Welcome back to part 3 of breakfast with Curt Covert. During GAMA Expo 2022, I connived and pleaded to have Curt, the founder of Smirk and Dagger, and the designer of Cutthroat Caverns, to join me for Eggs Benedict. I did not insist on the Benedict; he made that choice on his own.
CC: But I would say that almost… I think all of my games, at the very least, make you feel something at the table. Because that’s something I value in a game. And I think that’s… If I have any personal mark, that’s what I see it as.
DTD: I mean, I think it’s definitely there. It’s a line that’s well known, and everybody knows you. And everybody knows the black and white shirt, and everything is branded well. You know what you’re going for. So, were those the kind of games that you liked playing when you were younger? I mean, there wasn’t a ton of them around.
Curt has a very characteristic look – the sirt, the smile, the logo. And there are few people in the industry as recognized and universally loved.
DTD: And I could argue Monopoly was a backstab-y game.
Very much so. Wars were started over less.
CC: Yeah, but not with my family it wasn’t, so…
DTD: It definitely created enemies.
CC: But I would say that that was not necessarily what really drove me into the hobby gaming industry. It was, part of it was D&D [Dungeons and Dragons]. And then, right around the same time, when I left college and I moved out to California [circa 1987], I was interested in games. And there was a guy, Fritz Bronner. And he was an actor on one of the first movie sets I ever worked on.
CC: He was actually the lead in the movie. And rather than hanging out with the director and producer, you know, in his off time, he hung out with us lowly production assistants. And he would pop open his trunk, and he would break out laser tag equipment. And we would goof around while we’re waiting for the set to be ready.
I strongly suspect the movie Curt was working on was Tax Season (1989). The timing is correct, and there were not many movies where Fritz was the lead.
DTD: That’s awesome!
CC: He’s a blast. So, in any case, at one point we go on location. So, we’re in hotels for two weeks. And he brought all his board games. And so, I had never seen Axis and Allies. I had never seen like some of… And he introduced me to hobby games.
DTD: Where it was at that time, yeah.
CC: Where it was at that time. So then, I was like, “Well, this is really, really cool.” And I started going to… I found a local game store in California. And I angsted on a $20 purchase for… Because I was, you know, hand to mouth trying to feed myself.
So many of my recent stories have referenced back to this classic from 1983. Interestingly, Steve Jackson Games obtained the rights to Wiz-War and announced a 9th edition of this classic back in 2019, and it appears a Kickstarter will be forthcoming in 2022.
CC: And my soon-to-be wife said, “For God sakes, we’ve been coming here for three… Buy it! You know, just do it.” It’s like, “Oh, OK.”
DTD: “You’ve already touched it every time you come by.”
CC: Right. And that game, I think, is actually… I so loved that game and all the terrible things you did that to people. That is what set me on my path to Smirk and Dagger. That game.
DTD: [laughs] So if I run into Tom Jolly, he’s the one that I either thank or give grief to.
Tom – call me. Let’s do tapas.
CC: Yes. And then the other thing, Fritz was working on a game of his own at that time. And I actually helped him play test, and that kind of thing. And he eventually signed it. It’s Liftoff! Race to the Moon.
DTD: Oh yeah! I have that.
CC: Well, that’s his game, and he’s actually coming back with a much bigger, more expanded version that he’s looking to do.
Aldo has been talked about before, and for a great while was the epicenter towards which all board game events veered. Plus one heck of a nice guy.
DTD: And Liftoff was kind of in that home-built, not associated with any distributor or anything. It’s just like, “I’m local. I made this. Do you want to buy it?”
DTD: That’s awesome. I fell for it. I bought it.
CC: Yeah, yeah.
DTD: It had aliens on trampolines, come on!
CC: Aliens on trampolines? Oh wait, it might be a different game.
DTD: Liftoff was all the aliens on the planet trying to get off the planet before it blew up.
CC: Oh, no! Different!
DTD: OK, OK, different Lift Off!
Who knew there were so many games called Liftoff? In fact, right now there are 5 games titled “Lift Off”, but only the one, by Fritz Bronner, called “Liftoff.” I obviously misheard the space within the title.
CC: Yeah, this this was “Liftoff! Race to the Moon”, and it was all about… It’s historical, like NASA-USSR rocket programs.
DTD: Oh, I know what one you’re talking about! And I played it, but I don’t have it. Oh, I’m an evil man I brought up the wrong game.
Bad, bad interviewer.
CC: It’s quite alright. But it really, it’s a dice-fest of mission failures, and… And it’s almost a simulation rather than like a straight up “game game.”
DTD: Yeah, that’s what I remember.
Waitress: Doing good?
DTD: Doing great! Thank you very much.
Waitress: Can I carry both plates out of the way?
DTD: Yeah, fantastic. Thank you, thank you.
Waitress: I’ll be right back with the check.
DTD: Thanks. So yeah, I’m assuming you were down in Southern California, if you were working with film and all that.
CC: Yeah, Yep.
DTD: So that was a little out of my world. I was up in Northern California during most of that. But it’s built up a huge community down there.
I know so many gamers and designers down in the Los Angeles area, not to mention a good deal of the BGG crew.
CC: Yeah, it was not a big community when I was there. It was pretty small. It was hard to find people to play with.
DTD: Really, even down in Southern California?
CC: Well, but again, I knew Fritz. And Fritz had found some folks and you know…
DTD: He’d scoped out the territory for ya.
CC: Oh yeah.
DTD: Wow. So, a lot of times when I talk to designers, there’s been kind of this trend. Well, they’ll often get one game that does very well, and that will be the income game, and they’ll support it. And then they make any game they want to make, and those are the passion projects. Do you think that you followed that line, or do you think each one is just an independent project for you. Because I could imagine Cutthroat [Caverns] being that for a while.
Uwe Rosenberg had great successes with Bohnanza and Agricola. Friedemann Friese had Power Grid. And Alan Moon had Ticket to Ride. These titles afforded financial stability, which took some pressure off of future design work.
CC: So, here’s the thing. Every single one of the games that I did was my passion project.
CC: At the time, again, I was doing this not because I was looking for any particular… Like, sure, I had dreams of like, “I hope this does amazing.”
DTD: It wouldn’t suck if it did really well.
DTD: But you didn’t do it to make money.
CC: No, I did it because I loved doing it. And I wanted to… It was a creative outlet. I had so many… Like, as a marketer, I was beholden to every client that I had, whether it was a good idea, a bad idea. Like, I had to do what they said.
DTD: You were selling other peoples’ creative ideas.
CC: Right. And now it was mine. And I could do what I want. So I focused on projects that made me happy.
DTD: That’s awesome.
CC: And now, that said, a lot of them were not commercial mega-stars, right?
DTD: But that’s expected, yeah.
CC: Right. Now, Cutthroat Caverns, for sure, was one of my big products. It got some pretty good critical acclaim. It was one of the first semi co-ops that really figured out how to do it.
In Cutthroat, everyone needs to work together to defeat big monsters. But players are definitely out to get each other, and the prize after defeating a baddie only goes to one player.
CC: And, I would say… I mean Hex Hex, even my first game. Again, it didn’t shatter any records, but it was in constant print from 2003 till 2014.
DTD: And I have mentioned Smirk and Dagger, and you, to a number of people, who immediately come back with, “Oh – Hex Hex.” So…
The check for breakfast arrived at the table, and Curt and I played the little dance of grab and feint around the faux leather mini-binder. I, of course, prevailed.
DTD: Oh, thank you.
Waitress: And then they’ll take care of you guys right up front. Whenever you’re ready, OK?
DTD: Thanks a lot!
CC: And thank you.
DTD: Yeah sure! That’s part of the deal, man. If you have to put up with me, I’ll at least pay for the meal.
CC: [laughs] But yeah, and then other things that kind of really “popped” notably… Well, you know, I didn’t really have like super-mega hits that popped. Night Cage and SHŌBU in recent days. Those things have really…
DTD: And SHŌBU kind of blew me away when I saw it at the show. And that’s actually the one I was thinking of, with people wandering by, going “Really? Smirk and Dagger did that? Honest? That was the one?”
SHŌBU is an abstract two player game played with white and black stones across two pairs of boards. Each turn, players take a passive move with one of their stones, then take an active move, in the same direction, on a different board, trying to push your opponent’s stones off of their boards.
CC: Yeah, yeah. And again, that was a case of – it did not fit even in my new vision of what Smirk and Laughter was. And I was like, “Arrgggh…”
DTD: It was like, it was just such a cool abstract-y… I mean you sold a box of rocks.
CC: Yeah, exactly.
DTD: Except there already was a game called Box of Rocks.
I couldn’t help it. Dumber than a Box of Rocks is a trivia game in which you answer a multiple choice question, then the box of rocks answers. Believe it or not, it’s kinda tough to beat the rocks.
CC: Right. But no, here’s the thing. I angst-ed over two days, after I was exposed to the game at a design conference in Toronto. And I fought with myself. Like, I’m talking to myself in my hotel room. You know, it does not fit at all. It is an absolute mental challenge, right?
DTD: It’s a brain burner. Neither laughter nor dagger.
CC: So, does not fit anywhere in my new vision. But I absolutely loved the game. I thought it was brilliant. I loved the table execution, because they presented it in wood, with stones. It was miniaturized, but it was there. And I finally said, “You know, I don’t care. I love this game.”
DTD: That’s awesome.
CC: “I’m going to break brand, and I’m going to do it.” But what I realized was, what actually connected with me emotionally. Because it did have an emotional resonance with me. But it’s not the gameplay, it’s the game experience. When you sit down to play, it feels like you’re playing an ancient game. You’re almost transported.
DTD: Yeah. It had this table presence and I remember it crowding the table at GenCon. Everybody wanted to see it and touch the stones and move the pieces, bits of rope. Oh, it was so cool.
CC: And it feels like it’s a game that they discovered, not created. Like they unearthed it.
DTD: Yeah, and that’s, I think that’s what you go for with an abstract. Because the abstracts people love are the abstracts that they always had loved.
DTD: And then you show them something bizarre… You show them Gipf or something. And it takes a while. It reminded me of that… There was a mini golden age of abstract games, that were mass market. With Abalone and things like that.
DTD: And they had that touch quality, that physicality. And it definitely grabbed it. So I bought it at GenCon.
CC: Yeah. and kudos to the designers, because they pulled off a hell of a trick. First of all, I still can’t find first player advantage. I can’t find any one strategy, as like a starting gambit, that makes any difference at all.
CC: It is a beautifully constructed abstract. And the fact that it feels like a first abstract. Of like, you know, you can imagine it was created about the same time as Go. Even though it’s only been a couple years.
The classic game of Go is thousands of years old. Most legends about the creation of Go date to about 2300BC and involve training and/or educating an idiot son.
DTD: No, it’s magnificent. And I would give more input into strategies and stuff, but I’m absolutely terrible at it.
CC: [laughs] Yeah.
DTD: I still bring it out. And I tell people about it, and they’re excited. And they just absolutely stomp me. And it’s still fun. And then, I mean you brought up Night Cage, too. That is one of the most… I mean, emotionally investing games. You feel that claustrophobia.
CC: Yeah, the dread, yeah.
In Night Cage, the players control 4 prisoners in a nondescript grid of rooms that wraps on all sides. The prison is dark, and prisoners each hold a single candle. But monsters live in the cage, ready to attack. The game itself is a tile laying game, trying to create a path to discover keys and congregate at a gate. But as soon as a player can no longer see a tile, it no longer exists.
DTD: It’s… I don’t know if you heard this story. I actually got in trouble at Dice Tower West just a few weeks ago.
One of many times.
DTD: I was wandering around with a group of friends, and we were deciding what we wanted to do. And we saw Night Cage sitting on one of the tables. And I was with Mark Streed.
CC: Oh, sure.
DTD: And you remember that I was introduced to Night Cage, because you were kind enough to let Mark and I play an early version of it.
CC: Yes, indeed.
Mark Streed maked preview videos of the Dice Tower, and I was invited to play The Night Cage online on June 12, 2020, in anticipation of Mark making a video.
DTD: And it was amazing. It blew me away, and I ordered it during the play. Well, as soon as it popped up. Anyway, we found this table set up with Night Cage, and we just started playing. And the demo person kind of walked by, and was like, “Really? What are you doing?” And I’m like, “No! I know how to play it! And I’m teaching it, and it’s great! We’re having a good time.” And of course I got every rule wrong.
CC: [laughing] Oh no!
DTD: So, she definitely was giving me the stink eye for a little while because I had taken over her table.
Deepest apologies, Whitney.
CC: Oh, that’s funny.
DTD: And I was selling the game. I was animated and dramatic. And it’s like, “Look at this!” and “It’s great!”
CC: And it’s like, “Yeah. But that’s not how you play…”
DTD: And Mark’s right in there with me. Well, the problem was that Mark and I still remembered these old rules. And a lot of things changed.
CC: Oh, OK. Yeah.
DTD: And I think some things changed, even at the very last. Little details.
CC: Maybe a detail or two, yeah.
DTD: But we had so much fun with that. And just watching the new people, watching their eyes just kind of light up, as we’re deciding where to put tiles.
CC: So, the designers on that game, all three of them are advertising executives.
DTD: Wow, OK.
CC: So, they’re all creative guys. One’s a writer, and one’s a concept person, and one is a graphic designer, and did all the illustrations for the game, mind you. Which contribute greatly.
DTD: Yeah, they fit perfectly. I was actually wondering if you had to massage the look, the theme, the graphics on that one. Because it all does fit really well.
CC: No, and actually they’re amazing to work with, because they had a very… Their vision for the game was very tight. And they, when they designed it, they designed not just the game. But they designed the total experience.
CC: And that included the art. That included, like…
DTD: I love it when that happens. I would like to think that I can feel that, when the game was designed to be this theme.
DTD: I know I’ve been wrong as often as I’ve been right, and that’s why developers are great at what they do. But I definitely felt it in Night Cage, it was so cool.
CC: Yeah. And what I’ll say is, I think one of the reasons why they decided to go with me as a publisher, is I saw their vision, and I loved their vision. And they knew that I wasn’t just going to turn around and like…
DTD: Turn it into a “trading on the Mediterranean” game?
It has been a running joke for a while that euro games have too many “Trading in the Mediterranean” games. It has become a cliche term. And in protest, designer Geoff Engelstein actually made a game titled exactly “Trading in the Mediterranean.” He was eventually pressured to change the name to Trade on the Tigris.
CC: Whatever. Yeah. Or, you know, the fact that they were going to keep, I was going to keep the artwork. [It] was like, “Why would I change it? It’s amazing.” So, from the prototype, you know, it got better. Because it was, used to be just like pure black and white. And he said, “You know, we worked it a little.” It still looks stark black and white, but there’s actually like lots of subtle stippling and other things that make it just a little juicier.
DTD: It evokes the feel of those early RPG book art.
CC: Yeah! It does!
The first editions of the Player’s Handbook and the Dungeon Master’s Guide had wonderful black and white, rough sketch drawings.
DTD: And I know that’s been kitschy lately. There’s been a couple games trying to do that, but it did it in a better way. It didn’t look like a copy of it. It just felt… Ominous.
CC: Yeah. And part of that is… Part of horror is the unknown. And you’ll notice that they never tell you what the game’s about. They don’t, you don’t know where you are. You don’t know who you are. You’re like this gaunt humanistic figure, but you’ve been stripped of everything. So, it’s an existential hell. That only exists in the world of your candlelight. And if the candlelight goes out, there’s no world.
DTD: And that’s the big thing that blew me away, is like when that candle goes out, you know nothing. And in fact, it doesn’t even exist. So, it’s basically Schrödinger, the board game. You know, until you look, nothing is there.
Very literally, if you cannot see a tile, either because you move too far away or because your candle goes out, the tile ceases to exist.
CC: It is. Well, it did so amazing. Just at release. We had, we did a great Kickstarter.
DTD: It really was gorgeous.
The Kickstarter earned $220,628 in August 2020.
CC: 5000 people got their copies right away. We had done another like 4000 on the run. Before it even left China, it was sold out.
DTD: It came with a freaking candle! [laughs]
CC: Yeah. And I mean Barnes and Noble got really, really behind.
CC: Oh, they went out of their way to get this game on board. The buyer simply just was like, “Oh, I love this game.” And she really went to bat for us. And then the other thing was… OK, so I was, before it even got on the boat, I was sold out. I was like, “OK, industry friends. How many do I reprint?”
DTD: Oh God, that has been the topic of conversation, almost every person I’ve talked to at this GAMA. Because it is the question.
CC: It is the question.
It has become much too common that when a new, exciting title comes out, if you have not pre-ordered it … You will not get a copy. Publishers are generally being conservative on how many they print, and print runs are selling out immediately. How easy was it to get a new hotness like Ark Nova when it first came out?
DTD: You know, you print too many, and you’ve put out so much money, if they don’t sell, you’re out.
DTD: Where do you store them? And that’s more money.
CC: All of those considerations. So, everyone’s like, “Hey, it’s COVID times. Pump the brakes. You know, it’s hard to get games around the country even right now.”
DTD: The beginning of all that nightmare.
CC: Yeah, so 3000? Like, are you sure? Just 3000? It was like, “Yep, absolutely.” Well, after asking 10 times, that’s what I did. And by the time it arrived on shore here in the US, it was all sold out. Before it even got into my warehouse.
DTD: But you had already ordered another at least 3000?
CC: Well, no. So, at that point, because I mean… The first print run and a half, I mean so many of those copies went to Barnes and Noble, because they were like, “We have to have it on our Halloween focus table.”
CC: And they bent over backwards to make sure that would happen. And so I was like, I have to do it. So, the second print run was mostly for hobby stores. But Europe didn’t get any.
Hear that, Europe? Blame Barnes and Noble.
CC: And so, I was like, “OK well the next run is going to be bigger.” And that was like a 12,000 unit run. Which, you know, a good half of it is already gone, and it just got in last week.
DTD: That’s awesome, and I feel this resurgence. This re-interest in it.
Tune in next time for more board game talk. With our fasts duly broken, we leisurely pontificate over caffeinated beverages. Curt discusses new titles The Spill, Before there Were Stars, and of course the cat bumping, bed bouncing, BOOP.