Here I am, at GenCon 2021, theoretically the return to normality. True, everyone is masked and the attendance is nearly half of previous years. But this is the return to normality. And in the spirit, I have finagled a lunch with superstar designer Isaac Childres, founder of Cephalofair, creator of Gloomhaven, and the soon to be released Frosthaven. I am not sure he quite knew what I was up to when he agreed to this.
IC: But you were recording while they walked?
DTD: I know, I know, I took them by surprise. It was some…
IC: Oh, they didn’t think it was starting.
Isaac and I are walking to lunch. His pick – Chipotle. He knows where it is and I do not. And of course, I am recording while we walk. I guess I should have warned Isaac first.
DTD: Yeah, it was starting, and they didn’t know it was starting. So that’s cool. Thanks so much for doing lunch with me.
IC: Yeah, no problem.
DTD: You really took me by surprise. I thought you’d be, you know, super busy. But I guess this is the good day.
IC: Yeah, and it’s also just like, a laid back GenCon. I don’t know.
Like I said, GenCon 2021 was easy like Sunday morning. Less people, less crowds. Felt like a training convention.
DTD: It does feel kind of emptier. I was watching what was supposed to be the mad crush coming in the door.
IC: Yeah, and it was just kind of like a leisurely trickle.
Traditionally, people crowd around the entrance door to the exhibition hall before it opens. Then when the time arrives, the gates are flung wide and a mad rush of people flows through, desperate to buy, buy, buy. Inside the hall, setting up booths, exhibitors usually wait to see the rush.
DTD: It was. It was a mad trickle. So you guys having a good show?
IC: Yeah, it’s been great so far. We got a lot of activity at the booth. You know because we’ve got like the whole Frosthaven display up.
DTD: Oh yeah, Price [Johnson] was showing me the white box and oh, it’s gorgeous.
There’s a few things to clarify here:
1) Frosthaven is the sequel to the incredibly popular Gloomhaven
2) Frosthaven is not out yet, but is coming soon
3) Frosthaven was the largest board game Kickstarter ever, earning $12,969,608 from 83,193 backers
4) A white box is the final physical prototype game sent by the manufacturer. Last check to make sure all is great.
5) Price Johnson is VP of Marketing & Operations for Cephalofair, and one heck of a nice guy
IC: Yeah, everyone wants to see Frosthaven, and see what progress has been made.
DTD: I think I’ve heard of it. That’s uh… Who designed that one? It’s some Kickstarter or something?
IC: [laughs] Yeah, made a little bit of money.
DTD: That’s really awesome.
IC: Yeah, that was a wild time.
DTD: Oh, unbelievably. I remember running into Price at GAMA while it was going on. And he was losing his mind a little bit.
IC: Oh, yeah. I forgot he went to GAMA during the Kickstarter.
The Frosthaven Kickstarter was being finalized, and only had days left before going live, when I was lucky enough to be at GAMA expo in March 2019. GAMA is a trade convention for the board game industry, and is a hotbed for showing off new games. Then the dark times started.
DTD: It was really weird, because that GAMA was kind of the first indication that things were serious.
The dark times…
IC: Yeah, like last thing before, yeah.
DTD: And this is… Well, theoretically this was going to be the indication that things were getting better. But I’m nervous.
IC: Yeah. I’m feeling pretty good so far about the show. Just in terms of… I don’t know, my main goal right now, is just not get sick.
DTD: Oh absolutely.
IC: So, I’m feeling like pretty good about that. You know, everyone’s masked. Like they’re taking that seriously, so that’s good.
DTD: They were doing really good in the exhibit hall. I wasn’t seeing anybody not doing it. There was a couple noses peeking out.
IC: Yeah [laughs]
DTD: But for the crush of humanity we’ve got, I think everybody is doing really well.
DTD: Do you know where the Chipotle is?
IC: Yeah, it’s like down that street [pointing].
DTD: Oh, cool. I don’t, I don’t really know off the top of my head.
IC: Or it might be a block over.
DTD: Are you OK if I do chicken?
I know this sounds like an odd question, however Isaac is vegan.
IC: Oh yeah, OK. I don’t try and control other people’s business.
DTD: It’s not even that, but I’ve got a couple friends who are, have been vegan for long enough… Even my cousins have been vegan long enough that they just get a little nauseated.
IC: Oh, OK. It’s all good.
DTD: I am, I am easy. I eat anything. And usually enjoy it. It’s why I do the thing I do. Are you doing Essen this year?
Essen Spiel in Germany, held at the end of summer, is the largest gaming convention of the year. Cancelled in 2019 and 2020, Essen was held in October 2021.
IC: No. International travel is a little… I don’t know, I feel like when we… Not necessarily when Essen wanted us to commit… Because you can always go to Essen. They’ll always accept the money, and they always have space. But while we were planning, you know, at the point where we were like, “Well, we do we want to do Essen or not?” It was kind of unclear whether international travel was even possible.
IC: Because for a long time Europe was just blocking people from the US coming in.
DTD: And it sounds like they’re doing it even more now. It sounds like the restrictions are getting tighter. I was going to do Essen; booked a room and everything.
IC: Oh, really?
DTD: Just a couple weeks ago, decided not to.
It was a very difficult decision, but although I was sceduled to attend Essen ’21, for safety concerns I decided not to go.
IC: Yeah, it wasn’t worth it.
DTD: I was supposed to… Yeah, I was supposed to work a booth. I don’t know, there’s so many people in Europe that I’ve become friendly with over the pandemic, that I’d love to visit with, and see them face to face.
DTD: But I agree, international is just one step too much for me.
IC: Well yeah, it’s kind of weird… Yeah, just like, how many friends you’ve made online in the past two years?
DTD: Oh yeah, it’s crazy.
The silver lining of this pandemic is that I have accumulated many wonderful digital pen pals. I’m looking at you, Carsten, Ode, and Julian.
IC: It’s like, I know all these people, and then you think about it – Like, I’ve never actually seen any of these people at conventions.
DTD: [laughs] I’ve had some of that here. Who was it? It was the Orange Nebula people, I was friendly with online, and I’ve never laid eyes on them. And someone else… I’ve been having a really good time so far with GenCon.
IC: But also just, I don’t know all the new… I guess some people don’t like the term “content creators”, but all the new content creators that have appeared in the last two years.
DTD: Oh, we’re terrible. We’re, you know, we’re human scum.
I suspect it’s true. I can only speak to my own lowly character.
IC: No, no, it’s great.
DTD: It’s true there’s so many.
IC: I’m just saying, like, so many more people have been, gotten invested into the hobby, and created all these cool videos and stuff.
IC: And then you think about it, and you’re like, “Oh yeah, the last time there was a convention, they weren’t even on the radar.” Because they had… Like the pandemic is what caused them to start making videos and everything.
DTD: Yeah, it’s still such a new, growing hobby. And that’s… I always found that really interesting, that you’ve got a relatively complicated set of games, and you’re still bringing in the new gamers really well. More than almost anyone else.
IC: Yeah, it’s kind of weird, like when you think about Gloomhaven being #1 on the BGG.
SB: I know what you guys are doing!
Stephen Buonocore, the self-appointed Podfather of Gaming, has rudely interrupted my public interview on the streets of Indianapolis. They really let any old riff raff into these conventions.
DTD: Oh, I’ve got you on record here, Buonocore.
SB: On record?
DTD: On record. I’m going to write about you.
SB: Oh, good. You’ll say nice things about him [pointing], not me.
Stephen is a poopy head. Isaac is awesome.
DTD: Nothing nice. See you guys.
SB: Goodbye. Have fun.
IC: Yeah, I don’t know, I think about whether Gloomhaven is the best ambassador to the hobby, you know? Because, I know a lot of people, when they get into board games, they go on BoardGameGeek. And they look at like the top games, like “What should I buy?”
DTD: Yeah, what is the top?
IC: And right at the top is Gloomhaven. It’s like, should that be the first thing people buy? Probably not.
Gloomhaven is a wonderful game. I am a fan. But it is a large, complicated, heavy game. So I get it – probably not the best for new gamers.
DTD: That’s interesting, because you talk about all the trends that the games are making nowadays. They’re trending towards less complicated, more elegant, with simple rulesets. And Gloomhaven seems to break a lot of the rules.
IC: Yeah, at the time as well. like it was just a crazy experiment.
DTD: I’ve had so many discussions with designers and stuff, who say, “Oh, the only games that’ll make it are blah blah blah. Oh, and then there’s Gloomhaven.”
IC: Yeah. [laughs]
DTD: You’re always the exception.
IC: I don’t know how it happened, either!
DTD: Well, damn it. That’s going to make this interview very short.
IC: I mean, we can try to figure it out. Certainly that was one of the reasons for making Jaws of the Lion, too.
Jaws of the Lion released in 2020, and is for all intents and purposes, a gateway edition of 2017’s Gloomhaven with a wonderful tutorial. Additionally, Jaws of the Lion hit mass market stores, including Target.
DTD: I was going to ask if you specifically targeted at making an entry level game?
IC: Yeah, for sure. You know, it’s like, “OK, well, we are ambassadors for the hobby, whether we like it or not. So let’s make a…”
DTD: It’s a super responsible position to be in. I really enjoyed the stuff you’ve written about it. Not just “I’m making a game and I hope it’s successful,” but more “There’s a responsibility towards what I make now.”
IC: Yeah, for sure. I definitely feel that responsibility.
Isaac, aside from just being a truly nice guy, really walks the walk, and has written numerous articles about improving the gaming community.
DTD: So, when you first started doing Gloomhaven, did you have any idea it was gonna reach this sort of audience?
IC: No. I mean, you can’t really expect it…
DTD: I know, it’s the question you’re supposed to ask. They pay us for that one.
I’m still ashamed I actually asked that one. And somehow I am under the false illusion that I get paid.
IC: I mean, I knew it was a good game. I knew I really enjoyed it. And everyone I showed it to really enjoyed it. But at the same time, like you know, it is a fairly complicated game, obviously. It is a giant box, and a high price point.
IC: There’s just so many components. I expect it to do well, but you know more in like a niche sort of market, rather than just like kind of blowing up across the entire board game world.
DTD: Oh, it was crazy when it hit. And I was one of the people who heard about it after the fact. I wasn’t in the original Kickstarter. That was a relatively small Kickstarter.
IC: Yeah, we did… Well, yeah, we raised like 400,000. It was still pretty good.
DTD: No, it was…
IC: I think that’s what? Like about 4000 backers? Yeah. So, I think we only printed like 10,000 copies in that first print run. And that turned out to not be nearly enough.
The original Gloomhaven Kickstarter raised $386,104 from 4,904 backers in September 2015. Quite a difference from Frosthaven’s $13M four years later. In fact, the Gloomhaven Universe theoretically gained $313 and 2 backers per hour between the two campaigns.
DTD: Wow. No, no. I’m also wondering if the early shortage built the hype.
IC: Yeah, I mean, that could be. It definitely wasn’t manufactured. I mean, I printed as many copies as I humanly, as I possibly, could.
DTD: Everybody always wants some conspiracy story about artifactually building hype. But, I mean why would you ever do that? Why would you not sell something that’s popular?
DTD: It makes no sense.
IC: Yeah, just lead into the second Kickstarter, which was a lot bigger.
The second Kickstarter, run to fund a reprint of Gloomhaven, earned $3,999,795 from 40,642 backers on May 1, 2017.
DTD: Yeah, that’s where I came in. That, and I threatened Aldo if he didn’t give me a copy. [looking across the street] Oh, I was over at Tastings yesterday. Not a bad place.
Tastings in Indianapolis is a fascinating wine bar where you self-serve glasses of wine from strange card-driven vending machines. Much fun.
IC: OK. Yeah, that was not a fun time for Aldo. He had like 2000 copies on hand, and distributors were asking for 20,000 copies.
Aldo Ghiozzi, now retired, was one of the biggest people behind the scenes within the industry, distributing games and working events like GenCon. And now, in his retirement, I believe he runs KublaCon in California.
DTD: Everybody was in that boat. The demand was so huge, almost at a mystical level.
DTD: That’s also – I find it really funny that it’s the number one game, everybody wants to buy it. Yet how many people have finished it? [laughs]
IC: I don’t know. You’d be surprised. Especially, you know, now that it’s been out for like 4 1/2 years. I talk to people who come by the booth. You know, talking about, like they are on like their third play through of it, or something like that.
DTD: Wow. Completing it each time?
DTD: Because I know I’ve had three games of it going, with different groups, for forever. But I don’t think we’ve completed any of them. But again, the pandemic put a little bit of a damper on that.
I have played Gloomhaven 68 times for a total of about 143 hours. That’s about 10% of all my play time in 2019. My most recent group played 41 times. Thank you, Board Game Stats. I’m sorry Dave, Jeremy, Carlos. We will finish that campaign one of these days.
IC: Yeah, I think for some. But then others, you know it’s kind of like the thing you do during the pandemic. So yeah, I mean, I’m sure it’s still like a very small percentage of number of copies sold, versus number of campaigns completed, but…
DTD: I just find that fascinating. What would you say is the play time for completion? You probably have some sort of statistic in your head about that.
I’m not sure if it was a diversion or not, but we took this moment to gain our bearings, trying to find the elusive Indianapolis Chipotle.
IC: I guess we can cross here… I don’t know, I would say like, it depends on how you want to finish it, right?
DTD: All the side quests and everything.
IC: I mean, if you just do the story, you know you could probably complete it in like 20 sessions or something, so you’re looking at, I don’t know, 50 hours.
IC: But yeah, if you want to do everything, or even just kind of have fun with the side quests…
DTD: Of course.
IC: You know, go off. Maybe not do everything but like most of it, then yeah, you’re looking at more like 100 hours, at least.
DTD: Do you have an idea of how many copies have sold? And you don’t have to tell me. I know a lot of publishers don’t want to release numbers.
IC: I mean, I honestly would, but I’d have to like think about it. [laughs] Because like I’m not on the, I’m not on that end of it anymore. Especially recently.
DTD: Oh, of course.
IC: Yeah, I mean it’s multiple hundreds of thousands. I guess that’s what I could say at this point.
DTD: That’s fine, that’s awesome.
IC: Definitely less than a million. Can’t put the “million copies sold” on the side of the box yet.
DTD: I’m kind of surprised. I thought you’d be up there. One of these days I want to see a statistic of how many copies, and what the total weight is.
IC: The total weight [laughs]? Oh yeah.
Gloomhaven has a listed weight of 21.6 pounds. If 500,000 have been sold, that total is the approximate weight of 35 blue whales.
DTD: We could do “heaviest board game.”
IC: Well, it’s going to be Frosthaven here pretty soon!
DTD: Do you have a shipping weight on Frosthaven?
IC: It’s somewhere around 30 pounds. It’s like, Gloomhaven was around 20. This is going to be 30.
At 30 pounds, the games sent to all 83,000 backers of Frosthaven will weigh about 2.5 million pounds.
DTD: Wow. That’s incredible. I’m super excited about it. I jumped on that one as soon as I could. So how did you get started in the whole board gaming arena? Had you played games forever?
IC: Sorry, I’m just… If I seem lost…
I was just having fun walking and talking. Poor Isaac was trying to find the restaurant and deal with an annoying fanboy interviewer…
DTD: No, I don’t know where we are.
IC: I thought Chipotle was right here. Maybe it’s on the next block. OK.
DTD: That’s cool.
IC: How did I get started? I don’t know, I just got into the hobby in terms of playing. Like, back in 2005, was when I started. Like first went on Boardgamegeek. I think Puerto Rico was number one at the time, so I got that game and then Agricola, Power Grid. I would just play every opportunity I got. Which was maybe like once a month or something.
IC: And then eventually I found like a weekly board game group. And… I think we’re on the wrong street – I’m sorry.
DTD: No, that’s fine. I’m happy and bouncing and walking along. I’m still on a high from working the booth and being on. And you know, selling stuff for Dice Tower.
I had an incredible time working at the Dice Tower Booth at GenCon, and visiting all the attendees definitely wound me up. It was an incredible experience.
IC: So yeah, I just like slowly got into the hobby over time. You know, just playing more and more games and…
DTD: Did you play a lot of games when you were a kid?
IC: Not too much. I mean, I did. But you know, it was kind of the typical games you’d expect, like Monopoly, that sort of stuff.
DTD: It was a different world, yeah.
IC: I remember playing like a lot of Monopoly by myself. I would just sit there and play multiple people and roll the dice.
DTD: I get it. I was an only kid, and I sought out the really weird games out there. The Avalon Hills and the 3Ms.
IC: Oh, OK.
DTD: And these strange bookshelf games, but I think I’m at least a generation before you.
IC: Yeah. I did play… I remember my friend was like, talked me up on Axis and Allies. And so I ended up finding like a copy of that at a garage sale, and picked that up. And so, we played that a few times. [Looking around] Alright, so it is a block back that way and a block that way. So I was a block off.
DTD: OK. We were close.
IC: Yeah, I was like “Right. It should be here.” but then instead of going this way, I should have gone that way. Then, in terms of designing games… I don’t know. I’ve always had creative outlets. Previous to designing board games, I like, tried to make some Flash games.
DTD: Oh, nice.
IC: You know, with programming. But I’ve never been great at programming, so I was, I stopped doing it just because it took too much time.
DTD: It does, it does. And it seems like there’s a lot of people in the board game hobby who have, you know, an I.T. background, or a computer background. And I know there’s quite a few people who are designing both video games and board games.
I hear the wonderful Tim Fowers dabbles in both worlds. Someone should interview that guy.
IC: Yeah. I wouldn’t mind going back and designing a video game if I get the opportunity.
DTD: Well, how involved are you in the Gloomhaven app-video game version?
IC: I was pretty involved. Kind of, you know, gave OKs on everything that they were doing. You know, I was in a lot of meetings.
DTD: And does that scratch that itch at all?
IC: A little bit, but you know, there’s still more like… I don’t know, I wasn’t really on the ground developing it. It was just like, taking what was already developed, and then implementing it in a video game form.
IC: And also I was just busy with Jaws of the Lion, and Frosthaven, and all that, while that was being developed.
DTD: [sarcastically] Well, these don’t take any time. You know, it’s no responsibility trying to produce the single biggest funded Kickstarter.
Actually, Frosthaven was the biggest funded board game, but only the third biggest Kickstarter ever. Coolest Cooler raised $13,285,226 in August 2014, and Pebble Time, a smart watch, raised $20,338,986 in March 2015.
IC: Yeah [laughs].
DTD: That had to be a lot of pressure.
IC: Yeah, I guess so. I try not to think about it, but sometimes I end up thinking about it. [laughs]
DTD: Here, I’ll ask you about it over and over again. Just to make it better.
IC: So like, yeah. I was involved in that process, but I didn’t feel like I was making any actual design decisions. It was more like just OK’ing the design decisions that were being made by other people.
IC: Which were all good design decisions. I was happy with the product.
DTD: It looks great!
IC: Yeah, I think they did a really good job. Let’s cross the street.
DTD: I don’t think I’ve walked through this part [of Indianapolis].
IC: This is the circle.
Monument Circle houses the Soldiers & Sailors Monument, built in 1888. The circle was part of the city from the start, in 1821, and originally was called Governor’s Circle, being the site of the governor’s residence from 1827-1857.
DTD: Yeah, I’ve always seen it from a distance, but I’m not sure I’ve been there.
IC: There’s a lot of hotels around here as well, so sometimes we end up in this hotel block.
DTD: Got it.
IC: Then we have to walk back.
DTD: I think the first time I came to GenCon, we walked to that indoor flea market of food.
Indianapolis City Market is a great indoor smorgasborg of weird and wonderful food.
IC: Oh yeah.
DTD: That was kind of neat.
IC: Yeah, there used to be a good vegan restaurant there, but I think they closed down.
DTD: It seems like they turn over those little stalls a lot.
IC: Yeah, especially during the pandemic. It couldn’t have been easy.
DTD: I think I might have eaten at a vegan restaurant when I went there.
IC: Yeah, Three Carrots was the one I was talking about.
Three Carrots is now located 1.5 miles away, on Virginia Street.
DTD: It sounds very familiar.
IC: Yeah, it was pretty good they had like sandwiches and stuff.
DTD: It might have also been vegetarian at an Indian place.
Lo and behold, our weary travelers have found the promised land of Chipotle. The long trek of nearly one half mile, even with our wrong turns, is at an end.
IC: There we go, we found it.
DTD: Oh, look at this. First try. Natural navigational skills, all in order.
IC: Yes. Oh, no black beans. That’s sad.
DTD: Go ahead, it’s on me. All the Chipotle you can eat.
IC: It’s not crowded at all. So, this is neat.
DTD: No, it’s nice.
This seems like as good a place to pause as any – basking in the neon glow of Chiptle fluorescent bulbs, anticipating a burrito made of the finest things that go in a burrito. Come back next time for sitting and eating conversation, rather than walking and navigating conversation. We will touch on Isaac’s college days, and his first designs. And graphene’s role as a topological insulator. So don’t miss it!