Tobold's Blog
Friday, November 13, 2020
My thoughts about Gloomhaven

Gloomhaven is an absolutely massive board game of epic dimensions. It comes in a 10+ kg box, has over 2,600 pieces and cards, a campaign of 95 scenarios, and 17 different character classes. The good news is that this epicness isn't the only reason that made Gloomhaven the top 1 board game on BoardGameGeek for the last few years. It also has an absolutely fantastic turn-based tactical combat system with interesting resource management.

Now excuse me while I take a short detour to the board game I played previously, Too Many Bones. Too Many Bones exists in a standard version for $130, and a standalone expansion called Undertow for $90. And if you asked me which one to buy (or buy first), I'd advise you to go for the full game, and buy Undertow rather as an expansion than a standalone game, because with only 2 characters, Undertow is a bit too limited for my tastes. In comparison, Gloomhaven exists in a standard version for $107 (current price on, and a standalone expansion called Jaws of the Lion for $48. Jaws of the Lion has 4 characters and 25 scenarios, and the scenario maps are played directly on the pages of the scenario book instead of on cardboard tiles. But that is well enough to get the full gameplay experience of the combat system. So if the standard game is a bit *too* epic for you, Jaws of the Lion might be the better solution for you. On the other hand, I don't see me needing Jaws of the Lion as an expansion after already buying the standard game. Not many people have actually finished Gloomhaven.

So, back to the discussion of Gloomhaven. Like many other games, board or video, Gloomhaven has a core gameplay, which in this case is the scenarios that are being fought out in turn-based combat, and a framework gameplay, called the campaign. If you play the campaign, you can only chose among 6 starting classes, and there is a single scenario to start with, although that leads to a tree of scenarios, not a linear sequence. Your starting character levels up and becomes stronger, but also works on his personal quest (you can choose a personal quest from two randomly drawn cards at character creation). Once a character finishes his personal quest, he retires, but a new character class is unlocked. That way, through the course of the campaign, a bunch of different character classes will be played. I am playing the campaign as intended, but unlike a video game, a board game makes it easier for you to *not* follow the rules if you don't want to. If you wanted, you could just open all the "locked" character boxes from the get go, and play whatever character you want in whatever scenario you want. In fact, if you ever get to the end of the campaign, you probably have a number of character classes still locked, and a number of scenarios still unplayed; you might prefer to just play through the unplayed content instead of starting a new campaign. I think the campaign mode is okay, but I also see where the downsides are.

For me the real strength of Gloomhaven is the core gameplay. Each character has a small deck of cards, around 10 of them. Each turn you play two cards. But each card has a bottom and a top section, and you can either play the bottom of the first card and the top of the second, or the other way around. Furthermore, you can always use any bottom of any card for a default move of 2 spaces, and any top of any card for a default attack of 2. When you choose your two cards, you also designate which one of them represents your initiative. The monster's initiative is determined after all characters chose their cards, so you don't know whether you will act before or after them. And you don't know what the monsters will do, as their actions are determined by drawing a single card, and those cards have different options. Maybe you decided to go for a slow initiative and let the enemies come to you, but then the enemies card says they stay put and heal up, messing up your tactics. Also, the attacks of both sides are modified with draws from another deck, which often just modifies the result by plus or minus 1, but could also double an attack or make it deal no damage at all. Character progression as well as the scenario can add or substract cards from that modification deck. And Gloomhaven has 34 different standard monsters and 13 boss monsters, each with their own different deck of actions. So in the end, every scenario plays differently, and every turn in the scenario is interesting and possibly surprising.

If you have 10 cards and play 2 per turn, you obviously run out of cards after 5 turns. But then you don't just simply take your discarded cards back. Instead you need to decide whether you do a short rest or a long rest, both of which make you lose a card for the rest of the scenario; the long rest makes you skip a whole turn, but lets you choose which card you lose, and heals you for 2 points. And as scenarios often have doors and monsters in the next room don't wake up until the door is opened, you might want to do a long rest before opening the door. Also, some of the options on some of your cards are stronger than average, but require you to lose the card for the rest of the scenario to play. So over the course of the scenario, your deck is getting smaller, and the amount of time you can play before having to rest becomes shorter. You can completely run out of cards, which has the same result as you losing all your hit points. So there is a complex resource management sub-game involved, with the added advantage that it discourages stalling.

The core gameplay of Gloomhaven is not only excellent, it also is nearly the same between the different versions of the game. Including the early access version of Gloomhaven on Steam, which at $25 is again only half as expensive as the cheaper board game version. If you are unsure about whether you like Gloomhaven, the Steam version is probably your best entry point, especially for solo play. If you are looking for a co-operative multiplayer board game, both choices are good, depending on whether you would like to go for the cheaper Jaws of the Lion, or directly for the more epic standard version at over twice the cost. I don't regret having bought the biggest version of the game (although I also bought the Steam version). If I ever finish that, the sequel Frosthaven is coming out early next year, with the same great core gameplay, but new classes and monsters, and a city building element added to the campaign. I don't think I will need that anytime soon though.

I have just gotten invested in a horror theme old west dungeon crawler boardgame (Shadow's of Brimstone), so I am not willing to dive into similar game right now. However, from all I have read Gloomhaven is great. It will probably be my next pig Boardgame purchase once I play through SoB.
Hehe "too epic" definitely is a good way to describe the big box. :)

If they reprint it and put all the scenarios in scenario books like JotL then I'll get it, but otherwise it's just too much to bring to the play site (usually not my place), set up, play and take down (can't be left out). A fast setup and pack up time is pretty much essential for me.
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