Theme and What is it?
I have a weakness. One that makes me obsessed with endless research upon hearing the news of any board games with the theme of feudal Japan, Mechs, and dungeon crawlers. I’m pretty sure that if any of these type of games were presented on a billboard on the other side of a cliff I would charge head first to find out more.
When Isaac Childres announced the behemoth that is Gloomhaven I naturally headed toward that cliff at full speed. While I wasn’t able to be a backer of the Kickstarter, I did jump in on the preorder. Isaac’s updates on the progression of Gloomhaven made me as excited as my 11 year-old self receiving Hero Quest for the first time. I couldn’t wait to dive into a world that not only had 95 different scenarios and stories, 17 different classes, loads of different loot, and tactical combat, but one I would be changing permanently over the course of my adventures. A living world where the decisions that my group of mercenaries and I made would help shape Gloomhaven itself.
When we finally sat down to form our party my overwhelming sense of excitement started to blend with a wave of nervousness. What if Gloomhaven was all hype and the game is just this huge monster of components with nothing more to offer? It became a roller coaster of emotions. Maybe I was “too” excited? I thought this might be the dungeon crawler to kill all dungeon crawlers.
Then that whirlwind of emotion finally came into focus after we entered into the cracked floors and musty halls of an underground bandit hideout. This is Gloomhaven.
Characters: When you start your adventures in Gloomhaven you will have 6 characters out of the 17 that come with the game to choose from. The other 11 adventures are locked and can be made available to you as you complete certain objectives and retire characters. Each character will have a career goal that they are trying to achieve. When a character achieves this goal it will retire from the game, unlocking a new character and new content to be added to your campaign. But don’t be sad! If you really want to keep playing as that character, you can. It is also good to remember that these career goals are not just a walk in the park. They will take a good amount of adventuring to get through. Your characters will have a personal goal card they are dealt randomly at the beginning of each scenario that they may fulfill in order to give themselves benefits or “Perks”. These “Perks” may give them better cards and make your character more powerful overall. Every character class also has its very own deck of cards that is unique to that class. These cards are what are used for all of your actions. Whether it be for attacking, moving, healing, looting, or summoning creatures. There are also actions on the cards that give you experience points just by performing them. Your cards are also your life line. Running out of cards will mean the end for your adventurer. I’ll cover more on what cards do a little later. As your character levels up throughout the game they will have access to more powerful cards to add to their hand and increase their health. Equipment cards can also be purchased and played in conjunction with the cards you play from your hand to increase the effectiveness of an ability. All characters have their own unique player boards and record sheets to keep track of all the happenings throughout their adventures.
The Enemy: Gloomhaven comes with 45 enemies and 12 bosses that are all accompanied by their very own statistics, combat modifier
cards, and standees. All enemies have their own abilities and unique way they perform. Enemies also have varying levels of difficulty depending on how many people are playing and how hard you want to make the scenario. This makes for an enormous amount of encounters to play out, each one very different then the next.
The Cards: Each character starts with their own deck of cards and card limit. All cards that are not discarded or lost are available for
you to use. Each round in a scenario characters must choose 2 cards to play for that round. You will be performing an action at the top of one card and the bottom of the other. In the middle of each card is a number which signifies the initiative order for your character that round. Out of the 2 cards you will choose one to represent your initiative. Each set of enemies also have their own cards that will be drawn at the same time to determine their initiative, as well as the actions they will be taking that round. After initiative is determined the players and enemies will execute their actions in initiative order. Once your cards are used they are discarded. Some cards only allow you to use abilities once per scenario then the card is permanently discarded or “Lost”. When you run out of cards, or when you deem that you need some cards back from your discard pile, you can take a Rest action to retrieve your discarded cards. Although retrieving cards from you discard comes at a cost. You will have to permanently lose l card during a Rest action from the discard pile to get your cards back. There are 2 different rest actions; a Short Rest and a Long Rest. A Short Rest will enable you to take back all of your discarded cards and play your turn as normal, but you will have to randomly and permanently lose 1 card until the end of the scenario. A long rest will restore 2 health and allow you to take your discard pile back into your hand, but you now get to choose what card you wish to lose permanently and your turn ends. If you lose enough cards permanently you will be exhausted and be removed from the scenario. Your hand management is crucial to your success in Gloomhaven.
The world of Gloomhaven: Over the course of a campaign City Events, Road Events, and your party’s reputation will help shape the world of Gloomhaven. City events and Road Events add a really interesting dynamic to the game and will scale with you over the course of your campaign by adding new events as you progress. These events will have your party making decisions on what the outcome should be which will not only further your character’s story, but possibly change the world of Gloomhaven. Your party’s reputation can enable you to receive discounts on equipment or unlockable abilities from the city of Gloomhaven. Your reputation can also be effected by the outcomes of City Events and Road Events. As you complete the scenarios you might be instructed to place stickers on the map to track your progress through you campaign. These stickers can signify new unlocked locations and global achievements for you and your party. The city of Gloomhaven can also be upgraded throughout the campaign. By completing certain scenarios and events you can raise the prosperity level of Gloomhaven. By doing so you will unlock more items to be bought in the market place, as well as being able to bring in a newly unlocked characters at the same level as the prosperity of Gloomhaven, instead of starting at level 1.
There was a lot to take in, as well as set up. Because each scenario is very different in the variety of monsters and layouts of the board, all the pieces it takes to set up can be lengthy. Once set up each mission definitely is its own immersive experience. There were a lot of little things that came up throughout our plays that you need to account for that took some getting used to. Little rules here and there like remembering to decrease the elements on the Elemental Infusion Table and forgetting to recognize certain symbols and to active them. It did seem a bit fiddly at first, but with more plays we got much better at keeping track of things.
Quality of Components and Insert
I don’t know if I have ever seen more cardboard in a board game. Endless amounts of tokens, standees, tiles, and games boards. None of the cardboard in this game feels flimsy at all. It is all really good q
uality. Some of the pictures on tokens where a bit off center. The miniatures are great. Really nice plastic, almost resin like, but more dense. The player boards have really nice health and experience point trackers that actually let you place wooden bits into the board itself. All of the boxes and envelopes containing all of the hidden information just waiting to be seen are such a great touch and really well done. The insert is, well, it’s functional for some of the components in Gloomhaven. However, there is a great deal of cardboard that needs to be bagged, which is one of the pitfalls of setting up the game. There is so much to sift through. This would benefit from a custom foam core insert.
The art really works for this game. The box art for Gloomhaven is beautiful. There have been people who complain about the lack of art on the character action cards. I personally think it would have been a distraction from the text on the cards. The tiles have a very simple, but good art design. A friend of mine mentioned how he thought it was a good choice considering how many things can be on the board at once. The art on the character boards is really well done. It has very nice detail that brings the characters to life.
There is never a boring moment in the game. Players are constantly engaged in play and doing everything they can to try and manage their hand of cards to claw their way to a victory. Often, if you are able to beat a scenario it is by a very close margin. The unpredictability of the enemies throughout a scenario can easily foil any strategy if you are not careful. The City Events and Road Events really add to the story and setting making you feel like you are really a part of the world. You feel like a kid on Christmas morning opening presents as the game unlocks boxes of new characters and envelops of hidden bonuses for you to open throughout the campaign.
Difficulty and age range suggestion
This game is a beast. Not only in components, but in content as well. This is a medium/heavy weight game. I said earlier that it can feel fiddly at times, however it does get better. There are a lot of tokens to be placed here and there to keep track of different conditions. This is a game that is really meant to be played for its campaign and Legacy aspect. You can play single scenarios for a quick play, but this is not a reason to buy this game. You can easily have friends drop in and out of your campaign which is a really nice feature. This game benefits from having at least one person who knows the rules really well to help keep track of all the conditions and effects that maybe easily overlooked by new players.
I asked Isaac Childres on Twitter if he thinks Gloomhaven might be his magnum opus. His response was ““Magnum opus” might be an accurate description.” This is an extremely well thought out, very well balanced game that had a lot of love put into it. It is a masterpiece in the dungeon crawl genre. Gloomhaven seems to have taken my favorite things about all the dungeon crawler and RPG games I love and introduced its own mechanics to make this a game that should be played and talked about for many years to come. If you are person that has ever seen this game and have shied away from it because of its massive, hulking size and overwhelming amount of components; please remember that inside is a world that is rich in story and gameplay that will grip your imagination from the very beginning to the memories at the very end