13 Questions with Shem Phillips

Shem Phillips is a game designer who is well known for his Vikings of the North Sea trilogy of games. I was able to play Raiders of the North Sea, which was nominated for the Spiel des Jahres. I really enjoyed the theme and unique take of worker placement here. Finding specific workers for different locations, and then also putting down a worker and picking up a different one added something new to consider while playing. Raiders of the North Sea is so good that it automatically vaulted into my personal top 10 favorite games of all time!

Raiders of the North sea game on.jpg


I was able to interview Shem who gave us some insights into his design process, as well as his new trilogy of games, set in the West Frankish kingdom. 

Below is our 13 Questions with Shem Phillips.

1.    Where do you get inspiration for your games?
The main inspiration is often other games – digital and tabletop. I played (and still play) a lot of Age of Empires II on PC. This has been a big influence on all my recent medieval games.

2.    Do you keep a note journal for your ideas, gaming or otherwise?
I use Google Drive for all my ideas. I have a Google Doc with a bunch of concepts – single paragraph kind of stuff. I also use Google Sheets when working on prototypes. Sometimes I will end up using Adobe Illustrator to jot down ideas, since it's easy to have graphics and text all in one place. This can help when trying to visualize the game on a table.

3.    When did you know that the trilogy of Viking games would be something special?
After the unexpected success of Shipwrights on Kickstarter, I knew I was onto something good. The Mico (artist) started growing quickly in popularity. There was a lot of demand for a follow up game, and so Raiders was born.

4.    When did you realize that you “needed” to create games and other creative projects?
I've always been creating. My brother and I use to design our own superheroes and other characters when we were very young. I started song writing when I was about 9 years old. In the past I've also designed websites, t-shirts, logos and various other things. I grew up playing a lot of the classic American games, but only discovered modern games in my early twenties. Being a creative junkie, I dove straight into designing my own.

5.    What kind of creative routines or patterns do you have, if any?
Trying to force creativity has never worked for me. I find I'm most creative away from my computer. Laying in bed early in the morning, thinking about new ideas is a common thing for me.

6.    What is your favorite morning drink?
Hot chocolate.

7.    What gives you the greatest satisfaction from designing your games?
There's a few things. I love when artists send me new files during development. Seeing others enjoy my games and discovering hidden depth within each game – that never gets old. I also really enjoy getting the finished print copy in my hands for the first time.

8.    What does your design process look like?
Stare at computer. Read old notes. Give up. Play some Age of Empires II. Play a prototype. Give up. Go to sleep and think over new ideas. Give up on sleeping – get up and 4am to work on my new ideas. Rinse and repeat! Not sure that counts as a process?

9.    What physical pieces do you use most when designing or prototyping a game?
Card sleeves, coloured cubes and meeples.

10.    Do you collect anything?
Board games (surprise, surprise). I have some figurines from Final Fantasy and Lord of the Rings. I collect dice too.

11.    Is there somewhere you would like to travel that you haven't been to yet?
Egypt, France, Italy, New York in Christmas.

12.    What game designers are you a fan of?
The Brunos – Cathala and Faidutti. Stefan Feld, Matt Leacock, Vlaada Chvátil.

13a.    What games are you currently playing the most?
Other than prototypes, Scythe, Sagrada, Kingdomino, Pandemic (in various forms), By Order of the Queen. Dead of Winter.

13b.    Any hint or ideas of something new you are creating next?
Architects of the West Kingdom will be my next release. As you might guess, it's part 1 in the start of a new trilogy, set in the West Frankish kingdom. This game is also my first co-design. It's been a really great experience working with a good friend.

Thanks Shem for the interview!

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13 Questions with Lorenzo Gaggiotti

I was fortunate enough to grab some time from Lorenzo Gaggiotti, an amazing artist living in Sweden. I love seeing custom playing cards, and he is one of the absolute best. His cards are known for astounding attention to detail, and are printed by USPCC (Bicycle) as well as EPCC. Some of his well known decks include Requiem, Heretic, and No. 17.  Among other things, he is currently working on 2 new decks, including Gemini and Ravn.

Some detail from Lorenzo's Requiem cards

Some detail from Lorenzo's Requiem cards

Where do you draw your inspiration for your designs?

When we talk about my designs, inspiration comes when I see something that somebody already made/created. Sometimes the work of other artists give me inspiration to start a project or a learning path. It's not copying; it's channeling the energy of a specific piece of art or design. Then I elaborate it, and I release something that has got the same energy, even though the design is totally different. The “wow factor” is an emotion that I want to feel when I finalize my designs.

How long does it take to come up with a design?

A fully custom deck might take up to 4 months if I frequently work on it. But it's not just drawing directly on Photoshop; I do a lot of sketches and studies on paper, and there is a lot of waiting time before I finalize a design. This is because I need to look at the drawings with “fresh eyes”, spot the mistakes and what needs to be changed.

My favorite card deck is Requiem. The individual detail is amazing. What do each of your decks represent?

Thank you, very glad that you like it... Requiem was a special project. They are all different among each other. The theme and the styles are different. Above the theme and the style of the illustrations, there is my will of doing something special, something that tells a story. What I like most is to make people curious and wonder what those drawings, symbols, and Latin texts mean.

When did you realize that you needed to create art?

I do not have a date. I have been drawing since I was able to keep a pencil in my hand. It is something automatic and instinctive that just happens in a spontaneous and natural way.

What kind of creative routines or patterns do you have, if any?

Once I get inspiration or an idea, I start a long period of research before I start drawing. I read and find pictures related to that theme or idea. I collect a lot of material for additional inspiration and I start doing some sketches. Then the design phase comes; it's when I decide how things will be, to keep them consistent among each other. If things do not work, I start over. The final part is making what you see on the cards, but even when I think I am done with the entire design, I let it “rest” for a few weeks. There is a final phase dedicated only to small changes, tweaks and improvements.

What is your favorite morning drink?

Coffee of course.

When do you get your greatest ideas?

My ideas come when I see or observe something that impresses me or makes me curious. It can be something from the internet as something I see in when I am out in town, or on a trip. It can be a theme, a story, an object, or something mysterious I want to know more about. I am attracted by the unknown and the mysterious aura around astrology, alchemy, legends, mythology, sacred geometry, and magic.

What’s your favorite thing that you’ve created?

I think that Heretic Playing Cards is my favorite one.

What artistic medium have you not pursued yet that you would like to pursue?

I just started to learn calligraphy. I've always been into lettering and fonts and I don't know why I waited so long before buying a calligraphy pen and started practicing.

Do you have any good advice to others who wish to produce creative projects and other art?

TIME. It takes time to create something good, interesting and attractive. Even the most expert designer knows that each project has got its own path that takes time and evolution. Rome wasn't built in a day.

Other than that it is important to have developed skills and education. A deck of playing cards – in my case – takes 3 months to be made, but at the same time it already took 15-20 years of hard work and practice.

What artists do you admire?

Putting aside Leonardo Da Vinci, I'll give you a few names from different artistic fields.

Painting: Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939),

Comics: Milo Manara and Masamune Shirow

Illustration: McBess and Blu

Sculpture: Miguel Ortiz Berrocal (1933-2006)

and at least 200 more names

Do you collect anything?

Not really, even though I have about 200 decks of playing cards from Kickstarter!

Where would you like to travel that you haven’t been yet?

Iceland and Japan are on the list.


Make sure to check out Lorenzo's upcoming projects!

by Bryan Sloan, Black Forest Studio

13 Questions with Death Wish Coffee

My morning started as usual. NEED CAFFEINE IN THE FORM OF COFFEE!  I’m a dark roast guy, and I grind fresh coffee each morning before it goes into my French Press. You can’t beat it. I recently searched for some new coffee, and came across Death Wish Coffee, the #1 Best Seller in Coffee Beverages on Wait, THE #1?  Yes.  I ordered a pound of coffee and loved every ounce. But something amazing happened when my coffee arrived in the mail. The packaging happened. I opened my Amazon box, and every part of my creative juices loved what was inside. The label was big and bold, just like the coffee. I immediately reached out to Death Wish Coffee for an interview, as packaging and marketing is as much about the product as the coffee bean. Soon after, Death Wish also won a Super Bowl commercial! What?! Yes they did, so stay tuned for the big game and watch them as they blow up this year. Below is my interview with Kane Grogan of Death Wish Coffee, who says he has been drinking coffee since his late teens, so he knows a thing or two.

1.       How did you get started?

Owner Mike Brown owned a coffee shop and people kept asking for the strongest coffee they had. After a quick Google search, we discovered there was nothing for the world’s strongest coffee so it was an untapped market. We saw an opportunity and seized it.

2.       Who is the marketing genius?

We all help with the marketing. Initially it was all Mike, but we have all worked as a team to blow this thing up.

3.       I bought a 1 pound bag of coffee beans, and I loved opening the box. It also came with the sticker that I can throw on my laptop, which is cool. Everything about the packaging was awesome. How did you come up with that?

We are on a never ending journey on bringing the best package to your door step. We definitely want you to feel like you’re opening up something special every time you get package from us in the mail. We include some really neat freebies from time to time as well, so it definitely pays to be on our mailing list.

4.       Why was it so important for you to create coffee that was Fair Trade and organic?

On top of delivering bad ass, caffeinated coffee, we didn’t want to sell a gimmick. We wanted top notch, high quality beans. We also care about the farms we source our beans as it is a pretty cut throat industry and there are definitely some places that exploit their farmers pretty seriously. Having it be Fair Trade and Organic ensures we are delivering the best possible product.

5.       How did you get to be the best-seller on Amazon?

Anyone can sell on Amazon, and luckily we have a product that sells itself. We’ve been blessed to be able to work with Amazon directly, as they can offer things we can’t on our website such as free (prime) or expedited shipping. A lot of people use Amazon exclusively so it just kind of grew and grew. It even out performs our site sometimes, which is huge.

6.       Who is your coffee for?

Our coffee is for anyone who wants to really enjoy good coffee. There is a lot of bad coffee out there. We deliver a very strong, smooth blend that doesn’t come with the bitter, burnt taste. Our coffee is for the go-getter who wants to get stuff done and isn’t afraid to take risks.

7.       Any plans for new types of coffee?

We experiment a lot. Innovation is one of our favorite parts of the process. We have done a lot of barrel aging beans in whiskey and rum barrels to get it different flavors. We have experimented with different natural types of flavoring (most flavored coffee on the market uses a lot of chemicals) so stay tuned for seasonal blends.

8.       Any store openings planned?

At this time, we aren’t interested in having a Death Wish store, but we are trying to find ways to set up distribution with chains across the country so stay tuned for that!

9.       What can you share with us regarding future plans?

Beyond getting into stores on a national level, we have some cool things coming up. We have a vodka coming out with Albany Distilling Co. which is VERY tasty and we have some exciting announcements with the comic book community. Oh, we also won a SUPER BOWL COMMERCIAL! No big deal…

10.   Who is your favorite soccer team?

Team USA!

11.   Where did you get the inspiration for your coffee name?

Mike wanted coffee so strong it needed a warning and Death Wish just seemed to fit the best.

12.   Do you collect anything?

I collect bad habits and then collect ways to break them.

13.   Is there somewhere you would like to travel that you haven’t been to yet?

I would love to go to so many places and Death Wish is starting to allow me to go to places for work which is truly a blessing. I’d love to spend more time out west and also Europe. New Zealand is definitely up there.


Thank you Death Wish Coffee! I’m pumped about your new plans, and I’m looking forward to trying out the Valhalla Java next.

by Bryan Sloan, Black Forest Studio

13 Questions with Jamey Stegmaier

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There is no “normal” day for Jamey Stegmaier, as he is an entrepreneur. What has he done in the last few months?  Simply published a book on crowdfunding, available on Amazon, and raised over $1.8 million via Kickstarter for his new tabletop game, Scythe. In between all of this, and running a business, he took the time to answer a few questions for me regarding games, inspiration, his cats, and his design process.

1.       Where do you get inspiration for your games?

I get inspiration from things that capture my imagination. That’s a pretty broad category that includes other games, movies, television shows, books, etc. Usually it’s just a little thing that makes me think, “Wouldn’t that be cool in a board game?”

2.       Do you keep a note journal for your ideas, gaming or otherwise?

I do, kind of. I use a web app called Trello to keep track of my ideas. I have different boards on Trello for general game/theme and mechanism ideas, then separate boards for specific games. If I decide to brainstorm about a specific idea, I do it with pencil and paper and organize them into colored folders so I can find them later.

3.       Parents say they don’t have a “favorite” child. But be honest - which cat is your favorite, Walter or Biddy, and why?

Oh, definitely Biddy. He’s my boy. I adopted him when he was a tiny kitten, and he has such a distinct personality. Walter is more like a toy—he’s furry and cute, but that’s pretty much it. I’m very fond of both of them, though.

4.       When did you realize that you “needed” to create games and other creative projects?

I like that you used the word “need,” because I think creative people can relate to that. By “creative people,” I mean people who actually create stuff. I first felt that need for board games when I was 7 or 8 years old. I had only played a few board games at that point, but I felt a strong need not just to play them, but also to create them. It was around the same time (probably a little before then) that I felt the same need to write fiction.

5.       What kind of creative routines or patterns do you have, if any?

I have to be intentional about creative time, because I have so many other things to do involving my business. Like, in the next few days, I need to put together my tax documents, register our Gen Con events, and create a list of questions for a panel on which I’m participating in a few weeks. That’s in addition to all the daily maintenance and project management I need to do, as well as customer service (which is a lot of what I do), order processing, and staying up to date on the board game industry through all the blogs, podcasts, and video channels. Then I also have to (and enjoy) play a lot of games. Basically, it would be all too easy to fill my days, weeks, and months without ever actually creating anything, so I have to be really intentional every day to spend at least 1 hour brainstorming or moving forward with one of the many projects I have in the works. Even if it doesn’t end up going anywhere, like you said before, it is a need of mine—creating is essential to who I am.

6.       What is your favorite morning drink?

Water! I love hydrating in the morning.

7.       When do you get your greatest ideas?

It’s hard to put a classifier (“greatest”) on an idea, because an idea isn’t really anything of itself. I don’t think I’ve ever had an idea that was instantly great—rather, it takes a lot of time and effort after the inception of the idea to make it great. But I see what you’re getting at, and I’ve found that the time of day doesn’t matter. Rather, it’s anytime that I have some completely uninterrupted (no e-mail, computer, phone, etc) time and space to think and brainstorm that I’m at my best creatively.

8.       Who is your favorite soccer team?

The US Women’s National team. Though I most closely follow the English Premier League, and I don’t have a strong alliance towards any team there. I often find myself rooting for the plucky overachieving underdogs, like Leicester this season.

9.       What gives you the greatest satisfaction from designing your games?

The act of creation is very satisfying to me—like, I go to bed happy whenever I made progress on a game that day. But in the long run, I want to create things that people actually play and cherish. I think my favorite and most satisfying moments happen when someone reaches out to me to say that they really connected with someone else over a game I designed. I hear this a lot from couples who play Viticulture, and I’ve heard it from parents who played Euphoria with their kids and had a great time as a family. Those are the moments that stick with me.

10.   What does your design process look like?

Oo, that’s a big question, so I’ll try to answer it very briefly. I brainstorm a lot of games on pencil and paper—maybe 30-40 games a year. Out of those game ideas, I’ll spend a decent amount of time focusing on brainstorming 20 of them. Of those, I’ll prototype/write rules for about 10 of them and test them out a few times. Of those, only about 1 survives to fully enter the design cycle of prototyping, playing, revising, prototyping, etc. I’ll start off playing those prototypes with my business partner, and when the game has taken enough of a shape that I don’t feel like I’m wasting my friends’ time, I’ll expand the playtests to my local friends. The prototype/playtest cycle will continue with them for 2-3 months, and eventually the game will get to the point where it’s fun, the rules are cohesive, and I’m not embarrassed by something that a lot of people will see, at which point I’ll release it for blind playtesting, which takes another 2-3 months. By the end of blind playtesting, there should be a cohesive, near-complete game.

And what physical pieces do you use most when designing or prototyping a game?

Interesting question. I have a lot of bits and tokens that I use, and my treasure chests come in handy when prototyping. I would say 1cm cubes are probably the most common physical piece I use in prototypes, though.

11.   Do you collect anything?

Not really. I don’t have the desire to amass things just to have them or to have them all, though I’m thankful for all the gamers who have that inclination for our games! :) I do have a sizable game collection, but I prefer to only keep games I actively play. If I don’t play a game for a year, I donate it to other gamers.

12.   Is there somewhere you would like to travel that you haven’t been to yet?

Yes, plenty! One of the first places that comes to mind is Cinque Terre in Italy. It looks stunning in photos.

13.   Any hint or ideas of something new you would like to create yet?

Sure, I have lots of games on my checklist that I want to create. Near the top of that list is a legacy game and a cooperative game. Both present very different design challenges that I’d like to explore.

Big thanks to Jamey Stegmaier for taking time out of his day to give us some insights into his design processes and inspirations! It's an honor to have Jamey as the first interview for this new series of interviews of my favorite creative people. You can check out Jamey's company Stonemaier Games as well as his personal blog for more.

(by Bryan Sloan, Black Forest Studio)