I am joined for breakfast by Genius Games founder John Coveyou. It must be early and the coffee must be flowing, because we are getting philosophical. The conversation ranges from starting a company, to subatomic physics, to the Tao of education. I blame the eggs. Magical poached eggs.
JC: So, we moved into a little two-bedroom apartment in the city, sold our house, used some of the money from that to basically live off of for the next few months. Sold our, one of our nice cars. And I rode my bike into this office that we rented. It was just a, it was a mess. This two-bedroom apartment was in a really bad area in the city. We had cockroaches and paint chips peeling off the walls and the floor. It was, it was in my mind… I mean, my wife is a saint for raising our daughter in that condition so that we could build a company. We could make this dream a reality. But it’s what we needed to save money to actually make this work over the next couple years. Well, then, the next Kickstarter campaign, Ion, a compound building game. Very simple card drafting game, where you are matching positively and negatively charged ions to form neutral compounds. Stuff that you would encounter on a very regular… Table salt, sodium chloride. It’s in the game. A bunch of other fairly common compounds like that and launched it on Kickstarter. And it raised almost $90,000 and that’s when we knew. “OK, we’ve got, we’ve really got something here.” And that was 2015.
$89,079 and 2627 backers. Launched April 8, 2015.
DTD: Well you know, any time I talk about your company and you, the phrase that always comes up is, “You know, the educational games that don’t suck.” I think You are the educational-games-that-don’t-suck guy.
JC: Yeah, that’s great.
I think John took this as a compliment. I certainly said it with the highest praise.
DTD: And the first thing they will say is “Oh, the Cytosis guy.” They know exactly who I’m talking about
JC: And that one is still our bestselling game. Then you know, fast forward a little bit. At some point, this is the interesting thing, is you go from being a hobby game designer to a published designer, who now is selling some games, to someone who is trying to run a company. And that is a totally different world.
DTD: Were you self-publishing and all this business?
JC: All of it.
DTD: All of it, wow.
JC: All of it was self-publishing.
DTD: Those are a lot of skills that nobody teaches you.
JC: That’s right, and that’s the toughest part. There’s just no way to learn that stuff except jumping headfirst to do it. And literally make lots and lots and lots of mistakes. That’s how you learn is by making lots of mistakes.
DTD: And actually, just now, just this year, I’m seeing companies come up that are consulting companies of, “How do I do this?” It’s just showing how much the industry’s growing. Yeah, you were, you were in the Wild West, in the deep end. So, this was Genius Games? When you started it, it was Genius Games?
JC: This was Genius Games. I got an LLC and started the social media channels before we ever launched our first Kickstarter campaign. Got the logo, and that’s all the easy stuff. You know, everyone does that first, “I got a company, but I got a logo and I got social media channels.” And you’re like, “That’s… Yes. Technically, that’s a company. But that’s not a company. That’s not a business, that’s not going to get you anywhere yet.”
DTD: Yeah, what does your company do?
JC: Right, Right.
DTD: You’ve got to figure that out. You gotta live, breathe it.
JC: And through that process, over the next few years we moved a couple, moved our offices a couple times. We hired, and fired, and had other employees quit along the way. It’s been a crazy, crazy ride, but now we’re actually at a point where I feel, I feel very good about the structure. You know, I think there’s a number of things that small companies do wrong. But I think there’s… I think running the company is actually extremely, extremely simple. But I said simple, not easy. Extremely simple. But it’s the simplest things that people don’t do, because it’s…
DTD: Or they give up on pretty quick.
JC: Or they give up on really quick, because they think it’s got to be more complicated than this. No, it’s not. It’s not more complicated. You just have to commit to it.
DTD: Well, it’s frustrating. Yeah, a lot of it is frustrating. There’s a lot of head banging, and… So, when you when you started, obviously one of the big things that’s going to be in your mind, is there’s a bunch of companies out there that make educational games, and nobody knows the company, and nobody knows the game. But the companies survive because they sell through museum stores in the shop at the end of the tour, and they sell to schools and, quite frankly, 99% of them are terrible. Were you actively trying to not be that company?
JC: Yeah. We intentionally, as a company, decided to remove educational language from our material.
DTD: Which is a great idea. People have that gut reaction.
JC: That’s right.
DTD: “Wait a minute, I’m learning! No, no, no, no, no, no! Give me Cards against Humanity.”
JC: I mean, if you think about a group of gamers sitting down, “What should we play?” And someone says, “Oh I’ve got this great educational game”, you’re done, already. Right there. And whether we like it or not, that is a label that just kills a game in the hobby, which is unfortunate.
DTD: It’s true. And that’s what I’m leading up to. Because, I don’t think in my childhood, I ever played one I liked. And I got them a lot. I was a nerdy kid. I was an academic kid. I was a smart kid. I liked science a lot, and I liked games. I can’t name you one that I was given that made any impact on me.
JC: That’s too bad.
DTD: I know. And I’ve tried. I’ve tried hard.
Our waiter brings over the bill, and I get the great pleasure of charging the meal to my room for three seperate reasons. First, it is always just fun to charge things to a room. Second, my room number was 1024, which is just great. And third, my roommate was Mark Streed, who may just get stuck with the bill.
DTD: I can tell you that I discovered Genius Games later in your life cycle. I discovered it right around Cytosis. Because I am a Cell Biologist. That was my primary. My dad’s a computer science guy. I’m a Cell Biologist. I’ve done DNA work, and I’m fascinated by physics and particle physics and all this. So, all… as soon as I played Cytosis, it’s like “I have to check out the other games”. It’s through luck and happenstance, I think I have seven copies of Subatomic. I don’t know how it happened. But that’s one of one of my gimmes, is like people come over. “Oh, you’re in the sciences? Take this game.”
JC: Yeah. Yeah. That’s great. Have you seen the new box cover for the second edition we did? You have to check it out.
DTD: I don’t think I have. I’ll have to look for it.
JC: The trouble was subatomic that we had ,was that people thought it was a kids game because of the faces.
DTD: The smileys.
JC: But we redid the box cover.
DTD: I didn’t think that was a bad thing. I could see toning it down a bit.
JC: The cover now is this really action-packed atom with the electron, I don’t want to say “rings”, because we know that’s not true. These electron spinning clouds, spinning around the nucleus. And it’s beautiful.
The history of what an atom “looks like” is just fascinating, from the Bohr model of electrons in planetary orbits, to the modern “electron cloud” model, where electrons have a probability of being somewhere, but do not really exist in any one place. My favorite theory is that there is only one electron/positron in the universe, constantly moving backwards and forwards in time. Like a tiny electrically charged Terminator. Just like that.
DTD: Yeah, the whole ring thing is all, you know, Bohr and Newtonian fallacy. It’s all clouds and probabilities and all this stuff. I gotta tell you right now, my line in most games is that I believe in a Schrödinger’s deck of cards. They’re all blank until I flip one over.
JC: There you go [laughs].
Erwin Schrödinger proposed a thought experiment to grasp the bizarre ideas in quantum physics. He described a cat sealed in a box with a bottle of poison. You don’t know if the poison has opened, so as long as the box remains closed, the cat is both alive and dead. The cat only definitively gains or loses mortality when you open the box and look. This mimics how subatomic particles behave; they can have multiple states at once, which only becomes defined when you measure them. People agree that Schrödinger was very smart, and that he didn’t much care for cats.
DTD: Then the field collapses and the card has reality. And blackjack people don’t like that at all. They get very upset. Cytosis was an amazingly fascinating game for me. I ended up buying a ton of copies, and I sent them to everybody I work with, because I was in academia for quite a while. I still have a lot of friends who are teaching, or have labs that they run in big universities. So, I know that I’ve personally sent copies of your game to Princeton, to Yale, where I’ve got buddies. And they love it.
Shout out Becky!
JC: Thank you. That’s fantastic.
DTD: It is so cool.
JC: And so, going back to the educational language part… So, we sat down as a team, and had a real “come to Jesus”, soul-searching moment, about what kind of company we were. Because we don’t want to not be an educational company. Because at our core, my mission and my vision and what I value, is to see the next generation of people competent in the sciences. And one way to do that is through play.
JC: Through activities that are not your common memorization lecture style.
DTD: Well you discovered science and loved it. It’s human nature, you want to share that. You know, “Let me tell you how cool it is, because I was fascinated with how cool it was.”
JC: But at the same time, we don’t want gamers to take, to look at the game and say, “Oh, here’s a couple of educational games, that we’re only going to play if we need to learn something with our kids. We are gamers, let’s play these instead.” Right, that was what we didn’t want to have happen. So, our language, what we try and do is we focus on the accurate, hard science nature, and then the traditional mechanisms of the game. So, our slogan now is “Credible science. Incredible games”.
DTD: I love it.
JC: Until we remove the educational language…
DTD: And I think you have hit that balance absolutely perfectly. It’s, I mean you guys don’t have a reputation for educational, traditional. You know, you’re in with all the other board games. Cytosis was the game that really nailed it for you.
JC: Yes, Cytosis is our best seller still, and really took off. We’ll see if Subatomic or Genotype can catch up. I don’t know. Jury is still out.
DTD: I enjoyed Genotype a lot. And it took all those ideas of Mendelian genetics, that I always thought were puzzle-y in nature, and fun to figure out. I mean, you were probably in the same boat, that when you were in chemistry class, you liked balancing the equation, figuring out, because it was a puzzle.
JC: Oh, I loved it!
DTD: And in genetics, I liked figuring out all these different genotypes and phenotypes, and I know what they looked like. But I got to figure out what the genes are, and I’m going to trace it back, and… Absolutely dug it.
A genotype refers to exactly what genes you have in your DNA. A phenotype refers to what you look like because of those genes. The classic example is eye color. Your phenotype may be brown eyes, but your genotype could be Bb, both a brown eye gene and a blue eye gene. Apologies to Van Morrison.
JC: And I’ve got a final prototype of it here if you play it over the weekend.
DTD: I want to see it! Because I really enjoyed the prototype at the last show. GenCon, it was GenCon I think. It was me and Geoff Engelstein played. That’s the only time I played a game with him. And that was so fun.
JC: Yeah, yeah, it’s gone through a lot of iterations since then, but still, the core of what you saw is there. I think it’s a bit tighter, a bit more fun, a bit more game heavy.
DTD: What was it? Someone said that, early designers keep adding more and more to their game, and late designers keep taking away more and more from their games.
JC: And I mean, is it that’s almost sort of based upon this Taoist principle. What is it? Knowledge is adding things every day and wisdom is taking things away every day.
JC: What a practical…
DTD: Oh, the Tao Te Ching is a whole bunch of just single line phrases that are just unbelievable. And then you’ll have, like one about fishing. And they’re so amazing. The one I like is, and this this one kills me every day is, it’s a smart man who doesn’t say anything.
JC: Yeah. Oh, yeah, especially in today’s climate.
DTD: I am a talker, so that says worlds about me. No, with the Taoist principles, I’ve always felt that anything, you know, books, games, careers, whatever it is, it kind of has a path, it has a flow. It has something that it is intending to do, and you need to really think hard whether, what you’ve put in there is kind of just letting it do what it’s going to do? Or is it getting in the way and causing turbulence and moving things out? It’s the whole river theory.
JC: Yeah, when we have an early prototype, and this is what I try to work with my students to achieve. When we have an early prototype, the first few things we do are, we ask, “Okay. What is the core system in this game that creates the interesting decisions that people actually enjoy, that people talk about, that people like? What is that core system? What are all the other things in the game that are getting in the way? And how can we fix, first the worst offenders in the game?” If you think about your grade in class, if you have basically 90% across the board, you know, maybe you have an 88, a 92, an 89, a 93, and then you have a 44. Well, your grade is not going to be an average of 90% because that 44 is going to drag everything down. And if you ask someone…
The waiter came by again, and tried to remove my plate, not realizing there were some fantastic crumbs still present. I quickly set them straight.
JC: And if you were to ask that student “Well, how do you raise your grade?” You don’t fix that; you don’t raise the 93. You don’t raise the 87. You don’t raise the 89. You raise the 44!
DTD: You’ve got the most room to make a difference there.
JC: And I think there’s a very similar thing with games through the design, and through the development process. At every stage, I want to ask the question, “What is the core system that’s creating the interesting decisions that people really enjoy? And then what are the worst offenders around that, that are getting in its way, that are confusing? The things that are frustrating players?” Because that trap that so many designers get into, is they make this game, and it’s finally make a game for yourself. But at some point that game has to be about the experience, that players have, when they sit down and play the game.
DTD: And that’s a relatively new attitude.
JC: Oh yeah, it’s mind blowing.
DTD: I’ve talked a couple times about trends that games have made over the decades, and if you look back into the 1970s, which is kind of where I was discovering all this stuff. The games were very complicated, with huge rule books that were incomprehensible. And the game designers’ goal was to add more and more and more details for immersion. And sometimes you would get immersion out of that; ASL [Advanced Squad Leader] still survives. And sometimes you would lose all immersion, because you just couldn’t handle how many different facts. And I love that now, we really are in an age where there’s so much competition among games, what’s really selling is elegance. What’s selling is simple ideas that lead to complex interactions, but you don’t need to learn any of the complex stuff. You get it. It makes sense.
JC: Yeah, I like that, the idea of elegance.
DTD: I use the word way too much.
JC: But it nails it, it’s perfect. The idea that simple interactions can create very deep experiences. That’s amazing. I agree with you, I think one of the…, again it comes back to focus in a lot of ways. Focus, being humble, realizing the game is about the experience other people are having. To take what you have, and to say, “Look at focusing on that core system, getting feedback from other players, and then just iterating, iterating, iterating.” Until you get to the point where you do have a handful of simple decisions, that create this network of options and develop into deep, deep strategies. Right? And this is where I think a lot of board gaming is heading. Because people, our attention span is so short now.
JC: You don’t give a new person 90% of the games that are out there.
DTD: And we lose focus on that. Because in the industry, you kind of think of a lot of them as accessible. But yeah, there’s certain games where you play them and the simplicity of it just clicks, and you go, “This is brilliant, you know? How did they do this?” I love that the industry has taken that turn. The other really big turning point, and you said it, is I think nowadays people are focusing on the experience. It’s going to sound really weird, but early board games were not designed to be traditionally fun. They were designed to be challenges, and challenges are not fun.
JC: Yes, that makes sense.
DTD: And now I have had a couple designers tell me, “When I make a game, and I play test it, I could care less what they’re doing, do the mechanics work, is the game broken, who’s winning? All I look at is their facial expressions – are they having fun? If they’re having fun, something’s going right. If they’re frustrated and don’t know what to do, something’s going wrong.”
JC: Yeah, that’s so interesting. I never thought about that. I’m going to guess you have a lot more experience in this, coming into the industry in the seventies. That games were not meant to be fun, they were meant to challenging. I had never heard of that before.
DTD: They were. Risk. Was Risk inherently fun? Were your turns joyful?
JC: All right.
DTD: Did you feel like you were… I mean, occasionally you destroy somebody. Did they have fun? And now we are so focused on, “Is the player having fun?” You know, things we never thought about before. Okay, you’ve got a game, and there’s five people in the game, and it’s going to be 20 minutes before it comes back around to you. Were you having fun during those 20 minutes? Were you engaged? So now there’s a big trend of doing stuff off-turn. And you’ve got a big complicated game where you’re thinking about taking over the world. Did you feel frustrated and road blocked when it came to you? That wasn’t fun, you know, and that’s actually Geoff Engelstein’s book, is a version. I love the idea that that is becoming a huge focus in the industry, and it kind of, it reflects on the growth of the industry as a whole. It’s really funny. I said, designers, when you design your very first game, when you’re like eight years old, you’re like, “I’m going to make something really cool.” It has a million rules and it’s over-complicated, but you love it. And then once you’ve put out a bunch of games, it’s like there’s three pieces on your turn. You have two choices and you’re blown away. And I think the whole industry has done this. In the 1970’s, when it was a very young industry, it was all about complexity and addition, and in the 2020s… Oh my God, that’s weird to say. In the 2020’s it is a experienced, educated, smart industry.
DTD: And we’re actively avoiding complexity. I love it. I wonder if this is a pendulum and it’s going to swing back, or if this is an evolution and we are… I mean, I think it’s been a very, very good trend.
Next time, John and I finish up our breakfast, and talk some serious Biology. I managed to keep it in check for 3 segments, but all the science talk comes spilling out in part 4.