I remember walking into a game store once and seeing the game Run For Your Life, Candyman! My wife and I got a kick out of the name and laughed at the fact that you are supposed to rip up the limbs of other Candymen you encounter. That game is published by Smirk and Dagger, and I was able to get in touch with Curt Covert and asked him eight questions about his company and the upcoming game Student Bodies.
Who are you and why did you start Smirk and Dagger?
I’m Curt Covert (yes, that’s my real name) and I’m a game designer, owner of Smirk and Dagger Games, and Creative Director for a marketing agency by day. Smirk and Dagger launched out of my pure passion for gaming and the desire to create products of my own unique (and somewhat twisted) vision. It has been a wonderful creative outlet for me that, happily, many fans have come to appreciate. Publishing games is by no means a good way to get rich, but I have found it extremely rewarding none-the-less. We opened for business on Halloween day of 2003, with the delivery of my first printed game, Hex Hex. And it has been a wildly interesting ride ever since.
Now, if the question was “What was the inspiration for Smirk and Dagger Games, and how and why we do what we do” that’s different. When I decided to try a give this whole thing a go, I looked around at a lot of other game companies, many of whom had a mission statement that could be summed up as “we make fun games for everybody”. With my background in marketing, I wanted my new and unknown company to be distinctive. I wanted to stand for something as a brand and develop a reputation and a fan base who understood what they would get from me – in meaningful terms.
So I thought about what I could bring to the gaming industry better than anyone else. What did I really enjoy about games? What type of games would I have the most fun producing and playing? The answer came very quickly. I love “stab your buddy” games. I think it is funny to behave badly and cover off with, “Hey, it’s just a game.” So I dedicated myself to ‘screw you’ games in all forms. The name Smirk and Dagger Games is intended to bring to mind the glee you feel just before you put the screws to someone. Our tag line says it all, “Cause Games are More Fun when you can Stab a Friend in the Back”.
I have succeeded in claiming that space in the market and every game I make has a reputation that precedes (and pre-sells) it. So much so, that I have not been able to print some good games that don’t quite fit under that umbrella. Instead, I try to license them to other game companies. I’ve gotten close a few times with Hasbro, but the titles that actually made it to press were Crayola 3-D Sidewalk Chalk (which won Toy of the Year when it launched) and my latest is a rather edgy title for World Wise Imports, a role playing game for the bedroom called, “Role in the Hay”. Ha.
What are some of the games you have published?
Hex Hex, our mean-spirited hot-potato style card game, launched us when we were able to sell 100 hand-cut, photocopied copies at Gencon in 2002, by borrowing a corner of a retailer’s booth. It was the proof I needed to confidently invest my own $30,000 into printing the game and opening my company. Obviously, this was before Kickstarter was born. Dead Hand Chaos Poker followed on the heels of the poker craze and sold 10,000 units. Next was fan favorite, Run for Your Life, Candyman!, which started as a joke and would have been offered as a free download on our site to play with your own Candyland game – until retailers and distributors convinced me of the full sales potential. That game spawned Shootin’ Ladders: Frag Fest, a slightly more ‘gamerly’ version of the idea that plays like a fusion of Halo and Chutes and Ladders. Cutthroat Caverns launched in 2007 and remains our flagship product. I tapped a nerve with this cooperative backstabbing game of kill stealing in a dungeon setting and it has grown and expanded to a full six-item line. Cutthroat is by far the most successful and most critically acclaimed of our games to date. Sutakku is our light pub-style Japanese dice stacking game. And of course, last year’s Dread Curse pirate game and this year’s Student Bodies have generated sales and buzz that bode very well for the future.
One of your most popular titles is Cutthroat Caverns. Were you surprised by its popularity?
I’m surprised that it has found so many fans across the globe. It has a lot of text, so I assumed there would be a language barrier. Turns out, not so much. But I’m not surprised that it resonated with people. I have a very simple design imperative. I seek for my games to engage people emotionally as they play, with highs and lows and gnashing of teeth – which has players telling a stories about how victory was ripped from their hands through horrific betrayal or how they pulled off a win with a well timed backstab. No other game I know of balances, so beautifully, the need to work together to survive and the rewards of screwing the other players to win.
The game was inspired by my own D&D groups. In high school, I played with a very “Lawful Good”, Tolkien-esque party who would part with valuable magic items so that it could be wielded by another for the betterment of the whole party. Then, in college, I played with a new group who, to my horror and bewilderment, was anything but. As I looked around the room, I was shocked by the realization that the other players were, in all likelihood, far more deadly than the creatures we faced. That was the feeling I wanted to create and maintain throughout the game. I knew after the first play tests that I had tapped a real nerve in people.
What is more surprising, however, is the amount of content we have created surrounding what, on the surface, seems a handful of simple mechanics. The game, in all its iterations, now boasts over 120 creatures. Not one of them delivers the same experience and everyone has their favorites. The best of them truly test your moral compass as they tempt you to do things you KNOW will be bad for everyone and may in the end cost you the game – but deliver a sweet reward for doing so.
I can say I never tire of playing it or sharing it with new adventurers, because the sly smiles and cries of ‘foul’ are just so damn entertaining. And I’ve played a lot!
Your upcoming game, Student Bodies, is a zombie game. Aren’t you afraid that the market is a bit…saturated?
Ha. Yeah, sort of – but not really. There is no doubt that it is a very saturated market and I don’t know that I would have normally jumped in given that – BUT (and it’s a big but) when I played this game, I knew I had to print it. It is one of the two games in my line that I did not design myself. This game was to be the launch title of a fledgling game company, Angry Duck Games, who have allowed me to step in and introduce their game to the world. I can therefore be very objective when I tell you it is the best zombie game I’ve ever played AND it delivers such delicious back-stabbery and emotional intensity, it was absolutely a title I needed in my catalog no matter the saturation of the market. That said, I am utilizing every resource at my disposal to make sure people know what makes it special and unique among the other zombie games out there. Everything from my advertising to a sticker on the front of the box, emblazoned with a big red STOP sign, which tells people what sets it apart, is geared to showcase how the game shines.
What sets Student Bodies apart from other zombie games?
Nice segue! In truth, most everything (apart from the genre) sets Student Bodies apart from other zombie games. Let’s start with this. It’s a Smirk and Dagger zombie game – so it is going to bring out the worst in people as they go to extreme lengths to survive. The humor of the game comes right out of that struggle and what you end up doing to each other.
With all the zombie games that have come and gone, few have delivered the emotional punch that the genre instantaneously conjures, true desperation. Matt Regney and Mike Renzulli, the designers, assured that every mechanic, every element, was laser focused to heighten the feeling that these might well be your very last minutes and that you may need to do whatever it takes to live.
But let’s talk about all the standard zombie tropes the game breaks.
1. There are no guns. No chainsaws. It is a high school – and you are going to have to be smarter. You may find you are forced to play most the game without a weapon at all (but not without resources). It is a difference you will feel playing – as the odds become more and more grim.
2. Normally, getting bitten in the zombie apocalypse spells certain death. That’s where Student Bodies begins. All the players begin the game already bitten and infected. The viral change in your blood has begun. So you can’t trust anyone anymore. Your only hope is to reach the science lab, find an antidote your science teacher cooked up and then get out the way you came – down a hallway overflowing with undead classmates. I kid you not, every game you will look back and say, “there’s no damn way!” (and you may be right!)
3. It is not a sprawling epic. It doesn’t try to simulate a whole zombie movie – just the last, most exciting final moments, as they run for their lives. That focus keeps the tension high.
4. It is intensely non-cooperative. You only win if you escape FIRST, because you are locking the door behind you, sealing the others in and preventing the virus from spreading. That means everything and everyone on the board is an enemy. You’ve only got so many actions per turn. Do you bash a zombie – or trip a ‘friend’ into them to open a path for yourself? Not surprisingly, this is what puts a smile on my face.
5. Eliminated players may well rise, even more powerful, joining the game to kill you all. Yep, kill someone before they can drink and antidote and they come back as a Smart Zombie – with a full hand of cards, a full turn and a new mission – to actively hunt you down. That knowledge should hold players back from knocking each other off too soon. Of course, halfway through the game (after finding an antidote) players who die are just dead – and no longer competition. Interestingly, in this very nasty back-stabby game, the Smart Zombies can win cooperatively by wiping out all the living players. And payback is a @#%&.
6. On your turn, you have a surprising amount of control over the zombie horde. A Zombie AI Card is drawn before your turn and the zombies have a programmed, priority list of actions they must perform – BUT if two players are equidistant to move towards or attack, the active player makes the choice, sicking them on opponents and opening a lane to move forward if they can.
7. No Minis, but Big Table Appeal. The board is massive. 15 inches wide and 3 feet long, which means our gorgeously illustrated standees are 2.5” tall. When this hits the table, people will stop and take notice. And you won’t need to spend $90 to own a copy.
So, it has all these great emotional highs and lows throughout the game and a true sense of desperation. That’s what I love about it.
On top of all that, it has a lot of replay and you can customize the difficulty level beautifully to taste, from sleepy Dawn of the Dead style zombies to “kiss yer ass goodbye” World War Z style zombies.
And all of the above is what makes this game so different, so unique and so worth trying for yourself.
Student Bodies originally tried to fund on Kickstarter but failed. Why did you pick it up after it failed to get funded?
Fair question. Simple answer. I played it.
The game, originally titled, “Zombies 101”, failed to fund – not because of the game at all – but in how it was marketed. The creators, Angry Duck Games, are new to the business. They are very talented and made this amazing game, but didn’t know exactly how to showcase its greatness. And by ‘marketing’, I’m not just talking about advertising. It was the name, the look and how they described game play. The best, most unique aspects of the game were not given enough emphasis. And in this very crowded market, it felt like ‘just another zombie game’.
I’ve been doing this for 11 years now and have a day job as a creative guy at a marketing agency. So after playing, after being so impressed with the quality of the experience, I knew exactly what would get the game noticed for what it is – brilliant.
What are your feelings in general about Kickstarter?
Well, if Kickstarter had existed when I started 11 years ago, I would have jumped at it. I put a second mortgage on my house in order to pay for my first game. I operated in the red for many years, until I could pay it all off. So yeah, even with all the work it takes to conduct a successful KS, I would have absolutely wanted to go that way.
But I will say this. Having to invest $30,000 of your own money makes you want to be very, very sure you have done everything you can to make the game perfect and more likely to succeed. The downside of KS is that new developers are able to sell a concept for a game and sometimes the chrome outshines the game itself. They may not have tested it enough, with enough people, to identify all the small issues that hold it back from being as good as it could be. I have supported many games on KS. There have been some great ones. There have been some I knew could have and should have been better, if the designers had footed their own money upfront themselves.
At this point, I don’t really need to KS my projects and it can be polarizing for retailers. And it is a crazy amount of work, more than if I just published the game myself. So, I have not pursued it. But, if I had a project that needed some upfront bankrolling just to get it done, I would not rule it out.
Do you have any other upcoming projects you would like to mention?
We have a really great new expansion for Cutthroat Caverns in the works. The Incarnations of Immortality is hyper focused on the Incarnation type encounters that have come to distinguish themselves as ownable to our game – and are usually among the most exciting to face. It will include upwards of fifteen new encounters, relics imbued with the powers of the incarnations, lairs to earn them in – and a new, double-sided adventure book to introduce them all. Lots of really nasty, cool stuff in this one, helmed by our own Jonathan Lavallee.
I’ve also been working on a game entitled, The Tower of Madness. Imagine a dark tower at the center of your table, pierced by tentacles coming out in every direction and filled with marbles. You goal: Investigate Unspeakable Horrors… Without Losing Your Marbles. It is a dice game at its heart, with this tension filled tower of marbles that punishes players for bad rolls, potentially driving them insane or summoning Cthulhu before the investigators can discover a way to prevent it. Trying to figure out how to produce it inexpensively enough. Who knows, perhaps this is the project that has me trying KS for the first time.