The original campaign game-in-a-box, Gloomhaven, is a big, beefy boy — and I don’t just mean the 100-odd encounters that it comes with. The thing weighs a ton, coming in just shy of 18 pounds. The sequel, Frosthaven, has just finished shipping out to backers, and it’s even bigger. Well, I should say heavier: While the box is only slightly taller than the original, it weighs nearly twice as much — an impressive 35.6 pounds, or roughly the same as 16 copies of Clue.
So how did Cephalofair Games cram in all that cardboard and plastic, including more than 2,500 cards and a 2.5-inch-tall stack of 27 punchboards?
The company hired a retired submarine engineer.
“I did my undergrad work at [Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute],” said Matt Healey in a recent interview with Polygon. “When I was at RPI, I got a co-op summer job for the Department of the Navy, and I did all kinds of underwater acoustic research trying to find ‘large submerged metallic cylindrical objects.’”
“Finding people who have underwater acoustic engineering skill is not easy,” Healey continued. “And so I did two years at [General Dynamics] Electric Boat, and then I transferred to Electro-Dynamic. And what they were working on were very, very high-power, very low-RPM electric motors.”
Those specially designed electric motors were destined for use in submarines, and they required Healey to spend a lot of time positioning giant magnets and coils of wire just so in order to make them work right. By the end of his time as the military contractor, he said that his team’s design could potentially “shrink the length of the submarine by between 10 and 20 feet,” thereby leaving more room inside for... you know... other stuff.
Years later, well into his retirement, Healey parlayed his government contracting work into a side business building board game pack-ins. His company, Mess-AXP Game Inserts, has worked on some of the most complex games in the business — including Catharsis, Forgotten Depths, and City Builder: Ancient World.
But why didn’t they just make the box, you know... bigger? Turns out that while most domestic shipping is based largely on weight, the price of international shipping is more dependent on volume. So when Cephalofair was filling its container ships with copies of its next hit board game, a smaller box meant a lower overall bill for freight.
That made Healey’s skill set especially useful during the shipping container shortage that kicked off during the pandemic.
“At the height [of the container shortage],” Cephalofair founder Isaac Childres told Polygon, “prices went from $5,000 to $25,000 per container.” That caused many board game manufacturers to pay a lot more when shipping crowdfunded products to their customers — especially in 2021 and early 2022. But thanks to some good timing, and Healey’s engineering acumen, Frosthaven backers were not adversely impacted.
“I think the most that we paid for a container was maybe $10,000,” Childres went on. “We just got lucky. We kind of waited, and the delays ended up working in our favor.”
I’ve seen a lot of board games in my day, and I can safely say that Frosthaven is the densest and most aggressively packed of the bunch. Where Descent: Legends of the Dark arrived on my doorstep half-empty, not a single centimeter was wasted in Frosthaven’s design. And it’s not lacking in amenities, either. Frosthaven includes loads of tuckboxes, plenty of baggies for holding cardboard bits, and four handy plastic trays for moving from the box directly to the table.
Ever the perfectionist, Healey still isn’t completely happy with his final design. Yes, it gets everything to the customer safely. It’s robust, making it less likely to get worn while sitting around your friendly local game store. But it’s not perfect, and that’s largely due to the economics of making a game that weighs as much as a large freeweight.
“I achieved every one of my goals within the constraints that I was given by [Cephalofair’s chief operating officer, Price Johnson,] and Isaac [Childres],” Healey said. But, even so, he would have appreciated about 25 more millimeters of box height for more space to organize the map tiles. Also, if you want to sleeve your cards before you put them back in the box, that’s too bad. It’s just not gonna work. And he knows that. Please don’t yell at him.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I just didn’t have the space.”