Luch continues on a beautiful fall day in Indianapolis. I am eating a burrito with Isaac Childres, designer of Havens, both Gloomy and Frosted. The tortilla wrapped goodness is shedding the last of its delicious innards, and talk turns to success.
DTD: Well, let me throw this in front of you. There’s been a couple designers out there, who their first game or second game ends up being an evergreen, ends up essentially printing money.
DTD: And they use that as a home base to design really anything else they want. You’ve got Friedemann Friese who did Power Grid, and then whatever he wanted. You’ve got Matt Leacock with Pandemic, you’ve got a lot of these people. Even Uwe Rosenberg with Bohnanza, essentially gave him the freedom and money to do whatever he wanted. Do you think Gloomhaven is that fulcrum point for you?
Man, these designers all sound like great people. I wonder what going out to eat with them must be like. Where or where could I find mealtime conversation with ALL of these great guys?
IC: Yeah, for sure. Yeah, which I think is a great position to be in.
IC: Having the freedom to do what you want, I think is a great thing. Not having the pressure to be like, “Oh well, you know, let’s just pump out a bunch of tiny expansions for Gloomhaven, or whatever, because we need the money.”
DTD: If this one doesn’t work out, yeah.
IC: Yeah, like I don’t really have that pressure, to like “Oh, we got to make money.” So I can sit back and make what I really want to make. Which I think, you know if you’re making a good product will typically result in you getting money anyway.
DTD: Yeah. Well, I mean you’ve got the one expansion to Gloomhaven.
IC: Yeah, the pressure there is just like, you know, even though Gloomhaven has so much content. Like I was talking about, like you do have a lot of people who have gone through it all, or gone through it three times. And they want more content. And so you do kind of want to appease them, and give them some new content.
I still cannot believe people have finished the campaign multiple times.
DTD: Yeah. But it’s also, I found it very replayable. It’s almost… There’s an excitement to get another group started from the ground floor. So if you can get away with buying another copy, or getting the removable sticker set going, it’s just a fun one to blow through a couple times. Even solo.
IC: Yeah “blow through.” “Just play a little Gloomhaven.”
DTD: Yeah, yeah. We got 10 minutes. Let’s play a little Gloomhaven, it’ll be fine. So, tell me about Founders [of Gloomhaven]. How’s that for a segue?
IC: [laughs] Well, yeah, that was definitely… No, it was a good segue. Because that’s definitely what that game was. It was just, “This is the game I want to make.” And I, you know, I don’t really care…
DTD: That’s kind of what I was thinking… [laughs]
Founders of Gloomhaven (2018) definitely generated hype, but the audience was not universally excited that the game had little to do with the original Gloomhaven.
IC: [laughs] I don’t really care, you know, like whether it appeals to the same audience, or if the audience is as big.
DTD: Well, it was divisive. You know, there were people who liked it, and people who didn’t. But it felt, yeah, that’s what it felt like to me.
IC: I don’t know. It’s just kind of one of those things, where I’m not really sure even in retrospect, like how I would have done it differently. Like I think the game that I made, it might have been a little overly complicated, a little too many rules. But you know, just in terms of… Like I tried to tell people, like shouting from every rooftop I could, “This is not Gloomhaven! Don’t just buy this because you think, because you like Gloomhaven!” But still, yeah, I think it got a lot of that same audience, and then they were disappointed or surprised about what it was.
DTD: At its not-Gloomhaven-ness.
IC: Yeah. That it’s very much not Gloomhaven. I’m happy with the game. I’m happy that it exists.
DTD: Did you think about calling it something else when you were putting it out? Or you wanted the theme in there?
IC: Yeah, I mean I felt like the theme was important for the company, in a sense. Or just like, I don’t know, I kind of have this vision for the company, where it is focused on Gloomhaven. But not just on Gloomhaven, but just that IP, right? And expanding the world in different ways. So not just dungeon crawls, but I want to explore the world through things like Founders of Gloomhaven. I have other ideas that I’m working on.
DTD: Cool. Well, there’s quite a few companies out there, that all of their games take place in the same world. So, they’ll make a lot of different games with a lot of varieties of mechanisms and links and depths. But they’re all in the same world, with the same lore, and the same background. Is that what you’re thinking for Cephalofair?
Cephalofair is Isaac’s company, the publisher behind Gloomhaven.
IC: Yeah, that’s the idea.
DTD: Cool, because we’ve got, like the one that comes to mind is City of Kings. Frank West has his games like Isle of Cats, and they’re all in the same world. But they’re all vastly different games. I like that. I always get excited about games that share a…
Vadoran Gardens (2019) also sits firmly in the City of Kings universe. Man, Frank also sounds like a fantastic person. Someone should interview him.
IC: My wife may be calling.
DTD: Oh, no worries.
IC: Yeah, hold on a second. Sorry.
DTD: No worries at all.
Isaac took a minute to answer the phone, giving his wife instructions to locate the Chipotle. A rather bold move considering we barely found the location ourselves.
IC: I guess I should have answered some of her texts. Apparently she got lunch for me.
DTD: Oh! I think you’re obligated to eat it.
Married 30+ years. Not my first rodeo.
IC: I don’t know about that. Not after a Chipotle burrito.
DTD: No, they’re pretty big. I purposely did not have breakfast this morning.
IC: [looking at phone] Oh yeah, that looks good. Black bean, fried plantain, avocado.
IC: Well, we can eat it tomorrow or something.
DTD: That’s way better than what I had.
IC: Oh, I’m going to a thing tonight where they’re not going to have vegan food anyway, so I’ll just bring it to that.
GenCon, land of constant meetings. If you are a popular game designer. My days were wide open.
DTD: Oh, there you go.
IC: Have it for dinner. But anyway, you were asking a question. Probably about Founders [of Gloomhaven], but I don’t remember.
DTD: I’m always asking questions, and I don’t remember things. I vaguely touched on Founders because I thought I was being clever, linking it to “doing whatever game you want to do.”
IC: Yeah, yeah, so I plan on doing that in the future as well. So, you know, after Frosthaven, because I like designing euro games as well. Obviously, they haven’t been as successful as Frosthaven or Gloomhaven. But that would be difficult, I think – to be as successful as Gloomhaven.
DTD: Yeah, but I mean I can kind of understand. From what I hear, the scuttlebutt around the board game grapevine is that you’re very, very good at playing Euro games, and keeping all the statistics together. And I can see with that background and knowledge of how to play them, you would make a more complicated, or even more difficult Euro game. So that kind of fits with things that I’ve heard about Founders. It sounds like the kind of game you would make.
Isaac is well known as being nigh unbeatable at most euro games.
IC: Yeah, I mean, I would enjoy playing it. And that’s kind of just what I do, is I make games that I want to play.
DTD: And there’s nothing wrong with that at all. I think that’s how you should do it. I used to ask everybody that I went and interviewed with, “Can you design a game that you don’t like?” And it started getting disappointing when some people said, “Oh yeah, I do it all the time.”
DTD: So no, I don’t… I don’t want to know. [laughs]
IC: Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t think I could. I mean, I probably could, but I wouldn’t be able to know like whether it was good. You know, even if I don’t like it, obviously it could still be a good game, and people can enjoy it but like… If I can’t enjoy it, I don’t know if I could gauge whether it would be enjoyable for other people.
DTD: Well, are you just designing on your own now, or are you employing the help of developers, or anything of that sort?
IC: Yeah, I’ve hired some developers, freelance developers, yeah.
Within the board game industry, developers are like editors, tweaking and polishing a game design. Some super cool guy did a podcast series about board game developers.
DTD: Oh sure. I love the parts of the industry that a lot of people just don’t know about. The roles of graphic designers and layout and developers and things like that. That always fascinates me. I guess I’ve always wanted to peek behind the curtain, so that’s why I do what I do. So, it’s my way to legally throw the curtain open and say, “Hey, what are you doing?”
IC: I think one of the main differences between working on Gloomhaven and working on Frosthaven is bringing in a lot of developer help. And also, just like a much larger playtesting team. And I think that has… I think that’s really going to show through in the final product. I don’t know, a lot of people say Gloomhaven is balanced. Or you know, like, “I don’t know how you balanced this so well?” And I’m like, “I don’t know either. I didn’t actually put that much time into it.” [laughs]
DTD: You want me to print that part?
I’m printing it anyway.
IC: I’ve admitted as much in some places.
DTD: I know, I know. I’ve heard you say it before.
IC: I really feel like the scenarios and all the different classes in Frosthaven are just… So much more attention to detail was put into them. And I think it’s really going to, I think it’s going to be great. I’m looking forward to it.
DTD: Me too! I really am. Do you have any sort of time frame of when it’s gonna get out there? Because I know right now we’re in a shipping crisis. We’re in a materials crisis. It’s getting impossible to make them, to store them, and to ship them. And I don’t know what else there is.
Just a reminder that Frosthaven successfully Kickstarted in May 2020, raising $12,969,608. This makes it the largest board game crowdfunding project to date. The game is currently fighting a pandemic, the shipping and materials crises, and is slated to deliver soon.
IC: [laughs] Uhm, yeah. That’s a bit of an unknown for us as well.
DTD: I figured.
IC: But yeah, we’re still hoping for early next year. But yeah, we’re getting into like the unknown part. So like, we’re finishing up the files – Ideally, by the end of this month, early next month. And then I think we’ll be pretty good on production. Like we’ve kind of pre-purchased a lot of the materials that we knew were going to be scarce.
“Early next year” is referring to 2022. This interview was recorded on September 16, 2021. I know, I’m slow.
IC: So, I think production won’t be an issue. But yeah, once we get into shipping… Yeah, it’s a mess.
DTD: Were you thinking about a Jaws of the Lion style intro to Frosthaven? A “little Frosthaven”, so to speak, a “Frosthaven-let”?
IC: You mean a different product, or just like…?
DTD: A different product. Gloomhaven had Jaws of the Lion, which has its own story and characters and events and everything, but it feels like a “here’s the how-to-play.”
IC: Yeah. I mean, we haven’t thought seriously about it at this point, you know. Like, it’s not like “in development” or anything.
IC: I mean, Jaws of the Lion has been successful for us, and I think there could be a place for something like that in the catalog. Like a sequel to Jaws of the Lion.
DTD: Snowfort of the Lion.
IC: Yeah, something. I don’t know what it would be called.
DTD: Jaws of the Yeti. See, if you use that, you need to kick back to me. I have it on tape.
IC: Horns of the Yeti.
DTD: Horns of the… Oh, now you’ve one upped me. That’s much better.
Crud. There goes all my royalties.
IC: Oh yeah, I can’t just use the same words.
DTD: But I was branding. I was, you know, I was linking them together. So, in all the development craziness, have you gotten time to play many games? I know a lot of designers I talk to essentially never get to play games other than their own.
IC: Yeah, I have like a weekly game group. So, I play games occasionally. Supposedly there’s games that I want to play, but sometimes we play new stuff as well.
DTD: That’s good.
IC: A lot of Gaia Project. A lot of Feast for Odin.
DTD: Oh sure.
IC: But then, yeah, we’ll try, like if a new euro Kickstarter has an implementation on TTS [Tabletop Simulator], we’ll sit down and play that, too.
DTD: Oh, there’s never new euros out there. They’re few and far between.
IC: [laughs] I think we like Darwin’s Journey. We played that a couple times.
DTD: Oh yeah. That one is exciting, yeah.
Darwin’s Journey, by Simone Luciani and Nestore Mangone hiot Kickstarter in January 2021, and earned €1,092,993 from 16,759 backers.
IC: So yeah, I don’t know, I feel like… Also, I feel like the industry has kind of slowed down in the pandemic as well. Like there hasn’t been as many new releases. So, I feel like I’ve kind of kept on top of things. At least in like the euro fields. Like I haven’t really played any lighter games in the past two years.
DTD: Oh, it’s cool. But it does feel like there’s kind of a movement towards the lighter games. People are… I think Point Salad did so well, and then there’s been this, just this influx – Azul, Point Salad. There’s numerous light, very popular games that have brought people into the industry. I’ve joked a lot that in the 70s and in the 80s, the move for board games was to be more and more complicated. They sold because they had the bigger rulebook with more rules and more pieces and…
IC: [laughs] Yeah.
DTD: And now it almost seems like most of the big publishers are looking for that light Evergreen, that anybody could pick up, but the gamers will still have fun playing the 10th time.
An Evergreen is a term for board game that continually sells year after year.
IC: Yeah. That’s a tall order.
DTD: It is. It is. Very few people succeed and a lot of people try. You can see the ones that try to be light, and then just kind of fall short. Have there been some recent ones whose mechanism… Because we’re talking eurogames, we’re usually talking mechanism. Has there been some recent ones whose mechanisms have really impressed you?
IC: Uh, recent ones…? I mean, I really liked [Lost] Ruins of Arnak.
DTD: I did too.
Lost Ruins of Arnak has won numerous awards, and was nominated for the Kennerspiel des Jahres in 2021.
IC: Yeah, yeah, we play that on BGA [Board Game Arena]. We always have a game of that on BGA going now. Yeah, yeah, I don’t know. It’s hard to like put my finger on it. But it’s just…
IC: The way like the resources flow in that game, where you have like five different resources, but you have so many different ways of getting each of them. And so many different ways of spending each of them.
DTD: They definitely have roles. It’s not just that there’s five arbitrary things, and you need to convert.
IC: Yeah, yeah.
DTD: The other thing I liked about Arnak, is it’s part of this new group of games that’s hybridizing mechanisms. So, it’s a worker placement game with something to do when you’ve run out of workers.
DTD: And I think that Everdell blew that open. And now we’ve got Arnak and Dune [Imperium] and a bunch of those.
DTD: And yeah, Arnak is just plain fun. It’s got a lot of interesting little things to it.
IC: Yeah, and you’ve got like that big deck of cards. Or, you know, the items and the relics, or whatever they are – artifacts?
DTD: And there’s deck management to it. If you just decide you’re going to buy cards over and over and over, your deck becomes unmanageable. You never see the cards you bought.
DTD: But yet, you want to buy those artifacts, because they fire off as soon as you get them. Oh!
Isaac’s wife Kristyn walked in with a suspiciously homemade-lunch looking bag, surrounded by an air of delightful food smells.
KC: Hello, how are you?
IC: This is my wife, Kristyn. This is Corey.
DTD: Oh, it’s very nice to meet you. I’m with Dice Tower, so I’m the news guy.
Get your news from The Dice Tower’s one and only news podcast, Dice Tower Now. Starring some really hoopy frood.
IC: Oh, that’s OK. You can sit down if you want.
DTD: Yeah, that’s fine!
KC: I’ll be quiet, so you can…
DTD: Don’t even worry about it. I do these super-casual, “over dinner” interviews.
DTD: And that’s what… Basically I just transcribe them, and they’re like going out to dinner with somebody.
KC: How nice!
Yes, very nice! If I weren’t already doing it, it would be the very thing I would do.
DTD: So, I like doing those.
IC: So, I thought you could… I mean, yeah, if you want to hang out and talk too, you are more than welcome to.
DTD: Certainly there is precedent. I think that Geoff Engelstein‘s whole family was in the one I did with Geoff.
KC: Oh, OK. I know Sydney.
DTD: So… Except Sydney. Sydney was away. But Brian and Susan were there, and had little… They gave him grief. [laughs] I still haven’t met Sydney. I need to meet her at this.
Sydney Engelstein is the director of Game Development at Stronghold Games, and this being GenCon, I was able to finally meet her. And, true to rumors, she is a fantastic person.
IC: Oh yeah. She’s cool. Yeah, I just feel like it’s also just different every time you play it because of those decks of cards that all just have different powers to them. So, yeah, it’s a really fun game you can just play over and over.
DTD: Yeah, Arnak, I think it deserved all of its accolades that it got. I thought it was a really fun game.
IC: And that’s another, yeah, designer. I’m sure Mín and Elwen, I guess they’re a team. I hope they do more.
Lost Ruins of Arnak designers Michaela “Mín” Štachová and Michal “Elwen” Štach are married.
DTD: Because this was their first one.
IC: Now that they have their base camp, they can spread out and do whatever they want. [laughs]
DTD: That’s exactly it. And CGE [Czech Games Edition] is definitely going to take full advantage of the popularity. The expansion is… They have a set here, but it’s coming out real soon.
IC: Demoing? Yeah, maybe I should try that out.
DTD: Yeah. It’s the Lost Explorers I think, is the name of it.
IC: Something like that, yeah.
When Isaac and I had this lunch, the expansion had not yet been released. Since then, Expedition Leaders came out, I purchased it, and it is fantastic. Expedition Leaders, not Lost Explorers. Although there was a solo campaign called The Search for Professor Kutil. Who I assume was lost.
DTD: See, I’ll go back and edit it, so that it’s correct, and I look really smart.
IC: Sounds good.
EDIT: Disregard previous comment.
DTD: That’s the right way to do it. Yeah, I’ve always been impressed… Oh sorry, were you going to say something?
IC: No, no.
DTD: I’ve always been impressed with interesting mechanisms. And they tend to stick in my head as…
IC: Well, that’s how I originally got started designing was just, it was the two games that like kind of blew my mind were Tzolk’in and Trajan.
Trajan (2011) by Stefan Feld has won numerous awards over the years, and is the gold standard of “point salad” games. Tzolk’in (2012) by designers Daniele Tascini and Simone Luciani was a Kennerspiel recommended title in 2013.
IC: So, like the idea of Tzolk’in, and just like putting your worker on a space, and then just kind of waiting for it to go around the wheel to where you wanted it.
In Tzolk’in, players place workers on various large gears on the board. Each turn, a player can either place a worker, or pick up a worker, collecting the rewards. The longer you leave the worker down, the more the gear turns, and the better the reward when you finally do collect them.
DTD: Oh yeah.
IC: You know, just kind of like that time element of worker placement I thought was really interesting.
DTD: It’s the, they used the marshmallow test as a mechanism.
IC: Yeah, I never thought about it like that. [laughs]
The “Marshmallow Test” was a study done in 1972 where children were given the choice betrween one marshmallow given immediately, and two of the fluffy treats given in 10 minutes time. The study then tried to correlate this ability to wait with all sorts of life successes, and became quite famous. A “Marshmallow Test” is now synonymous with delayed gratification.
DTD: So, you know, you can have this now. But, if you wait two turns you get two of them.
IC: Yeah, so I really liked that. And then just Trajan, like the last… The whole idea of like putting like a spatial reasoning puzzle in your euro game. You know, like I gotta move these tokens around, and I gotta get the right pairs in the right spots, but also, like get the right action that I actually want to take.
DTD: Oh yeah.
IC: Just kind of blew my mind.
DTD: And there’s a lot of that going on now, where they’re merging the polyomino games that became so popular with euro mechanisms. You know, you have Feast for Odin. But there’s been so many of these “physicality put into a board game”. The one recently that really impressed me was Hallertau. Same designer.
IC: Oh yeah. I like Hallertau.
DTD: And Hallertau took all of the, all the bookkeeping and made it all physical.
Instead of requiring the player to pay specific resources each round (“feed your people”), in Hallertau you spend resources to move small blocker pieces. If enough blockers move, the player’s main scoring building, the Community Center, just naturally advances.
DTD: You know, you spend and do whatever, and instead of moving up a track and when it meets here you need this requirement to go here. It’s all physical sliding and it all just works. I was very impressed with that, you know.
IC: Yeah, I really like Hallertau. And yeah, again, I think it’s… Just like the decks of cards that offer you so much variability to the game. You know, so you’re always drawing cards, and they always are just giving you different goals to achieve, while you’re also trying to achieve your main goal of just upgrading you’re your community center. I think it works really well.
DTD: Absolutely. And while you’re doing the cards, I mean it was a really good idea I think, to make it that, you can play your cards anytime you want. You know, it just simplified so much of the rule set to just say, “You have cards. Whenever you want, just fulfill them.”
IC: And also like, playing a card will typically get you another card. That’s a cool idea, too. Its like you just have this constant cycle of cards.
DTD: Yeah, it was really rare that you’d run out of all of them. It would happen, but pretty rare. Trajan, I mean most of his games really impress me in the little mini-games that Feld puts in around the euro, and how he can get them to relate to each other.
DTD: It’s… The one of his that really stuck with me, it’s… Popularity-wise it’s one of the least favorite, is Aquasphere.
IC: OK. Yeah, I’ve never played that one.
DTD: It is an odd robot programming element in the middle, in order to get stuff done around the board.
Aquasphere is an incredibly meta game. You program robots to do tasks, including programming the robots. Plus, alien octopus meeples.
DTD: But I know it wasn’t commercially one of his… one of his golden childs, one of his favorites.
IC: Sure. Well, it also came out kind of later.
DTD: Yeah, well I mean, he’s got a bunch of them.
And so concludes another Isaac installment. In the next episode, we chat idly about quantum entanglement physics, future euro games, and the darkest of towers. Come back next time for more tortilla talk, more burrito babble, and more pinto prattle.