A Board-Game Auteur Makes His Next Move

In January of 2015, Childres reached out to Elichev, an illustrator he had found on the digital-art Web site DeviantArt. He was only looking for Gloomhaven’s cover image at first; in exchange for a few hundred dollars, Elichev turned in a nectarine-tinted painting of mysterious figures walking through a fantastical medieval bazaar. That image, and others Elichev subsequently created, formed the banner on Kickstarter under which Childres proposed his vast and elaborate game, then half-completed. Only about five thousand people initially placed orders, but when those games finally shipped, in early 2017, positive reviews flooded in.

It would be easy to credit this reception to Gloomhaven’s scale and theme: best-selling tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons have proved there’s a market for complicated fantasy epics. But Gloomhaven’s secret weapon is the mechanics of its game play, and Childres’s greatest gift is his mastery of chaos. Many sophisticated players prefer board games with relatively little randomness—chess, for example, is held in much higher esteem than Hungry Hungry Hippos (B.G.G. rank: 23,458). However, randomness can also give a game a sense of fizz, or peril. Gloomhaven strikes an unusually satisfying balance between intention and accident: it’s deeply strategic, often much more strategic than a rambling session of D. & D., but bristling with (un)lucky breaks and chance discovery. Choices feel meaningful, yet the game has its own scampering rhythm, too. “It hits a really good groove,” Bradford said; players may not be troubled by what’s known, disapprovingly, as “analysis paralysis.”

Encouraged by word of mouth, and, despite—or because of—Gloomhaven’s limited supply, demand for the game soon soared. When Childres finally announced a second printing, in April of 2017, forty thousand new backers pledged a total of almost four million dollars. The following month, while Isaac and Kristyn were at a party hosted by one of her college roommates, Isaac checked B.G.G.’s leaderboard on his phone. When Kristyn glimpsed the news, she started singing a line from the Drake song “Grammys”: “Top five / top five / top five!” Before the end of the year, Gloomhaven would be No. 1.

“I hate capitalism—I guess we can start there.” I spoke to Childres over Zoom, on which he had the frayed tone—and rumpled look—of a work-from-home father to a three-month-old. “I’ve never approached my business from a perspective of, like, ‘Let’s make as much money as possible.’ I think it’s the root of pretty much all the problems of our society.” Early on, the designer made it easy—and legal—for fans to create their own custom content for the game; one of these, an ambitious not-for-profit expansion called Crimson Scales, has raised more than three hundred thousand dollars in crowdfunding. Childres himself has only released one small Gloomhaven expansion, one adjacent tile-placement strategy game, and, finally, Jaws of the Lion, a simplified version of Gloomhaven aimed at those who might be intimidated by, say, an eighty-page rule book. It’s been a success—selling nearly as well as the original—but it hasn’t been as profitable.

In December of 2019, Childres announced Gloomhaven’s official sequel: Frosthaven. It is roughly the weight and height of an Icelandic sheepdog—around fifty per cent longer and fifty per cent heavier than its predecessor, and requiring about three hundred hours to complete. In ten minutes, Cephalofair received five-hundred-thousand dollars’ worth of pledges; after a month, Frosthaven’s Kickstarter campaign had raised a total of thirteen million dollars from more than eighty-three thousand backers, making it the most successful crowdfunded board game of all time.

Frosthaven was originally projected to ship in early 2021. Childres’s design team adapted easily to the pandemic, moving playtesting sessions to a popular online board-gaming platform, but things weren’t so easy for Cephalofair’s chief operating officer, Price Johnson, who described COVID-era manufacturing and fulfillment as “the ultimate game of boats and roads.” The Shanghai region, where most of Frosthaven is produced, has slipped in and out of lockdown. “You get delayed a few weeks here and there, and suddenly you’re behind by a year and a half.”

With Gloomhaven, Childres had taken pains to offer strong, realistic portrayals of female characters, and Elichev’s illustrations largely eschew high fantasy’s typical catsuits and cleavage. But over the following few years, especially after the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, Cephalofair had been accused of reinforcing real-world prejudice with certain of its imaginary species. The Inox, an ox-like “primitive and barbaric race,” invokes Black and Indigenous stereotypes; one Reddit user described the Quatryls as “the yellow skinned short people who are good at building technology with there [sic] delicate fingers? The ones with the unusual eyes who hail from the eastern continent, and are ‘encouraged to study as much as possible’ from an early age’? Those quatryls?”

That summer, Bradford confronted Childres (as he had before) about the unconscious racism he saw seeping into his friend’s games. This time, Childres, who is white—as are Bradford and Cephalofair’s entire team—was receptive. “For a long time,” Childres explained, “I had the mentality, Oh, this is fantasy. It’s not the real world. I can just do whatever I want.” He would eventually publish a lengthy mea culpa, resolving to do better with Frosthaven and announcing the hiring of a cultural consultant named James Mendez Hodes. This post drew more than a thousand responses, some of them angry—accusing Childres of pandering to a “church of wokeism” that “has no place” in board games.

Mendez Hodes, who is of European Jewish and Filipino descent, originally gained notoriety with a series of essays about the racist implications of fantasy orcs. Gaming companies like Jackbox Games and Wizards of the Coast soon hired him to vet their in-game lore. “I remember thinking, I wish I could just tell people they were racist for a living!” he told me. “And it turns out I can.” Mendez Hodes doesn’t believe gaming has a particular racism problem. “I’m sure there are toxic knitting circles out there. The problem isn’t the yarn,” he said. Still, nerd culture “privileges intelligence as if it’s inherently valorous,” he argued, and it excuses even very bad behavior if—like Elon Musk—the person is considered sufficiently “smart.” Meanwhile, as Mendez Hodes put it: “Twitter is imploding in slow motion and Teslas are exploding on the road!”

Mendez Hodes spent about thirty hours reviewing Frosthaven’s text and images. He started with the “easy stuff”—replacing problematic words like “tribe,” “exotic,” and “shaman”—and flagging situations where players were forced to reproduce real-world oppression, like misogyny or xenophobia. There were also places where Childres had again fallen into stereotypes: the yeti-like Algox, for instance, conjured the timeworn “noble savage.” According to Mendez Hodes, the details that make up every fantasy species—and every individual culture within that species—should be informed by the environments in which they live. It was also important that Frosthaven’s various “sapient” peoples have the chance to be centered in the game narrative, and not just passively “saved” by the heroes. Take the example of the Lurkers, a crab-like species that features prominently in the story. “We wanted them to seem like more than crabs,” Mendez Hodes said. “To seem like crabs who could . . . plan a rave.”

When asked about all these course corrections, Childres said, “You’re not perfect. You don’t have complete information. Sometimes you need to listen to other people, and change.” As Childres introduces Frosthaven to his waiting fans, he’s learning that even the most calculating board-game players can be surprised—or even upended—by a move. Frosthaven is dedicated to Isaac’s older brother, Joseph, who died two years ago in a drug-related accident. Childres lives closer to his parents now; sometimes he takes his kayak to the ocean and hopes to see an otter. It is difficult to minimize randomness in a life on this Earth—but you can adapt to it, take steps. Frosthaven started shipping earlier this month; on B.G.G., it had an initial rank of 4,034. ♦

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