Welcome back to luch with Isaac Childres. After an excruciating one-mile walk through downtown Indianapolis, the eminent designer of Gloomhaven and I have found our oasis, the shining beacon of burritoed goodness, Chipotle. We are currently in line.
IC: I don’t know if their Pinto beans are vegan. I’ll have to ask. I hope they are.
DTD: We can hit somewhere else if you’re out of options.
IC: Oh no, it’s just beans. There’s plenty of other ingredients. Anyway, I was… Yeah, so I was developing flash games. That wasn’t really working out. And I was looking for another creative endeavour, and started getting into board games. So I was like, “Oh, let’s try and design a board game and see what happens?”
For those too young to recall, Flash, originally created in 1996, is a programming environment popularly used for indie games in the early 2000s.
[It started as an animation program; games were an accidental byproduct, jury-rigged using Flash’s limited interactivity and scripting. Nothing quite encapsulates the delightful jank of the early-2000’s internet like Flash. -Ed]
DTD: Cool. Well, I mean just taking that step and actually doing it is, you know, 100% more than most of us do.
IC: Yeah, I don’t know. I feel like a lot of people in the hobby kind of, you know, have designed pet projects that they’re working on. And that’s cool.
IC: [to employee] Are your pinto beans vegetarian? Oh, sometimes you put lard in them.
There was quite a bit of confusion and discussion among the employees behind the bar at Chipotle. Enough that Isaac felt obliged to do some independant research on the interwebs.
IC: OK, very good. Do you want to order first, and I can just look online just to make sure.
DTD: Oh, yeah. You make sure. I’ll have a burrito.
Employee: Rice and beans?
DTD: White rice, no beans. Chicken and the veggies. I’m sorry? It’ll be a card. If I can get the corn, lettuce, and guacamole. Thank you very much. “Big G” on the foil. A drink, for me. And then I’m covering the next guy too. A small drink is fine.
And now everyone knows what I order at Chipotle. My security questions are ruined.
IC: Vegetarian fajita burrito.
We had run into the magical gamer himself, Bryan Drake. Who would have thought we would run into so many gamers at a fast food restaurant in close proximity to the GenCon convention center? Now, I love Bryan, but if you know him, you know that the following string-of-consciousness sentence is completely in character. And honestly, it was all I could really extract from my audio recording.
BD: You’re like, is he over here? Oh yeah, I’m going to find somewhere less crowded. So, we will just scoot over here. Some crowded cons it can go like “Nope… zzzzip.”
DTD: Very cool. No, I’m doing an interview. And you’re on it. I don’t usually edit my interviews, I’ll just have you know that. [laughs]. That’s it, we will throw things at you.
We did not throw things at him.
IC: White rice. And veggies.
DTD: You found your answer?
DTD: Good, good.
IC: And then hot salsa and corn.
DTD: Did you do their sofritos when they had them?
IC: Yeah, I tried those. I actually tried the fake carnitas, the chorizo, last night. But it was kind of dry. I just like the veggie burrito without all the other stuff.
DTD: Yeah, I didn’t really love the sofritos.
Employee: Veggie burrito. Anything else for you?
IC: Just a water.
DTD: Thank you, thank you. Cool, where do you wanna sit?
IC: I wouldn’t mind sitting outside, but I don’t know if that’s worse.
Weighing the pros and cons of Indianapolis late summer, background noise, and social distancing. The job of an interviewer is a multi-disciplinary skill. Or so I hear.
DTD: Ah, whatever. I honestly don’t know either. It feels a little cooler in here. We can go wherever. Was there seating around the corner? I think it’s just bar around the corner.
DTD: I don’t know, let’s hide in this corner over here. If you’re good with that.
IC: Yeah, that’s good.
DTD: Yeah. I’m good with whatever.
IC: I’m just trying to think about vectors for not breathing on you. I’m going to go wash my hands.
Another reminder of the pervasiveness of everybody’s 24/7 roommate, the plague. I should note at this point in the recording, the sound of crinkling paper and unwrapping was almost deafening.
DTD: Well they are unlabeled. I dumped them both out and they’re unlabeled.
IC: Yeah, I think the one on top is mine.
DTD: I think mine busted out. They were side by side, on the bottom. But I think yours was smaller than mine. I think mine busted out.
IC: Alright. Does yours have guacamole on it?
DTD: It did.
IC: Oh, OK. Then I don’t know. Well, I have just washed my hands, so I will…
DTD: And I just sanitized. So, this is mine. I see chicken.
IC: OK, cool.
DTD: Alright, mine’s going to fall apart all over me. I’m gonna aim like that.
IC: OK, let’s try and… wrap that back up.
DTD: And I should say, I’m all vaccinated, and I’ve been trying to be as safe as I can and all that business.
IC: Sure. I’m going to grab some napkins.
DTD: Oh, thanks, yeah.
IC: In anticipation of it falling apart. [passing napkins]
DTD: Thank you so much. Let me grab a little slurp. [heading to soda fountain]
DTD: I haven’t had Chipotle in ages. It’s my wife’s favorite. But I usually get something else. Not that I… I don’t dislike it or anything.
IC: Yeah, it’s usually a convention food for me. So I haven’t had in a long time either.
DTD: Yeah, that’s probably it. It’s when I’m out somewhere. My wife will be thrilled, that’s where we went. [unwrapping] Yeah, this is going to be a mess.
IC: But a good mess?
DTD: Absolutely. The best foods are super messy. So, what were you doing with yourself before you became board game superstar?
Isaac is the designer behind Gloomhaven, BoardGameGeek’s #1 rated game. And Frosthaven, the best funded board game on Kickstarter. I’ll stick with “superstar.”
DTD: I think I legally can say that now.
IC: So, I was working on a Ph.D. in physics at Purdue.
Go Boilermakers! Go Purdue Pete!
IC: Yeah, so the first game I designed was Forge War.
IC: I kind of did that while I was working on my PhD. And then, as soon as I graduated… Like, Forge War had done reasonably well.
2015’s Forge War is currently ranked #1477 on BoardGameGeek. The game had funded on Kickstarter, earning $105,965 from 1,794 backers on July 3, 2014.
IC: Enough for me to think, “I don’t know, maybe this could be more than a hobby.” So, I decided once I graduated, to just spend some time, just doing board games full time. Just to see what happens. And yeah, pretty much as soon as I graduated, is when I started working on Gloomhaven. And so, it ended up working out pretty well.
DTD: And you picked a nice easy one. Physics, you know, known for simplicity.
IC: Oh yeah, I’m not the one to take the easy path.
DTD: You finished, you did your thesis? Alright, I need to ask what your thesis was on. You tell me yours, I’ll tell you mine.
IC: I honestly couldn’t tell you the exact title of it now. But it was like the effects of… Actually, maybe I could. The effects of energetic radiation on the, well on the electrical and conductivity properties of graphene.
DTD: Oh, OK. I followed some of the graphene story, trying to turn graphene into superconductors, and all this business.
Graphene is a nearly 2 dimensional sheet of carbon molecules, all ties together in a chicken wire like series of rings. If you take this graphene “sheet”, and make straws out of it, you get carbon nanotubes, perhaps the strongest stuff on earth.
IC: Yeah. Yeah, I guess it never really worked out, because it’s just so hard to manufacture. Like, it couldn’t really be mass manufactured very easily.
DTD: It’s like, it turned into the golden child of the superconductor and material physics community. Everybody wanted carbon nanotubes and graphene sheets to be the end all be all of everything. When in reality, they are just cool.
IC: It’s a great material, it’s just like so hard to use. And then it turned into topological insulators. You know, just this idea of 2 dimensional materials, was like really exciting.
DTD: Were you into the weird metaphysics of topology, and that sort of stuff, dealing with the math guys?
IC: No. I only worked with topological insulators a little bit. And I was just kind of. Re-doing some of my experiments I did on graphene, with topological insulators, which never really went anywhere.
DTD: Mine was on Neurobiology and cell biology, cytoskeletal dynamics and biophysics.
DTD: I watched cells crawl around.
Really. I put nerve cells on glass slides and filmed them crawling around and interacting with things. For 6 years. Don’t judge me.
IC: Cytoskeletal dynamics?
DTD: And biophysics. Yeah, we built a tractor beam!
IC: It sounds cool.
We called it a tractor beam. In reality it is called “optical tweezers” or a single-beam gradient force trap. If you focus a laser through a microscope, it can grab very small objects and move them around.
DTD: It was fun, but I don’t know if it was the same for you – I really, really disliked academia. The hours and…
DTD: I was told on day one that… I was married when I entered Graduate School, and I was told on day one that I either would end with a degree or a wife, but not both.
IC: Well, that’s ominous. I don’t know. I maybe didn’t work as hard as I should have. And grad school ended up taking me like 9 years to finish my PhD.
DTD: [pointing to me] Seven. Though I feel the pain.
IC: I hope you kept your wife.
DTD: I did.
IC: And I got married while I was in grad school.
DTD: There you go. Was she also in in academia, Purdue, and all that business?
IC: Yeah, she has had a couple different jobs at Purdue, like in communications and marketing. And then she went to grad school for creative writing. And she just finished that.
DTD: That’s awesome. I love it.
IC: So yeah, we have done a lot with Purdue, but I think we’re done with Purdue at this point.
DTD: I like the University a lot. After Graduate School I went to veterinary school. And Purdue of course is known for thier veterinary program, so I knew a lot of people in the veterinary school at Purdue.
Purdue is currently ranked #13 veterinary school in the US. #1 is University of California, Davis.
DTD: I did my graduate stuff at Yale, and then… That might be why I disliked it.
IC: Yeah, I imagine that’s very competitive.
DTD: It was rough. But I also… It was not at all what I expected. So, I don’t know what I expected, but it was not Graduate School. I think I expected to just have … more school. I liked undergrad.
DTD: And it was not [undergrad]. It was a job.
DTD: It was research, yeah.
IC: Yeah, I feel like I went in to Graduate School liking physics. You know, that’s what I wanted to do. And then, by the time you’re done with Graduate School, you are like, “I don’t want to do this anymore.”
DTD: “I don’t like it anymore. What have you done to me?”
IC: I want to work on board games. They are so much more fun.
And I think we all have more fun because of Isaac’s decision as well!
DTD: [sarcastically] And I’m sure your PhD has been immensely useful for board game design.
IC: I mean, there are definitely certain skills that I honed while I was in Grad school that are still useful. But yeah, I mean the actual…
DTD: You’re not allowed to say, “critical thinking.”
Nearly every description of graduate school involves the words “critical thinking.” I even had to take a class in critical thinking. Maybe two. It has just become a cliché that graduate school teaches critical thinking.
IC: I’m not? OK. I mean if you think about, you know running experiments is similar to playtesting. You know, where you have some thesis. Then you come up with an experiment. You make a prototype, and you run it, and it fails miserably. And you have to figure out what’s wrong with it, and fix it, and make it better. So that’s kind of how experimenting works too.
DTD: Well, it also gives you that detachment. In the research and… In research and in board games if you’ve already decided what your answer is, you’re not going to have a good experiment.
DTD: So, it’s that. I think it’s just a factor of being beaten down so often. You’re ready to accept whatever result at the end. Does that make sense?
IC: [laughs] Yeah. Though, I don’t know, I feel like you should generally avoid that in board game design.
DTD: Oh, yeah.
IC: Like, you should always feel good about the game you end up with. And not just accept, “Well, this is a game. I guess I’ll publish it.”
DTD: I know people who have gone both ways. But I agree with you wholeheartedly. So, how long do you think Gloomhaven was actually in design?
Don’t worry, some of this interview will manage to be on topic. Not much, but some.
IC: I don’t know. I mean, I guess I started it… When was that? Like the end of two thousand… I graduated at the end of 2014, so like the start of 2015, I started working on Gloomhaven.
IC: I think the Kickstarter was in October of that year. And then it came out early 2017. So it was like about a year and a half of development, and then manufacturing and shipping.
The first Gloomhaven Kickstarter campaign launched on September 2, 2015.
DTD: That’s not the answer I wanted. I wanted, you know, decades and decades, and it was so hard.
IC: Well, I mean you can ask me about Frosthaven next if you want. I’ve been working on Frosthaven since I finished Gloomhaven, which was, you know, back in 2016. So yeah, we’re going on five years now for that.
DTD: I feel a little better about that one. See, you are coming across as too superhuman. So, I need to know about struggles. Tribulations.
IC: You know, a year and a half struggle is still a very long struggle.
DTD: It is. But to manage to get it done in a year and a half, you got an awful lot done. So, I know Frosthaven is a sequel. It’s got, you know, a lot of the same stuff going on. Were there pieces of Gloomhaven that didn’t fit, or didn’t work, or were cut, that ended up making their way into Frosthaven?
IC: Oh, not so much. I mean, maybe a little bit. So, the thing about Gloomhaven is I didn’t cut anything. [laughs]
DTD: OK. Well, it was essentially self-published, right? It was the age of Kickstarter.
IC: Yeah. So, it’s just like, “Here’s all my crazy ideas. We’re just going to throw all of them into this giant box and…”
DTD: And we will make the box as large as we need it.
It is a very large box.
IC: Yeah, make the box as large as we need to. There were some ideas that I guess I never like… I decided not to implement. More than like “it was there, but then I cut it.” But, like, the calendar system. Somebody had suggested that during the Kickstarter I think, and I thought it was really a good idea, but it was kind of too late to put that into the game at that point.
DTD: Yeah. I’m going to be mean and I’m going to take pictures. So, this is the time to wipe the guacamole off your face. Or not. I mean I am perfectly happy with lots of guacamole. I always forget to take pictures of… I need to fill in my web page with stuff. I’m sorry about that interruption.
IC: It’s fine. Yeah, the calendar system, like the idea that you could sort of program in when certain things happen in the game, rather than just being completely randomly determined by the event deck which was just shuffled up.
IC: So yeah, that was… I’d say that’s the main thing that had the best chance of making it into Gloomhaven, and didn’t.
DTD: It was an idea that flitted by and now it’s in [Frosthaven].
IC: Yeah, from the ground up we sort of worked with it, and then it was much better implemented than it would have been in Gloomhaven.
DTD: That’s cool. So, how was the… This is going to be way too big a question because of Dunning-Kruger. But how was the self-publishing process? You made a Kickstarter, so you had people lined up to make this and box that and deliver this. But then you had to transition into actually having a company, didn’t you? And it became so big, so fast.
The Dunning-Kruger effect states that the ability to talk about a subject, and more specifically determine one’s own skill at a subject, depends mostly on the skill you already possess. It’s a catch-22. By not knowing anything about self-publication, I cannot reasonably ask questions about self-publication.
IC: Yeah [laughs] and I was resistant to it for a long time. You know, just always thinking like, “Oh, I can just do everything myself.” I’ve tried to do that for a long time before eventually realizing I was just, I was spending my entire day just working on business stuff that was not at all fun to me. And I was just miserable. I was like “I really, yeah I need to hire somebody to do all this stuff for me, so like I can keep working on game design,” which is what I want to do.
DTD: You need to hire an amazing Californian with an MBA is what you do.
I am referring to Price Johnson, who has been working at Cephalofair since 2017. He is currently Chief Operations Officer, a really fantastic guy, and a friend.
IC: Yeah, so Price is by far like the best thing to happen to the business. He’s great. I was skeptical of him at first, just because I’m skeptical of everybody, but he just constantly impressed me. And so he just, I kept asking him to do more and more, and so I brought him on full time.
DTD: I’ve known Price a while. He’s in my local gaming group. And he’s always just been an amazing guy. I was so excited when he said he got the job with Cephalofair. That was… That really was like my first touch into the industry. I thought that was so amazing.
IC: Yeah, and now it’s been so much better ever since. Then they will spend so much more time working on Frosthaven. Yeah, I told you I’ve been working on it for like 5 years, but the first three years or so was me working on it. Two or three years was me working on it, while working on all the business stuff, and hardly getting anything done. But still kind of saying I was working on it [laughs]. So yeah, it’s just been vastly improved these past, like two, two and a half, years.
IC: And yeah, that’s when we were able to develop Jaws of the Lion, which was a great product as well. And then really put our heads down on Frosthaven.
Jaws of the Lion is a very interesting project. It is, in essence, Gloomhaven. But it is a simpler version, a version designed for mass market stores, and almost a tutorial version. Yet it is still a fantastic game in its own right. I had my doubts about the feasibility of the project when I first heard about it, but I have been solidly and rightfully proven wrong.
DTD: Jaws of the Lion surprised me. I mean, there’s not a lot of people who will go back and kind of do a redo. But it’s an absolutely amazing product, and I can’t think of a better way to teach Gloomhaven, which is not an easy teach. Yeah, so that tutorial at the beginning of Jaws of the Lion is just incredible. And I think you pulled it off perfectly, introducing a heavy game to the masses. And one they may very well have heard of.
IC: Yeah, I’m really happy with how that turned out.
DTD: So, I’m assuming there was every intention after Gloomhaven was done to make a sequel. And Frosthaven began. Did Jaws of the Lion… Was it in-between the two or was Jaws of the Lion a thought while you were doing the development process on Frosthaven?
IC: Yeah, it just kind of came up naturally, based on the feedback of Gloomhaven. And just the popularity of it, you know, as I said. And just the idea of, “Oh this is something we could do. We’re big enough in the industry that we could possibly get something into Target. And have that kind of more gateway product.” So yeah, that kind of just happened after I had been working on Frosthaven for a while. So I focused the attention on that instead.
Come back next time for more Chipotle chewing, Frosthaven fundamentals, eurogamer expertise, and even some talk of founders’ foibles.