Welcome back to a lovely GAMA breakfast with my good friend Curt Covert. Curt is the founder of Smirk and Dagger Games, the publisher behind Cutthroat Caverns, Nevermore, Dead Last and many, many more. And I just revel in the irony that this publisher of nasty, malicious, take-that games smiles perhaps more than any other person I’ve met. A not entirely congenial smile…
DTD: So, it’s… I don’t know if I’ve been hanging around the industry too long, or whatever, but I can kind of feel when the print runs come in, just by this surge of interest and hype happening again.
CC: Yeah. And I, I think… You can never say what’s going to be, you know, a true evergreen, or what’s going to have its day and then go. And I still haven’t decided whether the Night Cage is truly an evergreen, but I think it has the potential to be.
The Night Cage by Christopher Ryan Chan, Chris McMahon, and Rosswell Saunders is a co-op gothic horror abstract game in which the layers try to escape an infinitely repeating maze. In the dark. With monsters. Just collect the four keys, then find the gate out. Easy peasy.
DTD: It’s definitely got all the feels. That’s really it’s strong suit.
CC: So, we are going to be announcing at GenCon, I believe, a “what’s next?”
DTD: Oooh, I was gonna ask if you were gonna expand on it, and bring more to it. Because it is a beautiful, weird, fascinating, horrific world.
I sound all cool and collected here, but really I was freaking out inside. I really enjoyed Night Cage immensely.
CC: And I think… And so at GenCon, when the buzz was going crazy, when I couldn’t keep it in stock. And that’s when the second run had just arrived, and it was sold out before I got it. So, I was like, “OK guys, clearly we have something here.”
DTD: “What are we going to do with it?”
CC: Right. “So, let’s talk about next steps, and your mission is – lightning in a bottle. Twice.”
DTD: Small order.
So witty. I love this Dish dude.
CC: Right. So, I don’t know. We can come up with extra content for the Night Cage, that’s fine. But I don’t want to do an expansion. It’ll be like stuff that we do for the cons. But what I want is like, you turn your keys, you escape one hell. Where do you end up? What is the new world? What’s the new rules? How does it work? And so they just told me last week, that… And they have not told me what the game is yet. They said, “We think we’ve got it just about unlocked.”
DTD: Oh, that’s awesome. You’re just gonna tease me with this.
CC: That’s all I have! So they… They are sounding excited. And that’s different than like even a month ago, when they’re like, “We have some ideas.” And now they sound excited.
Yup. Total tease. I still don’t know anything about the so-called “sequel.” Not that I’m stalking Curt or anything…
DTD: That’s really cool. And the strength of it is the theming and the feels and the environment. I don’t know how an expansion to Night Cage would work. Because it’s so tight with the tiles and everything. I mean, you talk about adding new tiles, adding new monsters.
Tht’s the second time I, as an old man, have used the word “feels” as a noun. I blame my children.
CC: Well, that’s… Yeah.
DTD: But you did that already. You did it really well. The monsters are really interesting.
CC: Well, we’ve already done a little bit of that. So, there may be a couple things at GenCon that we might be able to trot out for the original game. As we start talking about what comes next, later.
DTD: Oh, OK. I love it. Well, that’s it. That’s the Oroboros. You have to have one digesting and one coming out, and one to tease.
Several game designers have talked to me about the “snake” of design. One idea just starting, one digesting, and one about to release.
DTD: That’s very cool. I had so much fun with Night Cage. And of course, you know, I got the deluxe version with all the pretties, and all that business.
CC: Yeah, yeah.
DTD: And it’s just that, even the little things, like the way the stack mimics the candle, as it’s going down and going down.
In The Night Cage, the timer is a stack of tiles, generally laid down each turn. And the stack sits in a holder designed to look like a candle, always getting smaller each turn. It’s a great effect. Plus the deluxe edition of the game came with a flameless LED candle.
CC: I thought that was just marvelous. I mean, honestly, the attention to detail. They are amazing at what they do. And so, early on we were talking about, “Oh well…” They said, “Hey, what about a soundtrack for this thing?” I was like, “I love that idea.” Because when… They were actually instrumental in crafting the video for the game as well…
DTD: I think you told me that early on, which was really cool.
CC: So, they had actually just done what they considered a throwaway music track for that. They just found a piece of music. They’re like, “That’s good enough.” I found it super evocative, and I think people who saw the video, were also like, “That is, that feels like the experience I want!”
DTD: You want to play it in the dark, with that music going on.
CC: So, I was like, “Great idea, let’s do the soundtrack.” So he, one of the designers, actually had a friend who was composer. So, they worked together, and then they started sharing some tracks with me. And I was like, “Oh, wait guys, this is all electronic music. And in some cases, like we got some electric guitar hits up here. This is not delivering on the expectations that you set in the video. It’s, to me, it’s discorded. It doesn’t make sense.”
CC: You have to have some naturalistic sounds. That the strumming of the cello, the piano. You’ve gotta have physical instruments in here as well. And so they ended up like re-reconfiguring, going back and then redoing it. And the soundtrack is amazing.
DTD: And I could see it going to like a Gothic place. I could see it going to a more modern, weird, futuristic place. Again, like you said, it’s such an open theming.
CC: Yeah, and in the end, you won’t know exactly what it is.
DTD: I don’t want to know.
CC: Because it’s still going to just have this air of mystery.
DTD: With these really exact rules that only add to the creepiness. Like, “Hey, you’ve got two hands. One is holding your candle. One’s holding the key. No exceptions. You’re done.”
CC: [laughs] Yeah. Oh, no pockets.
DTD: No pockets, no. You’re just a crawling around homunculus. All right, so The Spill…
Let’s not forget I said “homunculous”. Spontaneously.
DTD: How did that come about? Because that doesn’t feel like a Smirk and Dagger game. That feels like a big euro.
CC: OK, interesting. So…
DTD: I mean, I’m excited. I think it looks great. But I love like how you’re picking and choosing now.
CC: It’s a different experience. Now that I’m actually feeding my family, I am choosing projects that I think I have a lot of potential. And I’m actually, I’m not even really designing anymore.
I find it fascinating that we often aspire to be so good at our jobs that we no longer need to do our jobs. Just a random thought.
CC: I’m developing more. So, most of the designs are coming from the outside, and then I fall in love with them, I adopt them, and I work them through.
DTD: That’s a natural progression of a studio owner.
CC: I guess, yeah. You know, eventually I will go back and design. But in this case, the same show I was at in Toronto, where I found SHŌBU, I also found Andy Kim and his game. It was called at that time “Black Waves”.
DTD: Ooh. Yeah. That’s evocative.
CC: Yeah, you know, because it had the oil slick. Right, and it could have been like an orc battle. So it could have been anything. So, I was like… But he had that, he had a cardboard four-way dice tower that he had constructed and folded together. And the game, kind of as you see it now, was kind of what he what he brought forward. I was like, “That is wild looking!” It had the table presence even then, and I was like, “Talk to me about this game!”
DTD: Oh, cube towers are great. And this is a great evolution of that.
Cube towers generally have an opening at the top where you drop cubes. The cubes bounce around inside, and either randomly get stuck on ledges, or pop out random openings in the bottom, feeding into multiple bins. Famous cube tower games include Wallenstein, Return to Dark Tower, and Dead Reckoning.
DTD: I haven’t seen it very often. There’s been a couple, like “Here’s 3 buckets that might end up in…” AEG has got one or two of those.
CC: Exactly, yeah. Well, he had never seen a four-way dice tower. And that was the inspiration for the game. First, it was just a design challenge – Could he create something that would be a dice tower that spilled four ways? And then once he did that, he didn’t know…
In The Spill, dice dropped into the funnel at the top hit a pointed pyramid, which diverts them into one of 4 different bins.
DTD: What do you do with it?
CC: Right. So, his wife actually said, “You know…?” And she came up with the idea of it being an oil rig, spilling oil. And so, that’s the game he built. So, I had the game in development for about 2 and a half, three years. Most of that was trying to make sure the experience was consistent game to game; that the math was right. Because you want a cooperative game to be hard. You don’t want to win it every time.
CC: You also don’t want to have it be so hard that people like, “This is ridiculously impossible.”
DTD: Now, I heard a wonderful anecdote about that, and I apologize I keep interrupting you. A game designer told me that your game had better be fun to lose…
CC: Oh, that’s great!
DTD: Because in a four-player game, three of them are going to lose. So, if they didn’t have fun, you have sold your game to one person. And he also said, “And that’s why cooperative games have about a 25% win rate, because people are used to, in a four player game, losing 3/4 of the time.”
CC: That is great! I love that!
I absolutely love this anecdote, and I hate to admit it, but I have completely forgotten who told me this. We will just say I made it up.
DTD: That just stuck in my head. I’m like, “Wow.” Sorry, I totally interrupted, but I get the balance on these cooperative things. You want it to be intriguing. And if you lose, you want people to go, “Oh man! We were so close! If we had done this… If we had done that… We were sooo close!” And then they play again [laughs]
CC: Yeah. And honestly what makes it fit in my line, as I try to define it, is it is a very tense game. So it does pull your emotions in. You are working, and you are trying to figure out how to do this as a team. But you are down to the wire. Every single game comes down basically to the last drop.
DTD: Wow, that’s so hard to do.
CC: Because it’s a game where you win by not losing every turn. And probably about, you know, five turns in – you start seeing the impacts. And start saying, “Oh we… We have an animal in trouble! Oh, we have a spill out! And now the danger just increased!” All of those things mount right up to the end, where you’re like, “I don’t know what’s going to happen here! Oh my God, can we deal with this?”
DTD: The final roll.
CC: Yeah, and so it comes down to that every single game now.
DTD: That’s amazing. And I think just the look of the game, at least it drew me in. Because cube towers historically have been kind of mysterious. Because it’s a closed structure. You dump things in the top and maybe things come in the bottom, and you don’t get an inherent feel. But this one is an open cube tower. You see it all happening. And you go, “Oh, there’s just a dome on the bottom, and it’ll bounce it in some random direction.” And that, at least for me, that drew me into the game so much stronger than if it had been a real cube tower.
A traditional cube tower is a black box. Cubes or dice fall in the top. Something mysterious happens in the middle. Then they come out the bottom. In The Spill, everything is open and visible. You see the dice fall. You see them hit the dome at the bottom. It’s somehow more alluring. Like a naked dice tower.
CC: Oh interesting! Yeah. So, when Andy first designed, it was cardboard, and it was a closed tower. And at one point during development, as I was trying to work the math, he sent me a 3D print, which was just like a bowl with four sticks, and like a pyramid underneath it. And it was miniature. He’s like, “Maybe it could be something like this, too.” And so, I started thinking about, you know, how I’d want it to… The problem with the cardboard was, it was getting beat up. You couldn’t assemble it and disassemble it without tearing it apart half the time.
DTD: Sure. It’s kind of the Camel Up problem.
Camel Up… And I will not enter the debate about whether the game title is Camel Up or Camel Cup… The original Camel UP had a cardboard pyramid dice dispenser, held together with rubber bnds, and it could degrade over time. The second edition has replaced it with a plastic pyramid.
CC: Yeah. So, it’s like the durability is an issue. I’ve got to figure out a new way. So I was like, “OK this I think could work, but the bowl and a single thing wasn’t going… It didn’t look as impressive, and you could put English on it. So, I created this double funnel system.
CC: And that eventually drops it right over top of the point and…
DTD: And it defines how high you have to drop it. You can’t sit there way high, and then bounce it clear of the whole structure.
CC: Yes. Yeah, so it actually worked out really well. And because… and I actually saved on the mold, because the double funnel was the same mold.
DTD: I think it’s beautiful and these are all the weird things I thought about when I looked at the more final version of it. Because you’ve shown it at a couple shows now. And it’s like, “Oh, that height factor, it’s set in. And that makes it perfect for predicting how big you have to put your buckets.” And the rounded bottom rather than pointed or slotted, is like perfect chaos.
CC: Yeah. And interestingly, there’s some people who have… Playtesters said, “You know what? You need to lower this tower, because I can’t see on the other side of the board directly across from me.” And it’s like, it’s a four-player game, and that’s OK. They’re going to tell you what the danger is over there. This is part of the communication.
DTD: They’re on your side.
CC: Yeah. But even when it’s a solo game, you just kind of lean over a little bit. And, you know, you’re playing all four characters anyway.
DTD: But I mean, that’s kind of expected now. You’ve got these monster things, you know. Everdell kind of brought that up, and Dark Tower is definitely bringing that up. You know, big chunky impressive thing in the middle. Did you play with Crash Octopus at all?
All of these games have an obnoxiously large device on or near the board, blocking some view. But agreed, in a cooperative game … you should cooperate.
DTD: So, it just reminds me. Crash Octopus, it’s by Itten Games, and they’re kind of known for the weirdest “things”, components. Remember, they had the game that was a giant pendulum that you hung from your ceiling…
CC: Oh yeah.
DTD: It was The Sun and the Solstice? Anyway, Crash Octopus is one of their newest ones, and it has a wooden half dome that you put in the middle of the table, and you drop pieces onto it. And it’s a dexterity game, that you’re trying to… You have a defined area with boats and fishing, and you’re trying to get the pieces where you want them. And there’s an octopus.
First, the pendulum game was called Stonehenge and the Sun. Bad Corey.
Second, Crash Octopus went through a name change. It was originally called Crazy Octopus, and sometimes you still hear that name.
Third, Itten Games rocks. They also did Tokyo Highway with popsicle sticks, tweezers and tiny cars. And Moon Base with wooden rings of various sizes.
CC: Oh, interesting! That’s kind of cool.
DTD: So, just when I saw the open tower with the dome in the bottom, it kind of reminded me of that. And I love that, just the physicality of it. That’s awesome. So, I don’t know, it felt to me like The Spill was Smirk and Dagger branching out more. Because it does have that feel of a…
CC: A Pandemic, almost.
DTD: Of a Pandemic. Or a more, you know, a euro. Or one of these more mainstream, less niche, hobby games.
CC: And partly that is intentional. I think there’s still a lot of untapped audience that really hasn’t found Smirk and Dagger yet. And I think the euro, elegant game mechanic kind of a thing… You know, it is the predominant game that gets people excited. So yes, so long as I can deliver what’s important to me as well, at the same time. It, to me… The theme of the game has to mesh so tightly to the game, to create an experience at the table, that you can’t just separate it out and slap any theme on it.
DTD: I so appreciate that, yeah.
CC: So, The Spill does that. And that’s why, that’s why it makes sense for me. And the fact that it is “edge of your seat” through the entire experience. It engages you emotionally. My son, who is a full grown adult, he is 27… He lost the game the first time we played as a family, and got so upset about the animals that got lost, he was mad at the world for like oil disasters. Because he was so immersed in the theme of the game.
Man, a 27 year old son. So old… I certainly do not have two children that age…
DTD: That is awesome. I mean, that’s what you want with some of these. And I don’t think The Spill is in this category, but it definitely is a ripe time to make board games as art, to make statements about things. And there’s a whole bunch of games that are not fun but amazing.
CC: Oh, well. OK. Yes.
DTD: But The Spill is not there. The Spill makes you think, it is a challenging, puzzling, satisfying game. But I’m thinking more like That Dragon Cancer, [Holding On: The Troubled Life of] Billy Kerr, This War of Mine.
CC: Oh yes, yes, yes.
These games bring strong experiences that are not necessarily entertaining. I guess the closest analogy would be a deeply dramatic film. It might not be traditionally fun to watch, but it is certainly impactful.
DTD: And I love that they exist.
CC: I do, too. They probably wouldn’t be in my line.
DTD: No, because you want some… You’ve got laughing people on your logo. You know, you don’t want a game about war, and have laughing people.
CC: Yeah. And quite honestly, it was a consideration – you know, is this going to be a downer? Are people going to say, “Oh, either it’s kind of politically infused or it is, you know… It’s preaching in some way.” Like, that’s not really what the game is about. The game is about the heroes trying to come forward and make a difference.
DTD: Of course.
CC: And that’s what it is.
DTD: And it’s solvable, and there can be feel-good moments, but it also brings an awareness to all this stuff that’s going on.
CC: Sure. And for that reason, it’s also teachable moments. So, some of our games have, we’ve worked with teachers to create Common Core lesson plans. And this is one of those games.
See, board games and important lessons. Dice Tower Dish – education and ethics, served fresh.
DTD: Really? OK.
CC: So, we did that first with Before There Were Stars, to teach mythology. And we did it here. It starts with concepts simply like – you know what happens when oil and water mix? So, just understand that. And then it does build up to just being conscious of man’s impact on the environment. And so, not that the game would actually necessarily played in the classroom, though it could be. But we built the lesson plans to have the game be a leaping-off point for the discussion that is the broader topic.
DTD: Of course. And there’s a good line of those, of games that could be taught in a classroom, to give an entertainment value to something important to learn.
DTD: So, I mean you always think back to Freedom: The Underground Railroad. You know, sold in museum gift shops. And you know it’s amazing that that game exists, and it will continue to sell, and it’s an amazing game.
2012’s Freedom: The Underground Railroad by Brian Mayer remains an evergreen classic. In this cooperative game you try to save as many people from slavery as possible, without sugar coating the reality and impact of the real history involved.
CC: Agreed. That’s great.
DTD: But I’d like The Spill to be that for environmental awareness as well. So since you are now doing very serious, environmental awareness, educational games… Tell me about the educational value of Boop.
CC: [Giggling] Well…
DTD: See, I’m good at segues, is really what it is.
CC: It will get, it will challenge your mind and get you thinking. But it doesn’t look like that necessarily when you first see it. So Boop is a game that we’ve just introduced here at the GAMA trade show. It is done by, designed by Scott Brady, who did Hues and Cues for TheOP. And it is a really thinky strategy game about cats jumping on a bed, and bouncing other cats off.
DTD: [laughs] I gotta tell you, I was drawn in just because it’s this stark, minimalistic box with an abstracted cat, and just the word “boop” over it.
CC: Yep. And it just, you can almost not look at it, without going “boop!”, because that’s kind of the fun of the game, right?
I know you pictured it already, but I can confirm that Curt gently touched the cat’s nose on the box and gave a high pitched “boop” noise at the same time.
DTD: I’ve had many people at this show, including my assistant, come up to me, and it’s like, “You have to look at Boop.” [laughs]
I love saying “my assistant.”
CC: So, when this was first pitched to me, it was pitched as a follow-on product to SHŌBU. And the original name was “Gekatai.” And it was white and black stones on just a regular square board.
CC: And it was, it was a really interesting game. But I didn’t think that it had enough to separate it from things that you’ve seen before. It felt a little too samey-same, without distinguishing itself in any way. So, it would have been hard to market. And at that time, it lacked one critical rule that later was added. In any case, Scott showed it to me about, almost a year later, and said, “OK, I’ve got some rules changes,” which was like, “OK. Now I feel like, now it’s got an arc. Now I’m feeling the game flow in a satisfactory way.”
CC: So, I really like the gameplay now. I’m still struggling a little bit with execution. He’s like, “Well, so let me show you something else.” And out of the bag he pulls a prototype, where he’s put, you know, crepe paper around the edge of a box, and he’s made it look like a bed. And he’s got these little cat figurines. And he’s like, “Now, it’s…” At that time, it was called Pounce House. And it was about, you know, now the cats are jumping on the bed. Which apparently Scott [Morris] at GTS first suggested to him.
GTS is one of the premiere game distribution companies in the US.
CC: And I said, “OK. I can sell a game about cats leaping onto a bed. That has a marketing hook.” And then I got inspired. So then I was like, “What if, instead of a game board, let’s quilt a game board. Actually, like a cloth, a stitched game board. That’ll be the bed. It’ll go on the top of the back of the box. So now it has a bed frame.”
DTD: So, it’s draped over.
CC: Yep. And then the pieces will just… We’ll make some really cool cat figurine kind of pieces to go on there. It’s going to be adorable. But then it’s going to surprise people because it’s… It’s like playing SHŌBU because…
DTD: Because it’s an abstract.
CC: Yeah. And what’s going to happen is, you have to get three kittens in a row on the grid. And then you remove them, and then replace them in your pool with adult cats. And then you get 3 cats in a row to win the game. Sure – Sounds simple. Except every cat that lands onto the bed, pushes one… everything, surrounding it, one space away. It just repels everything.
DTD: And things fall off the edge.
CC: And things eventually fall off the edge. So you’re “booping” these cats all across the board, trying to pull them together. It’s like herding cats!
CC: And that’s, first of all, hysterical. And second, like really hard to do.
DTD: Oh, trust me. Ex-veterinarian. I know about herding cats.
CC: Yeah, so yeah. And I will say that that is, it has gotten a huge amount of attention here at the show.
Come back next time for the final installment of breakfast with Curt Covert. We talk more about booping cats, behexing friends, plus some interesting reveals of unannounced games yet to come.