GTM #217 - Smirk & Laughter Games
by Curt Covert, Smirk & Laughter

It was 2011, and I was at the GAMA Trade show, showing retailers our new baby, SUTAKKU, when I realized how sharp I had honed our double-edged sword of branding. I had always believed that a brand should clearly define a company, so I carefully molded Smirk & Dagger Games with my love of ‘take that’ backstabbery in mind. On the plus side, we built a very dedicated fan base over the years. Players knew what to expect every time one of our games hit the shelf. If you enjoyed one of them, you very likely would love the rest. Of course, the other side of that coin was equally true. If ‘take that’ games weren’t your thing, we had little to offer you, and admittedly it had a polarizing effect on our line. 

But it was SUTAKKU that made me realize how strong the brand guardrails had become. I had convinced myself that, since you could ‘screw yourself’ in this push-your-luck dice game       , it might be enough to justify it under our ‘screw your neighbor’ banner. Well, nearly every retailer who came to see me at the GAMA show proved me wrong, asking, “where is the Dagger in this Smirk & Dagger game?” After I stopped the press and added a ‘gotcha’ mechanic to the game, I realized just how good a job I had done defining who we were – and the implications it had for our future. 

In 2017, the future arrived, rather unexpectedly, and Smirk & Dagger became my full-time gig. A certain amount of growth became mandatory to be viable and knew I would have to be open to other play styles as we grew. After all, there are only so many great backstabbing games one can realistically develop in a year. Not wishing to dilute Smirk & Dagger, I started developing a sub-brand, one that would give us broader shoulders but still be connected philosophically to the brand we had built. So, I did some soul searching and looked deeper into what I truly enjoyed about our games. And it hit me. My love of backstabbing games really stemmed from the emotional reactions they so reliably create at the table, the highs, the lows, the gnashing of teeth, the laughter! And that created the pathway forward. 

Smirk & Laughter Games is built on a simple premise... that when you engage people on an emotional level, you create a more memorable experience at the table. When a player's emotions are stirred, they become more invested and more deeply immersed in the game’s world. And now, of course, our new brand opens the door to a whole new range of emotions to explore, a new range of play styles and different memorable experiences to share. Some colors of this palette may not feel wholly unexpected, party games that cause outbursts at the table for example, but others will feel utterly alien coming from us, games that evoke feelings of warmth and acceptance, pathos, thrills, tension and more we have yet to consider.

So, what unites these two brands? I’ve begun to characterize them as “games that play from the heart, vs the head” with plenty of strategic decisions to make along the way, but all in keeping with the end goal: creating a real feeling at the table that you’ll want to return to again and again. To that end, we will be launching three titles under Smirk & Laughter this year. 

The first is NUT SO FAST, a boisterous, wildly twitchy game of quick reactions and nutty poses. The components are adorable. Twelve wooden nuts of four types, cashews, walnuts, a pistachio and an almond, wonderfully illustrated by Chris McCoy, that peek right out of the plastic window of the package. This is a laugh-out-loud party game, by Jeff Lai, for 3-6 players, in which everyone waits for their moment to grab the nuts out from under other people’s noses. But ‘Nut So Fast’… when a number card pops up, players have to switch gears and strike the corresponding Nutty Pose for the round instead. It is a game of hilarious mistakes, smashing of knuckles and peals of laughter. It is a game absolutely anyone can learn and start playing in two minutes and when people play it, the raucous laughter always draws a crowd. Look for this title to hit shelves in April at an incredible price point of $19.95. 

In August, Smirk & Laughter will introduce, “Before there were Stars…”, the most approachable and welcoming storytelling game I’ve ever seen, where each player tells the mythic creation story of ‘their people.’ Featuring star-pipped dice that are rolled to form the ‘night sky,’ one scans the stars for constellations, and chooses those showing the same dice faces, as keywords for the story. Inspired by Constellation cards, players craft tales about the creation of the world, the origins of civilization, the rise of their great hero, and an end of days. 

Each of you has your own story, no one alters it or takes it off track. And while there is scoring, it is done in secret, as you pass offering bags. Unlike many similar games, where the ‘funniest’ story gains the most points or the best performer scores highly, in ‘Stars,’ players are scored on a single moment in their story that most impressed the listeners. This levels the playing field for players who are less comfortable with this style game. Anyone can have a creative moment that touches the group. Best of all, the game ends with an Appreciation round, a single bonus point for your favorite moment in the game. People highlight a couple great moments before giving their point to the player who impressed them most. Invariably, everyone at the table ends up being recognized in some way, making this one of the most emotionally fulfilling games we ever played. Design by Alex Cutler, Alex Wilkinson and Matt Fantastic with fantastical art by Lisa Falzon. 

Right on its heels, in September, we’ll launch KOI. This is a game in which players are all Koi fish in a tranquil pond, seeking a delicious meal of dragonflies that flit about on the surface. Players navigate the waters with cards that take them on fish-like, meandering paths, and add to the beauty of the Koi pond with cards that introduce decorative stones, cherry blossoms, lily pads, frogs and the like. But each beautification tends to spell havoc for the opponent fish. At the close of seven days of shifting weather patterns, the game ends with the best fed fish as the winner. 

All of these games are very approachable by both traditional gamers and more casual gaming families that are entering the hobby in greater and greater numbers. It is our hope that these ‘easy to get into’ titles, with game play that engages people on an emotional level, will be a welcoming bridge to help grow the hobby overall. At the very least, Smirk & Laughter Games will broaden our appeal to a wider audience than ever. It is a very exciting time for us. Combined with exciting announcements from Smirk & Dagger, of the long-awaited Tower of Madness and our August release of the Cutthroat Caverns app, and two amazing titles in the wings, 2018 will be the biggest year in the company’s fourteen-year history. 

We know that retailer shelf space is a privilege to be earned, by hard-working titles that turn reliably, and we are more dedicated than ever to proving our game titles worthy of your time and consideration. Here’s to a successful 2018 for all of us! 

Curt Covert is the owner of Smirk & Dagger Games. A fourteen-year veteran in the industry and the inventor of Cutthroat Caverns, Hex Hex, Nevermore and Tower of Madness, just to name a few. In 2018, his new line, Smirk & Laughter, will reach a broader audience than ever with games intended to connect with players on an emotional level.