Gloomhaven is more than just one of the world’s most popular modern board games. The role-playing game in a box is now a successful franchise, with two mass-market hits and a record-breaking crowdfunding project currently in development. Now creator Isaac Childres is opening up about his creative process, specifically about how the game and its narrative will change going forward to address issues of cultural bias in its fiction.
Childres made the announcement Friday on the Frosthaven Kickstarter page, in a post that almost immediately became a flashpoint in the ongoing culture war regarding topics such as critical race theory and our shared history of colonialism.
Gloomhaven, first published in 2017, is a self-contained narrative RPG where players choose how the action unfolds tactically and on a world map. Imagine a game of Dungeons & Dragons that a group could play together for a year or more, where all the game pieces fit inside a giant 20-pound box. In 2020, Childres launched a crowdfunding campaign for a proper sequel, called Frosthaven. That game earned nearly $13 million on Kickstarter, becoming the highest funded gaming project of all time and the third most-funded project in that platform’s history.
As part of the process of finalizing Frosthaven, Childres first had to contend with the incredible success of the project. That means creating and shipping some 90,000 copies of the final game, a logistical challenge that has pushed the release from March back to at least this fall. But Childres also made the decision to bring in a cultural consultant named James Mendez Hodes to vet his work.
“In a nutshell,” Childres wrote, “he is looking through all the narrative of Frosthaven and at all of the different cultures depicted within, and he is making sure everything is internally consistent and that it isn’t co-opting any real-world terms or ideas that may be harmful to players or any real-world cultures. It’s not just about pointing out problems, but also collaboratively coming up with solutions that expand and strengthen the narrative. It has been an enjoyable process that not only makes the game more ethical and welcoming to a wider audience, but also simply just makes it better.”
As a result, several aspects of the final narrative for Frosthaven have been adjusted to give players more agency in how they deal with the material. For instance, groups will no longer be railroaded into supporting the colonization of indigenous populations.
“If you look at the history of Frosthaven I wrote during the Kickstarter,” Childres explained, “you may notice the religiously fueled colonialism vibes running rampant through it. This itself isn’t an issue. This is how the main human nation behaves in this fantasy reality. But I’ve since become uncomfortable with how the story written in that update forces the player to opt in and become complicit in this behavior without choice. [...] So we’ve shifted the story around so that Frosthaven is a separate entity that doesn’t want to, by default, take over by force a territory inhabited by other peoples.”
Additionally, Childres admits that the concept of race in the game was flawed at its inception and will be reworked.
“Once I set up this idea of ‘races’ in Gloomhaven,” Childres wrote, “I took it one step further into a bad place by assigning personality and mental traits to these ‘races’ in a blanket way, reinforcing the concept of broad racial stereotypes: ‘All Inox are proud and stubborn.’ ‘All Quatryls are hard-working and helpful.’ Yes, certain cultures or societies may see varying traits as virtues and foster them in their populations, but no culture is monolithic, and not all Valraths come from the same culture anyway. Not only does implying that reinforce harmful stereotypes in the real world, it’s also just bad world-building.”
The result, Childres stressed, is not “a compromise of anything” but instead a “win-win” improvement of the entire game.
“There’s nothing to even change mechanically,” Childres wrote, “it’s all narrative. And we can do it in parallel to all the other efforts we are also working on to finish up the game, so that improving the narrative won’t even delay production. All upside, no downside.”
Most are applauding Childres for taking responsibility for how his previous work has been seen by some as offensive, and for doing the hard work to make change. In his post, Childres also anticipated the opposite reaction.
“I recognize there may be some small percentage of you that will be upset by these developments,” Childres wrote. “You are more than welcome to your own opinions, but voicing those opinions in the comments in a combative, disruptive, or derogatory way is not okay. I would encourage you to simply reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org and request a full refund if you feel strongly enough about it. We’ve already done that for a couple people who didn’t think black lives matter, and we’d be happy to do it again for people who don’t think board games should be a safe space for everyone.”