A Reddit AMA Issac Childres, designer of Gloomhaven, interview took place in May of 2020. Gloomhaven is widely considered to be the greatest dungeon crawler board game of all time. Many haters say it might be too overhyped, but no one can deny that this game that is filled with a continuing mission of 100s of hours of play was not a huge landmark for the genre. Issac also just designed the follow up stand alone game Frosthaven by breaking records for racking up some 12 million dollars in a kickstarter campaign.
For those unaware, AMAs are a very popular “Ask Me Anything” feature mainstay on Reddit that often attracts big names. You can see the original conversation here or you can see the recap below.
REDDIT AMA ISSAC CHILDRES INTERVIEW TABLE OF CONTENTS
- You vs Matt Leacock, who gets more girls?
- Thoughts on creature mechanics for the future?
- Is Gloomhaven becoming a book?
- How do I rope my wife into playing Gloomhaven?
- Are there international plans for Gloomhaven?
- What game got you into board games?
- What’s it like being asked for your autograph?
- How do you take in criticism during the development process?
- Got any tips for a Deathwalker re: shadow generation?
- What is happening on the digital front that designers should know?
- How can Gloomhaven characters be played with Frosthaven?
- When will the people of Gloomhaven discover steam power?
- What music do you like to design and play to?
- How was working with Rob Daviau on Return to Dark Tower?
- What is your opinion of Founders of GH?
- Any plans on additional content for the game Forge War?
- Why are you not in the storage solutions business?
- What made you finally pull the trigger to design a game?
- Do you agree with publishers that already have capital using Kickstarter to sell their games?
- Did you consider making Gloomhaven a computer game first?
- What is your favorite class to play in Gloomhaven/Frosthaven?
- What does your creative process look like during development?
- What is your favorite board game and why?
- What is the best way to use the tinkerer?
- How do you see “Digital” affecting the hobby?
- Do you think Jaws of the Lion will be enjoyable for Gloomhaven players?
- Did you know Gloomhaven would be a smash success?
- How has your life changed since the success of Gloomhaven?
- What was your playtesting process like?
- What do you think is the most exciting element of Frosthaven?
- What inspired you to develop the innovative setting of Gloomhaven?
- Do you still do physicist things?
- Is Frosthaven being designed with future expansions to it in mind?
- If you could get a do-over on anything GH, what would you do?
- Why did you decide to use Kickstarter for your launches?
- Why should I pick Frosthaven over Gloomhaven?
- What, to you, makes a mechanic fun or not fun?
- What did you learn from creating Gloomhaven that made Frosthaven easier?
1: You vs Matt Leacock… who gets more ladies at board game convention?
I’m pretty sure neither of us get any ladies.
2: Ever think of making a mechanic where an enemy has the ability to do damage to a hero if they move from one adjacent hex to another adjacent hex, possibly excluding summons?
Sure, there will be more condition immunities for regular monsters, and the new monsters have all sorts of fun new abilities.
3: Have you ever thought about licensing the setting for novels or short stories in books?
Yes, I am thinking about it. […] We are still looking into novelizations.
4: What are some simple steps I could take to really hook my wife into playing Gloomhaven with me?
I think Jaws of the Lion would be a good introduction to the system. Otherwise, just make sure you can run the game very well, and get everything set up so that all she has to do is play her hand of cards.
5: Do you guys plan on releasing Gloomhaven, Frosthaven and other stuff on other countries?
Asmodee is working on a Gloomhaven version in (many territories) and will be working on Frosthaven as well.
6: Which game inspired you to get into boardgames? And why?
Puerto Rico is the first game that made be want to get deeper into the hobby. It was just so much more interesting than anything else I had played.
7: With the crazy quick success of Gloomhaven, whats it like to have people doing things like asking for your autograph?
It’s kinda strange, but also kinda fun. Being a celebrity is something I can recommend in small doses.
8: How you are incorporating constructive criticism into Jaws of the Lion and Frosthaven while still keeping your core fanbase satisfied? What about Gloomhaven did you want to improve in the follow-ups to it?
I am incorporating constructive criticism in every way I can. You take all the negative things and complaints, you filter those through what your vision for the game is, and you change what makes sense to improve the core system. That said, if you didn’t like Gloomhaven, there’s a solid chance you won’t like these either. My goal is to provide a similar experience, but enhanced..
9: Got any tips for a Deathwalker re: shadow generation?
Call to the Abyss is by far your most valuable card. Either use the bottom as much as possible (using stamina potions as necessary), and activate the top and kill as many things as you can, coordinating with your team to make sure you land as many killing blows as possible.
10: As a designer what kind of new tools (like digital interfaces etc?) Do you think will make the biggest impact on the industry?
Any impact is only going to be to a certain part of the industry of course. A large part of the industry is focused on the lack of technology, so I don’t anything will affect them. Once VR becomes more ubiquitous, though, I can see it colliding with tabletop games in interesting ways.
11: How will we be able to play Frosthaven characters in Gloomhaven when lots of road and city events will feature specific character classes outcome?
We are implementing a system for road events that involve traits like “strong”, “intelligent”, etc., and then we’ll provide a retroactive list of traits for all characters from previous games.
12: When will the people of Gloomhaven discover steam powered locomotion?
Maybe when they stop attacking the weird autonomous machines and become friends with them.
13: What is your favorite music to listen to while either making or playing games?
I listen to a lot of Wolf Parade, the National, the Shins, and Dragonette. My musical tastes haven’t really evolved in 10-15 years.
14: You worked with Rob Daviau on Return to Dark Tower for Restoration Games. How was that design experience compared to working on your Haven series? Any hurdles for that game?
Ha, that is an involved question. First of all, it was just very different co-designing with other people. I am used to having full control over everything, so that was different. And the tower certainly added extra complications as well. At the beginning, there was a lot of “Ah, the tower will handle that part”, but then at some point we had to be realistic and figure out exactly what the tower was going to handle, which was limiting.
15: What is your opinion of Founders of GH? If you were designing it today, what would you do differently, if anything?
Founders is the game I wanted to make. I think it works well for what it is. There is an overabundance of rules, which is a little troubling, but I still am not sure how to get around that and still have the system work.
16: Love Forge War. Any plans for additional content?
I have… thoughts, but that is really all they are at this point.
17: There’s a mini economy surrounding Gloomhaven storage “solutions”. Did you consider creating Frosthaven’s inserts in the same manner to get your backs off to a good start?
This is why we are partnering with Broken Token. Storage solutions that are included in the box are always going to be not as great as after-market solutions because your space is more limited, but, yeah, we wanted to provide a good solution up-front for those people interested in it.
18: What would you say finally got you over the hill of coming up with a million different game design ideas and actually making your first game? Any advice / lessons?
I don’t know. The first game I published, Forge War, was actually my first game design. I think you just have to commit yourself to doing it. Just say, “I want to publish a great, innovative board game” and just go for it.
19: What are your thoughts on large game development companies using Kickstarter for nearly all their products when they have clearly established capital?
As long as they are following the rules of Kickstarter, they have every right to be there and use the platform. I personally don’t back projects of that nature, however, because I’m not a fan of the FOMO business practices, and I don’t really need a bunch of plastic cluttering up my house.
20: Did you ever consider making Gloomhaven a computer game instead of a boardgame to begin with?
Ha, I design some video games before I started designing board games, but decided it just wasn’t fully in my wheelhouse. Too much coding.
21: What is your favorite class to play in the Gloomhaven universe? What class was the most fun to design?
I usually say Lightning Bolts for this, but my answer may be switching to the Necromancer. She is BA.
22: What’s your creative process look like in the early stages of board game development?
Make a prototype! I usually sit down and write a text document of the basic rules outline. Then I start making lists of cards and other components, and then I make a prototype as soon as possible to start testing it out. Your first prototype is not going to be good – it is just a raw representation of random ideas in your head – but you can’t start refining those ideas until you see them in action.
23: Aside from Gloomhaven, what’s your favorite board game and why?
Gaia Project. It is just the perfect encapsulation of my favorite type of game, where you are given a limited set of resources, and have to plan how to best maximize them, with just the right amount of player interaction thrown in. The interaction can be both positive and negative, but never negative to a game-ruining extent. Your opponents will certainly require you to adjust your plans, but that is all part of the fun.
24: What is the best way to use the tinkerer? It seems to be one of the most unliked classes, but are we just playing him wrong?
The Tinkerer is a great workhorse for whatever you need to get done. He’s not going to be the main damage dealer, but he can throw out very useful negative conditions, and drop some healing when needed, as well. And because he has so many cards, you don’t have to be super conservative about sitting on all your powerful cards until the end. If a bunch of enemies crowd together, throw that bomb or flamethrower them!
25: What is your opinion on Digital as a platform for your current and future games? Do you envision more Digital influence in your products?
I will always create games that are 100% physical, as I think that is important to a large percentage of the community, but I am very welcoming of any digital format that makes the game easier to play, as I know that is desired by a large percentage of the community as well.
26: Do you think Jaws of the Lion will be enjoyable enough for Gloomhaven and FC veterans? Would we have to skip some introductory scenarios to keep us entertained?
Yes, if you are looking for new Gloomhaven content, Jaws of the Lion will easily scratch that itch. I had a lot of fun creating varied scenarios for it that aren’t too complicated but still interesting. And I really like the four new classes. Even though they are not super-complex, they still provide unique play styles. If you want, you can skip the first 3 scenarios and just read the story text and get the rewards. Then again, they are very short scenarios, so it wouldn’t take long for an expert to burn through them anyway.
27: Did you know you had a huge win with Gloomhaven or was it a total surprise?
It wasn’t a total surprise. I knew it was a great game. The extent of its success, though, I don’t think anyone could have predicted.
28: What is the most unexpected way your life has changed since the success of Gloomhaven? And what hasn’t changed that you thought may have?
All the extra admin of running a business was unexpected. I wanted to make games, and now, even though I have employees to help out, I still have to spend a lot more time just doing business stuff. As for what hasn’t changed, well, I am a lot more successful than I was previously, but my lifestyle really hasn’t changed. I still live in the same house and spend all my time staring at the same computer screen. I’m not living the glam life.
29: How many people did you flesh out the original game playtest prototype with? Was it a core group of gamers? Or did you have a playtest group already set up?
For Gloomhaven? I play tested the main campaign pretty much with just my core game group of 4 other people. And then there was a lot of online play testing with groups around the world who just looked at single scenarios, testing out specific classes.
30: What do you think is the most exciting element of Frosthaven and what excited you most when making the new game?
The most exciting thing for me is just all the new classes with really interesting and different mechanics. I’ve had a lot of fun play testing and seeing them in action. I think the new crafting and building system is pretty exciting too!
31: What inspired you to develop the innovative setting? Did any favorite authors inspire this or did it come out of the blue?
I guess the inspiration was just doing a lot of custom D&D campaigns. I’ve always loved coming up with my own worlds and writing stories in them. If I had to point to a fantasy author as inspiration, I’d probably say Patrick Rothfuss. Not anything directly, but his world-building is so strong, and it encouraged me to put in the work as well. […] (As for video games) Darkest Dungeon for sure. And a lot of Phantasy Star and Dragon Quest in my youth.
32: Do you still do physicist things?
I do not! I haven’t done a physicist thing since I graduated, and, honestly, I don’t miss doing physicist things.
33: Is Frosthaven being designed with future expansions to it in mind?
No, Frosthaven, like Gloomhaven, is designed to be a core game with a bunch of expansions already built in.
34: If you could get a do over on any part of Gloomhaven (game content, components, rules system, manual, whatever), what would it be?
Rebalancing the items probably. Or instant kill abilities. […] They are just too powerful, especially at higher levels because there is no cap on the amount of damage. In Frosthaven, we’re introducing a new condition called Bane, which I feel is more balanced – if a figure is not healed, they will take 10 damage at the end of their next turn. There’s more of a delay to it, and a set amount of damage.
35: Why did you decide to use Kickstarter instead of some other pre-order system? It sure seems like you are giving a lot of your funding to Kickstarter and not getting as much value for it.
Kickstarter is a fantastic way to engage with a community and keep them updated about the progress of development. And it also can’t be denied that it is a great marketing tool. I think that it is worth the 5% that they take.
36: Why should I pick Frosthaven over Gloomhaven?
Haha, I agree that there’s no reason you couldn’t play through both. I’ve really tried to take as much of the community’s feedback for Gloomhaven over the years and use it to improve the system for Frosthaven, as well as adding interesting new elements like crafting and the passage of time. I think it will be a better game by every metric, but, you know, Gloomhaven is definitely worth playing as well.
37: What, to you, makes a mechanic fun or not fun? How do you deal with the frustration of creating a mechanic that’s clever, but turns out to not be fun?
My brain is stimulated by making plans, adjusting plans, and pulling off plans. That is my very skewed definition of fun, and, I don’t know, I can’t think of any mechanics I’ve toyed with that don’t play into that.
38: What did you learn from creating Gloomhaven that made the process of designing Frosthaven easier/more streamlined?
Well, as Frosthaven is an extension of the Gloomhaven system, there was a lot of learning and design that was already done. Content creation has also become easier/more streamlined, simply because I am a lot more experienced with it now.