Curt Covert is the owner of Smirk & Dagger Games and the inventor of Cutthroat Caverns, Tower of Madness and Nevermore. For 14 years he has been on a quest to prove that games are more fun when you can stab a friend in the back – and in 2018 will launch a new brand, Smirk & Laughter Games, that focuses on emotionally driven games of all kinds.
The following interview is about his board game Cutthroat Caverns.
Jason (GameGobble): You have a short description that beautifully captures the essence of Cutthroat Caverns:
“Without teamwork, you will never survive. Without betrayal, you’ll never win.”
Could you elaborate on the overall gaming experience you wanted players to have?
Curt: An excellent question, as this is a game that was specifically designed to create a visceral, emotionally-charged experience that could be reliably delivered each and every time the game is opened.
At its core, Cutthroat Caverns is a game about kill-stealing, a concept all too familiar for D&D fans. Everyone fights the monsters of the dungeons, but only the player who actually lands the killing blow claims any reward. So it forces players to jockey for position, trying to have their attack be the one to slay the creature, even if they have to trip another player or otherwise spoil someone else’s attack, so they themselves can claim all the glory. Cutthroat was one of the first true semi-coop games, admittedly one that leaned harder on non-cooperation and backstabbing, but tempered by the knowledge that if you didn’t work together, you had a very real chance of all dying and losing the game in a total player kill. Balancing the need to say alive, with the desire to win is the heart of the game.
From the very first Encounter, I wanted players to sense the danger of their surroundings, of the creatures they faced – but even more so, of the other players sitting beside them. Imagine that every player is Boromir, from Lord of the Rings. You are all decent folk, but this ancient artifact is working its will upon you all, corrupting you and compelling you to give into your worst impulses. That is what the game is about. At every opportunity, the game sows mistrust, as it tempts and then rewards players for doing terrible things to one another for personal gain, to the potential destruction of all. Of course, the fun flip side of that coin is the thrill of plotting against and successfully betraying everyone, and the enjoyment of laughing at their expense.
There is a sublime joy, within the safety of a game environment, of acting out, of being bad. It’s fun and hilarious to see the lengths people will go to in order to win. But it is a social contract you all enter into by playing. You know everyone, including you, will do terrible things – so you can’t get too mad if they get the drop on you first. And of course, revenge is twice as sweet as you return the favor.
Not everyone likes “stab your buddy” games, but for those that do, it remains one of the very best ever created, even ten years and several expansions after its introduction.
Jason: Fans of dungeon crawler games will appreciate the elements of fighting and looting in a fantasy setting. What is the story of how you chose this theme?
Curt: Ha. Cutthroat Caverns was borne out of a single horrifying moment in my gaming past. But first, you have to understand the context. Back in the 1980’s, my high school D&D group was composed of me and six friends, who were all women. I guess that was pretty rare back then, but we were all drama geeks and we had a blast. We had a very “Tolkien-esque” party — lawful-good, heroic… or perhaps, given the group’s composition, a “Wonder Woman, Themysciran, Amazonian” vibe. If you found a magic item, by gods, it went to the player who could wield it best. We counted on each other and would make personal sacrifices to help the party or a friend.
Well… imagine my horror when I arrived at college and played with a bunch of dudes. They were all treasure-grabbing, point-hoarding, chaotic-neutral or evil assassin characters that I quickly realized were far more dangerous than ANYTHING the DM was gonna throw at us and twice as deadly. I sat there agape after witnessing one of the most heinous acts I’ve ever seen in an RPG. It was this sense of horror that I wanted to capture and sustain throughout the game in Cutthroat Caverns.
But it is the resulting dark humor that makes the game what it is, and creates the true fun of the game. New players will often ask me to describe the difference between Cutthroat Caverns and other thematically similar games like Munchkin. It’s simple, really. Munchkin delivers all the humor on the cards (and admittedly picking up a duck in a dungeon or fighting a gazebo is always funny) – but in Cutthroat Caverns, the humor comes from the player interactions, the betrayals, the laughter of other’s misfortunes. It reaches deeper and is more satisfying.
Jason: While there is no dice in Cutthroat Caverns, the variety of card usage produces a fair amount of randomness. How much did you want luck to affect gameplay, and what are some examples of tough decisions players get to make?
Curt: One of my first decisions, as it related to the mechanics of the game, was not to include dice, particularly as a means of attacking creatures. I felt like that game existed ten times over and I was looking for something different. More than that, it was critical that players have a lot of agency regarding how hard they were going to swing every round. This is how they are able to plan the timing of their final blow. But yes, it is still a card-based game, so there is a bit of luck in the draw – and, after all, this is a ‘take that’ game, so no attack is ever a sure thing. Players stand ready to spoil your best laid plans with a well-timed Action card, leading to the gnashing of teeth and the cursing of their names. It all adds to the uneasiness of not knowing what will happen next or when the next betrayal will be perpetrated. So, the bit of randomness within the game is critical to maintaining the experience of the game.
The toughest decisions always center around the timing and strength of your blow – and, perhaps more importantly, deciding if a given short-term gain is worth the risk of everyone dying and losing the game. Is this a time to build trust and form a bond by allowing a player, who is not in the lead, to earn a kill – or is it worth it to spoil their attack in hopes of landing it yourself. If my current attack won’t kill the creature, do I help by bringing the life points down as far as I can – or do I purposefully throw a very tactical 5 or 0 point attack, hoping to kill it next round instead, knowing that if the creature lives it will attack. Since creatures never miss, being passive aggressive by not helping means you are all getting closer to death.
Speaking of death, it is another way to win. If the Prestige leader is sitting on a mountain of points, but dangling at a few life points, we could all swing less hard, hope the leader takes one more hit and dies, taking all their victory points with them. Now, you might be the leader. But while player elimination exists in the game, it is balanced to occur only at the end, if you are smart. You see, the Encounters’ difficulty are set to the number of players that started the game, making them far more tough and deadly with more players – but if you lose players too early, they do not scale down. So you may not have enough fire power to win anymore. The best strategy is to keep everyone on the same tenuous footing, and try to eliminate the leaders in the last round or two. There is a reason this game is widely considered one of the most cutthroat games ever made – and you will feel the tension around the table. Every Encounter (25 in the base game and now over 100 in the roster) is unique, putting players to the test in new and interesting ways – and all built with a behavioral funnel that tempts people to act against their own, long-term, best interests. It is a powerful combination of elements.
Jason: The illustrations of Cutthroat Caverns was produced by a collection of talent that are listed within the instructions. How did you go about finding and selecting these artists?
Curt: An eclectic feel to the art was one more way to help make every Encounter feel unique, so I sought out various artists with different styles. Now, I didn’t have the same art budget 10 years ago as I do now, so admittedly the base game is a bit uneven. But even after five expansions, I have continued to seek out as many artists as possible and it has made the game feel like a much larger and more diverse world. But, if you’ve seen our latest Death Incarnate, you know that the art has reached a pinnacle. The pieces are gorgeous. Most importantly, I wanted all the Encounters to help sow fear into the group, to keep the threat of death alive in the party. But, because it is actually a humorous game, the characters have more of an animated cartoon feel.
Later, as we added Relics to the game, I decided not to commission illustrators to create the magic items depicted, but rather, I sought out actual jewelers, black smiths, leather workers and artisans and showcase real world items on the cards. Many of the things pictured on the cards are available for sale, if you follow the credits in the rules. That has been really cool too. One artisan ended up changing the name of his leather gauntlets to match the name of the card, because of the fans asking for them by name.
Jason: What is one thing you want gamers to know about Cutthroat Caverns?
Curt: Cutthroat Caverns is one of our flagship titles, a game that I still love to death, so we continue to support and expand it. Fans old and new can look forward to August 2018, when we will launch the Cutthroat Caverns app on iOS and Google Play. It will feature solo game play vs three (of six possible) AI players, each with their own unique play style, simulating the strategies and biases we see at the table with live opponents. It will also introduce new art, which will eventually make its way into an anniversary edition of the base game. If it goes according to plan, playing these AI personalities will deliver as close an experience as possible to facing off against live opponents across the table.