Meeting Stefan Alexander
Published by Forgenext
Hi Stefan, can you introduce yourself?
I’m an electrical engineer, and I currently lead a team developing new technologies for wearable computing. I get to work on big problems that take years to solve and involve many researchers and suppliers all over the world. I love the process of working with the team to come up with ideas, and working through the twists and turns when things don’t work out as you hoped. So designing board games is a perfect complementary hobby for me, since it’s similar but offers me a few things that my other job doesn’t: it’s low-tech and very tactile, and I can solve the problems immediately and completely within my own head.
Cubirds is not your first boardgame published…
It’s my third published game (and there are more that have been licensed but not published yet). The first was King Chocolate, a game with very simple rules that ends up with some complex supply chain economics. The second was Area 51, where players build storage facilities to hold alien artifacts, with a unique scoring and building system that drives some hard decisions. Cubirds is my first pure card game, and the simplest of the three.
What came first to you as you designed Cubirds? The theme or the mechanics?
The theme came first. I remember attending my daughter’s school dance recital many years ago; to occupy myself during the overlong wait for her turn, my mind wandered to the topic of games. During one of the performances, the children were dressed as various types of birds and they kept arranging themselves in different orders. I thought that would make an interesting card game, and by the time my daughter appeared onstage, I had the basics of the game designed. (It would take me several more years to get it perfect!)
Are you fond of card games?
I love games with simple, elegant rules but with significant emergent complexity. So many card games fall into this category. I love playing them, I love studying their designs, and I love the process of limiting myself to just cards in a design. I design a lot of card games (so far Cubirds is the only one that has been published).
What do you think is the most original in Cubirds?
It’s a simple game, so I think it must be the flocking mechanic. In a rummy-style set collection game, you are really only discarding some cards and picking up others. Having a new mechanic where you do both simultaneously felt pretty unique.
What do you think about the illustrations chosen by Catch up?
I was really hoping for some great bird art to be able to make the gameplay feel even more interesting. I love the illustrations chosen by Catch up: they add so much visual appeal and I think they fit the aesthetic of the game perfectly. There are also some great variations in detail that are fun to look for while you play.
I’m also happy with all the detail in the backgrounds of the cards. One thing that’s important to me in my designs is that every component represents something real, rather than an abstract concept, and that the configuration of the game on the table looks somewhat like it would in real life. I like maps and spatial relationships. I would rather not have action point counters or a scoring track, and would instead prefer to have players put physical resources in places, and collect physical objects as score. I’m not always fully successful, but in Cubirds I liked that every card represented only one bird, and the birds on the table were resting and still and in a line, and the birds in the players’ hands were in the air and moving around. The backgrounds showing the birds in their actual environments helps with this even more.
What did you think of the work of Catch up on the game?
The game went through a lot of development before I was ready to show it. It’s surprisingly challenging to develop a simple game with simple rules, because if you want to change one minor thing, tweaking one rule changes everything (and not just the thing you’re trying to fix). The card distribution is also important, and often tweaking a rule requires all new card distributions. The number of rows, number of birds of each type, number of types, and starting cards all changed many times until I understood the relationships between these values and the gameplay. I built a large spreadsheet to work from and can put these relationships in there to see how different card distributions affect the gameplay aspects I’m interested in, like round length, game length, minimum number of turns, etc. After about 30 different versions (all of which got play tested, some many times), I ended up with a version that I liked and was ready to show.
Forgenext (my agent) and Catch up identified a couple of problems: the game length was hard to gauge and a rule around stealing score cards from others made some people feel discouraged. At first I was uncertain about the proposed changes, but after testing them it was undeniably better. Changes that remove rules and make the game simpler are almost universally improvements.
What is the best number of players to play Cubirds?
I think almost all multiplayer games with sequential turns play best with three players, and Cubirds is no exception. There’s minimal downtime and the game doesn’t change as much between turns, but you still get the extra complexity of interacting with more than one opponent.
I always try to make my games work well with at least 2-5 players, which usually means very short turns and a lot of balancing to ensure the game still plays the same. The two-player version is usually the hardest to balance.
What’s your favorite move when you play Cubirds?
I’ll often place birds and not pick anything up. When explaining the game I tell people that move is powerful, but usually they don’t listen and keep picking up more and more birds. I like going out first and making everyone else lose their cards, if I can do that more than anyone else it gives a significant advantage.
Which other boardgame would you compare to Cubirds if you were asked?
Perhaps the Mystery Rummy series – since it’s based on similar set collection rules but with some extra layers involved.
What’s your favorite boardgame at the moment?
In the last few years I haven’t played many new games, due to a busy schedule, though I find myself coming back to Chicago Express when I do have time. It offers complex, emergent gameplay with really simple rules in a short playtime. That’s my benchmark for the types of games I want to design and I don’t seem to get tired of it. I also love to play it with people for the first time and see as they realize what the game is really about.