Sunday, July 14, 2024

“Its Been Pretty Crazy”: Isaac Childres On Gloomhaven And The Challenges Of Tabletop Success

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Gloomhaven is a game that’s been on everyone’s tongue for the past couple years. It’s been showered in awards and high ratings, sold exceedingly well, and put its developer Cephalofair Games on the map. In just two short years, it’s already developed a thriving player community and been adapted to digital space alongside industry giants. But behind any game there are people who design, produce, and sell these products to players around the world. Well, for most companies there are people doing this. For Cephalofair, there is just one: Isaac Childres. I caught up with the man behind one of the hottest properties in gaming at PopCon,  where he was a special guest for the weekend, and we discussed the secret origins of Cephalofair Games and what the future might hold for one of gaming’s rising stars.

The company name derives from Isaac’s mishearing of the word “cephalophore,” a headless ghost or saint from European folklore

Dan Arndt: You have a Physics PhD from Purdue University, right?

Isaac Childres: Yeah, I graduated about four years ago.

DA: So did you start working on games, get ideas for games, while you were still in school?

Isaac: I published a game before Gloomhaven called Forge War, which came out in 2015, right around the time I was graduating. So I was working on that and ran a Kickstarter for that in 2014 while I was still working on my PhD. I was just kind of burnt out on doing physics work. I could see that I was about to graduate and didn’t…really feel like doing it anymore *laughs*

So I started focusing more and more on other stuff, and board games were really interesting to me. Around that same time, I started going to more and more board game meetups and just playing a lot more games. So I decided to design my own games because it was interesting. Then I designed Forge War and ran a Kickstarter for it and it ended up being a lot more successful than I expected it to be. So when I graduated, I was thinking for about a year I’ll give it a shot. I’ll publish games full time, see what happens. My wife was working full time, we didn’t have kids; so I figured it would be a good time. And after a year, if it didn’t work out I could just go and get a “real” job.

Forge War was Childres’s first game, and it reflects his love for Euro-style resource management games

Right after I graduated, I started working on Gloomhaven. There was another game I was working on between the two, but I decided to drop it because Gloomhaven was a more interesting idea to me. I spent the next two years making it and getting it published. It came out in 2017 and the rest is history.

DA: Where did you find your inspiration for both Forge Wars and Gloomhaven, where did you draw your influences from?

IC: Different places. Forge War is a euro economics game, where you’re collecting resources and combining resources to make weapons that you then give to adventurers. It’s pretty scaled out with adventurers and quests having different values to plan around. It was inspired by a lot of similar Euro games I was playing at the time. I really liked Trajanthe Stefan Feld game, where you have an economic game with this mancala aspect that uses spatial reasoning to get beads in the right places. I really liked that spatial reasoning aspect and wanted to work with it more in Forge War. 

Gloomhaven is, of course, a very different game. I’ve played D&D since high school, for something like 20 years or so, and I was also playing a lot of dungeon crawler board games like Mice and Mystics and DescentI really like that style of game, it’s very visceral and thematic. You’re a character and you’re running around, chopping things in half, throwing fireballs around. It’s very engaging. I always had issue with the mechanics of the game. You just run up to a monster and roll the dice to see how well you did. I really wanted to make a game that took the visceral thematic elements of the dungeon crawl but gave you more choices to make, to make it more about your ability to plan and make decisions, rather than your ability to just roll dice.

DA: Did you anticipate the scope of Gloomhaven while designing it?

IC: It started out as a small game with one scenario, four characters; I just wanted to get that down. I also had issues with the campaign aspects of previous games that are very linear and short: you play it 10 times and you’re done. I really wanted to make an epic experience that made you feel like you were exploring this world, almost like a video game RPG rather than a board game you’d play a few times and put away. So as time went on I kept having ideas and adding more and more to it to make this big experience. And I don’t want players to get bored so I added new characters as well as the retirement system so you’re sort of forced to try new characters.  When I started, I didn’t have it in mind but it just became this big thing.

This is just the components that can squeeze onto a booth table

DA: What about the impact the game has had, both in sales and in its overwhelmingly positive reception by the community?

IC: From the beginning and with my knowledge of the core gameplay, I had some sense that there’d be some success (not as much as we got like being the number one game on Board Game Geek). I really liked the game just playing the one scenario, and I knew that it would resonate with people.

DA: Games like Gloomhaven or Folklore: The Affliction seem to be becoming popular as people get into tabletop gaming and run into the problem we all run into: finding time to play.

IC: Yeah, and at the same time, when comparing it to Dungeons & Dragons there’s another thing I wanted to do with Gloomhaven. In the game, I’m your DM. So you don’t have somebody spending eight or ten hours a week creating scenarios so once a week you can meet and play through them. At least that part of it is taken care of and hopefully saves some time.

DA: And if someone still wants to do storytelling they can.

IC: It’s something that I keep running into when I see D&D groups split up is the DM getting burnt out. It’s like a part-time job that you’re not even getting paid for! You’re doing all this work for like…four people to experience once!

DA: You’ve released another game since, Founders of Gloomhaven, that sort of goes back to the Euro-style.

IC: I mostly play Euro games, that’s what I’m a big fan of and it’s what I have the most ideas for bouncing around in my head. I do want to take breaks and design those games and not focus on Gloomhaven all the time. I wanted to bounce back and forth designing Gloomhaven content as well as other games for my own enjoyment.

DA: Did you start out intending for it to be set in the Gloomhaven world?

IC: When I started out, I had this idea of what I wanted it to be in the sense of a spatial puzzle where you’re all building on the same map as well as a city-building thing that I thought was really cool. So I wanted to make a game with those mechanics and I figured, this could easily be themed around Gloomhaven. If you’re building a city, why not build the city of Gloomhaven rather than the city of Paris or London.

In its initial Kickstarter, Founders of Gloomhaven made 10x its initial funding goal

DA: So you’re treating it as a sort of setting that you can build into.

IC: Yeah, it gave me the opportunity to delve into the lore a little bit more and expand the universe in some small way. That’s what I’d love to do in the future as I plan to release other games in the future as well, Euro-style games, that will expand the universe more and more.

DA: Do the games connect at all?

IC: I tried to tie the games together, where after you’ve played Founders a few times you can play the game “for real.” Whichever race wins you can then add event cards to Gloomhaven that affect the game. But I didn’t really want the games to be required because some people just like Euro games and some people just like dungeon crawlers. The two games are very different and you very easily could like one and not like the other.

DA: Last year at GenCon, Asmodee announced that they were developing a video game version of Gloomhaven. How involved were you in that process?

IC: Early on, we had meetings about every week to two weeks, but once they got into the groove I was a lot more hands-off. I was involved in some of the planning and lore, how to implement everything and what I wanted to see and what would make a good video game experience. But once they started production with coding and everything I took a step back. I do have access to their latest builds, so I’ll play it occasionally and give them feedback. I’m not too heavily involved but if I wanted something to happen they’d probably be able to make it happen.

DA: Cephalofair is basically just all you, correct? How has it been working as an independent publisher and handling this phenomenon of a game that’s being ranked and discussed alongside games by companies ten times your size? 

IC: It’s been pretty crazy. For a long time, we just couldn’t keep up with demand. We had the Kickstarter, which was basically “hey get on this so I know how many games I need to make,” but even with that we still ran out. For the past two years it’s just been keeping up with demand and I think things have finally slowed down and we’ve got enough print copies to meet demand. 200,000 print copies are finally enough. Crazy number, right?

DA: Insane

IC: I have a lot of help. On the distribution side, I work with Impressions, who  I send the games to after I manufacture them and he does all the soliciting and retail, which is pretty helpful because I don’t really think I could to that on top of everything else.

DA: Looking forward, you’ve just released a new expansion to Gloomhaven called Forgotten Circles. What else is in the future for you?

IC: Yeah it just released at the end of last month and our first convention we’re selling it at is Origins. Reception has been pretty great so far but that was designed by an outside designer who helped me design scenarios for the base game. I ran into him at Essen and I asked if he’d be interested in working on an expansion, as he’d already told me about a custom campaign he was working on set after Gloomhaven. We worked together on it and it’s what we’ve been doing for the past three and a half months. It’s twenty scenarios and a new character class, and I’m pretty excited to have that out.

I’ve also been working on another expansion that’s like a whole new campaign that’s gonna have around the same amount of content as the base Gloomhaven game, about 100 scenarios and fifteen or so classes. A whole new big thing. That’s taken more time, and I’ve been working on it for the past two years, basically since the first Gloomhaven came out. And the past two years have been so crazy it’s been very on and off.

When I was designing the first Gloomhaven, it was just me working in my office. Nobody was emailing me, asking where the copies of Gloomhaven are and why they can’t get any.  Once I released the game, it became much harder to focus as I became [the] designer and PR guy. But now I’ve hired someone who’s going to help out with some of that, so I’ve been really able to focus on the expansion going forward.

DA: What cons will you be at this year?

IC: I’ll be at Origins and then GenCon, and then to finish out the year I’ll also be PAX Unplugged as well as Essen Spiele in Germany. So if anyone is going to be at those, please stop by and check out the games and say hey.

You can purchase all Cephalofair products at your friendly local game store as well as Amazon. All three games are also available on Tabletop Simulator. You can follow Isaac in his travels as well as get updates on the latest news and games on the Cephalofair website. Stay tuned to the Fandomentals for all the latest from Cephalofair, tabletop gaming, and more!

All images via Cephalofair Games

*Portions of this interview have been edited for clarity

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