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Interviews by an Optimist # 89 - John Kovalic
John Kovalic's creations include the hit comic book DORK TOWER, as well as DR. BLINK: SUPERHERO SHRINK, SNAPDRAGONS, and many other features. His work has appeared everywhere from THE NEW YORK TIMES, THE WASHINGTON POST and ROLLING STONE to DRAGON MAGAZINE and SCRYE.
DORK TOWER is a multi-Origins Award winner, while John's work on games like MUNCHKIN and CHEZ GEEK has also garnered multiple awards. In July 2003, John was inducted into the Academy of Adventure Gaming Arts and Design Hall of Fame, the first cartoonist to receive such an honor.
John is co-founder, co-owner and Art Director of OUT OF THE BOX GAMES (producers of the million-plus selling, multi-award-winning APPLES TO APPLES among many other critically acclaimed games). He also created the Games-100 award winning WHAD'YA KNOW party game in 2003.
In his spare time, John searches for spare time.
Tom: John, how did you get started in gaming?
John: I started gaming through some friends, in school (in Glastonbury, England in the mid-70's) who were into historical wargaming. 1/72 scale World War II tanks infantry, mostly from model kits and Airfix figures and the like. They had me at "tanks." I was hooked from the start, and soon had my own Panzer IVs and Shermans...I even tried converting some of the models. The rules were very rudimentary, but that was fine for a group of 15-year-olds.
From there, I discovered an SPI game called "Panzer 44" in a Beattie's model shop in Bristol. And that was all they wrote. The game wasn't great -- it was no PanzerBlitz -- but it was just what I needed. It got me going to this specialist gaming shop in London I'd read about, called Games Workshop. That's where I picked up a little white box with three tiny books in it, called "Dungeons and Dragons."
At that point, I was hooked.
Tom: So, roleplaying games got you hooked. Did they detract from your wargaming playing?
John: Not at first, but yes, eventually it became the main focus of my gaming.
These days it still is: my time's very limited. I have difficulty even making it to my regular weekly roleplaying group. Pretty much the only painting I can get done these days is for skirmish games, and painting is one of the aspects of miniature wargaming that I really loved. I tried sending some stuff out to be painted by a professional service, and the price was great and the results very nice...but playing with bits of lead other people have painted just isn't quite the same.
With all the game publishing and game cartooning, my actual gaming time is surprisingly limited. This is a situation I'd like to change a bit in the coming year: gaming in all its forms is quite relaxing for me. I need to make sure it gets the time it deserves in my
Tom: Your tagline states that you're art director for OOTB games, but I've also noticed that pretty much everything Steve Jackson games puts out you've illustrated, also. Exactly how are you affiliated with the different gaming companies?
John: I'm a co-founder and co-owner of Out of the Box games. At OtB, everybody does a little bit of everything, so I've designed ("Whad'Ya Know?") and helped design or tweak some of the games. But mostly, I do the graphics and illustrations of almost everything that comes out there.
Some of the games are very much in the cartoony style most people associate me with: "Cloud 9" and "Gold Digger", for example. Others, like "Tut" or especially the "10 Days In..." series, are harder to tell that it's my work. Which I like.
With Steve Jackson Games, I illustrate most of the "Munchkin" and "Chez..." game releases. They started out and have kept a Dork Tower style, and indeed feature the Dork Tower characters. I try to do as many of those games as I can, since I feel particularly close to them, and they have a nice synergy with the Dork Tower comic book.
But on occasion, my schedule gets too crowded, and the brilliant Greg Hyland steps in ("Munchkin Fu").
I do a little work for other companies, but Out of the Box is really my main gig, as far as gaming goes.
The two games I'm extremely fortunate to have been a part of, for different reasons, were "Apples to Apples" (Out of the Box), and "Munchkin." Both took off in very different ways that I couldn't have dreamed of.
Tom: What attracted you to OOTB in the first place?
John: The fact that they wanted me. Grin.
The game "Bosworth" - which Out of the Box was formed to produce - is a great one. Mark Osterhaus asked me if I wanted to illustrate it, and then if I wanted to be part of the company he was forming. Pretty much everyone involved with it was passionate about gaming, or about art, and that really appealed to me.
While "Bosworth" has sold well enough, nobody could predict that our next game, "Apples to Apples," would prove to be a monster hit. So being a co-founder and co-owner of Out of the Box has definitely proven to be an opportunity of a lifetime.
Tom: What games have you had a hand in designing?
John: I was the primary designer on Whad'Ya Know, coming up with the main mechanics and doing the chief development on that (the game is quite different from the Radio Show, but was designed to try and capture the *feel* of the radio show). But nearly everyone at Out of the Box is always working on tightening the rules on various games. For example, I brought in the timer element on Wallamoppi, turning it from a stacking game to a speed stacking game. Some games, there'll be less input, others more. After a while it's hard to point to any single game and say, "I did this, this and this." Out of the Box is very much a "team effort" kind of company, which is one of the reasons I think we've been so successful.
Tom: I'm sure you're biased here, but how important is artwork to a game?
John: It's important, obviously, but it has to take second place to the game itself. A beautiful bad game is still a bad game, while an ugly great game is always fun to play. Each game has vastly different needs, and one of the first things you have to do is identify what kind of feel or atmosphere you're looking for in a game. "10 Days in Africa" will look completely different from something like "Cloud 9," in terms of everything from the logo design to the look of the cards.
I'm best known for the "Dork Tower" style of art on Munchkin, and I get asked to do a lot of humorous fantasy games, but the things that really interest me are games where I can try something totally different. I was very happy with how Tutenkhamun came out, for example. I think there, we used graphics to make it even better than the original, by making the treasures easier to group, and identify during game play.
Tom: You obviously focus quite a bit on gaming in your comic strip. Do you try to push forth your views on gaming through the strip, or is it simply humor? Is it difficult to mix the two?
John: I'm not sure I have any "Views" (with a capital "V") on gaming, per se. It's all very gut instinct. I play almost anything out there, from historical minis through boardgames through roleplaying through collectible card games and constructible strategy gaming. So I don't really advocate one form over the other. It's all one hobby, to me, even if others don't see it that way.
On occasion, I'll skewer gamers who take themselves too seriously, but most of that is pretty much self-deprecating humor, and comes to me on those occasions when I take myself too seriously. The series I'm doing on local gaming stores to me just seems a matter of common sense: if you have a good local store, support it, or you'll feel
sorry when it's gone...
Tom: Recently, you mentioned in your blog how you were playing "Eurogames" more, such as Ticket to Ride. What are your thoughts on these games as compared to much of what you can buy in America (i.e. more thematic games)?
John: To me, "Eurogames" describes a style of game, and not just a game that comes from, say, a German company. I'm really happy that games like Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne and Settlers of Cataan seem to be making some headway in the US, though.
I've had a few non-gaming friends fall in love with Settlers on their own. To me, it shows that if a game's good, people are going to want to play it. I saw all three of those games at Toys 'R' Us recently, and while I'm a huge supporter of local gaming stores, having some of these games enter the US mass market would seem to be a good thing for the hobby as a whole, if other manufacturers, distributors and retailers can find ways to take advantage of this.
Say someone buys Ticket to Ride at Toys 'R' Us. They may also pick up Carcasonne and Settlers. Then what? They're not going to want to settle for the latest "Survivor" game, or whatever lame trivia game is being pushed this season. There won't be many assistants at the mega-retailers pushing them towards more great games, because most of the people at Mall-Mart won't have any clue what Robo Rally or Cosmic Encounter play like. Manufacturers, distributors and local retailers have got to figure out how to get these customers into the games stores, where they'll find everything from Lunch Money to Formula De to Tsuro.
Tom: When it comes to games, what other artists do you enjoy?
John: When I first started playing games, I was a huge fan of Redmond Simonsen's graphics on all those classic SPI games. They were really quite brilliant, and I think a lot of people overlook him as an artist. I was in school, at the time, and thought to myself how cool it must be to do graphics for games as a living. I'd have loved to have met him (he died recently). His sense of design was awesome, and very influential on the hobby.
Phil Foglio's work was hugely important to me, and continues to do so to this day. I actually have the original art from the first "What's New?" with Phil and Dixie hanging above my computer as I type this.
I had the great fortune to be on a panel with Larry Elmore last year. It ended up with the rest of the panelists just shutting up and listening to Larry's wonderful stories. It was a great experience.
There are a lot of great artists and graphic designers in the field anymore, which is a real joy.
Tom: What would be your advice to an aspiring artist?
John: The best advice is something Charles Schulz gave me: work as hard as you can, and always be yourself.
On top of that, I might add: marry someone with health insurance, and learn to love Ramen noodles.
Tom: What about advice to an aspiring game designer?
John: For anyone sending designs to Out of the Box, I'd just say "try something new." We tend to see a lot of submissions based on other games already out there. The ones that tend to wow us are fresh games that bring something new to their designs: these are a joy to come across.
I've been very lucky to work with some great game designers, and to know some others as friends. It's really given me a profound appreciation of the art, craft and skill or great game design, and to really look at the good game designers with an awful lot of respect.
I'll still look at a game like "Ticket to Ride" and wonder how someone can create something like that, that works so smoothly and so well.
Tom: What games have you seen over the last couple years, that you thought were extremely fresh and original?
John: The last game that hit me as being utterly brilliant was "Ticket to Ride," though right now, I'm really enjoying WizKids' "Tsuro," which may be the most fun abstract strategy game I've ever played.
We're working on a couple of games at Out Of the Box that I can't wait to get my own copies of - again, one of the benefits of being in a game company. "Abridged," by Maureen Heiron, is quite fantastic and totally addictive, while "Pepper" is a fun, fast card game designed by Matt Mariani. What I really can't wait to get ahold of is "Cineplexity," the best movie game I've ever played. Which may strike some as not saying much, but this is a brilliantly addictive party game.
When playing, I tend to lose most of the games I've illustrated or worked on. I've never won a game of "Munchkin," ever, for example. Part of this is because folks think that simply because I drew the pictures on the cards, I have some insight into how the game is
played. So I get ganged up on. This is part of the reason I enjoy playing other people's games more than my own.
Tom: What are your favorite games, from all genres?
John: Roleplaying: Call of Cthulhu. A very elegant game that I always love to run. With a special nod toward the old Traveller game, which was the first RPG I got heavily into. I still have fond memories of wasting many a college day on hyperspace jumps, and I'll never sell my Traveller collection. I'm liking Serenity, as it's got a neat Traveller feel. Mutants and Masterminds has also been a blast.
Miniatures: Armati for Ancients, Battlelust for medieval skirmish. GASLIGHT for mad Victorian science fiction. Fields of Honor for 19th century. Man O War for fantasy naval. I've never settled on a WWII system, but Arc of Fire looks grand for 25 mm skirmish. I've got a ton of US army, Wermacht and British home Guard painted up, for some
Operation Sealion games I'm looking forward to. And Flames of War for 15 mm larger-scale battles. Heroscape is a great beer and pretzels game when you just want something quick and dirty. Plus Dungeons and Dragons miniatures and Heroclix.
Board Games: Formula De, Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne, Settlers, plus Who Killed Dr. Lucky and Unexploded Cow, of course.
Card Games: The Great Dalmuti, Apples to Apples, Cineplexity, Texas Hold'Em, Bridge. There are a lot of games by Amigo that really intrigue me.
I'm sure I've missed some, but that should give you some idea of the kinds of things I'm into.
Tom: John, thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to answer these questions! Do you have any final thoughts for our readers?
John: You know the old saying, "If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it"? Well, don't. I mean, seriously. I've had four major projects come up in a two-week period now. Once OTB gets everything ready for the New York Toy Show, things will be a bit more calm. But just a bit.
I'm taking the year off of conventions, to spend some time with family and get some gaming in, which I'm looking forward to, enormously. I feel tremendously lucky to have so much work on my plate. But right now, a weekend at the cabin with my wife seems too wonderful for words.
Oh, yeah. And be kind to me if you ever see me across the table from you at a game of Munchkin...
Edited by Tom and Laura Vasel
February 7, 2006
"Real men play board games"