Words by David C. Obenour
It’s hard to imagine a better time to be a gamer then right now. An outpouring of creativity from designers has been met by an enthusiastic fanbase that continues to grow through widening interest and direct marketing and funding. Gaming groups are no longer confined to just comic shop basements, but are catered to by big box stores and referenced on national network comedies.
The ominous New England clock tower that stands over Smirk and Dagger’s Tower of Madness is a beacon that shows where we’ve arrived with modern gaming. Eye-catching components and immensely clever mechanics appeal to casual and longtime gamers for an enjoyable 30-45 minutes. For all of its new ideas, the game also takes inspiration from more familiar and classic ones. There’s a rich past to explore in gaming, just as there is a rich future to create.
Off Shelf: Tower of Madness is such a unique execution of a game. With elements of Elder Sign and Ker-Plunk, can you tell me about how the idea for the game first came about?
Curt Covert: It is the experience of playing a game and the emotional chords it strikes that are paramount to me as a designer and a publisher. While Tower of Madness certainly bears comparison to both Elder Sign, a dice-rolling Cthulhu mythos game and Ker-Plunk, everyone’s favorite marble-dropping childhood game, the game was not directly inspired by either. Instead, what got me excited and started my creative juices flowing was the roleplaying game, DREAD. It’s a horror-themed RPG that used a Jenga tower, instead of dice, as a skills check device. As the game progressed, the more tiles were pulled and the more risky each attempt became, heightening the tension around the table. It was brilliant on two levels. Borrowing something familiar from our childhoods and turning into a means of creating horror is just cool as hell! Plus, the suspense it creates, as players carefully attempt to pull a tile out of the stack, becomes a gripping audience-involving mechanic which a simple roll of the dice could never have achieved.
As a lover of games that draw players in and involve them emotionally in game play, my head started to leap to other similar opportunities from classic games I had played. I very quickly arrived at Ker-Plunk, which delivered the same fun tension of anticipating what would fall with each pull. But, importantly, my goal was not to make ‘fancy, thematic Ker-Plunk,’ but rather employ the mechanic in a unique new way. Since that sort of tension connects to horror so well, I landed on the Cthulhu mythos immediately thereafter. The fact that one could lose their marbles as they played made it a thematic slam dunk! Inspiration in place, I now hunted for the game I wanted to make.
With a three-dimensional, marble filled tower at the center of the table, it was clear this was not going to end up as an elegant Euro game. It would need something lighter as a core mechanic and I’m a fan of dice games, especially push your luck dice games. This became the heart of the game, trying to solve the mysteries of horrific locations by rolling dice and besting the other players – all with the looming threat of having locked in your dice too early and having to face pulling a tentacle from the tower.
The vision of an old New England style clock tower, bursting from all sides with 30 otherworldly tentacles, was always going to be the show stopping centerpiece of the game. I mocked it up before I even designed the dice mechanics. I was delighted with the theater of it. As I got more into the design, I also knew in what ways the marble mechanic would necessarily depart from its popular counterpart.
First, the view of the marbles inside would be eliminated. Transparent walls became solid, with a roof overhead to darken the interior further. Secondly, and more important, not all the marbles inside are bad, creating an interesting tension. Unlike Ker-Plunk where you want to avoid all the marbles, in Tower of Madness you desperately want half of the marbles inside. There are Victory Point Marbles and others that provide the only means of drawing new Spell Cards. But it comes at the risk of slowly going insane, by collecting Madness Marbles, or ending the game abruptly by summoning Cthulhu with the third drop of a green Doom Marble.
To help mitigate the randomness of the dice and marbles, Spell Cards, character abilities and Unnatural Influence tokens were added to give players a way to game the system a bit. In the end, the game is just what I had hoped for – a casual, light-hearted, tension-filled dice game with a stunning centerpiece for the ultimate smash-up of gaming goodness.
OS: The art and the components for the game are remarkable with function, design and just looking fun. After you had the idea for Tower of Madness, can you talk about the process of working with your team to get to the finished product on shelves?
CC: [laughs] I’m glad to hear that! Yes, a lot of work went into the development, which is why it took a good four years to finally get it done. I’m a graphic artist and creative director by trade, so I continue to head up the aesthetics of our games, working on logos and finding the right illustration style to complement every project. In this case, I worked with Gunship Revolution, who has a stable of talented artists on hand. Ej Dela Cruz, Jen Santos and Brian Valeza all helped create the characters and locations in the game.
As for the tower and the tentacles themselves, I designed the look and feel of each and then tapped people far better able to sculpt and craft the finals. I struggled for a long time with how to construct the materials so that it would be as impressive as I hoped, without having to charge $100 a game, which no one would have paid. Should the tower be plastic or cardboard? How heavy does the tray need to be to be a solid enough platform? What is the right alignment and spacing of all the holes to support the marbles and increase the tension of the drops, should the tentacles be plastic or paperboard? Every choice I made had a huge impact on cost, durability, and table appeal.
Once I had solidified the need for a heavy plastic base and a cardboard tower as the ‘guts’ of the tower, we played around a lot with the tentacles. I wanted molded plastic, but there were 30 of them. The first semi-permanent test mold was for a fully three dimensional, tentacle with the circular diameter you’d expect. But not only did they become too heavy and crowd the surface of the tower, the amount of plastic needed would have driven the cost through the roof! I looked at flat plastic that I would sticker graphics onto, but didn’t like the result. So I went back to the 3-D sculpt of the tentacle and asked if we could squash it flatter. You know, keep the detail but make it thin instead of fully round. That did the trick!
OS: After you’ve decided on a theme, do you think about the audiences your appealing to with it, and to another extent, the audiences you aren’t appealing to?
CC: Of course. Though, I think it is safe to say that I am known for having a ‘house style.’ It used to be all backstabby goodness, but now has broadened with Smirk and Laughter to encompass a range of games that make you feel something at the table. I want to involve you emotionally in some way. Because of that, fans of one of my games very often enjoy a good number of my games.
But as it relates to Tower of Madness, I knew this was going to be a light and casual style game, that there is a ‘gimmick’ factor, that there is a lot of luck involved in the dice and marbles, despite any mitigation from cards and abilities.
So, yes, I knew this was not necessarily going to be top of the list for hardcore Euro gamers. But that’s okay! It is rare for a game to universally appeal to all. What is important is how you position and market your game. If you are clear and upfront about what kind of game it is, the people who buy it and play it are more likely to have their expectations delivered upon. It’s when you try to sell a game as something it isn’t that you run into real problems. There are many different audiences for games, so I just assure that I’m speaking their language and communicating to the people who will be most interested in the title.
OS: I wanted to ask you about the problem with H.P. Lovecraft. Cthulhu in 2019 is much larger than the author some 80 years after his death, but even with it being such a large part of geek culture I wondered if you felt concerned to release a game inspired by his work, given some of the bigoted views he espoused even within his stories?
CC: It is a fair question. To be honest, I have read a couple of his stories, but not a lot. I’m most familiar with his works through the broad strokes of board games. And given that, I have not personally observed the bigotry expressed in his works. But recently I have become more aware of his views and know they are bigoted by both his time’s standards, as well as our own. If he yet lived, it would be a very grave concern. As it is, he might indeed have been horrified that I placed diverse characters in the game contrary to those views.
Yet, I think the gaming world has taken the inspiration of ‘the hidden horror in the world’, and time and again, have reframed it, holding up only the worthier elements of it. The mythology, not the man. And most of our mythologies, even in the classical sense, have been modified to remove those aspects we cannot support. Disney told the story of Hercules without touching on Zeus coming down, impersonating a mortal woman’s husband, and impregnating her. Classical myths had a lot of rape in them. But we needn’t cling to those aspects and can still tell a story inspired by them, highlighting the best they have to offer.
OS: I noticed Tower of Madness was printed in China, how concerned are you with the Chinese Government’s recent burning of Sons of the Singularity’s The Sassoon Files RPG supplement? I’d be interested just to hear your thoughts and any conversations you might be having with other game publishers about the topic.
CC: The world is a big place. Cultures differ widely. And this is by no means the only concern we should look at in regards to China. But market pressures make producing games and so much of the consumer goods we produce these days very difficult to do elsewhere. I have made games in the US, but not many, because it is so expensive and the market won’t bear the inflated price passed on to consumers. My god, a lot of gamers even refuse to pay the MSRP of a game as is, looking to on-line discounters, which hurts retailers and everyone else in the long run.
I have not seen the RPG supplement, other than the cover image, but I assume the Chinese government was concerned about how they were represented. Was burning the books the answer? No. Or course not! But let’s place that aside for the moment and ask a bigger question: is representation and depiction of stereotypes a hot topic across our industry? Yes. There are parallels to examine in a broader sense. And while I have not ever been censured, as a publisher I am more hyper aware of how I depict people in our games than I ever have been. As we should be! Further, where is the line between thematic application and cultural appropriation? These are all valid, but difficult, questions we should all be thinking about – and I think these are the things that we as publishers are really talking about. Less so about what China censors. No publisher is actively seeking to offend people, Cards Against Humanity withstanding, but we all have to be more aware as our culture shifts and evolves.
OS: Can you talk about the production challenges faced by creating a game as tactilely engaging as Tower of Madness? I imagine getting the tower right took some back and forth with a production facility.
CC: The biggest problem was not being able to be at the factory in person. You end up having discussions via email, sending photos or even videos to help communicate your intentions and their solutions. Even when you think you’ve been clear and things are perfect, you can be surprised when you see the final result. There are a few things I would have continued to alter if I could have been there to oversee production – but I’m still a one man shop. It just isn’t possible. But the plastics, which I had been the most concerned about, ended up coming exactly as I had hoped.
OS: Gamers can be a very opinionated bunch, if someone had a bias towards heavy and longer games, what would you present as some of the fun and advantages of the 20-40 minute game?
CC: [laughs] Yes, gamers have strong opinions on every single aspect, which is only natural in an industry that has such passionate fans. But, as I mentioned, various styles of games exist because there are equally as many types of gamers. So, I wouldn’t try to convince anyone out of their preferences or biases.
But here’s what I love about shorter format games: at a certain point in your life, it can be hard to pull enough players together for an 8-hour session of Star Fleet Battles. Life gets crowded. But there is always time for a quicker game. There were some I loved particularly because they could be played in my lunch hour. With shorter games, I can fill an evening with a whole bunch of experiences – or set a rematch of a particular game. Emotionally driven games tend to be easier to deliver in shorter time frames, though Cutthroat Caverns runs a good 90 minutes and constantly delivers an emotional punch. I happen to be a lover of more casual games because I really enjoy introducing people who aren’t necessarily gamers into the hobby. But in the end, it is all about what you love. And no matter what you enjoy in our hobby, you can find it.
OS: If you can think broadly with me for a moment, what do you think classic games have to teach the latest wave of modern games? Can you talk about one or two of your favorites that you might still play?
CC: Games engage people on all sorts of levels and all of them have something to teach us. But what are you defining as classic? There is ‘timeless’ and there is ‘nostalgic’ with a certain guilty pleasure clinging to it. Chess is a masterstroke of gaming genius. It’s timeless and perfect. But what of Clue, Sorry, or Monopoly? They are classics and are often dismissed by gaming fans. What can be learned from Clue? What about it engaged us as kids or as a culture for so long, even if the stale roll and move execution leaves us flat? There is still something compelling in the game, to be distilled and reimagined.
There are game design lessons, in what to do, and what to avoid in every game. ‘Take that’ style games unabashedly featured player elimination as a cornerstone mechanic for years. I built my company of backstabby games, so I understood the appeal of elimination as an ultimate punishment. But in modern gaming, where we have all agreed that having players sitting out is not ideal, I worked on mechanics that used player transformation as a replacement. That is, a negative game state that completely changes your strategy, but allows you to keep playing towards a new goal or creates a difficult threshold to bring you back in. So long as the change is meaningful and punitive, it carries the same emotional punch of being eliminated – and if it is interesting enough, you will have people who look forward to it in a morbid sort of way. Identifying a problem eventually suggests a solution. You can learn from any system, tweak mechanics and fashion something more interesting.
Yet sometimes, the original versions still hold your attention regardless of the ‘flaws’ that modern games eschew. Wiz War remains one of my favorites, but I love the original version, not the Fantasy Flight one which tried to modernize it and weakened, it in my honest opinion. Even Dungeonquest, with its push your luck mechanics was a near impossible dungeon crawl, which played more like 4 player solitaire. There were few meaningful decisions or interesting player interactions, yet I love it for what it is. Some of that is nostalgia. The other half… I just dig them for the games they are!
OS: The flip side of that coin, what do modern games have to teach classic games?
CC: All things evolve or die. The explosion of modern board games has been an incredible burst of ingenuity and creativity, which has captivated hearts and minds. For a long time, gaming in the US was in a rut, reinventing the same roll and move games. For most people in the country, games were just mindless kid’s stuff. But in the last 10 years, we’ve seen attitudes change. More and more people are discovering the joys of gathering around a board game, who never would have previously. The market is growing, reaching more people, becoming more interesting to a broader demographic. And we should embrace that and be welcoming! Yet, before long, it will be our ‘modern games’ that are considered the classics. So we need to evolve and improve with every title, stretching the boundaries, trying new things, and delighting audiences in all new ways. It’s true in games, and it’s true in life.