Chris Scaffidi is a web developer with a PhD in software engineering and was formerly an Associate Professor at Oregon State University. He now runs the software consulting firm, Fervent Workshop. Chris and I had a conversation via email about his upcoming board game, Tomten, which will be Chris’ first released game and will be published by Brains & Brawn Gaming.
Since this is our first time chatting, I’d like to get to know you better before we dig into your game. How long have you been in the hobby and how long have you been designing games?
My family introduced me to board games so early that I don’t remember when I first played them. We sometimes invented games of our own, such as a friendly role-playing Monopoly in which my 2 brothers, 2 sisters, and I set up little shops in the basement and visited each others’ businesses. I’ve designed games professionally since mid-2020 when I left the university to start my business, with the long-term goal of creating tabletop games available digitally and physically. While I work toward that goal, consulting pays the bills and continually deepens my skills with a range of programming tools.
You have multiple degrees in mathematics and physics, culminating in a doctorate in software engineering. This seems like a background that would aid in the game design process. Do you find it more useful to approach designing a game as a computer scientist or as a player of many board games?
They go hand in hand. In software engineering, I always start with the user in mind. In game design, I always start with the player in mind. In each case, I work backward from a desired experience to the mechanics and components that will achieve the desired experience. Having used or studied web applications facilitates my design of web applications. Having played or studied tabletop games facilitates my design of tabletop games. Being a designer and being a user go hand in hand.
Sometimes designers will have a game design and work in a theme, other times they start with a theme and connect the mechanics to it. In the case of Tomten, which came first, the theme or the design?
Theme drove this game. I quickly learned in late 2020, with another game of mine and via feedback from other designers, that most publishers ignore most game designers most of the time. So I set out to design a game that I could self-publish myself if need be. One big piece of value that publishers provide is funding for art, so I searched for public domain art that I could retouch and otherwise modify for my game. This brought me to these gnomes.
Avid Christmas card senders might find the gnome artwork in Tomten familiar. Who made the artwork you are using for the game?
Jenny Nyström, a Swedish school teacher and professionally-trained artist, lived 1854-1946. As with most creative types, publishers generally declined her work until she found a hook for her illustrations, namely a Swedish children’s book from 1871 about a troll who helped deliver Christmas gifts. The author liked her illustrations and interceded to get her some attention with the publisher. Her illustrated edition was a massive success that she used to springboard a long and productive career illustrating holiday postcards depicting delightful Christmas gnomes.
Until I did some Googling, I was under the impression you lived in Sweden. Do you come from a Swedish family? How did you learn about these Scandinavian traditions and decide to make a game within that tradition?
Nope, I’m not Swedish. As I myself Googled for public domain art, I ran across sites like Historian Ruby that discussed how Jenny Nyström’s work was passing into the public domain, which generally happens 70 years after an artist dies. That inspired me to dig deeper and read about Swedish traditions so that the game could properly reflect the theme.
As I understand the theme, Tomten are gnomes, similar in some ways to Christmas elves. How are they related?
Many civilizations have a folklore involving magical little creatures that help around the farm and home. Examples include the Broonie (brownie) of Scotland, the Duende (elf) of Spain, and the Tomten (troll) of Sweden–which Americans refer to as “gnomes.” Jenny Nyström popularized the involvement of these characters in the context of Christmas. In parallel, the American poem Night Before Christmas in 1823 portrayed a big jolly elf named Santa who brought gifts. Disney brought the little guys and the big guy together in the 1932 film Santa’s Workshop, from which we get our modern understanding of Christmas elves and the whole scene at the North Pole.
The game mentions Epiphany and St. Knut’s Day. I’m not familiar with these holidays. How do Swedes celebrate these days?
The 12 days of Christmas refer to the time after Christmas, leading to the worship of Jesus by the wise men on January 6. Christians call this “Epiphany” because that shocking event (among others) suddenly revealed that Jesus was more than just a human baby. St. Knut’s Day on January 13 ends the holiday season. It’s named after a ruthless 11th-century Scandinavian king who repented of his sins, who became hugely generous (making him something of a medieval Scrooge), and who declared that it was good for all Scandinavians to celebrate Christmas for 20 days instead of just 12. Traditionally, Swedes ended the season by ransacking the tree for candies hung as decorations. Today, Swedes vary in how they celebrate these and other holidays, whether by having big feasts, singing songs, and/or simply taking a quiet day off work to be with family.
When designing a game around a specific holiday, what factors do you try to include to capture the spirit of that holiday?
I follow a process that I learned from Jamey Stegmaier, as he designed Scythe based on an artist’s existing work. Like him, I made a big board of pictures and stared at it for a long time, trying to imagine what the characters in the art were thinking and feeling so that I could see the world through their eyes. I recognized that the gnomes valued feeling cozy, relaxing, and helping one another with Christmas tasks. That led to a design that requires players to balance rest with work, and task cards that players can help one another to complete. They have a limited time to do it, which led to the time track mechanic (taking the form of a calendar on the board). In other words, I tried to give players the experience of Christmas through the eyes of the gnomes, and then I used mechanics and components to achieve the desired experience.
Other than your own games of course, what games will you be playing over this holiday season?
I gravitate toward engine-builders with fast turns and satisfying art. So I play a lot of Stonemaier games, especially Tapestry when I’m feeling friendly, Scythe when I’m feeling intense, and Wingspan when I’m feeling comfy. All of these excel in both competitive and solo modes. My favorite game with players who like super-light games is Valeria, and my favorite 2-player game is Innovation.
Let’s get into more of the specifics of Tomten. What do players do on their turns?
The board presents task (“Jobb”) cards, each of which has two tasks. Gnomes are friendly even when competitive; one player might do both tasks of a card, or different players might do the two tasks. On your turn, you can either work or rest. When you work, you place dice or other resources onto a task, and this also costs you some calendar days, so you move your calendar marker. When you rest, you recover dice or other resources and spend 1 calendar day.
Rather than normal sequential turns, the next player is determined by who is furthest back on the calendar. Often in games with this time track mechanic, players will take advantage of getting back to back turns if their action has them land exactly on top of the second furthest back player. I noticed a rule that might make players think twice about doing this. Do you want to explain that rule and its meaning?
Yes, the time track mechanic is notorious for rewarding players who take tiny little actions. If you do this in Tomten, your calendar marker will land on other players’ markers a lot. When you meet on the calendar this way, the other player gets to have a little bonus that varies by game (either points or various resources). We call it the “Omfamna,” which is Swedish for “friendly hug.” In a competitive game, this helps disincentive the tiny-little-action strategy. In Tomten’s team mode or coop modes, however, you will be thinking collaboratively about how to trigger these hugs by planning out how to intentionally land on teammates’ markers. As a result, the team and coop modes feel very different from the competitive mode.
That’s neat how the same rule flips decisions in the different game modes. How do the task cards and scoring work?
As I mentioned, each task card has two tasks. When both tasks are done, one task gives points and/or resources as a reward, and the other task gives the card itself, which the player flips and places into a tableau. Some cards in the tableau give points when the player subsequently works, others give points when the player subsequently rests, and the remainder give points when the player meets card-specific criteria at the holidays. For example, the player might score by having certain dice or other resources on hand at Christmas Eve, Epiphany, and St. Knut’s Days. Many cards give points on the final St. Knut’s holiday if the player collects cards with certain art.
It’s interesting that you were able to take existing artwork and tie it in so closely to scoring points in the game. How does that specific scoring work?
The game is about experiencing Christmas through the eyes of the gnomes. These cards depict those experiences. So a happy gnome will want to collect certain kinds of happy memories from the season. For example, various cards reward the player for collecting cards depicting porridge, tea or other beverages, jolly animal friends of the gnomes, and gifts. All of these artistic motifs tie into the traditional gnome experience. To ease gameplay, each card has an annotation iconographically summarizing the artistic content of the card, so that players can quickly scan for cards that match their current bonus goals.
The game includes 16 custom dice, 4 per player. Do you know what materials these dice will be made of? Will the campaign include stretch goals for deluxe dice?
The dice will be engraved wooden dice with the inside of the engravings painted or screen printed with the player colors. As far as stretch goals, the publisher’s general policy is to design the base game to the desired standard, rather than adding deluxe or upgraded components as a stretch goal. However, he’s still pricing out some deluxe add-ons that won’t change gameplay but can increase the aesthetic. Instead of stretch goals unlocking additional components, they will unlock stretch credits that can be used towards additional games and/or shipping costs in the pledge manager. So, ultimately, the more backers we get, the less would have to be paid by the backers for shipping.
Last few questions. Do you have a design blog or Twitter where people can follow the development of your games? When will Tomten launch on Kickstarter?
Rather than consolidating information into a single space that people have to seek out, we’re trying to bring it to the players in their own preferred channels by reaching out to bloggers, vloggers and reviewers interested in the game. In addition, we’ll provide information through the Kickstarter page, which you can follow now so that you’re ready for the launch on Feb 1, 2022. The publisher’s goal is to deliver games in time for Christmas next year.