John Coveyou had always been fascinated by hobby board games. Growing up, he spent much of his free time playing Dungeons & Dragons, Monopoly, Sorry!, The Game of Life and the like – anything that he could get his hands on. What started as an early enthusiasm morphed into a real passion. As he got older, he grew into games like The Settlers of Catan, Stone Age and Citadels.
His teen years, though, were a bit tumultuous. At 16, Coveyou moved out of his parents’ house and lived out of his car while he “hopscotched from home to home.”
“I knew I needed to add discipline to my life, so I joined the Army and became a military police officer,” he says.
During his deployment in Iraq, Coveyou and his friends would play poker and Risk in their free time. He would also immerse himself in lectures from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on physics and biology, leading to his being nicknamed “Professor Coveyou” by fellow soldiers.
When he returned from Iraq, Coveyou wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. He earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering from Washington University in St. Louis and began working at an engineering consulting company before realizing the corporate environment didn’t quite suit him.
“I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, but I was teaching a basic chemistry course at St. Louis Community College,” he says. “Students would come in and were already so intimidated by the concepts and vocabulary.”
Coveyou recalled that oftentimes memorizing a large set of information related to gameplay came easily, and he wondered if this could help his students retain basic science-related concepts.
“I thought, ‘Why don’t I make some games about these science concepts to see if they can pick up the information they’re so intimidated by,’” he says. “That’s really how [Genius Games] came about.”
Coveyou began making games for his students in 2011 and started to read more information on design blogs about what makes a great game. To actually publish his first game in early 2014, a DNA card game called Linkage, he turned to crowdfunding website Kickstarter.
“We needed $3,800,” he says. “When we raised $12,055 for that first game, I realized this might be viable.”
Linkage’s follow-up game, a protein-building game called Peptide, did even better than the first game on Kickstarter. At the time, Coveyou, his wife and their 2-month-old daughter were living in St. Charles. After some deliberation, they decided to take a risk and sell their house and cars to move into a two-bedroom apartment in St. Louis. Taking the plunge turned out to be worth it, though, since each new game has garnered more attention and enthusiasm from the gaming and science community.
“To date, we’ve published six games, five of which are still in print,” he says.
Genius Games has also published six science-based children’s books, including a set about women in science and other books on various chemistry-related topics like electrons and atoms.
Coveyou gets ideas for games from science concepts he thinks could be mass-marketed. Genius Games are favorites of both educators and families, and the content matches up with what students in a ninth-grade classroom are learning. Once Coveyou has a topic, he’ll research the subject matter and figure out its core ideas that people need to take away. Then, he’ll figure out how to take the concept’s key components and turn them into aspects of a game. In his Cytosis cell biology board game, the game takes place inside a human cell, where resources are cell macro-molecules like proteins, fats, RNA and carbohydrates. Players need to collect resources that organelles produce in a real cell and trade RNA for proteins, and the game moves along just like the functioning of a real cell.
“Once you have the original design, that’s only about 5 or 10 percent of the work,” Coveyou says. “The rest is feedback, changes and playtest [the process of testing a game for flaws before marketing it].”
Genius Games’ latest production, Subatomic: An Atom Building Game, launched on Kickstarter on Feb. 6, meeting its goal within hours; however, funding will remain open for 30 days. Coveyou says it’s a deck-building game that’s themed around the intersection of particle-building and chemistry. Additionally in 2018, he hopes to put out a game on plant biology, where players will go through the process of photosynthesis.
These games are important to kids’ learning because of the pressure society has put on science, technology, engineering and math, today’s ubiquitous “STEM.”
“We’ve been using the same methods to teach classes for decades,” Coveyou says. “We’re failing to really allow children to see the big picture of why studying a cell matters. In these games, we’re allowing both kids and adults to learn through interacting with each other and the motivation of competition. It removes a lot of that intimidation that’s there.”
Genius Games’ games and books can be purchased on the Genius Games website and Amazon, and are available in select area game shops like Fantasy Shop, Apotheosis Comics and NewCastle Comics & Games. They range in price from $19.99 to $49.99.
Genius Games, LLC, 2079 Congressional Drive, St. Louis, geniusgames.org