Welcome back to the glamorous spectacle that is the GAMA trade show in Reno, Nevada. I have gone to several GAMA expos at this point, and it always a bit like returning to summer camp – seeing old friends and catching up. And one old friend who has been noticeably absent my blog is Curt Covert, the founder of Smirk and Dagger Games, and designer of Cutthroat Caverns, Nevermore, Hex Hex and many more. Curt is one of the nicest guys in the industry, and I am delighted to be breaking my fast with him this beautiful Wednesday morning. Of course it all starts with waiting for a table…
DTD: Anyway, I put our name in probably 10-15 minutes ago. And they…
CC: We can hover over here. Because technically we might even be able to go right there [pointing to bar].
Biscotti’s in the Peppermill is the main casual restaurant at GAMA, and consequently can be busy. Even early in the morning. It does have a hidden little bar area by the maître d’, which I had not noticed before.
DTD: Oh, OK. [to host] I put my name in a little bit ago. Thompson. Corey Thompson.
Host: Oh, Corey, I have it on here. You are about next in line.
CC: Is that open [pointing to the bar]?
The host gave a long explaination, the jist of which was – no, it was not open. Even though we saw lots of people eating at the bar, and several open spots. It could very well be that area was only to appease the most impatient. With booze.
DTD: OK, thanks. So, we’ve just got like a little wait.
DTD: So, you having a good show so far?
CC: Yeah. I’ve gotten some great feedback and reactions to the three things that were kind of focused on at the show. Behext has gotten a little bit more traction than maybe even the Kickstarter would necessarily… But Spill is pretty strong. And this [showing me the Boop box] was, I think, a surprise for everyone.
Behext is Curt’s most recent Kickstarter, being a spiritual successor to Hex Hex. Deck building, take-that attacks, and a rotating target system make it wicked fun. The Spill deviates a bit from Smirk and Dagger’s usual affairs, being a cooperative cube tower game about cleaning up after an oil spill.
DTD: I have actually had a lot of people come up and tell me about Boop.
CC: Really? That’s great.
DTD: My assistant Maggy actually played with it a bunch, and she thought that was great. So that was awesome.
Maggy was invaluable at GAMA. Plus, I got to say “my assistant” a lot, and that is always cool.
CC: Danny [O’Neill] over at PSI, he was working at Alliance, and he was like, “You know, when you first told me about this game, I thought you were insane. Like I just thought it was going to be a… not worth pursuing. And I am sorry. I take it back. I think we’re going to do very well with it.”
PSI, Publisher Services Inc, is a catch-all distributor for board games. If you have just a few titles, and do not want to bother publishing yourself or making a deal with a large publisher, PSI can add a designer’s one or two games to their large line made up of many different sources.
DTD: But this isn’t the first time you’ve heard stuff like this. You, I mean, you have put out games that have always gotten some reaction, like “How are you going to do that?” and “That makes no sense.”
DTD: Like the first Smirk and Laughter game, was Nuts…
CC: Nut so Fast!
DTD: Nut so Fast, and everybody was like, “Nah…”
CC: Well, to be fair, I only had one print run of it. And I thought it was going to do actually much more than that. So, maybe they were right in that case.
DTD: Everybody was talking about it. I remember it was just weird.
In Nut so Fast by Jeff Lai, players try to spot sets of four nuts, then be the first to grab the large wooden token of that nut. Crazy party game fun. Very few daggers.
CC: Yeah, I loved the game. It was kind of like Ghost Blitz.
DTD: That was crazy. Well, how did you get started? I was trying to look back in the history and everything. And I was trying to figure out how you got started in board games, and all.
CC: See, now you’re going to blow all the questions right here. [laughs]
Keep in mind, we have not even gotten a table yet.
DTD: I am! This is what I do. I’ve only got an hour, you told me! So, it’s going to be shotgun.
CC: Alright, well I got started when… Like everyone, once you play a lot of board games, you know, you start wanting to craft them. And I started with building little expansions for the games that I loved.
DTD: Were you involved in the old school games, in the 70’s, 80’s, things like that?
CC: Yeah, yeah. So, you know, I created a new level for my DungeonQuest game.
DungeonQuest by Jakob Bonds and Dan Glimne was a 1985 Games Workshop title, later revised by Fantasy Flight, where players raced against time to get through the dungeon, collect/steal the treasure, and get out. It was unforgiving, and I never did well.
CC: And I created cards for Wiz-War. But at one point, Last Unicorn came out with Star Trek Red Alert, which was a collectible disk game. They lost the license before they could get to any of the other additions. And I was crushed, because I really loved the game. The designer released the data sheet on what the expansion was going to be.
DiskWars was a very popular disk-based wargame system originally by designer Tom Jolly, licensed to Fantasy Flight Games in 1999. Last Unicorn had the rights to Star Trek, so they made Red Alert happen, until the company was purchased by Wizards of the Coast shortly thereafter.
DTD: Oh, that’s awesome.
CC: I was like, “I’m a graphic artist. I can make this look exactly the way it should.” And so, I released it online for anyone who supported PDFs. And the designer was like super-psyched, and the community was psyched. And then the community and I started building new content. And I spent about two years on it. And at that point, I was like… Someone came to me and said, “Why? You’ve spent two years on this. Why don’t you make your own games? Like actually make some money at it?”
DTD: It’s like, “Two years on someone else’s game that you’re releasing for free?”
Host: Corey! – Hi guys.
The host seated us in a lovely booth, maybe fearing our rising impatience. In reality, I was fully prepared to hear all of Curt’s life story well before sitting at a table.
DTD: Awesome! It’s really funny you talk about that, because the interview I did just before this was Christian Peterson. And he talked about Diskwars, and specifically Last Unicorn.
DTD: So, it’s almost like I’ve paid you to set me up.
Honest, he did not. But I should do that in the future.
DTD: [And we are seated] Thank you so much.
CC: Yeah, and so that was… That’s when I first actually even started thinking about that. And I was like, “Well, I could try.” And of course, building on someone’s brilliance is much easier than a white-paper. And my first designs were terrible.
DTD: Well, I always think about: As a kid you get tracing paper, and you trace out drawings, and things like that. And then you learn to draw.
CC: Yeah, sure. Exactly, yeah.
DTD: And I’ve talked to so many people, who are like, “Oh yeah, I made an expansion for…”
DTD: You know, it’s like, Colby Dauch was talking about working on HeroScape expansions. I think it’s very cool. So, what was the first title that you worked on? Because I know I kind of was introduced to the company with Cutthroat Caverns.
CC: Right. So that was my third game.
DTD: I knew it wasn’t the first one.
2007’s Cutthroat Caverns is a game of dungeon adventuring and monster killing. And the tag line sums it up perfectly – Without teamwork, you’ll never survive. Without betrayal, you’ll never win. It’s all about getting the last blow in, then stealing full credit and glory.
CC: Yeah, yeah. Well, like I said, what I ended up doing was, I white-papered and like… I was a graphic designer, so I built my first designs to the n-th degree. They looked amazing.
DTD: [laughs] You had the most beautiful prototypes in the world.
Most board game prototypes are white posterboard, index cards, and handwritten cards shoved in sleeves.
CC: Which were like watching paint dry. They were like 4-player Solitaire games. No interaction. And I hated them.
DTD: [laughs] It surprises me that you were starting with solitaire stuff.
Especially since Smirk and Dagger made its name with take-that, aggressive, interactive titles.
CC: Well, it wasn’t. But that’s what it felt like. And so I was like, “OK, look. First off, you are a marketer in your actual life. Let’s take an imaginary journey, where I’m a game company, and I have to pitch why someone should care about my games. What makes them different? What is my personal stamp? How can I build a brand?”
DTD: [laughs] Yeah.
CC: And so, I said, “OK, well, you know what? You love take-that, stab-your-buddy games. You love Wiz-War, Robo Rally. You know, all this stuff where you’re like really knocking heads.”
DTD: That moment where, you know, all of a sudden everybody is like, “OOOOH!”
I am fascinated how, in conversation my noises and exclamations sound so appropriate, and only serve to emphasize the point. Then when written, look like I am either translating for a petting zoo goat or have the mind of a 10 year old.
CC: Exactly. I loved all that emotionality. So, I was like, “OK. So let’s pretend you’re going to build a company. And that’s going to be your mission statement. You are going to deliver that kind of experience for people. And you’re going to do it really well.” So – Smirk and Dagger. It’s the smile that comes on your face just before you land the blow, and then you plunge the dagger.
CC: What is now the simplest execution [of this] I can come up with, that has high interaction, and lots of emotional highs and lows? And in about two weeks I came… I had the first design for Hex Hex done.
CC: And it changed a lot over the course of the next two years, but that impetus was kind of what focused me, and delivered the first product.
CC: I ended up taking it to the very first GenCon in Indianapolis. There is a retailer, who had a booth there, that I met at a local show in Massachusetts. And they’re like, “Hey – why don’t you come, set up a little card table, and see if you can drum up some business.”
GenCon officially started in 1968, with an attendance of 96, in Lake Geneva, Wisconson. Although there was an unofficial “GenCon 0” at Gary Gygax’s house in 1967, attended by 12 people. As the convention grew, it moved to the University of Wisconson, then to Milwaukee in 1985. Once the show was regularly getting more than 25,000 attendees, it moved to the Indianapolis Convention Center in 2003, where it is still being held each year.
DTD: Show your game.
CC: “It will draw people to our booth, and that’s great for us.”
Waitress: Hi, how are you doing?
DTD: Hey there. Doing well.
Waitress: Did you guys need a few more minutes? Are you ready?
DTD: I think I’m probably set. Coffee and a Benedict.
CC: Oooo! That’s what I was going to do! So, I’m going to have a hot tea and a Benedict, however.
I knew Curt was a genius. Eggs Benedict is one of the most perfect breakfast dishes. But so difficult to pull off properly. Poaching an egg is a tightrope act – too little and it is a raw egg. Too long, and it is hard boiled. And Hollandaise is a sauce that distinctly does NOT want to be made.
Waitress: What kind of tea would you like?
CC: Like, a breakfast tea.
Waitress: And then cream and sugar for the coffee?
DTD: Just cream is fine.
Waitress: Anything else?
CC: That’s it.
DTD: Well, thank you. Now, poached eggs are the most beautiful invention in the universe.
A well poached egg is a reminder of miracles in the everyday world.
CC: Super yummy.
DTD: And this will not be a well poached egg. But poached eggs are the most beautiful thing. So, you brought Hex Hex, and you set it up, and well… And that was the beginning of the end.
CC: [laughs] Yeah, exactly. I had a card table. It was just me. And this was a deck of cards that I made at like the local Kinko’s. Like, it was just xeroxed onto parchment paper, hand cut, and put into a plastic deck box. And I sold… I was like, “I don’t know. I’ll sell it for like $12” And I made 100 of them.
DTD: All right.
CC: With nothing but an 8×8, a letter sized signage on the table, in a massive hall. First time in Indie [Indianapolis].
DTD: Hex Hex.
CC: Right. And I sold 72 of them, and I was like, “Oh man, maybe I actually have something!” So, I went home and I convinced my wife that we would put the house on second mortgage, to pay for our first print run.
DTD: Oh man, that’s a big…
Resonable move after making $864.
CC: There was no Kickstarter back then!
DTD: No, no. I mean, second mortgage was the Kickstarter.
DTD: That’s a huge step, off of selling 72 decks of cards. Wow. And of course – things failed, the company never made it. Everything went down. [laughing]
CC: Yeah. Correct. Exactly. Well, no. What saved me was, I did a… I printed the games. They arrived on Halloween day in 2003. And I didn’t have distribution. I didn’t have retailers. I had no means of moving them. And the GAMA trade show was six months away.
Most board game designers use the GAMA trade show to ink deals and announce new titles.
DTD: Well, they were small.
CC: Well, that’s true, but yeah, six months away was the first GAMA trade show, and I’m sitting on product now. So, I could have gone under. Easily. Because I’m dumb. [laughs]
CC: So, I started cold calling. And I somehow got up…
DTD: Just game stores and retailers?
He squawked out in utter disbelief…
CC: I called Spencer’s Gifts. Somehow got ahold of the buyer, who took my call.
CC: They agreed to look at the product, and bought half the print run. Which paid for the entire game. So, thereby saving the company.
DTD: You’re very lucky.
DTD: That is awesome. But I’ll tell you, a lot of my designer interviews have a story like that. Like [Christian] Petersen printing Twilight Imperium on borrowed money in his garage. And not buying a booth – just setting up in the hallway to the restaurant.
Man, I bet that would be a great interview.
DTD: So, I love… You think that still happens?
CC: I do. Well, I do, except that the bar has been really lowered for people.
CC: Yeah, I think that the advantage of Kickstarter, you know, true to the vision of Kickstarter, is it enables people dreams. It allows someone to go out with an idea, and say “You know what? If people really are excited about this, it can happen.”
DTD: The downside though, is not everybody has a sellable dream.
CC: Well, that’s true. And they will discover that. And I think there’s a difference, too. Some people just want to get their baby made. Some people want to become a board game company. And some people don’t understand that those are two different things.
DTD: No, I totally get it. And it’s kind of like the people who print a book and publish on Amazon under self-publishing, and they give it to friends, and that’s… They just want the book.
CC: Right, and that’s cool.
DTD: And people… I’ve definitely met people who are “going to make $1,000,000 making board games.”
What’s the old adage? “The best way to make a small fortune in board games is to start with a large fortune.”
DTD: “And I’ve got a game that’s just like Cards Against Humanity, except… they have animals.”
Industry people always complain about being approached by a naïve designer who has “this game is just like [famous title], except for [insignificant detail].”
Interestingly, the double dot in naïve and noël is not an umlaut, as in the Germanic languages. It is a diaeresis, which denotes that two or more vowels together should be pronounced separately.
Waitress: [delivering tea] There’s extra hot water in there.
CC: Thank you.
DTD: Thank you very much.
Waitress: And there’s extra coffee in there for you.
The waitress was wonderful enough to bring me an extra carafe of arabica. At that moment I would have done anything for her.
DTD: Oh, you are great. Thank you. See, that’s the problem: anytime a waitress brings me food I just fall in love. It’s like, people bring me food and I’m good, I’m good forever.
DTD: So, Hex Hex got paid for through Spencer’s?
DTD: And then that was enough to work on the next one? Or was it more like, you could not “not work” on the next thing?
CC: So then, the second stroke of luck was, I had signed up for the GAMA trade show. And I was hoping to meet my first retailers, my first distributors. And I got a call from Aldo Ghiozzi over at Impressions.
DTD: I love Aldo. Every story leads to Aldo.
Aldo Ghiozzi is an instrumental figure in board gaming. He is the founder of Wingnut Games, then Impressions Game Distribution Servies, now owned by Flat River Group; Nearly every game that hit a major convention went through Aldo in some way – warehouses, distribution, etc. Aldo currently is one of the owners of KublaCon in California.
CC: I do too. It’s true. So, he saw me as a new exhibitor, and said, “Hey man, I checked out your website. It looks interesting. Let me tell you what I do. And the difference is, you can go and you can try to pitch all these distributors with your one game right now, which is nearly impossible. You can talk to a bunch of retailers. You can probably get some placement. Or you can work with me, I can add you as a line item, and you are fully distributed overnight.” I was like, “Let’s do that!”
DTD: That sounds like a plan.
CC: Yes. And it was great working with Aldo, and I worked with him for several, several years before going over to, finally to PSI. But the consolidation route has served me very well as a one-man company.
DTD: Wow. Is Smirk [and Dagger] still a one-man company?
DTD: I didn’t realize. I mean, you’ve got such a strong presence out there, and you’re putting out so much product.
CC: Yeah, it’s … interesting. I mean for 14 years I put out basically one game a year.
I was a bit surprised by this since Smirk and Dagger is so well known.
CC: And I… You know, I had a full-time, really… I was the creative director at a marketing company, and it was a job that I worked really, really hard and long hours at. So, I did Smirk and Dagger from 9 to midnight, basically.
DTD: Wow. And these are things I never would have guessed, because… I’m a little biased, because I came into the hobby board gaming thing playing Talisman and Dungeon and DungeonQuest, and these 3M box games, and Avalon Hill box games.
CC: Yeah, yeah.
DTD: And really, my first transition into hobby board gaming, as a separate entity from that, was your game.
CC: That’s great!
DTD: It was Cutthroat Caverns. As a kid, I absolutely loved role playing games.
CC: I did too.
DTD: And the experiences behind that. But I didn’t have a big community. I didn’t have a lot of friends who came over, and so I would read the books and set up everything, and almost never play. So my holy grail was looking for board games that were role playing games. And it was so niche at that time, it was really hard to find any of that.
Hence Talisman, Dungeon, and Cutthroat Caverns.
CC: Well, that’s true. And I had a very weird experience. So, when I was in high school, my D&D group in the 80’s was one of the most unusual. I was a drama club kid.
No surprise. Curt just exudes that “drama club” charisma.
CC: And so, I had a lot of really creative, kind of driven people. My D&D group was me and six women.
DTD: OK. And for that time that was just unheard of.
In the 1980’s, I knew of women who played, of course. I just did not know any personally.
CC: And that was unheard of. And I wasn’t even running the dungeon. One of the women was actually the DM.
DTD: That is fantastic.
CC: So, we actually had… We invited a bunch of guys to join us, and they kind of weren’t into it, so you know…
DTD: Wow. That’s very cool because I had a D&D group, and we almost never met, and we almost never did anything. But yeah, you had the more outgoing… You know, I had the friend, who we couldn’t tell his parents what we were doing, because we were “products of the devil.”
CC: Oh, uh huh. Yup.
This was a real concern in the early days of Dungeons and Dragons. Many parents would not allow that sort of game in their home.
DTD: This was more early 80’s. I can’t even imagine having a group of like six women. I don’t think we had any. Once I got married, in the 90’s, we played role playing games more regularly. And we had a solid group that… I think we had one group that went for 20 years.
CC: That’s great. Well, so… The story with my D&D group is that, as you might imagine, with the DM and a whole group of women, you know, kind of in the game, it was a very Tolkien-esque, very perfect vision, of what D&D is. It was all about storytelling. It was about characters, and building characters.
CC: And it was it was, you know… If you found a magic item, by God it went to the person who could wield it best, right? That was the kind of vibe.
DTD: It was all good players.
CC: Yes. And so, imagine then that I now go to college. And I start playing D&D with the guys on my floor.
The word “guys” lay heavy in the air, almost bringing with it a texture and a dank smell.
DTD: Those were the games that I had. D&D was a competitive experience. It was the dungeon master versus the player. And you were going to die.
CC: Exactly! No, but here’s the thing. The DM, the DM actually had the same kind of a background, I think. And the guys who I was playing with lobbied to see if they could get, you know… I wanted to play an assassin. And he let evil characters into the party. And then he brought his own favorite character in as an NPC, to help us. And someone decided to take emotional leverage, and murder his character, where he couldn’t avoid the… Like super drunk, rot grub on the eyes. Like, burrowed into his brain. And the DM was shocked and horrified. Had to leave the room, he was so upset. And I looked around at these people I was playing with, and was like, “I have nothing to worry about from the DM. I am terrified about the players I am actually playing with!”
DTD: I’ve been in games like that. It was… yeah.
CC: And that shock and horror and distrust of my own teammates, that was the impetus for Cutthroat Caverns.
DTD: [snarky] And that was the best thing that happened to me [chuckles]… I remember, I mean the Internet was still kind of young, but I remember searching for videos on Cutthroat Caverns.
The waitress, easily my favorite person within 100 miles, brought over our tremendous plates of egg, potato, and love.
Waitress: Is there anything else I can get for you guys?
DTD: I think I’m good. Maybe a hot sauce.
The eternal debate. Eggs and potatoes practically beg for a capsaicin laced barb, but do I succumb to the sharp, acrid, yet intense vinegary harshness of Tabasco, or savor in the more mellow, but flavorful, thick and heady atmosphere under that wood-capped phial of Cholula?
DTD: Cholula is great. Thank you. I remember getting Cutthroat Caverns, and kind of understanding it and kind of not, and then I started diving into YouTube videos, which were really, really new at the time. It’s like, “what else is out there?” Discovering, I think, one expansion was about to drop. So, this was pretty early into it, but it was… I loved that game and played it all the time.
CC: Well, it certainly did very well for us. And actually, I’m almost… I’m a little disappointed, because we had come up kind of late in the game with a fifth expansion for the game, that I think is probably one of the best pieces of content that we created for Cutthroat.
Cutthroat Caverns had several expansions, but the fourth one, Fresh Meat in 2012, completely revamped the game, and for me made it brilliant. It also came in a giant box.
CC: And it largely went unnoticed.
DTD: Are you talking about the divinities one?
DTD: Yeah, I remember getting it after the fact. I mean, I had I had played Cutthroat a lot, and then it sat for a little bit when other things were blooming, and other things were rising and falling.
In fact, that 5th expansion Death Incarnate re-invigorated my interest in Cutthroat Caverns when it came out.
DTD: But I remember it being kinda separate.
CC: Yeah, it was a really… It was all about the Incarnations, which were typically the most interesting creatures. And Jonathan [Lavalee] did an amazing job.
DTD: Yeah, they were wild.
CC: Yeah, re-imagining a lot of these, the tactics that could be used.
Come back next time for more breakfast, more back stabbing, and more nostalgia. Plus tales of chalk and poker.