Interview with Isaac Childres

Creator of Gloomhaven

Interview: Isaac Childres creator of Gloomhaven
September 11, 2019 Parallel Worlds

Every month, Parallel Worlds will feature an interview with an amazing content creator or personality working in science fiction, fantasy or horror.

This month, we have Isaac Childres, head of Cephalofair Games and the maker of Gloomhaven — the massive and amazing board game that started life as a crowdfunding project.


Isaac Childres, creator of Gloomhaven

Many critics have suggested that Gloomhaven would make a natural roleplaying game (RPG). Why did you go for the board game format?

Gloomhaven was definitely heavily inspired by RPGs, mainly Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) 4th Edition, but I guess the idea was that I wanted to share my creation with as large an audience as possible and I had already had success publishing board games — so I went with that. I have always been more interested in the mechanical side of RPGs, to be honest. I enjoy the roleplaying for sure, but it’s not what I focus on, so I think designing board games is more my speed.

Some of our team would love to know how you came up with the idea for Gloomhaven — specifically, the card mechanics

Multi-use cards isn’t a new concept or anything. It just hadn’t really been used well in the tactical dungeon crawl genre. After playing some games with multi-use cards, though, it just sort of dawned on me that this mechanic was the perfect way to intuitively add a rewarding level of decision-making to the game. You perform a move action and an attack action, but all your actions are different, and doing something now may prevent you from doing what you want to do later. It just made sense

Why did you choose to come up with your own fantasy races, rather than following the D&D/Tolkien model of elves, dwarves and the like?

Well, I love world-building. Whenever I [dungeon master] D&D games, I always come up with my own world to set it in. My philosophy is, why let J.R.R. Tolkien have all the fun?

The six ‘open’ Gloomhaven heroes you can play at the start of the game. Others can be unlocked as you go.

Which is your favourite of the races, and why? Our Art Editor likes the rat people!

Oh, gosh, I’m not sure I can choose. I think I’d have to go with the Aesthers, because their backstory is so rich and tragic and mysterious. I just really like the idea of these ageless beings that got stuck in the space between planes.

Would you make another expansion after Forgotten Circles (your ‘About’ page on Cephalofair Games references an ‘unnamed larger expansion’)? Or would you rather pursue something outside the Gloomhaven universe?

Well, it can be both things. For sure I am working on an ‘unnamed larger expansion’. More information on that should be coming later this year. But I am also working on other, non-Gloomhaven projects. I am co-designing Restoration Games’ remake of Dark Tower with Rob Daviau, which has been a great experience, and I am also working on some other designs.

Gloomhaven is card-driven — no dice — and there are a lot of cards in the box.

What have you learned from coming up with, producing, and selling Gloomhaven? If you could do it all again, would there be anything you’d do differently?

I’m very happy with where I am now, so it’s hard to say I’d do anything differently. I guess I will say that I hired someone earlier this year to take over operations and marketing for the company, and that has been a huge boon for me — so if I were to do things over, I would hire that person much, much earlier in the process.

Founders of Gloomhaven absolutely smashed its funding goals more so than Gloomhaven itself. Do you think it has a larger potential audience?

Oh, no. I think Founders is a pretty niche ‘Euro’ game product. Much smaller market than those board gamers interested in thinky dungeon crawls. I definitely sold more copies than expected, though I suspect that was due to the strength of the Gloomhaven brand.

What fictional universes most inspire you?

I’m a big fan of Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles. It is a meticulously crafted world and it inspired me to take my own world-building seriously for sure. Also, if I’m being honest, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Seeing all these powerful heroes performing all these cinematic abilities, I think it definitely inspires me to create cinematic powers for my own characters.

Some people create things as a rejection of other things that have come before. Are there any trends in tabletop gaming you don’t like? 

Well, sure, in some sense Gloomhaven was the rejection of a reliance on dice and randomness in the tactical combat genre. But now that I’ve taken care of that, I can’t think of much else. I mean, there is a trend of the industry as a whole just releasing a lot of games, and most of them aren’t doing anything new, so that’s troubling to me, but the only thing we can do is continue to create games that are providing players with new experiences.

Desert Island Games! You’re trapped on a desert island. Which three games would you have with you (assume you have people to play them with)?

Let’s see… I think there Gloomhaven for sure, and then Gaia Project and Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective.

Gloomhaven is my outlet for creativity, which is very important for me. If I had a copy of Gloomhaven with me, I could continue to create new adventures forever. And then Gaia Project is just my all-time number one game, and it has a huge amount of replayability, so I don’t think I’d ever get tired of it. As for Sherlock Holmes, that’s just a game I haven’t had as much time to spend with as I’d like to. 

Gloomhaven for the PC is in Early Access, which we’re excited about. Why did you choose to make a PC version?

It just makes sense, right? A lot of the overall feel and pacing of Gloomhaven was inspired by video games — Elder Scrolls, Diablo, Darkest Dungeon. It feels like a video game in a lot of ways, so it made sense to port it into a video game to share it with a wider audience.

Do you play PC games? Which are your favourites, and why?

Well, the list I just gave you works really well, though I’ve found recently I don’t really have the long stretches of time required to play those types of games much, so I’ve been sinking my teeth more into shorter Rogue-like games like The Binding of Isaac and Slay the Spire.

Would you like to make more PC games? If so, what sort?

I’ve always wanted to revisit the first-person turn-based RPG genre. The old Sega classics like Shining in the Darkness or Shining the Holy Ark. I tried to program a game like that in Flash once, but I am not very good at programming, and it was Flash, so it didn’t go anywhere.

What are you reading right now?

Hmm, the last book I read was Perdido Street Station [by China Miéville], which had some pretty great world-building, but the story was a little disappointing.

Best book you’ve read this year?

I don’t read much, unfortunately, so that was probably the only book I’ve read this year.

Three top films. Any genre. 

Oh, my. My favourite movie is probably Brazil. And then to get a wide range of genres, I’ll fill in the rest of the top three with Mad Max: Fury Road and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Or The Big Lebowski. Choosing is hard.

We love those too! You are a physicist by training. What fields were you thinking of going into?

Well, my thesis was about the effects of radiation on graphene and topological insulators, but I got into solid state physics because I was interested in solar cells and advancing that technology.

Is there anything you miss about academia?

Ha ha, no.

Finally, can you give us a Gloomhaven scenario?

Try this: “You walk into the Sleeping Lion Inn. There’s a Quatryl playing furiously on a fiddle in one corner, an Orchid in the opposite corner trying her best to meditate, a Vermling in a third corner hiding in the shadows, and an Inox in the last corner, nervously shifting his feet as if he wants to dance. Who do you approach?”

Gloomhaven: a 9.7kg box packed with all manner of cool stuff.

Gloomhaven and Founders of Gloomhaven are available from local gaming shops and online. The PC version of Gloomhaven was released in July on Steam and is available now.

Thanks to: Isaac Childres