Looming Large
How Mindgate took Tapestry beyond the tabletop

Fergus Halliday
Dec 14, 2023
Icon Time To Read11 min read
// Tapestries are an apt metaphor for game development...

Modern video games go through dozens of different hands throughout their creation and the total of its contributors are rarely acknowledged in full. Those who kick in the capital typically get the credit while those who provide the labour are left in the shadows. Strands of string crisscross and connect like assets and scripts in Unity, and the entire sum of those parts can’t be known or appreciated until the work is done.

Tapestry also happens to be the name of a board game by Stonemaier Games. Released in 2019, it sees players attempt to build and develop their own competing civilisations by making decisions about where and how much to invest across military, science, exploration and technology.

The game is a fairly archetypal engine-builder that owes a debt to 4X titles like Firaxis’ Civilization series, but it’s one elevated by the striking art that Andrew Bosley contributed.

According to him, the biggest inspiration for the game’s unique illustrations ended up being the project’s title.

“Tapestries were used in history to depict personal, family, or national stories and remember heritage. I loved the idea that those pieces of art might grow or extend as the stories grew too,” he said. 

“I hoped that I could create something similar with the game and I kept coming back to that principle through the process of creating art, from the overall art direction to graphic design to individual illustrations.”

Despite both acclaim and awards, an official digital adaption of Tapestry has proved elusive. Other Stonemaier-designed games like Scythe and Wingspan have already been made into digital products. Tapestry has yet to receive such a treatment, though not for lack of trying. 

Back in 2020, a UK-based software developer called George and the Goat approached Stonemaier Games with a proposal: it wanted to develop a digital adaptation of Tapestry. According to Tapestry designer Jamey Stegmaier, the fact that they took the initiative was a big part of what won him over.  

“They seemed capable, they were interested, and there were no up-front costs from us that I can recall,” he said.

After getting the go-ahead from Stegmaier, the wheels began to turn. A Facebook page and Discord were created, with George and the Goat providing both frank and frequent development updates to Tapestry fans interested in the state of the project.

Progress was slow but steady. However, just as Tapestry’s digital adaptation approached a multiplayer-enabled alpha, the driving force behind its development had to step away from the project due to undisclosed reasons. 

With the project left in the lurch, the task of bringing Tapestry to digital audiences was handed over to Mindgate Studios. By chance, its founders happened to be friends with the developer originally tapped for Tapestry. This may have helped alleviate any worries about the fact that they had not ever released a finished digital product before.

Based in Ebersburg, Mindgate co-founders Jan-Thomas Hulha and Joakim Engfors have always been interested in making games. Life just happened to get in the way. The former has a background in business software development. The latter is a board game enthusiast who designs games in his spare time. 

Founded in 2020, Mindgate is independently owned but inextricably tied to a German software development company called Systaro.  That company was founded in 2009 by Hulha among others. His sister – also a co-owner of Systaro – is married to Engfors. 

“With Systaro we have a pretty heavy focus on more complex business applications but we have a bunch of IT project management experience and software development experience designing complex systems and products,” Hulha explained.

“Joakim and I both have our houses, we have our children, we have our families, we have the main business but alongside [that] we’ve always had this passion to do game development,” Hulha said.

“With that stability and experience and the business connections we’ve built, for us now is a good time to start that adventure. Others do it during their studies or when they’re in their early 20s. For us, it’s a bit different.”

Naturally, when the opportunity to make their first game a Stonemaier one fell into their laps in early 2022, Engfors and Hulha jumped at it. 

By chance, one of the founders of George and the Goat happened to be yet another cofounder of Systaro who had spun off to do their own thing around 2013.

According to Hulha “he knew our approach to complex projects, our background as developers and when he reconnected with us about this project I think that was the basis for his recommendation.”

Asked why George and the Goat dropped the project, neither Hulha nor Engfors had an answer beyond the vague explanation of ‘personal reasons’ mentioned earlier.

“I know that in general, he’s just a very busy person and I think that complex projects – when you’re someone who is very demanding of yourself – can swallow you up,” Hulha said.

The best part was that they weren’t starting from scratch. A lot of the foundational work had already been done by George and the Goat. You couldn’t play the digital version of Tapestry anywhere outside of a console, but the raw logic base, server algorithms, and rules involved were all more or less intact.

Given the inherent complexity of Tapestry, that headstart was already a huge boon for Mindgate. 

“I can’t think of many games that are harder to digitise,” Engfors said. 

That said, picking up where another developer had left off had its drawbacks as well. 

“There is a challenge to understand it all and take it in as a developer. It’s a complex machine and ideally, you have to know every piece of it,” Hulha said. 

Fortunately, since they had the stability of Systaro to fall back on, neither Hulha nor Engfors were as stressed about budget constraints or deadlines as they otherwise might have been.

That’s not to say there weren’t big learnings involved for Mindgate. 

If you go to the Mindgate Studio website today, Tapestry isn’t the only board game you’ll see mentioned, but it is the only digital one. The company is currently working on two other original board games: Feud and Aeterna

When it comes to video games, Tapestry is Mindgate’s first foray into the space. 

Making that jump from physical to digital games came with its constraints.

“When I make my games I can do whatever I want. With Tapestry, not as much. We have a lot of freedom to change how things are presented but of course, we can’t change any rules or we shouldn’t change the names or the reasons or icons for them. If you know the board game you should be able to play the digital game easily. It’s definitely been a challenge, but it’s an exciting challenge,” Engfors said.

Alongside the logic of the game – which was scripted in LUA – Mindgate also inherited several Unity-based prototypes that George and the Goat had also put together for its take on Tapestry.

The path of least resistance here would have involved simply connecting these two layers and calling it a day. However, the more time that the team at Mindgate spent working on the project, the more they wanted to go beyond that bare minimum mandate of making Tapestry playable on a PC.

It was not enough to just make a version of Tapestry that let you practice and play the game without a physical copy. Hulha and Engfors wanted to make one that felt good, even on the cramped dimensions of a mobile device. For that reason, portrait mode play quickly became a priority. 

If they could make Tapestry playable with one hand, then a desktop version would be easy by comparison. Working out just how to do that involved a lot of trial, error, research and a lot of prototypes.

How Mindgate brought Tapestry to mobile, one prototype at a time

“We played a lot of Tapestry to get a better feel for the game and identify what information that we always want to have at our fingertips and what information you want to have easily available but not always available,” Engfors explained.

Mindgate also wanted to make sure that the digital version of Tapestry didn’t just do justice to the original game’s unique aesthetics but elevated them in the ways that only a digital product can. 

These flourishes started small, with 3D environments and light animation but quickly escalated. Undoing an illegal or accidental move with the physical version of Tapestry is easy. Knowing the right place and time to ask a player to confirm a move with a text prompt can be hard.

“We want to find a good balance between having extra buttons and animations but also that were fast-paced,” Hulha said, adding that the option to skip animations is an option that playtesters have already asked for.

The physical version of Tapestry is billed as a 2-hour Civilization-like experience, but a session of the digital one should take significantly less time. Although Mindgate’s version of Tapestry is not yet at a stage where an entire match can be played from start to finish, Engfors estimates that it should take a comparable – if not shorter – amount of time than playing Tapestry on platforms like Board Game Arena and Tabletopia. 

Beyond these game-specific production choices, Mindgate is looking into voice acting and music, taking the scores of strategy titles like Imperator Rome and Crusader Kings as inspiration for the kind of vibe they wanted to bring to Tapestry.

Mindgate has even had conversations about using AI image generation technology to extend and upscale existing Tapestry assets. That said, Engfors is quick to add that this is not something that they would do without the permission of Stonemaier.

“In the board game space, there still is a lot of discussion around AI art and we’ll see how, if anything, changes with Terraforming Mars taking a stand. So far, we have used an upscale thing for the images and we will probably talk to Jaimey and how comfortable he would feel.”

“If it is something that would be an issue, we would pay the artists to do the same thing.”

When it comes to the potential of AI, Hulha expressed both apprehension and ambivalence.

“With these debates, you want to be careful what you say. I haven’t made up my mind. I want to be humble about it. I try to see all the different perspectives on it. For us, with our development side also, there’s a bit of worry there about how important and how valuable it is for companies to hire certain development work when AI can take over that part of it.”

Although disruptive to all sorts of industries in the short term, Hulha’s view is that technologies like AI usually prove to make things easier and more comfortable over the long term.

Acknowledging that “there’s a weird feeling about AI recycling what’s already out there in a way that doesn’t credit all the sources that it uses” he said his overall takeaway is that “we should figure out how to use it to advance industries and projects and not shy away from it.”

“It doesn’t seem like we can stop it so I think we should figure out a way to roll with it,” he said.

That attitude also sums up Mindgate’s response to the other big complication in its efforts to bring a digital version of Tapestry to life. 

While Mindgate is based in Germany, about half of the Systaro team lives in Ukraine. When Russia went to war in early 2022, it completely shook up the lives of everyone involved.

“Since half of our developers are from Ukraine, any ideas to try and do some extra work for this project – the game development project – would have required a certain level of stability,” Hulha explained.

“And of course, they didn’t have that extra focus left. They were trying to make their daily routines work, mentally and in terms of not getting disrupted too much.”

Even for a company that had survived the social upheaval of the coronavirus pandemic only a year or two earlier, it was all a little surreal.

At one point, an image captured of one of Systaro’s developers working remotely from the Kyiv subway even ended up doing the rounds after it was published on Zelensky’s Instagram.

“The whole situation in Ukraine is closer to us than your average Western European company and then also the energy crisis that spun off in Germany had a direct impact on the rest of the team and that took away their stability as well.”

In the immediate aftermath of the violence, Hulha said that the business had many discussions and began to explore its options in terms of extracting its staff from potential danger.

“What we actually landed on with most of the team was that they wanted to stay in Ukraine and help there. So we give them extra time to do so but also what we decided early last year was to calculate the profit margin that we generate from the Ukrainian team and then in the beginning (later on we made it a bit of a split) all of that we’d let them decide where that money would go.”

“Since then, we’ve bought cars and drones. They decided as a group with that extra profit how they could help. Mostly they’re somewhat connected to the people they help with that money.

“That was a good solution because we didn’t lose them for the projects – so it helped us and our clients – and also they could do something using that special connection to a Western development company to help people they know and care about.”

Regardless, the war in Ukraine brought with it a sense that those at Systaro needed to focus on their core business to make their lives work. As a result, Hulha said that “Mindgate Studios then couldn’t rely on Systaro as much as a partner as we had hoped.”

Instead, Hulha and Engfors had to hire outset help. To speed up the process, the company reached out through the Tapestry Discord community. In time, it narrowed dozens down to three individuals with the right skills and understanding of the source material. 

Two of these developers would be full-time, while the third would be tapped as a consultant and plugged into the development process as needed. 

Informed by his background on the B2B side, Hulha said that onboarding developers onto a complex project like Tapestry is both resource-intensive and time-consuming.

“You have to put in an investment to even ramp up their understanding of how things work and then hope that they can meet the challenge after they’ve figured out how complex it is and then stay on,” he said.

Unfortunately, as the team at Mindgate began to grow, Hulha’s fears were quickly realised. Not long after being hired, one of the two full-time hires made by Mindgate had to withdraw from the project due to chronic health issues. 

This setback cost Mindgate more than just money, it also cost them time. Only now, months later, are they at a point where they’re able to think about expanding the team again. 

“I think now that we’ve figured out mostly how the user flow could work with the front-end with the mobile version and the desktop version there’s a bunch of work that could be delegated and that could work out,” Hulha said.

All told, the plucky team working on Tapestry is around six people in size. In addition to the three developers, there’s also an artist helping out with design, an intern helping with playtesting and a Unity developer who’s lending a hand when it comes to building out the interface.

“But to be fair to Andreas [Hany], he’s the locomotive of the project,” Hulha said. 

Mindgate has big plans for Tapestry. While the project is only scoped out for the core game at this stage, the developer is already eyeing additions like competitive matchmaking and Tapestry’s expansions if the project proves to be a commercial success.

Even if it isn’t though, Tapestry is intended to mark the beginning of a broader push into the digital board gaming space by Mindgate.

“I think if we do a good job with this, doors will open for us and I would like to continue to work in this space,” Engfors said.

As for when that final product will arrive, Engfors and Hulha remain quiet on the details. The pair said that they have an internal date they’re working towards but don’t want to share it publicly to avoid putting any extra or external pressure on the team.

Brought to life: A first look at Tapestry on desktop

Like its real-world namesake, the video game adaptation of Tapestry means different things to different people. To Stonemaier, it’s an expansion of their growing roster of intellectual property. To the community, it might prove to be a second chance for a board game that hasn’t quite enjoyed the widespread popularity of its siblings. 

To Mindgate, it's a chance to show off what they can do and prove that they have what it takes to open new doors, opportunities and possibilities for the team working there. At the end of the day though, the only thing that people will remember is the final product and while there have been many tapestries before, there’s never been one quite like this.

Mindgate might be pouring a lot of passion into Tapestry, but the project means a lot to everyone involved. A TAPESTRY is no small thing. Those weaving it want to get it right.
Fergus Halliday
Written by
Fergus Halliday
Fergus Halliday is a journalist and editor for Reviews.org. He’s written about technology, telecommunications, gaming and more for over a decade. He got his start writing in high school and began his full-time career as the Editor of PC World Australia. Fergus has made the MCV 30 Under 30 list, been a finalist for seven categories at the IT Journalism Awards and won Most Controversial Writer at the 2022 Consensus Awards. He has been published in Gizmodo, Kotaku, GamesHub, Press Start, Screen Rant, Superjump, Nestegg and more.

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