This is my interview with Genius Games head honcho, John Coveyou. Genius Games is a unique company specializing in STEM focused games. It’s a cool idea and I know you will enjoy it.
Before I go any further I want to apologize to John Coveyou for the lateness of this interview. It was done back in May. I subsequently lost it in my email. On to John.
Tell us about yourself.
My name is John Coveyou and I started designing games as a serious hobby back in 2012. After my first few science games took off on Kickstarter in 2014 and 2015, I decided to quit my posh engineering job and start Genius Games, a tabletop game design and development company. Since then I’ve run 11 successful Kickstarters (8 games, 2 sets of children’s books and a set of human anatomy puzzles). My 12th Kickstarter is live right now!
I also teach courses in Tabletop Game Design, crowdfunding and Entrepreneurship at Webster University in St. Louis.
When it comes to game design, I am primarily self taught. When I was first starting out, I put myself through a rigorous game design regime that I created for myself. Design a game, get feedback on that game, redesign it, and toss it in the closet. Design another game, and follow the same process and finally toss it in the closet. Rinse and repeat, you get the idea! That process was crucial as I was starting out – not only because I learned experientially what makes a game good, and how to listen to feedback and iterate many, many times, but also because I learned not to get too attached to my initial ideas!
Since then, I’ve playtested and consulted for a number of other game designers, I run Genius Games full time.
How did Genius Games come about? Who else is involved?
I used to work as an engineer and also taught chemistry at a local college in the evenings… yes, because I am a nerd, and because I really love learning and teaching science!
Anyway, I played a lot of games and being the science nerd that I was, I started looking for games with accurate science themes. Then I realized, there really weren’t any. At the same time I kept running into the same challenges each semester – my students thought science was ‘too hard’, ‘too boring’, ‘too geeky’, etc… they had a hard time concentrating and were very self-conscious about their efforts.
But I noticed that after class, those same exact students would often congregate to talk about games they were playing and spout off tons of complicated statistics and principles from those games. And that’s when a light-bulb went off in my head… Why not combine great game mechanics and with real-world science concepts instead of fantasy world information? Why not try to give the students an experience that was social, multi-sensory, involved some friendly competition or even cooperation – all centered around the information we were covering in class? And again, nothing like this existed in the hobby. So… I decided to make them.
Throughout the whole process I’ve relied on two main demographics for feedback – teachers and students on the one hand, and devoted gamers on the other. I was that teacher who wanted this game – and now thousands of teachers around the globe use them too, I couldn’t be more thrilled about that. The students are the one who directly motivate and inspire us to stay on top of our game (sorry, couldn’t resist!) And the gamers – hobby gamers as well as designers, specifically strategy game designers – keep us pushing the envelope as far as being creative with game mechanics and really integrating the theme with the game play. This means that even if you don’t initially care that much about the science, the educational component, you will still value our games for the incredible play experience they offer.
Genius Games now has a team of five full-time and four part-time people with an office and warehouse space in St. Louis, MO.
Do you have a publishing philosophy?
Yes, it’s spelled out in our tagline – Credible Science, Incredible Games.
Our goal is to bring knowledge from the real world (the Credible Science) together with the tangible, engaging experiences of great games (the Incredible Games!)
Why focus on STEM?
Great question – well, initially, because that’s where I was working, that’s my academic passion and expertise. I saw that there are so many gamers who are also scientists, or scientifically inclined who wanted real life science content in a game – but games like that didn’t exist.
And as I said, students seem to bring a lot of social baggage in with them to study STEM subjects. More and more we realized that we can offer a way to address that underlying emotional stuff. We really believe that if you don’t, it doesn’t matter how many students you send through a traditional STEM course, they won’t do that well. Or maybe they do ok for the tests but what about long-term retain, or even better a long-term passion and understanding of science. We just want to change the whole dynamic of presenting STEM info in a very dry and impersonal way, so that students have a greater chance of finding something fun or beautiful or meaningful in it, and then taking ownership of their own learning.
Talk about your games.
Ion: A Compound Building Game
Ion is a simple card drafting game where players select from a number of available ion cards and noble gas cards, with the objective of forming either neutrally charged compounds or sets of stable noble gases.
Covalence: A Molecule Building Game
Covalence is a chemistry-themed cooperative card game where players work together to accurately build a number of secret organic molecules. One player has knowledge of a set of Secret Molecules. All other players must deduce what these secret molecules are, based upon clues given to them. Players must cooperatively construct their molecules before the clues run out!
Virulence: An Infectious Card Game
Virulence is a quick and simple card game where players take on the role of viruses! Players compete to infect a host cell (place bids using virus cards) in order to replicate their own viral components allowing players to score points up front, or build the power of their bidding hand.
Peptide: A Protein Building Game
Peptide is an open card drafting game where players compete to link Amino Acids side-by-side to build a peptide chain (a fancy word for a protein). In order to build this protein, players must first make a set of thoughtful selections from openly available Organelle Cards which gain a player resources, like mRNA, or actions, like matching Amino Acids to the correct mRNA.
Cytosis: A Cell Biology Game
Cytosis is a worker placement game that takes place inside a human cell! Players take turns placing workers on available organelles within a human cell in order to collect resources (such as Carbohydrates or ATP!) or take actions (such as purchasing Cell Component cards or translating mRNA into Proteins!)
Players use their resources to build Enzymes, Hormones, and Hormone Receptors and also to help detoxify the cell – all of which score health points. The player with the most health points at the end of the game wins!
Subatomic: An Atom Building Game
Subatomic is a deck-building game about building elements from subatomic particles! Players begin the game with a small deck of quarks and photons. Each turn, players draw a new hand of cards and decide to either build up their atom to score points, or buy stronger cards for their deck to more efficient in their ability to build atoms later in the game!
Periodic: A Game of the Elements
Periodic is an energy economy and point to point movement strategy board game designed around the periodic table of elements. Players activate periodic trends (such as “Decrease Atomic Mass” or “Increase Atomic Radii”) to strategically maneuver across the periodic table, “discovering” elements to score points.
Players also attempt to couple “discovering” elements with ending your turns in specific families of elements, like Noble Gases or Transition Metals. This allows you to move up the Academic Achievement Track in a race against other players for the limited spots, and additional points, at the end of the track.
Nerd Words is our most recent game, and is currently live on Kickstarter until April 11th!
The Nerd Words co-designer, Eric Slauson, came up with the very first idea for the game. We were literally taking a walk trying to figure out how to combine our powers to make a game – Eric is an English teacher, and my background is in science – and he came up with the idea of a science word guessing game where clues were restricted by the letters of the word to be guessed. I was immediately intrigued by the mechanic, as well as the challenge of figuring out how to make a word game that was science themed… those two don’t usually go together!
Anyway, in Nerd Words, teams compete to guess Science Terms based on clues given to them by a Clue Giver.
Here’s the first twist – Clues must start with a letter from the Science Term (excluding the first letter). In this way, Clues slowly reveal letters within the Science Term AND hint at the Science Term through associated words.
And, here’s the second twist: Teams may bet additional points on their Guess based upon how confident they are! The more points you bet, the more you score if your guess is correct – but if you’re incorrect, you lose those points.
What does Genius Games look for in a game?
We look for that magical blend of old and new, as far as mechanics goes – some rock-solid mechanics that most gamers are familiar with, so it doesn’t take them hours to learn how to play the game – but also some new applications, variations, or combinations of mechanics that haven’t been done before so that the gameplay is fresh and unpredictable.
On top of all that – and that’s a tall order in itself – we look for an excellent integration of real science information with the mechanics themselves. The last thing we want is a random theme slapped artificially on top of some mechanics. Everyone can tell the difference when the theme and the mechanics have been integrated from the beginning of the process – the final product is exponentially more interesting!
Oh yes, we also look for a vivid, well-executed artistic vision of the scientific theme. Haha, no biggie…!
Games include background on the science of the game. That is cool. Why include that?
It started because we had a bunch of backers who asked for it in Cytosis. In response, we sent out an update to all our backers asking if peopl e really wanted something like this (a Science Behind Cytosis document) and the consensus was overwhelming. But more importantly we also had a few hundred people volunteer to write it themselves. So found 20+ backer with graduate degree in biology, or specifically cell biology, and let them start collaborating on a Google Doc that we put together. The outcome was unbelievable.
Our great hope is for the games to be just a starting point, to inspire and empower people to enjoy exploring the world of science for themselves. This Science Behind booklet includes notes on science concepts that didn’t get a full treatment in the game, so people have a next step. The booklets in all the games are written for anyone who wants to know more, from teachers to parents to hobby gamers to burgeoning young scientists!
As a designer, what is the most difficult part of designing/developing a game?
Oh, definitely making sure that the theme and mechanics are integrally related from start to finish – and not trying to cram too much into any one game. It’s hard to prune back when you have so many ideas, but as with most art forms, less can really be more in game design!
Are there any Science disciplines that need games?
They all do, really! We’d love to do more earth science and physics, as well as more botany and human anatomy…
Science books – you also publish science books for kids. Why do that also?
In truth, I wanted to read books like this to my daughter but I couldn’t find any. Being the person I am, I decided to make them myself. And it fits within our larger goal – creating more holistic experiences for learners engaging with scientific material.
Another piece of the decision to make books for young kids has to do with timing – we want to make sure kids have some really colorful, thought-provoking interactions with scientific words and concepts BEFORE they are inundated by the ever-present cultural messages about science being ‘hard’, ‘boring’, for ‘really smart people’, etc., and BEFORE they come to equate science with textbooks.
It seems that biology is your sweet spot science. Why is that?
What interesting is that chemistry is really my personal science of choice. I used to teach and tutor chemistry for years, and I am truly fascinated by the content and really enjoy teaching it. But our most successful game, Cytosis: A Call Biology Game is certainly straight-up biology! It’s all about the biology of a human cell. I’m not quite sure what set that game apart as a show-stopper – it is fantastic on many levels – and certainly the art (by our longtime designer Tomasz Bogusz) is some of the most vivid and atmospheric of any art in our games. Biology is living things, and humans just love living things…
How often do you hear from teachers about your games?
We hear from teachers weekly and sometimes daily. We even had a teacher who was recently interviewed by USA Today about using our games in their classroom, which was cool. The feedback we most often hear from teachers (which makes us happy!) is that their students have benefited simply by being more engaged in the material to be learned or reviewed.
One teacher from Indiana who teaches high school juniors and seniors in AP Chemistry told us that he uses our games (Ion and Covalence) as review for concepts that they should’ve learned in Chemistry I. For example, he told us Ion has been helpful for reinforcing ionic compound formation and naming, and Covalence has been a boon for helping students become more familiar with molecules.
Any cool stories of Genius in the classroom?
So many! One story from a biology teacher in New Jersey that warmed my heart is that she uses our biology games as an interactive way to introduce complex biology topics and then uses them again to review before tests.
She told us that her students love the games so much that they ask to play them during their study halls. She said that several students have even played the games years later when they don’t have her for class anymore! 🙂
Ryan and I are homeschool dads and Ryan is big into gameschooling. Genius Games seems very suited to the gameschooler. Any feedback or contacts with that customer base?
Yes, we have a lot of friends and backers in both the homeschooling and gameschooling spheres. Periodic: A Game of The Elements recently made it onto the science favorites list at MyLittlePoppies.com, a homeschooling/gameschooling site, and that’s just one example of many. We are SO grateful for their support, they’ve showed up to do lots of playtesting and have always given us very useful, practical feedback, especially since those folks tend to have so much experience using the games with students of varying ages and ability levels.
(Btw if you need playtesters / reviewers we are open to that.)
We are always looking for more playtesters to play our games in development and give us their honest critiques and feedback! Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know you want to playtest!
Any non-sciencey games in you trying to get out?
Oh yeah, definitely. But I won’t publish them through Genius Games. We try to keep our brand pretty focused.
Lastly, talk a bit about your puzzles, which are really cool.
The puzzles were definitely exploratory – I wasn’t sure what the reception would be like for those, but I am very pleased. I really made them because I wanted to have them – and I had the ability to make it happen! I always thought it would be cool to have a series of puzzles about human anatomy that all connected together, and that’s exactly what these do. In total, there will be seven puzzles, all illustrated by Mesa Schumaker, a certified Medical Illustrator who studied at John’s Hopkins University. When you put them all together they show the insides of a 10 foot tall human.
They aren’t available for mass market purchase yet but they did well on Kickstarter and I’m eager to see what they do out in the wider world! I can imagine them on the walls of Anatomy & Physiology classrooms all around the globe, or on dining room tables during the Holidays…
What’s in the queue?
Oooh, we have a Mendelian Genetics game, called Genotype, in development , where players are manipulating traits of parent plants and betting on the children’s generation, … a few really tight math games that focus on foundational concepts like division, multiplication, fractions and decimals… a heavier physics game called Physics Park where players are mimicking the Newtonian Physics that takes place inside an amusement park … and hopefully a game that will take place inside the human digestive system!
Are you actively seeking submissions?
YES. We are always on the hunt for great themes with great mechanics. If you have an idea for a game that revolves around any STEM topic, send us your pitch! There’s more specific info about what we look for in a game and how to submit your pitch on our website under the Game Submission Process!! process in the website footer.
You can always reach out to us at email@example.com!
Thanks John! It was great talking with you about Genius Games.
You can see all of their games here.
Coming soon – my interview with Genius Games’ Paul Salomon!