Over the past several years, John Coveyou’s Genius Games has pretty much cornered the market on science-based, educational board games. After starting slow, last year’s Cytosis worker placement game, which takes place within a human cell, was kind of like the coming out party for Genius Games, racking up almost $400,000 on Kickstarter.
Now Coveyou is aiming for something bigger and yet smaller, at the same time, with the Kickstarter campaign for Periodic: A Game of the Elements, in which the periodic table is a gameboard you race across to collect elements that form compounds or family groups.
AiPT! spoke to Coveyou about how he finally cracked the long-gestating game, plus an EXCLUSIVE reveal of the last possible stretch goal.
AiPT!: Tell us about how Periodic came about. I feel like you’ve been working on this one for a while.
John Coveyou: I’ve had the idea for a game about the periodic table for probably a couple of years now, but I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to make, and more recently I’ve pulled in a guy name Paul Salomon to help me with co-design. It’s nice to have someone else thinking about the game outside of business hours; he brings a lot of ideas to the table, and I bring a lot of ideas to the table, and he just has an enormous breadth of knowledge about games and game mechanics, and has played tons of games, and is really involved in the community.
I mentioned that I had been trying out a game about the periodic table, but I wasn’t really sure what I wanted it to be. First, Periodic started out actually as a card game, when I was trying to make a card game where you had every element that currently exists on the periodic table as a single card. We tried a number of things, but it was just really difficult to make it work.
Then we started playing around with a few other ideas, like, “Well, why don’t we have the periodic table as the board, and then you’re playing the cards onto the periodic table. That also didn’t work. We struggled for a while with it, and then we realized that it would work really well if you had, essentially, a meeple … and we thought, “What if you’re actually moving a meeple around on the periodic table?” But even then, it didn’t work as well.
So we had a number of playtests that didn’t work, and then we kind of stopped and reset, and said, “Okay, if we’re going to do a game about the periodic table, what is the most important thing for someone to come away with?” And we thought, well, we want them to know there are certain groups on the periodic table, and they’re colored a certain way because they have properties that behave a certain way, and that the periodic table shows you the different properties of elements based upon where it’s located on the periodic table.
And we thought, “Okay, what if you had some system where you played cards that were these periodic trends, and that’s what caused you to move your piece around?” That was working much better; that was the best one we had, and we tried to work some engine-building mechanics in … and then Paul thought of this really elegant and simple energy economy, where you pay energy to claim the trend, but when you pay, you claim as many as you want, or you take all the energy off the trend, and you just activate that trend, and it was just like, all of a sudden, the whole game came together right there.
AiPT!: And it seems like landing on the movement idea really helps you reinforce the science, too, because every time you’re moving, you’re thinking about what happens when you go from place to place on the periodic table.
Coveyou: That’s exactly right. And that’s why the partnership with Paul and I has been great, because I know what the science needs to teach, and what it needs to represent and what it needs to mimic. I’ve taught college chemistry and physics, all the way down to 5th grade. My undergraduate [degree] is in environmental biology and I have a Master’s in chemical engineering, so for me it’s really easy to see, if we’re going to make a game about the periodic table, these are the principles we need to come out of that.
But when I’m that focused on it, it’s hard for me to get my mind off the science and just think about simple mechanics. I feel like I’m an okay designer, but having someone else who’s just thinking about design, and is really focused on it, pulling from a breadth of experience in lots of different games, it’s been an amazing partnership and an amazing efficiency in design, coming from both directions.
AiPT!: The main goal [of Periodic] is to collect elements to complete these goal cards, but there’s another way to earn points, by ending up in certain families. Would you say then there are multiple paths to victory, or as player, do you need to do a little bit of everything?
Coveyou: It’s hard to say. I’ve played the game hundreds of times, and I’ve won it and lost it for the same reasons. One of the stretch goals … is going to be these “end game agendas,” where you’re going to score additional points if you achieve these agendas — certain combinations of things.
I do think that, probably, the leaning is toward being able to optimize each move, make your movements in the most efficient way possible, and properly timing when you pay energy to take actions and when you gain energy to take a single action. I would say the person who does all of those things combined, the most efficiently, is most likely going to be the winner.
AiPT!: You mentioned one of the stretch goals; what kind of other stretch goals are there?
Coveyou: Most of the early stretch goals are all upgraded components. We’ve got ivory core card stock … instead of just the gray core. We have linen finish on the cards. We have thicker punchboard material — we went from 1 mm to 1.5, and up to 2 mm now.
Some of the things we have planned for the future are, we’re going to add a “Science Behind Periodic” booklet, and that is a booklet that is crowdsourced by — the last few have been crowdsourced by about 20 Ph.D.’s and doctors across the globe, and they actually write that entire book for us, and we don’t do any editing of it. We graphically design that booklet and we put it in the game so that if someone actually wants to learn about the science that they’re playing through, they can learn about it through that booklet.
The one that we’re really excited about, that we haven’t really announced yet … so you have these markers that move up the tracks. Right now they’re just little wooden cylinders, but we’re going to have custom wooden microscopes. That one we’re really excited about, but those aren’t cheap, so I think that will be, probably, at the $200,000 range.
The Kickstarter campaign for Periodic: A Game of the Elements ends on Thursday, October 18. A limited Collector’s Edition, featuring metallic paper and 3D embossing, is also available.