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 Nevermore.
Jason (GameGobble): I’ve heard Nevermore described as having some of the mechanics used in the card game Hearts and poker variant Pass the Trash. What are your thoughts about those references?
Curt: That characterization very much reflects the early inspiration for the game. I enjoy poker and have a monthly gathering with friends who all prefer dealer’s choice games… the wacky games with wild cards and funky rules. A game I enjoy calling once a night is “Pass The Trash” aka “Anaconda,” where as much as you love your dealt hand, you have to pass away three cards, then two, then one. It is a game that infuriates my friends because it destroys conventional poker strategy — and makes me giggle with glee every time.
Musing about it on my drive home one night, picturing their faces as they were forced to pass away winning hands as I won with three 3’s, I wondered… instead of a single winning hand, what if there was a possibility for five winning hands? This simple thought was the impetus for Nevermore. Obviously, I added a great deal to it, a cursed suit, a side deck of Magick cards, etc that transformed the game and distinguishes it from poker, but the ‘3-2-1 pass’ mechanic proved fertile ground for additional development.
Jason: One of the interesting aspects of Nevermore is that players still participate in the game as Ravens instead of being eliminated from play. What prompted you to include this game feature?
Curt: I’m so glad you asked. We are very well known for our house style and our love of backstabbing games. Historically, player elimination has been a signature element of the ‘take-that’ genre, and indeed, the initial design of Nevermore featured it, when a player’s health dipped to zero. But player elimination had fallen out of favor for obvious reasons. After all, no one likes to sit on the sidelines as the game continues. Additionally, testing proved that a player could potentially be eliminated early in the game, and that was clearly an issue.
So, the question before me was how do I deliver on this staple of the genre, but keep people in the game – while still making the punishment for ‘death’ meaningful for a player and her opponents. I coined the term “Player Transformation” to describe a new play state for these players. The key element of which was that they could no longer win the game in this state, but that it was recoverable. It had to be difficult to recover, but not impossible. Then I just had fun with it. Once I set the new goals for how they could return to “normal play,” I also gave them new powers and restrictions to completely overhaul the play experience in this state. I gave them a new way to poke other players in the eye, so it was still fun to be in this state, causing havoc, as they struggled to get back into the game. And to my delight, many players enjoy this state so much, they look forward to it. Talk about turning around one of the most hated game mechanics in the modern world of gaming and making it a key selling point for Nevermore. Player Transformation has now been added to my arsenal of tools for design – and has found its way into my new title for 2018, Tower of Madness, as well.
Jason: The theme of Nevermore draws inspiration from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.” Talk about the origin of this decision, and how you integrated elements of Poe’s famous poem into your game.
Curt: The name and theme grew immediately from the concept of player transformation. Once a player could be transformed into a Raven, in this rather arcane battle of light and shadow, it occurred to me that this being transformed in this way might explain how the Raven in Poe’s poem came to be. Could it be that this feathered bringer of doom, croaking out a single human word, “Nevermore“… might once have been human? Is the game itself a loose prequel, giving rise to The Raven? The cover art, if you look closely, catches the last glimmer of humanity as the transformation completes. The eye is still human, the last vestige of what they once were – and will be Nevermore.
Of course, our expansion “The Specters of Nevermore” deepens the relationship with Poe’s works, as players invoke the spirits of his characters Masque of the Red Death, Dr. Tarr and Professor Feather, Lenore, Hop Frog and many others, who confer a special ability to the player, both in their Human state as well as their Raven form. The abilities are all in keeping with the character’s roles in Poe’s universe and add significantly to theme and to the fun.
Jason: Your games company Smirk & Dagger has a tagline of “cause games are a lot more fun when you can stab a friend in the back.” What are some of the ways those gotcha moments appear in Nevermore?
Curt: The game is filled with them and it is baked right into the core drafting mechanic. To play well, you are not just drafting the best cards for your hand and purposes, but carefully minding what you pass to your opponent. By sending them cards that set an expectation – and then breaking the pattern to suddenly deprive them of what they need and hand them junk instead, you bust their hand. “Hate drafting” is often more important than actual drafting in this game – and they will curse you for it.
And of course, there are the Magick cards, especially the Dark Magicks. These cards were built with messing people over in mind and allow you to add damage to other player’s attacks, add poisonous Raven cards to someone’s hand, pass forward every terrible card you drafted and more. Lots of dirty tricks.
Jason: What is one thing you want gamers to know about Nevermore?
Curt: Nevermore is a casual card game that, because of some familiar feeling card game elements, will appeal to gamers and their non-gaming families and friends alike. And once again this year, Nevermore will be one of the games in the Unrivaled Tournament, competing for a $10,000 purse. You can qualify at a local store or convention near you – so check the 2018 schedule on unrivaled.com when it posts soon.