BY CINDY GERLACH
PHOTO BY CHRISTINE PETKOV
Sure, Isaac Childres played some board games as a kid — who didn’t? He may have played games like Sorry or Clue. He even has memories of playing some of these games by himself.
“I have vivid memories of playing Monopoly by myself, moving all the different characters,” he recalls.
“I was very bored as a child.”
But neither those simple activities, nor his foray into high school board games, could have foretold his future in games.
Childres is the mastermind behind the popular board game Gloomhaven, described on the game’s official website as “Euro-inspired tactical combat in an evolving campaign.” The game involves collaboration in order to clear out dungeons and ruins in this corner of the world; the game evolves based on players’ decisions and their skills, which change as the game progresses. It has swept the market by storm, with rave reviews from users on sites such as boardgamegeek.com
It might be worth mentioning, too, that prior to designing and developing this game, Childres had another sideline as a career option; he had a few opportunities afforded him when he finished up his doctorate in physics at Purdue University.
So where did this passion come from? Because it was not instilled in him by weekends playing Dungeons and Dragons when he was in high school, as so many teenagers do. Some kids are self-proclaimed board game nerds; Childres was not really one of those kids.
Growing up in California, Childres did play — some — but it wasn’t his primary hobby. His friends were the ones with the characters and the dice, though Childres may have managed a dungeon or two.
“My parents were pretty conservative,” he says. “It took some convincing.”
It was during his time at Purdue that Childres became interested in role-playing games. He joined a group that met at the Purdue Memorial Union on Thursday nights, opening his eyes to this world of games.
After spending time with friends playing these sorts of games, he began to think about what it might be like to create his own game.
“I started thinking about my ideal board game,” he says. “It started as a challenge — can I develop a board game?”
As it turns out, the short answer was yes. The product of his first attempt was a game called Forge War, which its website describes as a game where players are blacksmiths in a kingdom “rife with marauding harpies, cursed dungeons and fire-breathing dragons.” Players must gather ore from mines and create weapons, which they will use on quests.
Childres launched a Kickstarter campaign, a crowd-funding platform that helps fund creative projects. The game took a fair amount of work — perhaps more work than he had first imagined, as it went through several iterations. It took lots of preparation, and he realized at one point that he would need to hire out the art and design work.
“How hard can cards be?” he laughs now, recalling his mindset when he started — before he brought in the pros.
And yet, in the meantime, he still finished his doctorate, knowing that he might not end up using that degree. But he also knew it was something to fall back on.
“My philosophy was this is going to be a degree that says that I’m smart,” he says; he knew he could always find a job if he needed to.
When he ventured out with that first attempt into game design, he knew it was a risk. But he wanted to give it a try. He and his wife had that difficult conversation. His first game netted a profit, but not enough to live on.
“Let’s do this for a year, see if I can be successful at it,” he told her. “Then I kind of hit the lottery and came out with the perfect game at the perfect time.”
Board games are nothing new; evidence of prehistoric board games predate the written word. Some games come and go; others — games like Clue, Yahtzee, Monopoly and Risk — have been around for the better part of the last century. These mass-market games are widely popular and commercially successful, available in every big box store.
But thousands of board games are released each year to more niche markets. These games often require hours to play and have elaborate, complex rules and procedures. Dungeons and Dragons was one of the early examples of these role-playing games, popular among teenagers ever since.
More complex games, adventures that take five to six hours to play, have become more commercially successful over the past several years; the popularity of mass-market games like Catan and its offshoots show that the market is not yet saturated.
Yet dig deeper, and there are dozens of possibilities, games with elaborate set-ups and back stories.
“Sometimes you feel like you are in your own secret society,” Childres says.
After his first attempt, he decided to try again. The result was Gloomhaven, a board game that has been met with glowing reviews. The goal, Childres says, was to create a game that was self-contained, one where users would not have to continually purchase expansion packs in order to continue playing.
“I don’t like that business model, kind of nickel and diming your customers,” he says.
The first Kickstarter raised $400,000; his second Kickstarter, three years ago, raised $4 million in just 30 minutes. Clearly, Childres was onto something.
“It’s been a lot more successful than I ever anticipated.”
In the meantime, he lives a quiet life in his Lafayette home with his wife, who is finishing up her degree in creative writing at Purdue. He is working on several other ideas for board games, playing with ideas, seeing what comes of them.
Childres has been known to pop into Merlin’s Beard, a local shop for board game aficionados, and he still visits the Thursday night group at the Union. These days, the group is made up of mostly Purdue students, with few of his friends still in town. But that’s OK, he says; the group will change, with new people coming and going.
As will he. When his wife finishes her degree, Childres suspects they, too, will move on from Lafayette. They’ll find a new place to call home, and he’ll find another board gaming group.
For now, he is pleased with the success of Gloomhaven, happy that he can take his hobby, his passion, and share them with others.
“It’s been the best job I could imagine,” he says. “I can’t imagine a better fit for me, doing something I love.”