Welcome back to my breakfast with Curt Covert, game designer and founder of Smirk and Dagger. We have taken some early morning time away from the hustle and bustle of GAMA Expo 2022, to eat fine eggs benedict and talk shop. But first, paparazzi.
DTD: I’m going to take some pictures. I’m going to be a mean person.
DTD: Really… Drama kid… I had no idea. How could how could I have guessed…?
Curt, true to his drama kid ancestry, leaned back and hammed it up for the camera. Man this guy just exudes charisma.
CC: Indeed. Yeah, I’m so shy. [laughs]
DTD: Absolutely. So, you said Cutthroat [Caverns] was third. Was the company already kind of established and going, and you knew what you were doing?
CC: Well, I mean, did I know what I was doing? No!
DTD: The follow up question is, do you know what you’re doing now?
CC: No. I have a good inkling…
No hesitation at all in answering “no.” Respect.
DTD: No, you… This is not your first rodeo. You’ve been around the block once or twice.
CC: Correct, but no. I mean, I had a lot of skills from other things that I had done. I had worked in the film industry. I was in marketing as a creative. I knew how to pitch a product. I knew how, so I was a writer, I was a graphic designer. I knew I had a lot of skill sets that I could bring to the table. So, I was competent in a lot of things, and I just really had to learn the industry.
CC: But, you know, I also had a very specific take on what I was trying to do. And I wasn’t… In the end, I wasn’t trying to build a mega-company when I started. The goal was, I wanted a creative outlet. I wanted to…
DTD: You wanted to make the games that were interesting to you.
CC: Yeah, exactly! And because I was focused on take-that, it’s pretty niche. Not everyone loves that style of game.
CC: So, I cut out a good portion in the market who didn’t care.
DTD: I also liked, I mean there were… You say that it was niche, there wasn’t much of that in the market, but there were a lot of take-that games. It was a hot genre at the time.
CC: Well, yes.
DTD: In the early days. I’m going to say, “the early days.” Yeah, I’m gonna date us.
I am old.
CC: Uh Oh. [laughs]
DTD: I know, but they weren’t interesting. They were these purely, “You lose a point.” “No, you lose a point.” “No.”
Both: “YOU LOSE A POINT.”
Two dorks, perfectly in sync. I wish you could have been there. It was magical.
DTD: [laughs] And I remember going through some of those card games, because, like I said… I’m going to say in the 80’s, I would drive maybe 100 miles, to find this one game store I had heard existed.
CC: Oh yeah, uh huh.
DTD: Because there was nowhere to buy these niche games. Then I would end up with, like, the card game Poo. Where you just threw poop at each other.
CC: As a monkey! Yep, I had that one.
Poo by designer Matthew Grau, illustrated beautifully by Brett Bean and Mike Vaillancourt is a straightforward card game where players just sling poo at one another. The best part is the card entitled “the big one”. Still makes me giggle.
Trivia: Matthew Grau also designed the GWAR deck building game in 2020.
DTD: I kind of figured you knew about that one. [eating] I lied. This is actually a very well-poached egg.
CC: It’s pretty tasty.
DTD: This is perfect.
A well poached egg is a thing of natural beauty. The white should be opaque, soft, fluffy, but distictly solid. The yellow, a thick, creamy unctious custard that slowly oozes out when punctured. Viscous enough to coat potatoes but not so runny as to drip between them.
I have strong opinions.
CC: But yes, so Cutthroat Caverns was my third [game]. The second one, that was actually the challenge. I had worked so hard and long on Hex Hex, because in order to put my house on second mortgage, I had to know that it would sell. And it’s not like, you know… I think in the early days of Kickstarter some people underdeveloped the games. And when you got them, you’re like, “It looks pretty, but it doesn’t feel done.”
DTD: Right. You still get that.
The first board game successfully Kickstarted is generally considered to be Alien Frontiers, in April 2010. Kickstarting games just wasn’t a thing before that. By the way, it raised $14,885.
CC: It’s less now, I think. But I had to be really, really sure. I couldn’t afford not to have it. But then all of a sudden, I’m now in a position, where in order to be in distribution, you can’t really have one game. You are saying, “I have a line.” Great – What is the line? What is the future? And I didn’t have a second title.
DTD: [laughs] OK…
CC: So, I had to quickly come up with something. And I had a vision when I woke up out of a dream one morning.
DTD: OK, those are the best ones.
CC: Yeah. And I… At that time Poker was a huge rage.
DTD: The online tournaments, and people watching it on TV. It was huge.
CC: Yeah, it was, it was incredible. And so, I woke up, and I was like “What?” I had this ghostly image of an influence in poker. I imagine like Wild Bill Hickok at the table. And the fact that he got killed at the table, right? Over Poker. And I was like, “What if there was this ghostly presence on the cards that could kill a hand?” So, I created Dead Hand Chaos Poker.
CC: And it was a standard poker deck, where I… I actually worked with the printer, who’s down in Texas. Jacinto. On a way of printing the face of a card, so that if tipped in the light, it would reveal a ghostly image.
CC: So, it was text that would… You play a standard hand. It was good for dealer’s choice kind of games. You know, wild card kind of games. So, you play the hand, everyone shows down. You’re about to grab the loot, and then you say, “Whoa.”
DTD: Something shows up.
CC: Right. Now, flip the top card of the remaining deck over, and look at the card. And if it says the high pair is dead, if that is the winner at the table, it’s gone. The next ranked hand wins. So, it kept people in the game a little bit longer. It kept you betting a little bit more conservatively, because the best hand may not win.
Dead Hand featured raised black printing on a black background, so the secret message shows up under just the right light. About 20% of the cards had a secret chaotic message.
DTD: Because it was chaotic.
CC: Right. But you still had to play good poker. It didn’t kill every hand.
DTD: You had to assume you were going to win.
CC: Right. And so, that was surprisingly successful. I printed 10,000 of them. Now, that was my second game.
DTD: That’s a big run for a deck of cards.
CC: That’s a big run. Well, a deck of cards printed in the USA. So yeah, so I ended up having to charge like 9 bucks for the game, as a deck of cards. But it had like this specialty printing, so that’s how the people accepted it.
CC: But at one point, Wizkids was going to license the game from me, because they had this idea for a clickable poker chip at the time.
DTD: OK. Early HeroClix.
HeroClix, a series of miniatures with clickable, stat tracking bases, came out in 2002. And hasn’t stopped since. Dead Hand Chaos Poker came out in 2004.
CC: And it ended up not actually going through. Well it was just after HeroClix was big, and he was looking for something else.
DTD: Something else to do with it, sure.
CC: Yeah, and so he saw my game, he thought it was really cool. Anyway…
DTD: So, did you license to other people at any point?
CC: Hmmm… Not until much later. But it was very close. It could have been my second game.
DTD: It sounds like you got in the industry really quickly. You know, you were saying that you needed to learn the industry, and all that. But it sounds like you were there. [laughs]
CC: Well, you know, you often fake it ’till you make it. And I knew just enough to be dangerous. And I will say that I ended up talking to anyone who would talk to me. Again, with my house on the line, I had to make sure I was going to succeed, so I tried to borrow as much brilliance as I could from people. And of course, in our industry people are wonderful about talking about their experiences, and telling you where the pitfalls are and everything else.
DTD: Sure. That’s one of the things I really like, is almost anytime at GAMA [Expo], if I go and sit at one of those tables, someone will sit next to me, and they’ll have just an absolutely fascinating story. And you know, it might be, “Oh yeah, I wrote every game in the 1970’s for 3M. How are you doing?”
Once again, I date myself. 3M made a series of more complex games in the 1960s and 70s, that came in cool bookshelf boxes. The most popular among these was the legendary Sid Sackson‘s Acquire.
CC: Now I did end up trying to pitch lots of different games, and gaming content, out to the other side of the industry. The more “store games.” So, Hasbro and, you know, those folks. And I ended up… I certainly got in front of them; I had lots of pitch meetings. I didn’t end up actually producing a game for anyone, but in the course of doing that, I had been talking to Crayola, and pitching them a bunch of game ideas for outdoor chalk, and things like that.
CC: How can you make a board game that you can play in your driveway, right?
DTD: Oh, that’s too cool.
CC: And we got very close on a couple of those designs, but none of them actually went through. But in the course of that, like probably like the 30th thing I pitched them, was “3D outdoor chalk.”
DTD: I hate to break it to you – I think all chalk is 3D.
Ha! Man, this guy is hysterical!
CC: [laughs] Ah, yes, but the drawings, themselves.
DTD: That is awesome. Wow. I’m trying to picture that.
CC: Well, I had discovered these lenses that actually work with the spectrum of light on a neutral color or black, and it actually brings it into 3D relief. Now I pitched it to them, and they’re like, “Oh, you know, we’ve actually seen these lenses. And we used them on a marker product, and it didn’t really go very well.” So I’m like, “Really? Well, let me ask you – were you on a black or neutral color? Because it only works that way.”
DTD: Funny enough, outdoor chalk, you tend to do that on streets.
CC: Right. Or sidewalks. Then then I said, “And this is a how-to book, about how to get the best use out of it, and use all these, you know, fun color tricks to really make it even more impressive.” And right in the middle of me pitching this, the brand director gets up out of our meeting room, and leaves. Like mid-sentence! And I’m like, “Oh, that didn’t go well…” Well, he had grabbed a pair of the lenses, walked outside where they did a color test that morning. He came back, rushing into the room, and was like, “Everybody grab glasses, follow me.” And we get out there. He’s out in the middle of the driveway. He’s like, “Oh my God, this is like acid for kids.”
DTD: Wow. [laughs]. I would have ate it up.
Perhaps even literally. I may have been a chalk eater.
CC: And so, they ended up doing the product. It won Toy of the Year at Toy Fair.
Outdoor Toy of the Year at the 2009 New York Toy Fair.
CC: And put my son through college.
DTD: That is awesome, man! Wow! I love those stories. I followed a guy for a while who had invented colored bubbles.
CC: Oh, really?
Zubbles developed by Tim Kehoe in 2005. These colored bubbles do not leave stains, and in fact the dye degrades either through heat, friction, or sunlight. Kehoe unfortunately passed away in 2014.
DTD: And that’s… I mean it reminds me of that sort of story. It’s like, “Here’s a fascinating thing.” So, you did the Hasbro side, and you did the self-publish side, through Impressions at the time.
CC: Yup. And all this concurrent with working my crazy day job.
DTD: So, are you a full-time game designer now?
DTD: When did you decide that this was it? You know, I’m not a marketer who makes board games at night, but I am now a board game designer?
CC: The marketing industry decided that for me!
DTD: Oh. [laughs] I’m sorry.
CC: No, no, you know, at one point I think ageism came into play. Where it’s a young man’s business.
Curt is a distinctly young gentleman, about my age. Hard to say that with a straight face.
DTD: Marketing, definitely.
CC: Yep. And I, it was hard to be the most experienced, highest paid “new guy”. And if you lost a client, highest paid new guy is leaving. So part of it was actually ageism, part of it was that’s just economics. But in any case…
DTD: But when that happened, I’m guessing the games were solid enough.
CC: Well, the games were solid, but not necessarily… I mean, I was used to a significant salary. And the games were, you know, a self-supporting industry, but not necessarily going to be replacing my salary.
DTD: Oh sure. A different lifestyle.
CC: Yeah. But I did 2 stints of, you know, turnover. Like 2 years with a company, 2 years with a company. I was like, “You know what – this is going to be the… This is what it is.” So I was like, “This is the universe telling me to make the jump.” So, that being the case, what do I need to do, to make sure that I can support my family? And of course, one of the things I needed to do, was make sure that I could appeal to more people. And that meant broadening my shoulders, and not just doing backstabbing games.
DTD: Oh, was that how Smirk and Laughter came about?
CC: That’s how Smirk and Laughter came to be.
Smirk and Dagger spawned the second company to accommodate the less “backstabby” titles in 2018.
DTD: That’s getting very recent. Wow.
CC: Yes. Well, I was doing this concurrently with my regular job for 14 years.
DTD: Wow. I didn’t realize. I was sitting here thinking, “Well, probably around Cutthroat Caverns, a couple expansions, Smirk and Dagger’s big-name titles. That’s probably when everything happened.”
CC: Nope. So, yeah, I don’t know. Or maybe it was 12 years. In any case…
DTD: It was a long time.
CC: It was a long time. But when I when I decided to make the leap over, I had done such a great job of marketing my brand, that at one point I went to the GAMA trade show…
DTD: You had to re-market.
CC: Yep. I went with a game called Sutakku, which was the pub-style dice game, that was very much push-your-luck. So, you could screw yourself. And I was like, “OK, that’s adjacent. I can probably do this game.” Because I pitched it. It was actually a design I did for Hasbro, and was really trying to get on that side. And I was like, “You know, they’re not going to take it, but I love this game. Maybe I’ll just do it.” And I brought it to GAMA trade show, and every retailer came by my booth, and said, “Hey, where’s the dagger in this Smirk and Dagger game?”
DTD: “Did you do this?”
CC: Yeah. And I was like, “Oh no. I’ve done too good a job! I’m really, really, pigeonholed.”
It is so amazingly ironic that Curt, the nicest guy I know, has made a reputation for himself and his games … for being a jerk.
DTD: “We’re still waiting for that card, that says the other player loses all their points.”
CC: Well, exactly. So I stopped the press. And I found a way to make it a backstabbing element, without raising the unit price.
DTD: Oh, man.
CC: And it has a backstabbing mechanic in it now. But then I knew… I knew that I was going to have to do something eventually, when I wanted to broaden my shoulders, to at least market the fact, and set expectations that this is a different style game from us.
DTD: Do you think your taste in games changed? To the point, where you wanted to do the less backstab-y stuff?
CC: That was not necessarily the impetus. So, I’ve always loved games of all styles. So, what I will say though, is once I tried to broaden, and I started adding different kinds of games to my line, I was really enjoying that kind of new challenge, new experience.
DTD: That’s awesome.
CC: Yeah. But it’s not that I personally underwent a change. It just allowed… It allowed me to play in a different sandbox, and that was fun.
Sand. Added to the National Toy Hall of Fame in 2021, maintained by the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York. It’s about time.
DTD: [laughs] Oh, that’s awesome. It reminds me of the companies that’ll start by putting out their first game, and naming their company after their first game. And then you kind of see this niche get built.
DTD: Like, all of my games are going to be this. And I remember a GenCon or two, where [Smirk and Dagger] had games that you were showing off. And you could see people walking by, talking and going, “It’s not very backstab-y… You know, this is more goofy than evil.”
DTD: So, it just tickles me, because I remember the moment all that was going on.
CC: Yeah, it was… And what I will say is, I was a little nervous that it was going to be not well-received. That I had a small, but very dedicated, following.
CC: Which was natural, because I was building for it, a niche. So, I was sort of like, “Am I going to alienate people? Am I going to have to build a second audience?” But I think most of my fans actually appreciated a lot of the new stuff as well. As then, allowing me to interact with more gamers who might not have liked my original things.
DTD: Well, I think that the niche that you picked bred for that as well. There’s a really loyal dedication and following in the combative, interactive, take-that community. I think there’s a lot of euro gamers and new generation hobby gamers that kind of pooh-pooh backstabbing games…
CC: Oh, absolutely. Yeah.
Not me. Nope nope.
DTD: But that created this other side industry, of the people, that all they wanted was a game where I can kill my neighbor over and over and over again.
CC: Yeah. And when I first came up with Smirk and Laughter. Originally the idea was… You know, I still want something that’s going to touch someone emotionally, as well as mentally challenge, and that kind of thing. So, at first, it was just going to be party games. Like, really interesting party games that create laughter, right?
CC: Which made sense for my first title in the line, which was Nut so Fast.
In Nut so Fast, players need to very quickly grab large wooden nuts if you see 4 matching nut icons on cards.
DTD: I thought that was the first one, yeah.
CC: But then I saw this amazing storytelling game, that was Before There Were Stars. And it was all about telling creation myths. And it was so heartwarming and beautiful. I was like, “Why can’t I have a pretty thing?”
2018’s Before There Were Stars by designers Alex Cutler, Matt Fantastic and Alexander Wilkinson is a game about weaving mythic tales of creation. The game is driven by constellation cards, and is a truly a work of art.
CC: And I struggled with “It doesn’t fit in my vision of the line. All right, I must change the idea of the line.” And eventually… And I kept on making exceptions and exceptions, and now Smirk and Laughter is really anything that has some kind of an emotional feel to the gameplay, but isn’t backstab-y and doesn’t make you want to hate your friends.
DTD: For better or for worse.
CC: For better or for worse.
DTD: Yeah, I get it.
Come back next time for more backstabbing, more benedict eating, and more laughter. As the coffee flows, we chat about Curt’s work in movies, some crossover into games, and discovering how to publish abstracts.