And sadly it is time for the final installment of my breakfast with Curt Covert, founder of Smirk and Dagger games. Curt is so friendly, and so easy going, and in this section, he spills all about new and exciting coming from Smirk in the next few years. Totally off the books here. So sip the last of the coffee and scrutinize that last muffin crumb.
DTD: That is really great. I have to tell you, I almost dread usually going by your booth. Or when someone tells me to do a play test. Because there will inevitably be a game presented to me, and I go, “Really? That? Really? I don’t know…” And then I play it, and then I buy it.
DTD: It was Deadlies. It’s like, “Really? I don’t know if I want to… A little too take-that, little too much simple card game.” And it was so fun. And there’s just been a line of them. And Boop is another one in that line. It’s like I’m almost afraid to play it now.
I played it. And now I need to own it.
CC: It’s a double-edged sword, right? I don’t know why I tend to do things like this, but I think that it’s almost like an in-house style. Like, I think I like to disrupt things, maybe? And sometimes it works against me a little, because the same reaction that you had to boop, someone over at PSI [Publisher Services Incorporated] stopped me in the hall, because they confided in me during the show. They’re like, “Hey, listen. When you first told me about boop, I thought you were insane. Like, why are you doing this game? What is this game even?”
DTD: Yeah, but you’ve done this like 8 times! Where you present something that is just insane!
CC: [laughing] Right. And so, then he comes up to me yesterday, and he’s like, “I apologize. I didn’t have faith in this game, and I changed my mind. I think it’s going to do extremely well.” And I was like, “Well, thank you.” But you know, first impressions are important. So am I turning people off? Am I making it harder for myself? I don’t know!
DTD: I think the majority of gamers, you’re drawing them in. And then you get the old codger, old school euro-gamers. You know, like me. We who walk by and just kind of shake their head.
DTD: And no… I mean we know in our soul that as soon as we play it we’re going to want it. So, we don’t want to play it. [laughs]
CC: [laughs] Yeah, yeah.
DTD: Oh, that is awesome. I’m actually very excited about it. Maggy was going nuts about it. She played with it in the media room. And thought it was just great. And I think the… Are you sticking with the art style and everything like that? Because I think that is… I could see it easily going into this overdone anime big eyed art, and really selling the cat thing. And I think it would only hurt it.
Maggy was my assistant at the GAMA expo. Certainly because I am very important. Not because she wanted a ticket to GAMA. It’s the importance.
CC: Yeah. I wanted them to be still in the, you know, quite cute cat kind of a feel. And actually, I did the illustrations myself on this.
DTD: Oh, awesome!
Curt had brought the box to breakfast, and was simply beaming over it. And I wanted to steal it.
CC: Yeah, but so I was going for that kind of a vibe, because I thought that was… But here’s the struggle: As soon as you make something cute, is it for 8-year-olds or is it for you, right?
DTD: Where is it selling?
CC: Right. So, I had to try to balance beam that thing a little bit. So, you’ll notice the color palette of the box is like a dark grey.
DTD: Yeah, it’s blacks and grays.
CC: Yeah, that’s to subtly signal that it’s not necessarily a kid’s game. And yes, it is definitely cute, so the picture of the cat brings you in.
DTD: But not overdone.
CC: Right. And “Boop.”, it’s just got… It actually has a period. It’s not like “boop!” – exclamation point, right?
DTD: There’s too many of those.
The thought that had gone into the production was overwhelming. This is why I am not a publisher.
CC: Right. Because at that point it’s like, is it a dexterity game? Is it a kids game? Like, “Nope, this is just [high pitched boop noise].” [laughs]
Yes, Curt made the greatest touch-your-cat’s-nose cutesy, squeaky “boop” noise I’ve ever heard. I wish I had recorded it. Oh, wait….
DTD: That’s terrible.
CC: So, believe it or not, so much of those things go into like how to market the game, and position the game. Like, that’s what I’d love to do, on top of… Even SHŌBU. SHŌBU, the original name of that was “Sumo Stones”. You can understand why.
DTD: Yeah, but it takes away from the abstraction, and it takes away from the mystique.
CC: Yes! And I said, the game is far, far more elegant than that name gives credit. So, I didn’t change any rules. I didn’t change anything about the way the game appears on the table. I changed how to position and market it.
DTD: And it’s perfect.
CC: Yeah, and SHŌBU is actually a Japanese word that means bout or match. And it’s two kanji, which is victory and defeat. Which is so perfect for the black and white duality of the game.
SHŌ 勝 負 BU
DTD: That is. I didn’t know that. That is cool. I want to take a picture of the Boop box, if I’m allowed.
CC: Oh yeah! Please.
DTD: And usually in the interviews I put like little snarky comments and pictures and things, and that’s… That is perfect. I didn’t realize that this was the first show-off of it.
CC: So, I let a couple people in at PAX Unplugged to get a peek. I didn’t have, I didn’t have a box. I just had like a rough component. But I started showcasing a little bit, just back then. But this is really the first introduction, yeah.
DTD: That’s awesome, I’m excited. Are there any other things coming down the pipe that you wanted to tease about?
I got to play a prototype of Behext a few weeks before GAMA, and really enjoyed the combination of deck building, one-upmanship trick taking, and a good dose of nastiness…
DTD: Right! So, is Behext an evolution of Hex Hex?
DTD: That’s a… That’s a loaded “yes”.
CC: Yeah, so here’s the thing. Hex Hex has, like I said, it’s been in in production from 2003, when I first opened my company, all the way to about 2014. And I was… The game, like finally I think, sold out around 2016. And I was just saying to myself, “Alright, it’s had a good run. I think it’s probably time to put Hex Hex on the shelf. I don’t know if I’m going to reprint it.” And this is after we did expansions and a repackage. You know, all kinds of different things throughout its lifetime.
CC: But I was going to put it away. And then people on my team… And again, these are people who have been working, volunteering for me, for… some of them like 12 years.
CC: They came forward, and they of course have a passion for the game. And they said… Now they don’t know I was going to put it on the shelf. They were just like, “Hey, listen. We had an idea…” And I’m like, “Yesss…”
It was a great, leading, drawn out “yesss…”
CC: It’s like, “What if we modernized Hex Hex? What if we made it a deck-builder?” And I’m like, “Tell me more…!” And so, what’s interesting is why not call it Hex Hex – something, right? And at one point, that’s what we were doing. But over the course of development, it was clear that while it shared game flow, while it shared even some of the similar cards and card names and effects… It’s an absolutely rebuilt from the ground up, new game. It can’t be… It’s not compatible. It’s a different game experience.
CC: So, the original game was almost party style.
DTD: I played it back in the day.
CC: Yeah. And this game is absolutely a strategic deck-builder. But it shatters a lot of the expectations about deck-builders. It’s very unconventional.
DTD: Yeah. I’ll tell you, it reminds me of games like Red7.
CC: Oh, interesting! I love Red7!
2014’s Red7 by Carl Chudyk and Chris Cieslik is a card playing game where every turn your card must be the most valuable one on the table. You do this by either playing a new card, or by changing the rules as to what makes cards valuable.
DTD: Yeah, because it’s a game of… “Alright, I’ve been targeted. I need to one-up.”
DTD: And if I can’t…
CC: Then you’re done.
DTD: I’m done.
CC: That’s a great analogy.
DTD: And Red7 is this game of constantly one-upping. And whoever can’t do it – done.
CC: Correct. So that is the flow of the game for sure. And what’s interesting too, is that… I mean, most deck-builders… I love and hate deck-builders, because [in] a lot of deck-builders, it’s all about engine building. And just when you get it working the way you want it to – the game’s over.
DTD: I had someone tell me that deck building games reminded him of Magic [the Gathering], except he never actually got to play. [laughs]
I’m looking at you, Mr. Travis.
CC: Yeah, yeah. And so, the difference here is, that first of all, it’s not an engine builder at all. It’s a highly interactive card game of spell slinging. And what you’re doing, is you are building the types of player interactions that you want more of in your deck.
CC: So, if you’re working on a discard strategy, to force cards out of their hands, build more of those. If you want to also now protect yourself, you can add cards that are going to help you do that. Or help you draw/conjure new cards better.
DTD: Yeah. So, for me at least, what also helped the… “Not a straight engine builder thing” is it is multiple games, with legacy elements. And I don’t mean that in the strict term, but it’s… You’re playing multiple games, and each game you’re getting more tools for the next game.
Each successive round holds over cards and abilities you earned in previous rounds.
DTD: And that makes it feel better than a strict engine builder.
CC: Yeah, yep. And the other kind of fun thing about it, is we try to also turn a lot of the tropes upside down. So, for example, most of the time when you buy a card in a deck-builder, it goes into your discard. And you hope you see it before the game ends.
DTD: Right. In this one you buy it, so that you can immediately use it to do something horrible.
CC: That’s right. Which is very gratifying.
DTD: It is! And it is a “save your butt”. And that was the other thing that drew me back to Red7, is Red7 is very much about not losing your cards. And I felt that in Behext. Because when you run out of cards, you’re going to be dead.
CC: Yes! You’re a sitting duck.
DTD: So yes, I can save myself by buying a card in the middle, but the cost is I’m losing my cards.
CC: You have to discard to buy it!
Because you purchase cards with other cards. However, some cards are free. But they’re just not very good.
DTD: And I’d better do something ridiculously evil, if I’m spending all my cards to do it. Because if it comes back to me, I’m dead.
CC: Yeah. And now, the other trope about deck-builders is that they’re typically, you know… You’re buying victory points. And I would say the downside of most of those cards is, you know, maybe they’re kind of like dead cards in your hand.
DTD: That’s what I was going to say, is the victory point cards are traditionally, you sacrifice every other aspect of the game to have points.
DTD: So, they just muddle things up.
CC: Right. Well, we made that even worse.
DTD: Yes. [laughs]
CC: So, if you want victory points, which will add to your willpower for a final score, you have to buy risky or dangerous cards.
DTD: Horrible cards! And if they come up, you have to play them!
I love the concept of cards with negative consequences. They give you victory points, so you can get some benefit from them. But if they come up in your hand, bad things may happen.
CC: You have to. So, if… Some of them, for the lower victory points, will add chaos that could come back to haunt you. Because if you do something terrible, they want to target you with it.
CC: Right. But some of them come out and impact play for you immediately every time you have them, and give you a net negative effect. Which then you have to mitigate. So that’s another interesting tension.
DTD: Yeah, it’s that… I’ve always been fascinated with games that have really unattractive, horrible cards. But there’s always going to be a tease why you want it. And a horribleness if you have it.
At this point the unforgivable happened – the battery in my recorder ran out. So of course, we cursed like sailors and discussed a bank robbery we were planning. But fortunately, I carry a backup recording device, so we were back off to the races.
CC: So, some other things that are coming down the pike. We’ve got a game called Boom Patrol.
DTD: Right. Boom, like B O O M.
Too new for links or pictures! Unannounced goodies, baby!
CC: That’s correct, Boom Patrol. And it’s a tabletop tank game which is kind of like a combination of Mario Kart meets Atari tank battle.
DTD: And you’re bringing back, like, all the nostalgia here. Like Atari Combat, 1977. I’m not supposed to feel as much love for it as I do.
CC: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Correct. But I do, too. And that’s kind of what the game feels like on the table. And we’ve got like animal critters as the tank captains, but it’s… There’s no game board; you are rolling across the table, and encountering buildings, crushing them, attacking other players. And it’s a blast.
DTD: Wow, that’s pretty cool.
CC: And then we’ve got another cooperative coming up, which is called Tesseract.
DTD: But I mean, Night Cage is a tesseract.
A tesseract is a four dimentional cube, often with edges that wrap around.
CC: Well, true. This this one is actually a cube of 64 dice. It’s an alien artifact, it is decaying. And when it decays too much, it’s going to blow up. And so you have it in the lab, and you’re trying to isolate the various cubes. It’s a dice manipulation game.
DTD: Oh wow. How cool.
CC: And it’s another pretty tough game.
DTD: Wow, so physically, it’s a cube of 64 dice.
CC: It is. Again, table appeal.
DTD: Man! Yeah, I’m trying to picture that.
CC: And the dice have what look like alien symbols on them. So, they represent the numbers, but it’s just, it’s pips, with connected lines, so they look very alien. But they’re actually just dice with pips. It just looks cool.
DTD: And you can manipulate the surface dice on this giant…
DTD: Oh man, my brain is going crazy with that. I just want to pick up the whole thing and just roll it.
CC: Umm… Don’t do that.
DTD: OK. I will but I will remember, you said not to.
I would totally do it.
CC: And we even have a follow up to Before There Were Stars, our storytelling game. That’s been in the works for a long time, and honestly, COVID was just not the right time to do that.
DTD: Yeah, it’s like all the dexterity games that are going to release, when can you play test them during COVID?
CC: Exactly, yeah. So, this one though is called Of Gods and Mortals.
Leaked preview number 3! Dish is going for a record.
DTD: Oh, that’s cool.
CC: And it is about a pantheon of gods, and you are telling a story about how each of them interacts with one another, and with mankind. And it’s a collaborative storytelling game, where you are building that story together. And it’s a “Yes, and…” So, if they have said it, you can have a different point of view on what has occurred, but that… You can’t cancel what someone else has built.
DTD: And I find those storytelling games just so fascinating. Basically, taking all those improv exercises and making them into a board game, you know? Even things like Fiasco, which I think kind of broke open that genre for us. But at least brought it over from the role playing world into the board gaming world, because it does sit on that cusp.
2009’s Fiasco by Jason Morningstar is a foundational title blurring those borders between role playing games and tabletop.
CC: It does, yeah. And I think one of the kind of compelling things about this particular game is you end up being the lore-giver of this particular God. You’re not the God itself. You are, you know, just the orator.
DTD: You’re telling the stories.
CC: You’re telling a story. And at the beginning of the game there is going to be a wheel of cards at the center that represent the pantheon. So you will have the God of Death, the God of Dreams, the God of Love, of Agriculture. It’s randomly distributed, two per player, out on the board.
DTD: Wow, OK.
CC: And so, it’ll be different every time. And then I think that the brilliance of the design is there’s going to be an abstract piece of art on a different card. There’s not really any story cues in it, it’s either going to be like pure abstract or it’s going to be like a very abstract, animalistic, naturalism, kind of thing.
DTD: Supposed to be evocative, or give you that muse to tell the story?
CC: Evocative. Exactly. To add color to the Gods. So for example, the God of Death, when you flip it over, and it’s this green, rich, vibrant, abstract. How do you now interpret for this game the God of Death? Is Death renewal, right?
CC: And if you get another one and you flip it over, and it’s this gray, streaked with red, like, you know now…
DTD: More traditional. Yeah, we’re talking rot and disease.
CC: Right. And what if the God of Love has that piece of art?
DTD: Oh… Just like, love is a virus.
Many, many people have said love is a virus. Singers, poets, novelists. But I’m thinking of an obscure song from 1986 by Laurie Anderson. And I got it wrong even, because the title is “Language is a virus”. There you go – Truth in journalism.
CC: So, all of a sudden, just like the portrayal of how you might envision the God this game is given just a slight nuance, that pushes you in a different way of storytelling.
DTD: That’s really cool.
DTD: So is it a judge-based, who did the best job kind of game. Or… I mean these games, I always find fascinating, but they fall into the category of “games that we always got, that we would play with, but never really play.” You know, it’s Apples to Apples and, well, Cards Against Humanity after that. And even things like Trivial Pursuit. You know, in our youth, we would play with the cards, but never play the game.
CC: OK. Well, so in this game, I think what makes it work is… So the end, like someone has to have the final word on what happens.
CC: So, over the course of the game, you are giving people points every round for something really compelling in their story. Whether it was an amazing visual you got, whether it was a critical point of the story that really shook things up. Like some kind of innovation that you put in the story, people are going to score you for. And if you have the most points at the end of the game, you get to put the final coda. You get to tell us how everything resolves at the very end.
DTD: OK. You tie all the loose ends that everybody else is working on.
CC: That’s right.
DTD: I like that. That’s cool. I actually wanted… A German game designer told me that there’s a whole bunch of these games that have “fuzzy” endings and rulings, because they’re about the experience more than about, you know, who won.
CC: Correct, yeah, yeah.
DTD: And he told me that almost universally, the scoring system is inserted by German publishers, for the German market. Because the game will not sell if it doesn’t have scoring.
Not to throw anyone under the bus, but I believe it was Friedemann Friese.
CC: Right, yeah yeah. Funny. Well and I think that’s, I think that’s kind of true for us as well.
DTD: Well, we’ve got this trope – You know, we are selling a game. “Alright, It’s a game. How do we win? And how do we lose? And how do I know I did better than you?”
CC: Right. And in this game, what’s great is, typically if you have scored really well, you’ve been fundamental in guiding the course of the story. And people almost feel like, “You should write, you should wrap this story up.”
DTD: “You deserve it.” I love it when that comes around. What was the…? There was the really old one, Aye Dark Master.
I have to come clean here. I thought Aye Dark Master was from the 1980’s or maybe the 1990’s. I was totally floored when I saw it came out in 2005. Although that is a good 17 years ago.
CC: Yes! Yeah, yeah.
DTD: I was almost positive you had played it. Storytelling, and it had that feel. It was like, “Oh yeah, you know. You’re on it, you know what you’re doing.” Man, that’s dating me. That’s got to be back to the 80’s.
CC: Yeah, sure.
DTD: Man. Well, I know I’ve already taken you longer than you said you had an appointment for. I’ve ruined your day.
CC: You have. [laughs]
DTD: I know, I’m a terrible person.
Truth in journalism.
CC: That’s alright, I’ll see if I can work in their pitch a little bit later in the day. [laughs]
DTD: You could throw my name under the bus, you know and say, “Absolutely Corey’s fault. 100%.”
CC: But see, here’s the thing. I love talking about the industry.
DTD: I do too!
CC: I have a great time talking with you, and I think it’s fun as hell. So, I’m glad to have taken time.
DTD: You’re too nice! That’s why I do this this. This is why I like doing these dinners and things. And like I said, I’ve had some of these go like 6 hours.
CC: And if we if we were not here with me stacked for like you know, the next number of hours, I would be one of those. I love to talk.
DTD: I don’t doubt it. I believe you. Alright, I always forget to take enough pictures, so I’m overdoing it, and I need my “This is the coffee is gone image…”
CC: Here, here we go. Now we’ll have our little smirky masks, too.
Yup, Curt had a Smirk and Dagger mask on, during these, the dark times.
DTD: Alright, I’m going to go ahead and kill it unless there’s anything else you wanted to throw in there.
CC: Alright. No, I’m good.
DTD: That was awesome.
And a huge thanks to Curt Covert. His enthusiasm for all aspects of gaming is so wonderfully infectious. Curt makes every aspect of the industry seem fun and almost magical. It is a bit of an irony that Smirk and Dagger makes take-that games with so much comic venom. I would be hard pressed to find someone in gaming who is both nicer… and, well, meaner. All at the same time.