Picture yourself eating a pleasant breakfast on a quiet February morning, taking a break from an otherwise hectic GAMA convention. Now, a crazy interviewer wants to talk about science and biology. This is exactly the problem John Coveyou, designer of Cytosis and multiple other fantastic games, is now experiencing. One of these days I need to learn to be more quiet.
JC: It’s interesting because you look at games, like maybe Gloomhaven would be a good example, since it’s just so popular. Even though Gloomhaven, in a lot of ways, is almost becoming a cliché, of some sort.
DTD: It’s so overly popular. Everybody knows about it. It’s so big. It’s the hyperbole in every discussion. Everybody brings it up. Everybody knows it.
JC: But it’s, there is something that is really elegant about that game, in that your turns are fairly simple.
DTD: The core rules.
JC: Yeah, they’re fairly simple. I mean, it’s a big, massive, complicated strategy game, but your turns are not that complicated.
DTD: You have a hand, you play 2 cards out of your hand, you’re done. Management of those cards and yeah.
JC: I think like you were saying, I don’t know, is it? Is this an evolution, or is it a pendulum? I don’t know. I guess we’ll find out. But it does seem like even with bigger games like that, you’re getting an evolution of big, complicated story and narrative.
DTD: You’re making complexity out of easy teach. I like to think of it like the way video games have gone as well. So, video games when they first hit, if you just picked it up, put it in the machine and turned it on, you couldn’t figure out how to play. It came with rule books. You had to learn it. There was complexity. And now that is the bane of it. There are no rulebooks. If you just pick it up and throw it in the machine you should be able to play it and love it within five minutes. So we are definitely moving that way. But I wonder, I mean, there is a market for incredibly complex, realistic games. People still do that. TI4 [Twilight Imperium 4th edition] sells well. But even that, TI4 versus TI3, the rule set was toned way down.
DTD: Yeah, Greenland.
DTD: Neanderthal blew me away.
JC: That one I haven’t played.
DTD: It’s hard. It’s hard to learn, but it was neat, neat ideas. I really dug it. And it’s also, there’s an interesting thing with Sierra Madre games, that they’re doing a living rule system; With their games, are constantly being updated online. Which is, it’s both good and not. I don’t know where I stand on that. But they’re complicated enough. I mean, I guess it’s an extension of just doing FAQs, and BoardGameGeek forums, and all this stuff.
JC: Yeah, it’s funny because it’s like, I might have my perspective on whether it’s right or wrong. But it doesn’t matter because it’s his company, and he can do whatever he wants to do.
Sierra Madre Games produces a set of historically and scientifically accurate games, by designer Phil Eklund, that tend towards complexity. The games are excellent, and I count myself as one their followers.
DTD: And he has a following, and he has people who love him, and he’s got people will buy any game that he makes. And that’s the other thing that I think is really important in this industry, is having a company brand. Having a company, you know, ideal. You know what that company does. When their game comes out, you kind of know what to expect. I think Genius has done a great job with that.
JC: Thank you.
DTD: It’s, you know, if I buy a Sierra Madre game, I know what I’m in for. If I buy a Genius Game, I know what I’m going to get. So, tell me what’s, what’s coming in the future? Genotype is just, I mean, I think of it a little older, but it is just hitting now.
JC: Yeah, well, Genotype is, the files are about to go to the manufacturer. We just finished the Kickstarter campaign. Kickstarter campaign did exceedingly well.
DTD: It’s gorgeous.
JC: Yeah, I think we made $360,000 on it, and sold about 7000 units.
The Genotype campaign went live on January 28, 2020 and raised $360,079 from 6,554 backers.
DTD: That is awesome, man. I am so excited about that.
JC: Very happy about that, and Genotype is interesting because it has a very difficult past. I started… Genotype was one of my early, early designs.
JC: Very early, but just could not get it to work. I brought in two different designers on the project. I first brought in Paul Salomon, who also is our co-designer on Periodic. And he and I have done a number of different small designs, and done some work together on prototypes, and things like that for a while. And that was maybe three or four years into the project, I brought him on. Because I couldn’t really get much out of it. And then I throw it to a developer, who we ended up making a designer on the game, because so much of what he brought to the table was just new and fresh. So now there’s technically three designers on Genotype: There’s Ian Zang, there’s Paul Salomon, and there’s myself. Yeah, that game just, and we postponed the Kickstarter, I want to say, two times. almost postponed it a third time. It was just a mess, and it’s… what’s interesting about it is, Genotype was the first game I would say, maybe not the first, but was it was one of the games that had to talk about the science of something that is very abstract, but also that we can recognize at a single human agency level.
DTD: Yea, what color is the pea? There’s a physicality in a reality to it.
JC: Right! And that made the graphic design and the art direction on that so, so hard. Because with the other ones, things like “Draw a cell. So, draw the components. There’s the components of a cell. That’s it.”
DTD: Organelles, bing bing bing.
JC: Yeah, even with the atoms, we got quarks. What do they look like? Well, make them circles with something in between, you know, in the middle. I don’t know what they are, but then you got atoms, and you have the scientists, and it’s all pretty easy.
DTD: Now graphic design a Punnett square.
Reginald Crundall Punnett created the first auto-sexing chicken breed, the Cambar between 1914 and 1920. Live with that knowledge, bucko.
JC: Exactly! It’s like everyone has seen a Punnett square, and it scares them away. And so, it was, it was very difficult. And it caused a lot of headaches and a lot of conflict in the office, but man, we are so happy with how it turned out.
DTD: But that exact fact is what really excited me about the game, is that the physicality was still there. The abstract nature of the puzzle was still there. And it was, it was a fun game! There was manipulation, there were things you could do. The theming was there, it was cool.
DTD: Yeah, like I said, genetics is a puzzle. It is a fun puzzle to play with and to solve. So, you’re bouncing between so many disciplines.
JC: Oh, yeah, Yeah.
DTD: And it’s, I mean the world is your oyster, because you’ve got uncharted territory here.
JC: Yeah, the other one we’re pretty excited about working on now, is a plant cell version of Cytosis. And Steve [Schlepphorst], he’s our, basically our lead development and production guy. He started off part-time, he’s a teacher, and he is now going to be stopping teaching and coming on full-time this summer. So, I’m pretty excited about that, but he’s been spearheading this project with the plant cell version, and he’s come up with this really clever mechanism. It uses the base mechanisms in Cytosis, the worker placement. But we’re focusing more on photosynthesis.
DTD: I was going to say photosynthesis and chloroplasts have got to be your point generator, your target.
JC: Exactly. And he also has this really interesting system, where, because the way plant cells work, and the way plants in general work, is when they, when they let out CO2, they open their stoma. And when they open them, they also let out lots of water, water vapor. And this is difficult because they want to keep all that in. And so, there’s this interesting thing happening where the plants are, any time you release CO2, or rather take in CO2, release oxygen. That’s what I was, I was incorrect when I first said that. They don’t release CO2, they release oxygen. They take in CO2. Anytime that happens, they also release water vapor. And there’s this water economy.
Stomata (singular stoma) are tiny little holes on the underside of leaves that plants can open and close, as John describes, to facilitate regulation of oxygen, water and CO2.
DTD: And CO2 and water are a really tangled mess with carbonic acid and all this stuff.
JC: Right. And so, we’ve got this interesting thing where a player is deciding, “OK, what resources do I get?” And any time they take an action to take resources, it affects this global economy, of basically pricing of certain materials in the game, and what other players get.
Waiter attempt #2 to take away the plates. I felt pity for him, so allowed my flatware to be taken. John was still enjoying his meal.
DTD: Thank you. Thank you very much.
JC: I’m still work for a little bit, yeah. But yeah, we’re excited about that.
DTD: I love it. I’ve got an aside… So, when I did cell biology, I was motor protein, cytoskeleton guy. So, watch cells move, watch cells crawl. That was my jam. And one of the systems we always kind of played with, and you never think about it, is there are some algal plant cells where the cytoplasts have a ton of motor proteins on them, and they race around the outside of the cell like little race cars. You look at them under the microscope, and they are just flying; they are constantly in motion all over the place.
JC: Is very interesting.
DTD: And we worked, trying to figure out what proteins were doing this. And it was a myosin related thing. But it’s insane, plants do so many different things, and they’re just aliens. They’re just so bizarre. By the way, if people became photosynthetic, on a really good day, you would get the calories of about one Oreo.
DTD: I am the fountain of weird facts. You would get maybe 100 calories on a good day, so it really wouldn’t matter. And there’s all these studies out there about, how could we monopolize on… What if people were photosynthetic, what else would we do? Like we would spread out our arms, we would get flat, get big, we would go for surface area. Never works well at all. It’s a terrible idea. Don’t do it.
JC: I’ll try and remember that.
I think I just successfully advised John Coveyou to not convert to photosynthesis.
DTD: Because there are weird animals, there are a couple sea slugs and things that have commensal algae, and they do photosynthesize a little bit. And it doesn’t really help.
Elysia chlorotica is a marine opisthobranch that can steal chloroplasts from the algae it eats and keep them alive. It is unclear however if the slug actually photosynthesizes.
JC: Well anytime you’re mobile, you’re using such a large amount of energy. You know, if a plant was to start walking around…
DTD: That wouldn’t work either. They don’t have the energy for it, and the structure of them would just fall to pieces. Oh, it’s insane. I mean, there’s a lot of weird things like that, like energy costs just being a person, of all the food you eat, and all the calories you eat.
JC: And your brain activity.
DTD: Actually, it’s about 3/4 of your calories just go to maintaining your temperature. So, if you decide that you’re not going to maintain temperature anymore, you barely need to eat. Cold blooded animals, reptiles and things like that… Snakes eat once a month, maybe. Because they don’t need to burn the calories. Fish, they just don’t need to burn the calories. Temperature is set for them, they’re good. We are just little calorie burning furnaces, trying to keep warm.
JC: And I imagine it’s because of our brains. I mean temperature regulation.
DTD: Temperature regulation is to keep the enzymes working efficiently. And you’ve got two strategies. You either don’t care about temperature, and your enzymes work under a bunch of different conditions, and you’ve got good days and bad days. You know, “I’m sorry. I can’t think or digest today. It’s too cold.” Or you specialize your enzymes to be super efficient. But if you’re off by a degree or two, they just die. They just don’t work.
JC: Very interesting.
DTD: Oh, it’s crazy. The temperature-enzyme connection is awesome. But, uh, I’m sorry, I’m going off on like 18 tangents. So what’s coming? What’s coming after Genotype?
JC: So, the plant cell version of Cytosis.
DTD: And any expansions for Cytosis? It came with the virus expansion, kind of came kind of didn’t. But I could see so many different things blooming off of that. I mean, I’m a cell biologist. I could think of a million things to do with it.
JC: I was working on, for a while, I’ve got a number of designs for specialized cells. An expansion where you can basically, you start, every player starts off as a stem cell, and as the game progresses, you actually specialize in a certain kind of cell.
DTD: Oh my God, you could totally do the different mechanisms in the game. Because, like I said, there’s the cells that keep you warmer, brown fat cells. All they need to do is burn ATP. That’s all they need to do. And hepatic cells, all they need to do is translate, make protein. Go, go, go! Acinar cells. That’s cool.
JC: Yeah, we’re still trying to… The trouble right now with a lot of the games we’re working on, is me finding the time to balance running the company properly, and designing the games, because I can’t do both.
DTD: Not at the same time.
JC: Yeah, not at the same time. And I can come back to that. But the other game that I’m really excited about. Really, really, really excited about, and I can’t wait to find the time to start working on it again, is a game about the human immune response.
DTD: I love it. It’s Legos. The way you make antibodies is Legos. Oh my God, I taught immunology. Not by choice, but I ended up in a situation where I had to teach immunology classes like six times.
Antibodies are made by randomly assembling a bunch of tiny little chunks. The resulting blob will specifically attach to … something. But your body makes a million million different antibodies, then picks the ones that protect you. Like randomly building with legos.
JC: That’s very interesting. And so, this is going to be a tower defense game. Where basically, you have a cut or a wound, and pathogens are all trying to come in, and your macrophages and neutrophils are flooding into the wound. And you can change the temperature of the wound, or the swelling.
DTD: Fever response. The four R’s. You know, the Latin response to inflammation.
JC: Oh, I’m not familiar with the four. I mean, maybe I am, just from…
DTD: I’m sorry I keep interrupting you. I get excited! I’m going to get it wrong, and it’s going to be on tape, and it’s terrible. But the original Latin physicians describe reaction to injury as four R’s. There’s rubros, was turning red. and there was turning red. There’s getting temperature, getting hot. There’s swelling. And there’s something else. I’m going to edit that. I’m going to cheat.
The Roman medical writer Aulus Cornelius Celsus wrote about inflammation in the 1st century AD. His 4 cardinal signs were Rubor (redness), Calor (heat), Tumor (swelling), and Dolor (pain). I have no idea where I got 4 R’s. I really do turn into a 5 year old when I get excited about something.
JC: It is yours, you can!
DTD: No, but I love that. So, hitting the temperature and it, and then I’m guessing you’re going to lay down the different cell types, and maybe different molecule types. There’s going to be antibodies in there somewhere. Yeah, the antibodies will come in a more advanced version, because the basic version will be, say a bacterial infection, where your macrophages and neutrophils are going to be your main line of defense. And then basically, what you’re trying to do, is to heal the wound before it gets too infected, and the infection takes over. And you have, basically on a turn what you’re deciding upon, is do we send in more neutrophils, which are the cheaper, faster small guns. Right? And then, as they die from battle, they turn into pus, and pus is a… I was just going to say, because if your if your timer is infection, then the cells you’re losing are the timer.
JC: Right. And the pus, then becomes a currency that you can use to basically purchase other upgrades and things like that, which is gross.
DTD: Is it bad that all I’m picturing on the Kickstarter is like a big quote, which just says “Pus Currency”. We need more games with things like cannibalism, pus, things like that. It’s an untapped resource. Oh, my God, that’s great.
JC: And then you can choose instead to take an action, in say the bone marrow, to increase the production.
DTD: That’s your recruiting!
JC: Yeah, yeah, your engine building. Or you can increase vasodilation on your own player mat, because the way it works…
DTD: And that’s your rails. That’s your tracks.
JC: Yeah, that’s the way it works. Your movement is restricted by vasodilation. So, you could produce a ton, a ton of neutrophils and macrophages. But if you don’t have, if you don’t vasodilate, then you can only trickle one in at a time. So, you want, you’re trying to combine all the engine building. Unfortunately, I’ve had to put the put the game down for about four months just to get the company back in order. Last year, we had a large staff last year. We had a director of finance and operations, director of sales and marketing. Production.
Next time John and I discuss quantum physics, new products from Genius Games, and come to some sobering revelations about this new coronavirus thing we hear about.