I am having an absolutely delightful breakfast during the 2020 GAMA Expo with John Coveyou, designer of Cytosis and founder of Genius Games. As with any great story, this segment begins with coffee. More coffee. I believe if you were to graph my restaurant tip vs. coffee served, it would be pretty linear. To a maximum, at which point I just run away screaming or explode.
DTD: [to waiter] Thank you, sir.
JC: But through that, science also became very therapeutic, because I…
DTD: So how did those cross? I mean, you told me just a second ago, that you were on your way, kicked out of school, essentially. So science is not usually what you’re after at that point
JC: Right, right. So, I almost dropped out. I was really smart and I did really well.
And the food arrives. My eggs benedict is lovely; soft poached egg on ham covered with the lemon buttery goodness of a subtle hollandaise. John’s hash looked delicious, but large and imposing. I won’t lie, I was slightly jealous.
I distracted myself by taking pictures.
DTD: This is my biggest fault, is I never remember to take the pictures. And then I always end up trying to insert pictures later. I love breakfast. I can’t tell you how excited I was when you said, “Let’s do breakfast.” I was like, “Yes!”
JC: That’s my favorite. I used to work at IHOP. we’ll get to that maybe at some point. I used to cook there, and I used to work the 24-hour shift, the midnight shift.
IHOP. If breakfast was a narcotic. Wait, I think it might be…
DTD: That’s awesome. So, you can poach an egg with the best of them.
Poached eggs are a very serious business. I have infinitely more respect for people who can poach an egg. I do not count myself among their ranks.
DTD: Oh, that is so cool.
JC: So, I was always smart, and I was always… The sciences just fascinated me. But I got to this point…
DTD: Preaching to the converted.
Between undergraduate, graduate and veterinary schools, I spent 14 years in college. And now I’m unemployed, sit at home, and play board games. My parents are very proud.
JC: Yeah, there you go. I got to this point where there was just like, there was so much drama and trauma and chaos all around me, when I was an officer, when I was a military police officer. And when I was in Iraq as well. And I basically, the guys I was with… I mean, when we were stateside, they’d go out to strip clubs pretty much every night. They just wasted a lot of money. I knew that wasn’t what I wanted with my time in my life. And so, instead I would read textbooks and watch videos about science. People thought I was so geeky.
DTD: And that is the perfect way to do it. Nobody else does that. I have close family members who had a very similar story, and lead into the Army and Iraq. Actually, even military police and military intelligence. Our joke was that he was going to school to learn intelligence.
JC: So, when you’re in these scenarios, in Iraq… I mean, quite literally people are trying to kill you. You struggle as a human to try and find significance and meaning and purpose. And this is a really important thing about the human condition, because no other animals or mammals are struggling with this idea of meaning and purpose. And it was always very therapeutic for me to think, “Wait a second. You have, you are made of atoms. You are literally built of atoms. And if we were to cut an atom up and dissect it all the way down, you have the exact same quarks in your material body that I do.”
DTD: That line will either lead you to meaning, or it will lead you to absolute insignificance.
Move over, Camus, emo existentialist board gamer is here.
JC: Yes, Yeah, and I totally agree. But at least it gets you somewhere. It starts you down some path of thinking about this, and then you can zoom all the way out and say the same thing about, “We’re little bags of flesh hurling through the universe on a rock.”
DTD: In the middle of an absolutely incomprehensible nothing. Wow.
JC: And the scenario that I’m in front of right now, is almost absolutely irrelevant and will not matter one iota to this hurling rock through the universe. It just matters to this little piece of consciousness that is me, right now, at this point in time.
DTD: So, you had an existential awakening, which, like I said, leads one of two ways. Wow, that’s very heavy for a 17-, 18-year-old.
JC: Yeah, I think by that point I was in my early twenties, maybe. But yeah, it was… I just wanted to, I wanted some way to think about the situation I was in. That was, that helped me just deal with the trauma. Help me deal with the difficulty. Help me deal with the sadness, and all the emotions that a human is naturally going to feeling in situations. So, yeah, science was very therapeutic for me.
DTD: That’s awesome. And you were self-taught, you were self-made.
JC: Yes. Yeah.
DTD: That’s incredible, man.
JC: When I came home, and I studied environmental biology at Washington University in St. Louis. And I ended up basically teaching myself all of the calculus and differential equations that I needed.
DTD: Oh my God.
JC: And then just tested out of it when I got back to the university. And then ended up getting a master’s degree in chemical engineering. Chemical and Environmental Engineering.
DTD: That is fantastic.
JC: It was quite crazy.
DTD: You know, I’m a total science nerd.
JC: Oh, yes. Oh, yeah. Very much so.
DTD: I love it. I love it. My story is not nearly as exciting. I just, I never wanted to stop school. I liked school. I wanted to learn things. And it became apparent that if, the longer you went to school, the less you learn. So, a PhD is not about learning things. It was about finding out things, and discovering things, but definitely not about learning things. So, had you aspirations? Did you want to be, like an academic, or a chemist?
JC: So, a few things all kind of came together, and happened at the same time. I, at this point, I had gotten into more hobby-style games. I played Dominion. I mean, when I was in Iraq, we played Risk non-stop. I mean, all the time we played Risk. We played a ton of Texas Hold’em. So, I mean, both of these games, not mainstream hobby games, but games that you can see some pretty interesting mechanisms in, and that are gateways into…
DTD: They are the building blocks. Right now, we’re in a boom of board games and we’re standing on the shoulders of giants. You know, I can’t tell you how many times in the past two days I’ve played something that is Risk, but… It always, I think it’s that generational difference, but it always surprises me when I hear “Oh, yeah, and when this was all happening, we played a ton of Dominion.” It’s like the impact that games, that I consider very, very new, had everywhere was really… I love it. It just blows me away.
JC: So, through group play and all that, I started getting deeper and deeper into hobby gaming. And then as someone who is a science enthusiast, training to become a scientist…
DTD: And obviously driven.
JC: And driven, yup. I just noticed, there’s no games about this stuff that we’re talking about all the time, and we’re studying, and that that we find so fascinating.
DTD: Oh, there were, I sought them out. And they were terrible.
JC: Yeah, well, maybe that’s the better answer.
DTD: Yeah, but I was raised by academics, became an academic. I wanted academic games.
JC: So, I thought, well, why don’t I take my shot at one? So, I started trying to make some of them, and as a new designer finds out very quickly, that designing the game is really difficult. And your first few games are nothing short of terrible.
JC: Special, yes, special. That’s a good way to put it. Your first games are nothing short of terrible and the key to really making them better and becoming better as a designer, is just listening and watching other designers and having people give you feedback on your prototype. And really iterating through that process as you become a better designer, and you start to recognize where certain pain points in games are, and start to recognize why certain things consistently don’t work, and why certain mechanisms have trouble combining together and others work really well together, and things like that. And through that process, I just got better as a designer. One of the things I did, is I basically created a little curriculum of my own. Where I would, I put myself through what’s called design sprints.
DTD: This is an academic talking about how to make an academic game.
JC: I would put myself through design sprints, and design sprints were basically, it was like agile principles in some way, but also just like trying to figure out how to become better at it. I wasn’t actually trying to publish the things that I was making. I just wanted to learn how to do them well. And so, I would, I give myself say, six dice. And then just say, “Okay, I’ve got to make a game out of six dice.” Make a little game. “Okay, now, I can’t use luck in this next game.” Make another little game, and I would play it with some friends, and then I’m like, “Okay, let’s toss that out, use the same six dice, but it’s got to be completely different from the last two games I made.” And I’d make another one, and then once I really felt like, “OK, I got it. I got a good understanding of all the different ways dice can be used. Not just as a rolling and randomization mechanism, but as a counter, or as a hidden number, or as a dexterity tool, or as a stacking tool.” And all these things that, when you hand someone who’s not really a gamer a pair of dice, what do they do?
DTD: They roll them!
JC: Well, you can do a lot of other things with dice than just roll them, right? And then I said, “Okay. Well, I’m going to do some dice and I’m going to throw some tokens in, and see what I could do. And then now I’m going to give myself 20 cards.” And I would just go through all these different components, and see if I can maximize the amount of potential game I could get out of that. And now I teach a class on game design at Webster University in St Louis. And this is exactly what I do with my students.
DTD: That is awesome! You put them through the exercises. I love design sprints, that is awesome.
JC: So, through that process, I made a number of games and was testing games. And I joined a group of designers in St Louis. The St Louis board game design Meetup group.
DTD: It is such a hot bed now.
JC: It is, yeah. And back then, what were their names? Mark, made a game about monkeys or something. Some of the earlier games.
I think John is referring to Spin Monkeys (2013) by Mark Sellmeyer, winner of the Rio Grande game design competition at the Chicago Toy and Game Fair. Huzzah research department!
DTD: Always a good theme. I mean nothing can go wrong.
Monkeys make EVERYTHING better.
JC: At that point, you know, it didn’t matter. Maybe they sold 1000 copies. He was published designer. You’re like, “Whoa, you published a board game! That is the greatest thing ever!”
DTD: I think that world is changing, it’s so funny. I totally remember the day where you went to the store, you bought a game, and it looked like two guys in their garage made this game. And they probably… you’re likely off by one guy. And they looked handmade. They were handmade. But that’s what happened. And some were gems, and some were incomprehensible. I owned… I’m going to say I owned a good five games that I could not play, because I had no idea how. The rules, the board, the mechanisms, just absolutely… But I was so excited that they existed. So, when you when you started all this, were you single-minded on, “I’m going to make educational games. I’m going to make science-based games?”
DTD: Because I didn’t see anything in your ludology of other forays. They are all on-brand, which is just so cool. People usually do a whole bunch of things that fail, and then find something good. And you are just consistently on brand with games that still get talked about.
A ludology is like a bibliography, only it is the list of games a desginer has made.
JC: Yeah, I mean, I would say one of the keys to my success, I would say, if I could say that about myself, which is kind of maybe a pretentious or narcissistic thing to say…
DTD: You can say it.
JC: But for the point of giving some feedback and advice on things I’ve learned the hard way throughout life, just staying focused on something is one of the best things you can do if you actually want to excel at that thing. If you get distracted by all kinds of other shiny things, you’re not going to excel at the thing you want to be good at.
In college I majored in distraction and minored in…
DTD: It was someone else who told me that the number one quality for a game designer was perseverance. It was, you know, you said yourself, you said “iteration”. And it’s the ability to take this one concept which you love and be able to do it 10,000 times and make it right. Or even throw it away, But, you know, stay on target. Absolute pitbull perseverance.
JC: Yeah, I think my… I didn’t always design hard science games per se, because a lot of the earlier ones were just abstract. They were just trying to figure out how to make these mechanism work.
DTD: But they were science themed. Peptide, and…
JC: I mean, even before that. All the ones I was doing as design springs; to just learn how to design. But then my first, the first few games…
The ever wary waiter had noticed my coffee was not completely full, and this deserved his immediate attention.
DTD: Okay, Okay. Thank you.
JC: The first few games that I decided I wanted to try and publish, those I knew… I just was passionate about sciences. I wanted there to be games that I could sit down and play with my gaming friends who are also scientists, and the game was good enough that a gamer would choose to play it, and the science was accurate enough that a scientist would kind of go like, “Whoa, that was… That’s amazing, that it could possibly even be used for educational purposes.” That was my goal.
DTD: That’s awesome.
JC: And so, through all of that process, I designed Linkage, which was our very first game, launched it on Kickstarter. I had; at that point I’m working… So basically, at that point, I’m working as an engineer full time, a water, wastewater engineer, designing small facilities for water and wastewater transportation and cleaning.
DTD: There you go. Pee and board games.
JC: Yeah. I want to make a game at some point about wastewater. It’s fascinating. No one knows you exist until there’s a problem. And then everyone hates you.
I humbly propose making it a variation of Ice Cube (1972). Wastewater is frozen into cubes, and you need to play quickly before they literally soil your board.
DTD: I have been in that world.
JC: So, I designed this game, launched it on Kickstarter. I was teaching chemistry part time at the local community college, which I loved, loved, loved, loved.
DTD: That’s awesome.
JC: And working as an engineer. I have this game about DNA. DNA transcription, and how DNA is copied into a messenger RNA.
DTD: Oh, it’s such a nerdy game. It’s just a nerdy game about coding. And so many cool weird things with it. Love it.
JC: Yeah, launched it on Kickstarter. I thought, “Hey, I could maybe sell a couple 100 copies of this and be done with it.” We ended up raising 13,000. And that was in 2014, when…
616 backers and $12,055. Launched April 17, 2014.
DTD: Early days.
JC: Yeah, early days. And was designing another game called Peptide, protein building game. That was the biological follow up to Linkage. Linkage, DNA to RNA transcription, Peptide dealt with mRNA to protein translation. Launched it on Kickstarter, it did good as well. I think it did 18,000 or 17,000 or something around there. And that’s when I finally said, and this was very premature of me, but this is that driven bulldog mentality that you mentioned. My wife and I had just had a daughter. We had dual income. Had dual income until we had a daughter, and then my wife decided to stay home. Had a nice house out in the suburbs and two nice cars, engineering income was okay. And we said, “You know what…” But here’s the thing I hated, I hated my job. I mean, I was miserable. The corporate lifestyle was just not for me. Billable hours was just not for me. So, I told my wife, “I think I can make a living designing science based board games.” And she’s like, “You know what? I know how miserable you are. I think we should take a shot at this. We’re young. We’ve got one kid. I think we could do it.” Sold our house.
469 backers and $16,951. It launched October 15, 2014.
DTD: It’s so funny. There’s so many people that go the other way. I mean, I can’t tell you how many game designers still have their day job. I mean, like some of the extremes; Matt Leacock only recently went to full time game design. I mean, that’s Matt Leacock. So you just went for it.
Someone should interview that guy.
JC: Yeah, I jumped in. And that’s my, fortunately or unfortunately, that’s my personality. Just jump into something head first.
DTD: And of course, regretted it every day since.
JC: Yeah, that’s right. Jump out of the plane and figure out how to pack your parachute on the way down.
DTD: I would forget to bring it.
JC: There you go. Oh, man. That’s tragic.
DTD: I’ve been locked out of one or two hotel rooms.
Join us next time as John and I talk about the early days of Genius Games, which naturally leads to discussions of subatomic physics, time travel, Zen, and educational-games-that-don’t-suck.