenge was balancing the different tracks so each one – and each combination of tracks – provided viable paths to victory. Blind playtesting really helped with that, culminating in some very useful Automa [single-player mode] playtests by min-maxers that helped us eliminate some infinite loops. We also wanted players to be able to advance on some tracks but not finish all tracks, so that took quite a bit of balancing.”
GO YOUR OWN WAY
There are no fixed rounds or phases in Tapestry; players take turns until everyone around the table has triggered their income phase five times. With players able to choose to advance or claim income when they like, each civilisation progresses at its own pace.
“That was an interesting design challenge: to make a game with income without breaking it into rounds,” Stegmaier says. “I found that this flowed so much better, though, and it eliminated fiddly things like first-player status.”
Players can freely explore the map, which is freshly generated during each game using hex tiles gradually placed around the civs’ fixed starting regions. As players’ civs advance into the modern age, they can even go beyond the board and venture into outer space later in the game – Stegmaier’s response to the disappointingly earthbound nature of other games in the genre.
Instead of exploring, players can conquer already explored hexes, rolling dice to gather points and resources. If an opponent already controls the hex, the second conquer ‘topples’ the owner and stops another scrap over the same space for the rest of the playthrough; the conflict between players is deliberately limited.
“It’s not combat, but you can take over territories controlled by other players,” Stegmaier explains.
This softer competitive edge runs throughout Tapestry. Players race to be the first to achieve shared objectives and beat their neighbours into a new era of advancements. Trap cards in a player’s hand can be used to hinder opponents’ attempts at expansion and conquering. There’s interaction, but the focus is on everyone being able to progress in their own way.
“Tapestry takes place in a big world where the civilisations are far apart from each other at first, thematically and mechanically,” Stegmaier says. “I wanted to avoid the idea that some civ games have that just because you discovered boats means that I can’t also discover boats. We can all have boats!”
Progress brings prizes. In Tapestry, the first player to advance to a new tier along one of the game’s tracks claims one of the game’s pre-painted buildings sculpted by Brown.
Each of the landmarks represents a major technological advancement; invent metallurgy and you’ll unlock the forge, for instance. Brown’s sculpts progress with the players’ civilisations, evolving from rudimentary brick huts to space-age skyscrapers. (As a final end-game tiebreaker, the tallest city takes the win.)
The clay-like buildings are constructed in each player’s capital city, a grid mat with a randomised landscape and squares of inaccessible terrain that players must work around to expand their metropolis.
“The capital city itself is somewhat abstract – you’ll score points for completed rows and columns, and you’ll gain instant resources whenever you complete a district,” Stegmaier says. “Tapestry isn’t a city-building game, but I thought it was important to give players a specific place to be proud of – the map kind of does that, but it’s not the same as gazing upon a colourful, elevated city filled with all types of building miniatures, many of which are pre-painted.”
The bigger landmarks join smaller one-by-one income buildings, which are moved from a player’s mat to their city as players gain advancements and progress through the game. Stegmaier describes the puzzle-like scoring system as inspired by tile-laying board games such as Uwe Rosenberg’s Viking epic A Feast for Odin.
“In a way, yes, though they’re not tiles – they’re building miniatures,” he adds. “The game is mostly very macro-level: you’re looking out onto a vast world and making broad advancements on the board. But on your player mats, you have more micro-level things to focus on, as I think they help to anchor memorable moments.
“There are a number of connections between the macro and micro aspects to the game – they don’t feel like separate games, just part of the overall story you’re telling.”
Since Francis Tresham pioneered the civ game with the epic that gave the genre its name – Civilization – in 1980, civ games have largely stuck diligently to recreating human history.
Tapestry sees Stegmaier deliberately veer away from actual antiquity. Rather than the Romans, Egyptians or Greeks, Tapestry’s races represent broader ideas of cultural progression and philosophy. Your people might be leaders able to guide their civilisation forward, isolationists that refuse to share ground with their neighbours, craftsmen striving to construct a towering world wonder or even merrymakers who simply revel in living life, reaping benefits as their society thrives.
While the civs span different beliefs and values, Tapestry is notable as a civ game for the absence of religion as a factor in societies’ evolution; Stegmaier has admitted that he felt that the subject would prove too contentious and excised it from his fictional reimagining.
The game includes 16 such civilisations, every one of them different from the next. Although the civs offer their players unique abilities catered to exploration, economy, construction and more, Stegmaier is adamant that they never force the players into adopting a particular play style.
“That’s the tough thing about asymmetric starting abilities, isn’t it? You want to make each of them unique, but you don’t want to entirely dictate what players do so they still have freedom and agency,” he says. “I think I found a good balance between the two over time with the 16 unique civilisations in Tapestry. Each is unique and powerful in its own way, but if you don’t use your civ well – or in some cases if you just ignore it – you still have a chance at winning.”
Although it doesn’t follow human history to the letter, Tapestry nevertheless echoes humankind’s innovations over the eons. As their technology track advances, players’ civilisations can create world-changing inventions by drawing cards from the technology deck, be they the printing press, the light bulb, irrigation or
even more futuristic leaps such as time travel and drone assassins. (Some of the technology cards add another building to your city, like a communications tower, bakery or library.) As time passes and players progress through their income turns, the technology develops further, giving the player even more benefits as a benefit of their civilisation improving – although some also require the players’ neighbours to have progressed their own civ to a certain point.
The way in which players gain technology and advance their civilisation – potentially focusing on just one or two aspects of cultural and scientific development – means that Tapestry’s timeline can diverge significantly from real life, with potentially entertaining results. For example, your people might stumble upon the secrets of travelling in time before penicillin, or manage to master nanotechnology before creating the battery.
“I wanted to give players an opportunity to tell their own stories, even if they vary almost comically from the real world,” Stegmaier says.
It all comes back to Stegmaier’s vision of a civilisation game that lets players truly develop their civilisation in the way they want to, rather than being beholden to the limits of reality. It’s the sense of weaving a new history that gave Tapestry its name, inspired by the fabric records of key battles and moments throughout the ages.
In the game, players create their own historical chronicle by playing a tapestry card from their hand onto their player board during three income rounds. The cards chart the civilisation’s progression from the dawn of humanity (every board begins with the discovery of fire) and give players the chance to shape their society for immediate and ongoing benefits. They might pivot towards industrialism to benefit from their investment in inventions, lean towards feudalism as they erect mighty landmarks, embrace the scientific advantages of experimenting with empiricism or even broker peace to forgo combat but gain victory points as their warmongering opponents clash. With the selection of tapestry cards never the same for players during each game, it’s another flexible retelling of real-world history that lets players’ civs forge their own unique saga.
“The goal was to allow players to tell their own stories instead of being beholden to repeating history,” Stegmaier says. “If there is a land war in Tapestry or a moment when you switch from a dystopian society to a capitalistic one or a time when you use your civilisation ability to discover alchemy, it’s your unique story, not one that has already been told.”
ONE AND DONE
Stegmaier has said that Tapestry will be the one and only civilisation game he designs, part of the reasoning behind its no-expense-spared presentation. He adds that treading fresh ground in each new game is something he aims to continue.
“I prefer to try different genres and mechanisms in each of my games, even though I think people may see a similar style in many of them,” he says. “That’s also for Stonemaier Games, not just me as a designer. We release so few games among a giant marketplace flooded with games that I want each of our games to really stand out and hopefully be seen as innovative.”
It’s hard not to consider that Tapestry might have made a fitting legacy game, as players advance their civilisation through the ages, leading their society in a particular direction and developing its ages-long scientific and cultural progression across multiple playthroughs. After all, Stegmaier experimented with the legacy format in his last game, Charterstone, allowing players to build up their village over the source of a multi-chapter campaign. He reveals that it was an idea that he considered, but decided that allowing players to see their civilisation’s progress from start to finish in a single two-hour session was ultimately the right choice.
“There were times when I was tempted to let players tell the stories of their civilisations over multiple games but in the end, and early into the design, I decided it would be more satisfying to build a civ, admire, then start over from scratch with something new and unique,” he says confidently. “In terms of design, Tapestry was much easier to design and test as a result, as we didn’t need to chain together multiple sessions with an exponentially increasing number of variables.”
As for what comes next, Stegmaier mentions that he typically has two games in the works at a time; one that’s been boiling away for a long time is a “massive” open-world exploration game inspired by tabletop adventure The 7th Continent and The Legend of Zelda video game Breath of the Wild. The designer confirms the ambitious project, which has been in development since at least 2017, is now his main focus, with a prospective release in 2021.
Although the designer plans to keep moving onto something new in his games, he reflects that his overall ambitions remain unchanged.
“I would say they’ve always been to bring people joy,” he says. “It’s all about giving people the opportunity to have fun. I would say that goal has remained consistent throughout my short career as a designer and publisher.”
This review originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.