Circle The Circus in the Grove – A Conversation With … Steven Aramini


I’m BACK! And now a proud member of The Indie Game Report network. This time out I’m talking to Steven Aramini. Steven is the hot designer at the moment. He just had TWO successful Kickstarters (Barker’s Row and Circle The Wagons) and two more going on right now (Groves and Coin & Crown). Steven and I have a real nice talk about those games and some of his game design philosophy. I hope you enjoy it.

Hi Steven. Thanks for agreeing to be my guest on Go Forth And Game. First off, introduce yourself to the readers. What’s your gamer cred?

Hi, I’m Steven Aramini. I got into the hobby pretty recently, around 2013, and almost immediately became fascinated with game design. Since then I have been playing as many games as I can get my hands on, and designing pretty much non-stop, too. Additionally, I’m a guest writer on The Indie Game Report, writing about game design topics from a new designer’s perspective. You can find me as stevenaramini on BGG or @stevenaramini on Twitter.

Let’s talk about your games. List them out for us to begin with.

So far I’ve designed “Yardmaster” by Crash Games and “Barker’s Row” by Overworld Games, and co-designed “Circle the Wagons” by Button Shy Games. Additionally I have one game currently on Kickstarter called “Groves” by Letiman Games (co-designed by Dan Letzring) and “Coin & Crown” by Escape Velocity Games coming to Kickstarter later in June, with a few other irons in the fire.

Let’s talk about Yardmaster first since it was your first published game. I’ve played it and it is fun. What’s it about and how is it unique?

Most train games are about building routes and connecting cities. Yardmaster is a little different because it’s strictly about loading your train in the rail yard. It’s essential a race to try to load your train first.

Players collect cards with different cargo like coal, livestock, ore and timber. In the center of the table is an arrival yard where train cars arrive with requirements to take them in the form of a cargo type and required quantity (for example, a livestock car that requires 3 livestock to claim it). When you collect a set that satisfies a card’s requirements, you can take that train car and add it to your engine. However, once you’ve added a car, you must either follow suit or number (think “Uno” mechanic) in order to couple the next car in line. If you can’t, the car goes to a personal sorting yard, where if you play your cards right, you can “chain” cars later in the game. Load enough cars to reach the target score first and you win.

I think one of the most unique aspects of the game is the artwork. It’s this stark, sort of retro graphic design approach (done by my friend Dan Thompson), and I just love that it looks so different from most games out there.

I agree with you. The art is a highlight. It’s stark but in a neat way. Was there any part of the game that you threw out that you wish you could have left in?

The game is pretty true to what I originally conceived. The original game had just four suits and fewer bonus cards, but otherwise it’s the same game.

I know Iello published a Euro version titled “Aramini’s Circus”. It must be pretty cool to have your name in a game title?

That was really unexpected, and definitely cool to see. Even cooler was the fact that they had Mathieu Leyssenne do the artwork for that version. He has done some of my favorite artwork out there, including the art for the game “Jamaica,” which is amazing.

What is the status of Yardmaster now that Crash Games is gone?

The rights to Yardmaster’s game play/rules have reverted back to me, although the artwork is still owned by Crash Games. Hopefully someday a publisher will come calling and want to re-publish it, but for now it’s pretty much out of stock. I think there might be a few copies floating around on Ebay, Amazon or through BGG trade.

OK, how about we talk about Circle The Wagons next. Tell us what it is about and how you got involved with Button Shy.

Circle the Wagons is an 18-card microgame for two players. Fifteen cards are set up in a circle with the final three getting flipped and placed in the center to identify three scoring conditions for the game. Then players take turns drafting cards and placing them in their play area to form their own unique boomtown. There’s a lot of strategy not only in the drafting phase, but also in where and how you place your cards.

We hooked up with Button Shy through their 2016 Wallet Game Design Contest. We entered and thankfully won the contest!

How did you decide on this theme?

I just loved the idea of building a western town, and it felt really natural with the mechanics we developed. From our first play we (me and my co-designers, Danny Devine and Paul Kluka) all knew it was the perfect theme. Funny story…originally the cards were all drafted from a straight line, and then we changed it to a circle and the name fell into place.

Yeah. “Line Up The Wagons” doesn’t have the same ring. What was the hardest part of designing it?

Creating the special scoring conditions was the most challenging. We wanted 18 conditions that each felt wildly different from each other, but could also work well together. That took a lot of playtests to get each one feeling unique and fun.

The Kickstarter did very well. That must feel pretty good. Tell us about the response to Circle.

It feels great, and I’m so happy for Jason Tagmire, too. He works so hard to do what he does with Button Shy and I’m glad we are now part of that family.  The response has been really awesome. To have Jason say it’s the best microgame he’s ever played is such an honor. This is a guy that plays and makes some amazing microgames, so that was the ultimate highlight! Oh, and the “Circle the Wagons” song! I mean, how many designers can say they have a song based on their game, right?

Now let’s talk about Barkers’ Row. Who is producing it and what’s it about?

Barker’s Row is being published by Overworld Games. Most people may know them from their game “Good Cop, Bad Cop.” “Barker’s Row” is my crazy, creepy carnival game! This is such a fun theme to me and I’m so grateful it’s becoming a reality. So, in the game players play carnival barkers trying to lure rubes into their sideshow tent to see their attractions. The first player to fill every seat in their grandstand wins. It’s got these amazing components like 3D chipboard grandstands and a stand-up strongman tower that tracks player progress, and just looks so cool on the table.

Overworld is really pulling out the stops on it.  A second successful KS campaign in as many months. You’re riding high huh?

It’s been a crazy stretch, with two more Kickstarters to go this month! While it probably seems like I’m cranking these games out, they’re the result of years of work. I started working on “Barker’s Row” in 2014, for example. It’s just that they all happen to be converging at the same time. ((pic))

What is unique about Barkers’ Row?

The theme feels unique to me. There are a few circus games out there but surprising it’s a pretty barren landscape for carnival sideshows, and the fact that players take on the role of barkers makes the game really a fun experience, if players are open to immersing themselves into the theme.

I really like the theme. A lot. How did you decide on that?

I’ve always been drawn to “retro” designs, like vintage magic show posters or vaudeville posters. That was my original vision for the attractions, to give it a very nostalgic “World’s Fair 1893” vibe. But, of course, Overworld brought a much creepier tone to it that I also love.

I’m a retro fan too. Vintage magic show posters. What a great idea.  But the creepy style is really working. What part of Barkers’ Row are you most proud of?

I’d say the creativity that went into building a very thematic experience. This is definitely not a cube-pushing Euro! From the variety of attractions to the flavor text to the barker cards to the components, everything feels like a dark and quirky carnival. I also really love the Strongman Tower, which is not only thematically the centerpiece of the game but a vital component that supplies what I think is a pretty interesting catch-up mechanic.

That art is great. Who is the artist?

Andrea Olgiati. He did the art for “New Salem” also by Overworld Games, which I thought was incredible, so when I first heard Andrea was attached to do the art, I was super happy about it.

Next is Coin & Crown. What is it about and what is the status of it?

It’s an empire building game with a lot of cool mechanics built-in. It’s a bag builder with set collection, card drafting and tableau building. The part I love most about it is that there are several strategies and paths to victory.

Ooo. A bag builder. Very cool. I’ve not played it yet. Walk us through a turn.

A round begins with you drawing four coins from your bag, called your income. This aspect feels a bit like “Dominion,” as your income recycles when your bag is empty. On your turn, you can basically spend money in the market, go conquering or upgrade a land.

So, on your turn you might buy a pasture so that you can raise sheep each year. Or recruit a troop to aid you in battle. Or donate to the church. Or upgrade your coins in the Imperial Mint. Or conquer a Village. Or plow two wheat fields to upgrade a Hamlet. It’s a very open system that allows you to shape your civilization however you want.


It sounds pretty cool. I like multiple paths to victory (I’m a Feld fan.). It launched on June 27th. And it’s nearly funded with about 18 days to go. Here’s the link to it. 

Lastly is Groves. That one is a co-design with Dan Letzring right?  How did you guys start working on that?

I met Dan through The Game Crafter. I had designed a game for one of their contests that Dan noticed while viewing the entries and was interested in. Ultimately, he didn’t sign that game but it got us talking and kicking around ideas, and one day he sent me a one-page document with a few notes about a western-themed town building game he was thinking about but didn’t have time to work on. He wanted to know if I was interested in picking up the ball and running with it. I liked the initial ideas and so I went away for a few months and came back with a working design. He really liked the game play, and so we did a bunch of back-and-forth development to tighten up the game and re-theme it as an original world called Idyllon.

It’s currently up on Kickstarter if anyone wants to check it out!

You’re kind of into contests it seems. What is Groves about?

Each player is a different Guardian, trying to build your realm up grove by grove, manage your elemental spirits and earn the most points to win the crown. It’s a worker placement and bag building game, which may be my two favorite mechanics out there so it’s been a blast to put together with Dan. The interesting thing with “Groves” is that it’s a worker placement game where your workforce evolves as the game progresses, and it’s a very interactive player experience, as workers change hands from player to player.

I like the worker placement mechanism so this was an instant back. The evolving workforce idea is intriguing. I can’t wait to see it.

Once again the art is fantastic. It’s Nolan Nasser right?

Yes, he’s worked on several other great games, my favorite being “New Bedford.” Such a talented guy! Nolan was really key in helping us arrive at the theme and style for the game.

Let’s talk about your game design philosophies a bit. Theme or mechanics first?

I’ve gone both routes. “Yardmaster” and “Barker’s Row” were theme first. “Circle the Wagons,” “Groves” and “Coin & Crown” were mechanics first. I’ll continue to just follow my intuition when it comes to game design and if it takes me down the theme path or the mechanics path, I won’t fight it.

What is the hardest part of designing a game for you?

I think just lacking confidence in my designs and ideas. I don’t know if I’ll ever get over that. It’s hard to put a creative product out there in the world to be judged. Obviously you want everyone to love your games, but the reality is that never happens, so you just need to focus on the positive and try to take every new design, whether successful or not, as a learning experience to hopefully get better.

I hear you on that. But I’ve found this community of designers to be invaluable, both for support and for honest critiques, in my design process. Because negative data is still data. How quickly do you prototype?

Usually pretty quickly, although there’s a lot of planning leading up to that first prototype. My designs always begin in a game journal. I usually map out the game in the journal so that when it comes time to build a prototype, I’m just making a functional version of what already exists in my journal and in my head.

I’ve started to try to keep a game journal but my ideas are usually on a bunch of index cards ( I keep them in my back pocket.). Collecting all those is a Sunday chore. I’m way too slow to prototype. I noodle too much. When do you know a game is done?

The great thing about entering contests is that they have a deadline! That’s one great way to know when a game is done…when you aren’t allowed anymore time to work on it! Otherwise, I guess it’s just about trusting your gut and listening to your playtesters.

I need to enter more contests. I need deadlines. I’m working on something for the GenCan’t contest and maybe one for Button Shy later on.

I’ve got an idea for GenCan’t, too, and am busy putting that together. You’re looting a pirate island that is cursed and is slowly sinking, so you simulate the sinking by scribbling out pieces of the island.

That sounds cool. Mine is kind of similar. It’s called GET OUT!. You’re racing to get out of the dungeon. The big boss (minions, complex is collapsing) is chasing you. First out wins. It has an Angry Dice kind of mechanic. Players roll for themselves as well as the threat. It plays solo, 2-4p, or co-op. Can be a campaign or stand alone. May theme it with a haunted house theme. I’m entering it in the GenCant roll and write contest. So you’ve influenced me.

Playtesting seems to be a mixed bag.  While absolutely necessary, it can be slow and difficult. What is your playtesting nightmare?  Do you have a regular group that you playtest with? I think every designer has lived through the nightmare of bringing a prototype to the table and having it be hot garbage. That’s why it’s nice to have a regular playtesting group that you can trust and feel comfortable with. The regular group I play with, they’re also designers, so we’ve all been through the nightmare.

Isn’t that great?! I have the same type of group. So very helpful. What game is inside you trying to get out? I’ve been wanting to make a game called “Monster Cab Co.” where you’re picking up monsters and collecting fares, but you need to customize your cab to accommodate the different monster types.

Neat. What game got out but should have stayed in? Haha, recently I brought a space game to the table and it was so bad! Luckily, it died and quick death and I moved on.

Ok. I need to know more about this.

Oh, it was a mess of a game but kind of a cool idea that may resurface some day. Each player controls a lunar mining corporation with a planet to both their left and right that they are trying to influence. So the idea was that each planet would have a track around it to mark four different planetary attributes. You could manipulate the advancement of these attributes while also secretly “betting” on them as your secret agendas. But since you share each planet with a different opponent, they are doing the same thing. The hope was that it would feel like “Camel Up” meets “Between Two Cities.” Sadly it did not.

Is there a mechanic that you really want to use but just can’t get it to work?

I want to make a game with programmed movement, but just haven’t ever been able to get anything to click.

I’m working on one. I’ll send you something to look over as soon as I have it.

Nice! Can’t wait to see it!

There are SO many games out now.  So many different mechanics, themes, etc. In your opinion, what does it take to make a game good? I think with so much competition nowadays, it seems a game really needs to have “the whole package” to really cut through the clutter, from artwork to game play to component quality to publisher track record. Also, designers and publishers are working a lot harder to bring replayability to games, so players can have a different game experience every time they play.

That is an excellent answer. Replayability is one thing that our design group tries to focus on also. Is there a designer who you wish you could co-design a game with?

Even though he doesn’t co-design with others (but hey, we’re just dreaming now, right?), I think it would be awesome to work with Ryan Laukat at Red Raven Games. I love his games and really admire his talent on several levels, from his game design skills to his illustrations to his publishing prowess. Also a huge fan of J. Alex Kevern and Scott Almes, so it’d be cool to do anything they were involved in!

Scott is in my list too. In your opinion what is the current state of the game industry?

I’m very new to the industry so I guess you could say I’m still in the honeymoon period with it. I am discovering new, amazing games every week. And there are a ton of really great games out there, so I’m loving the experience so far.

The industry is absolutely flooded with new games, I’ll give you that, but I do think the best games are still shining through. Hopefully I’ll continue to improve as a designer and my games can find success in the sea of stuff that’s out there.

I think you have a pretty good jump on that. So do you think we are headed for a down turn?

It doesn’t seem that way. I’m guessing at some point in the future, we’ll reach a saturation level but it seems that the number of games and publishers continues to grow.

Do you think it may be due to an increased awareness of ‘our’ type of game, them becoming more mainstream?

It’s definitely becoming more mainstream and I think people are seeing several success stories of small publishers finding big success, but those that do succeed are putting in a lot of blood, sweat and tears to make it happen.

Which of your games are you most proud of?

I sort of get caught up in the moment, so the game I’m most proud of is usually the one that’s on my front burner. So, right now I’d say it’s “Groves,” as it’s on Kickstarter right now and I’ve been heavily involved in the development process. Last month I would’ve told you “Barker’s Row.” Next month, I’ll tell you it’s “Coin & Crown.” Haha, they’re all my favorites, it just depends on where they are in the life cycle.

What’s in the queue?

I’m working on “Tricky Tides” next, a nautical themed trick-taker meets pick up and deliver game. I’ve received a contract but we’re just working out the details and then that one will be charging forward. I’m also working on a dice game for the “Manhattan Project” contest over at The Game Crafter. Oh, and working on my WWII solo dice game “Bomber Boys” based on a lot of great feedback I’ve gotten on it. It’s still got some work but I’m hoping to get it there, as I really love the theme and combat system in it.

Tricky Tides
Bomber Boys in Action!

Congrats on signing “Tricky Tides” by the way. “Bomber Boys” is fantastic. It is sooo hard. I love it. Good luck on the contest.

What is something interesting about you that most of us would not know?

While I don’t have kids, I’m a huge fan of Halloween, from scary movies to decorations to costumes. I’ve been everything from Abraham Lincoln to Bob Ross to The Mummy to a garden gnome.

That is awesome. Scary movies are my specialty. Especially the old ones. The original Invasion of the Body Snatchers is super-duper fantastic. Is there anything else you want to mention?

Nope, I think we covered it! Thanks, Tom!

Thank you Steven. It was fantastic talking to you. I can’t wait to play all these games.

Readers, thanks for joining me again. If you enjoyed this post, please leave a comment. Heck, leave one even if you didn’t enjoy it.

Come on back because I have Chris Kirkman of Dice Hate Me fame, Jason Kotarski of Green Couch Games fame, and Dan Letzring of Letiman Games fame in the queue. Or shoot me a note – @tomgurg on Twitter or [email protected]

Go Forth And Game by tomgurg


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