It is March of 2020. I am at the GAMA Expo Convention in Reno, Nevada having breakfast with the wonderful John Coveyou, founder of Genius Games and designer of Cytosis, Subatomic and many more.
Interesting from a historic perspective, the COVID-19 pandemic has not hit yet, but it is just beginning to. At the start of this convention, none of us had heard of Corona, but by the end, our flights were being cancelled, the stock market had crashed, and the world was rapidly changing.
DTD: Well, that’s what I like about the desert, is it’s cold at night, warm during the day. You know, I don’t like humidity very much.
DTD: So, where you guys home based again?
JC: St. Louis.
DTD: St. Louis, that’s what I thought.
JC: If you don’t like humidity, that’s not the place to go to.
DTD: No. Well, I grew up on the East Coast. So, I am no stranger to 90 degree days, 90 degree nights.
JC: Got it.
DTD: But now I’m living in Northern California, and it’s kind of like this [gesturing around]. You know, you get pretty cold at night, and you can get pretty darn hot during the day. The swings can be huge.
JC: Right, Right. Yeah. Yeah, that makes sense. Now I’d love to move to California for at least a short period. There’s a few different places I would like to go to. California, one. Seattle.
DTD: Seattle is such a cool city.
JC: I Want to live in the southwest.
Waiter: Gentlemen, how are we doing? Welcome back. Any mimosas or bloody marys?
Yes, the waiter looked right at me and said “Welcome back.” At this point, I had been in the Peppermill hotel in Reno for a few days, but I had eaten in Biscottis many, many times. It was good, easy to find, and I was not adventurous enough to wander Reno.
JC: Just coffee for me.
DTD: Coffee would be wonderful. That sounds great. I feel like I’ve eaten in this restaurant like two meals a day. Every day.
JC: Oh, that’s hilarious.
DTD: It’s not bad. I like the place, but it’s so convenient to just be, right there. It’s just funny. So the waiters are now, you know, “How you doing? It’s been a while.”
JC: “Hey you again!” That’s great. That’s great.
DTD: I stand out a little bit. So, I think that’s the only reason they remember me day after day.
Being a fully tattooed person, restaurants tend to remember me. Although, that may have been less conspicuous in a gamer convention.
JC: There you go.
DTD: That’s cool. I know a couple people have gotten little hotels or Airbnb or whatever, and Reno is a small enough town. But nothing is really all that far away. It’s just the scenery.
JC: Yeah, there’s a good view out, I don’t know what direction is, but when I’m walking in. I think it’s East. Mountains.
DTD: Oh, yeah, well we are… there is that huge mountain range right between us and California.
DTD: And that’s what I get to drive through when I go, when I go back. It’s the classic Donner Party pass. You know that story? That’s here.
I dont entirely know how wise it is to recount the Donner Party story on a website at least partially driven by food.
DTD: Yeah. It’s like, it’s an hour away from here, maybe.
JC: That’s crazy.
DTD: So, it’s weird because you drive through it, and in Reno, it’s going to be, you know, mild and warm and kind of delightful. And then you get into the pass and it’s snowing and it’s cold. Then you drop down into California, and it’s mild and delightful. I shotgunned four conventions this trip, so it’s Dice Tower West and then a little private thing, and then here. And then there’s a designer conference I’m going to right after.
JC: OK, in Denver?
DTD: No, they are all in this area. It’s all driving.
DTD: So, the designer thing… Do you know, Jonny Pac [Cantin], he did Coloma?
JC: Yeah, yeah.
DTD: He has a designer conference in California. It’s about two hours away from here, in the mountains. He’s a classic mountain man. He looks like a mountain man, he acts like a mountain man. He’s a character. He’s a fun guy.
Someone should interview that guy…
JC: That’s awesome.
Ah, coffee, beautiful roasted arabican nectar, caffeine laden essense of the mountains. The waiter brought coffee. I was excited.
DTD: Thank you so much.
Waiter: How long is this convention until?
DTD: Thursday’s the official last day.
JC: Thursday night, people are flying out late Thursday night or Friday morning.
DTD: It’s a strange convention, too.
GAMA Expo 2020 was very strange indeed. The convention lasted from March 8 – 12, but the exhibition hall, showing off secret new games, did not open until March 11. Historically the early days are for designers, publishers, retailers and distributors to wheel and deal. But this year, Corona was on the horizon, and many big companies left early or did not show at all.
JC: Yeah, very much so.
DTD: The first couple days are pretty much just meet and greets, and informal. And then it’s, what, tomorrow it’s really going to hit hard.
Waiter: Oh, it’s like tournaments?
Apparantly we were pretty adamant there were no tournaments.
JC: Then publishers showing off new products to retailers and distributors and things like that.
DTD: This is the trade show. So, the public’s not supposed to come. Yeah, it’s odd.
Waiter: What can I get for you two?
DTD: Are you good or you need a minute?
JC: Um, I could figure out something real quick.
DTD: Well, okay. Uh, I will get the Benedict.
Poached eggs are serious business. And I did my research – This was not my first rodeo; Biscotti’s did a nice poached egg. Hollandaise certainly does not hurt either.
JC: Oh, that’s nice. What are some of your more common, commonly ordered or popular breakfast plates?
I have never asked a waiter “What’s good” or “What’s popular” and I am endlessly impressed when someone does. More so when the waiter is well spoken about it. I am just too introverted to deviate from script.
Waiter: So, it would be like the prime rib hash, family farm hash. And we have the quiche.
DTD: The hash was good looking. Someone got that yesterday morning. It was big.
JC: Yeah, I might do that. Is there a lot of bread in that?
Waiter: No, it’s just two triangles.
JC: OK, let’s do that.
DTD: It’s funny that the guy I went to breakfast with yesterday was the same. Room charge. 1024. Thompson.
Waiter: Okay. Thank you.
DTD: So excited that I got the 2 to the 10th room. You know, I can finally remember my room number.
JC: That’s hilarious. That’s how you remember it. That’s great.
DTD: Oh, it’s awesome. And yesterday when I was ordering breakfast, the guy I was with had gluten sensitivities and was asking about amount of bread. And he went with the hash.
Shout out Travis!
JC: I try and not eat a lot of bread. Just, I don’t have any sensitivities or allergies or anything, but I just I definitely notice a difference in my performance. My mental performance when I have bread. And my gut. My gut just feels a little more off, and my brain feels al little more off.
DTD: I get it. My kids have Celiac Sprue. Oh, the full deal. Biopsies were done, and they’ve got it. And so, when they’re home, we keep a really gluten-free, wheat-free house, and I feel the difference. Unfortunately, I like food a lot. So, when I’m away and on vacation, it’s kind of like my vacation to eat 400 doughnuts.
Slight exaggeration, but the real number is still too large a quantity for donuts.
JC: There you go. You detox when you’re home so you can really dig in when you’re at…
DTD: Well, tell me how you got started on the Genius Games bandwagon. Was there game design before Genius Games?
JC: Kind of. So my brother and I, we played a little bit of D&D when we were younger. It’s such a gateway drug.
DTD: It’s true. It sucks away all your time and not too much of your money.
JC: Yeah, and we played… I mean, I’d say even before that, I’d play a lot of, like, the classical games with my friends, families and things like that. You know, I think people are really hard on Monopoly. But man, I’ve got great memories of playing Monopoly for hours and hours.
DTD: It was a family thing. And it was, you know, the original social deduction, you know, negotiation, and take-that. Everybody loved it. I remember in my house, I never could get anyone to play Monopoly with me. I was an only child. My parents liked games okay, but their big one that really influenced me was Rumikub. I remember that one really strongly.
JC: Yeah. I’m familiar with it, but I never really played it.
DTD: Oh yeah, it still holds up. It’s still a good game. So were you, as a kid, figuring out “Here’s a game I would make, and here’s rules I would do”?
JC: Yeah, well, so through that process, what happened was we got into HeroQuest.
DTD: Oh, God, Yes.
JC: This was when I was really young. So, I think I might at some points conflate the different games that were playing.
con·flate /kənˈflāt/ verb
1. combine (two or more texts, ideas, etc.) into one.
Such a good word. Love it.
JC: Yes, HeroQuest. And, I remember it came with a, I don’t remember if it was VHS, I think it was VHS. But it came with some VHS tapes and you could actually watch the heroes doing the different adventures. And I was, like, so into it. So, my brother and I, and I don’t think we ever actually played HeroQuest the right way, right? I mean, we’re kids. We don’t read the rulebook. We just get the stuff out, and we just start doing our thing.
Now, HeroQuest did not actually come with a VHS tape, but the very similar game Dragon Strike did. Conflate, conflate, conflate.
DTD: It’s the Mouse Trap effect.
No one really played Mouse Trap. We all just played with the pieces.
JC: Exactly. Yeah, exactly. And so, I started designing like little scenarios and games off of that, and then would… When we’re playing D&D, I kind of tried to DM a little bit, even though I was, like 9, 10, 11. I wasn’t very good at that point. But it was still, it was fun to just like, “OK, and then here’s what happens!”
DTD: I made so many stories and, one of the greatest things you could ever find in a store and buy were the hex grid pads of paper, and the square grid pads of paper, man. I hear you. That was awesome.
JC: Yeah, so that was like, those weren’t really games per se, but they were getting those design juices flowing.
DTD: A lot of people tell me about making mazes when they were kids, making the stories, the campaigns. Oh, yeah.
JC: Yeah, I don’t remember how young we were when we would do this, but we would draw 2D scenarios where you basically have, like, someone’s over here drawing, and I’m drawing. And you draw a little soldier, and so I draw a tank, and then you draw an airplane and I draw another tank and an airplane. And you’re trying to draw the battle.
DTD: It’s really funny you bring that up. I have vivid memories when I was a kid of playing these elaborate board games by drawing things on paper, and all the kids knew the rules. One of the common ones was, one person had a spaceship and it would move; it was a triangle, and you make little triangles near it to show it moving. The other person had aliens, and they would replicate, so you would have an alien and then more, and then more, and you draw next to each other. And it was replication versus more firepower.
JC: Right, right.
DTD: And I still remember shooting, was you would hold the pen on end on the paper, and let it tip a little bit and push down, and it would make a fast slash line. Or you would flick the bottom of the pen out with your other hand. And that was the shot. And if the line hit the other guy, you hit him.
JC: Oh, wow. That’s good.
DTD: But I have searched the internet for these kid-generated, pen and paper games. I mean, it sounds like this is what you’re talking about, too. Oh, I need to write something about these… I gotta find out more.
JC: It’s really interesting because it’s all just self-generated. It’s just kids generating things, and things come out of it, and then these little games will pass on to other kids. And they’re playing with their classmates. And they just kind of spread. And then one that was maybe made over here, combines with another that some other kids made over here. And you’ve got this convergence of fun, little ideas, and none of them go anywhere, because it’s kids with no budgets or money or internet or affluence.
DTD: They are so fascinating though, wow.
JC: So, through that process, just like designing little things and figuring out that I really enjoyed board games and I also, I came from a very difficult background. My parents were really absent. My mom was disabled; she was in a car accident. And was in a coma and had to learn everything all over again. So, growing up, that was the norm for me, because I didn’t know her before her accident. And my dad was just a very angry, violent person. So, games in a lot of ways, and I think a lot of young gamers resonate with this; games were like therapeutic. You’re using your imagination to put yourself in this world.
DTD: They exercise your social skills, they’re an escape, theyre something to occupy the time when the alternatives are not fun. I get it. I was nowhere near that, but I was home alone a lot. Overworking Dad and over social Mom, and you know, alone time was 90% of my time.
JC: Yeah, but games become this thing for kids that… something that’s therapeutic, something that gets their mind off of the difficulties that puts them in a fantasy world where they can be what they really want to be, you know. They can be the center of attention. They can have powers beyond what they currently have.
DTD: So, were you drawn towards these early fantasy games? Because I think we’re about a generation separated. But I remember Dungeon was a ridiculously important game, which was D&D on a board. The fantasy escape was really my biggest thing.
JC: Yeah, I didn’t get into Dungeon, I didn’t get to play that one. That was pretty big. And I think a lot of my friends, that I could say the same thing about. We’d all get together and play as, like, an escape from our whole lives. But yeah, and then fast forward a little bit. So, what’s interesting is, as a young kid, games became therapeutic like that. And then as I got older, actually science became therapeutic like that. I was in the Army for 8 years. I spent two years in Iraq as a military police officer, training military police officers. I spent a few a few more years stateside as a garrison police officer. And I had a lot of just really crazy, really interesting things come out of that. I joined really young, I joined when I was 17. I had my parents basically sign me off, so that I could go to boot camp while I was still in high school.
Go Black Knights.
DTD: Wow. Did you really know what you were doing? I mean…
DTD: I mean at 17 I’m not sure I knew anything I was doing, and none of my decisions had that kind of impact.
JC: Right, right. That was the interesting thing about a decision like that was you can’t take it back. Once you’re in, you’re in. And I wouldn’t… I don’t regret it. If someone said, “Would you make the same decision again?” I would say, “Well, maybe, if I was 17 and in the same position I was in.”
DTD: No, I get it.
JC: But I don’t want to do it again.
DTD: But you’re glad you did it.
JC: I’m glad I did. You know, I had I had no future. You know, I almost dropped out of high school.
DTD: There’s no denying at all that the military is amazingly good for giving structure. Changing your thoughts, changing your lifestyle.
JC: Giving you discipline, showing you how far your limits actually are.
DTD: It’s the “throw you in the deep end” way to learn to be an adult.
Next time things get a little heavy, as John recounts dealing with a tough childhood, military service, and salvation through self education. Genius Games is born out of wastewater!