Apples To Apples, ROFL!, and texting while gaming: A conversation with Wisconsin-based game designer John Kovalic
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John Kovalic is a name few people know, though many are familiar with his work. Kovalic is based out of central Wisconsin, having gotten his start as a political cartoonist in Madison. He’s the creator of the geek-themed Dork Tower web comic, which was recently picked up by Mashable. He’s the main illustrator for Steve Jackson Games’ Munchkin, a million-unit selling game that features dozens of expansions, accessories, and ways to screw over good friends for a laugh. Kovalic also did design and art for Apples To Apples, a game that lives fondly in the hearts, minds, and closets of a generation. His newest game, ROFL!, makes a game out of the everyday struggle of easy text messaging versus pesky character limits.
The A.V. Club: How did you go from one dream job, political cartoonist, to another, game designer?
John Kovalic: It was actually a direct link between the two. Back in the early-to-mid ’90s, I did an editorial cartoon about the O.J. Simpson trial. Something to do with the conspiracies the defense was claiming were out there. So, as a gamer, I added the Bavarian Illuminati into the cartoon, represented by a dancing pyramid. Someone mailed or faxed the cartoon to Steve Jackson, of Steve Jackson Games and Illuminati fame. I got a call from the company, asking if I wanted to take over the “Murphy’s Rules” cartoon feature that was running in Pyramid magazine, their house publication.
Magic: The Gathering was still pretty new then, and I’d caught wind that Steve Jackson Games was planning its own collectible card game, Illuminati: New World Order. I asked outright if they needed help with that, and, being behind schedule on it, they did. Because of INWO, some folks in Madison who were founding a game company knew my stuff, and asked me if I wanted to join. This became Out Of The Box Games, and the next thing I knew, I was the art director for a gaming company that would become kind of a big deal. But the company was always small, personnel-wise. Everyone had to do little bit of everything. I helped develop, fix, and tweak rules for games like Apples To Apples, Blink, and Snorta, and that’s sort of when I started developing as a rules writer. The amount of sheer luck and happenstance that guided my career path and brought me to this point is ridiculous to the point of absurdity.
AVC: How did you have time to develop Dork Tower during all this?
JK: Dork Tower began before Apples To Apples and Munchkin. The comic is 15 years old now, and was pretty well established by the time both games hit it big. But it suffered a little bit when [Apples To Apples and Munchkin] took off. I stopped publishing the comic books in 2007, after we found out that my wife Judith was pregnant. It was a high-risk pregnancy, and I wanted to make sure I had enough time for family things. I’m on the cusp of putting out another Dork Tower trade paperback, and I’ll be honest, I’ll probably use Kickstarter, simply because the entire publishing landscape has changed so drastically.
AVC: When did you realize Apples To Apples and Munchkin had become huge successes?
JK: We all knew Apples To Apples was going to be something really special from the start. We’d never seen anything like it. Sales were literally doubling every year for the first few years, and then just took off. I guess when we broke the million-game barrier was probably the point where I just went “Wow.”
Munchkin was a very different growth curve, but I’m much more in touch with the fan reaction there. It’s always been a hugely popular game worldwide. I was at the Essen Spiel show six or seven years ago, I think. Every day I was there, I was doing six- and seven-hour signing sessions. It was insane.
AVC: How did you get hooked into tabletop gaming?
JK: I was born in England, and went to school in Somerset county. Some friends were into WWII miniature wargaming—Airfix 1/72nd scale tanks and soldiers—and it fascinated me. I loved building models, I loved history, and obviously, Panther, Tiger, and Sherman tanks are like crack to a 15-year-old boy. Combining all these in one hobby? The rules were pretty rudimentary back then, but it was brilliant.
A model store in Bristol stocked some old SPI boardgames. The first one I picked up was called Panzer ’44. It wasn’t a great game, but it was paradigm changing for me. Soon after that, I discovered these things called “games stores” existed, and every now and then, when my family drove up to London, they’d stop in Hammersmith for me, so I could visit this new place called Games Workshop. That’s where I discovered Dungeons & Dragons. The folks at the store had photocopied handouts that explained what this “roleplaying” thing was, along with a small dungeon map and samples of play. I’d never seen anything like it. My world changed, at that moment.
AVC: Is there a strong nerd community in Wisconsin?
JK: Absolutely, particularly in the gaming community. Folks here know this is where Dungeons & Dragons was born. Even before I moved here for college, I got my parents to drive through Lake Geneva on a cross-country trip, just because that's where it all started.
AVC: What was the inspiration for ROFL!?
JK: The idea for ROFL! actually came about very quickly. I’d been playing a game that was ostensibly about texting, but really had nothing to do with texting at all. The designer had just tacked a theme onto a random game. That made me angry, for some reason, and I remember thinking “That’s not how you make a game about texting. This is what it should be!” I scribbled the rules down quickly, and it worked. In fact, I’d say the rules are 90-percent intact in the version now, even after hundreds of hours of playtesting. We don’t call it a texting game anymore, because that turned off about 25 percent of playtesters who claimed they were terrible at texting, though most ended up loving its gameplay anyway.
AVC: Would you like a mobile version of ROFL! for that meta “texting while playing a game about texting” feel?
JK: Here’s an answer you probably weren’t expecting: In all honesty, I think ROFL! would make a terrific smartphone app, or Facebook game, or Xbox Live game. In fact, I think it might even do better as an electronic game than a board game. The basic mechanics should be easy enough to write as an app, and the gameplay might even be more elegant on a handheld device. I’ve actually been thinking about this for a while. The question would be finding the right partner.