An epic love letter to numerous digital adventures I lost myself to in my youth. Featuring branching story lines and bursting with unique and satisfying features and game play.
A stamina testing set up and tear down and more bookkeeping then a dozen Felds combined. Requires a serious time commitment from your players.
So Gloomhaven, its an epic sprawling dungeon crawl board game with RPG allusions housed in a box capable of killing a planet if hurled at it from orbit.
It went from being Kickstarter’s best-kept secret to subsequently last years biggest regret prompting a multi-million dollar funded second printing. More recently it was heralded as the best board game ever! (according to Board Game Geek) And has been showered with the sort of nerd love only usually reserved for kittens dressed as Jedi’s. As success stories go it’s done rather well for itself and creator Issac Childres.
But is it any good? Have the accolades heaped upon it been more fueled by owners desperate to justify the price tag than an actual critical evaluation? Or is this truly an evolutionary leap in modern board game design? Together let’s delve deeply into dungeons dark and fraught with peril to discover Gloomhavens many mysteries.
Disclaimer! Gloomhaven contains Legacy surprises during the campaign.
I solemnly swear not to give any of them away, however as I’ve seen threads furious because somebody dared to give a sniff of anything contained in this monstrous box then all bets are off. To be clear I have not nor will deliberately spoil anything from the game that you wouldn’t know after reading the rules or in general anything about the game. If you’re going to get bent out of shape about anything in the following review… Blow it out your Gloom!
Those fresh to Gloomhaven your adventure starts here.
Gloomhaven’s world and your interactions with it are what has drawn the comparisons to RPG’s. As with all great adventures, it starts with a map initially barren showing the areas surrounding the backwater township. Over time players will sticker and daub onto it as more locations are discovered, as it evolves from a faceless entity to something with a bit more personality.
It’s this light touch of legacy mechanisms that lends Gloomhavens campaign an engaging and ever-evolving feel more in line with how video games tackle sweeping narratives than say its cardboard contemporaries.
Complimenting these ideas is a stitched-together narrative introduced via a couple of decks of cards the City and Road Events which present you with a paragraph or two of a jolly incident and choices usually heavily signposted good or bad.
As the campaign unfolds cards are added to these decks, familiar faces may reappear or situations will arise as direct results of choices made earlier in the adventure. It’s highly effective in alluding to a larger living breathing world, its inhabitants and the repercussions the heroes are having upon it.
And while it’s hardly groundbreaking these delicate touches of story help to breathe life into this world.
But it’s not just about the setting, similarly, Issac has approached the characters you’ll be inhabiting during your time here and how you play them with the same unique spin. You start the game with six available races all of them comfortably familiar yet all the while feeling refreshingly different.
This thematic sleight of hand also applies to the classes, rather than forcing players to assume the role of Tank, Healer or DPS characters often have a little of column A, B and C sprinkled throughout. This allows for heroes to evolve via the choices made during the hugely satisfying levelling process.
The most infectious bit of fun of playing your character is discovering how. Each class starts with a base set of cards with unique skills that can be played for either the top or bottom ability. Every round player’s select two cards choosing one to count as their initiative (each card has a number value in its centre or initiative) the initiative dictates the order in which characters will activate that round.
Similarly, any monsters encountered come with cards featuring their actions and when they activate. All of this information is initially hidden so while players may openly discuss plans they cannot directly state what they are doing or when resulting in the chance that not everything will go as expected.
On your turn, you perform one top action and one bottom action from your selected cards. Importantly you’re never locked into a choice so you can and may have to switch tactics on the fly if the original game state you planned for has altered significantly. Some cards give permanent buffs others can be used once for devasting attacks however your pool is finite with every character locked into an initial starting hand size.
As you burn cards or lock them into place your hand will dwindle and with them, your selection of abilities. You can redraw spent cards as a rest action but doing so permanently loses one. Should you ever run out of playable cards then your character is considered exhausted and out of the scenario.
It’s an eloquent system offering a huge variety of choice. When to sacrifice cards for that heroic moment or preserve more choice in your card pool is a fine balancing act adding some satisfying crunchy decisions to each round.
Initially, you’ll clumsily blunder about trying to grasp how your character works. It’s sort of like puppeteering with knotted strings while wearing mittens. Game by game you’ll discover combo’s within these decks and as you level you’ll evolve and refine them.
Combat is diceless, instead to add to the feeling of the chaos of battle there are individual decks for each character. Initially, they all contain the same modifiers both good and bad however these can be refined. This includes better hits, or cards that allow stringing of modifiers together that when paired with a characters attack open a further wealth of possibilities. It’s still random but knowing whats in your deck makes the experience much less of a crap shoot then just rolling the bones.
Initially, progress is slow you’ll eek out a pitiable existence as you gather meagre amounts of coins and XP to advance. Gloomhaven only really starts to sing once your party has levelled 2 possibly 3 times. The early game for want of a better term is a grind, you’ll wipe in dungeons you’ll become exhausted, you’ll have to earn your stripes.
This early game can be unforgiving and as long as your aware of this its an easily overcome hurdle, it calls for some perspective, potentially the entire campaign could take a year to complete a couple of weeks of facepalming over a tricky dungeon in the scheme of things is nothing, its a rite of passage to overcome.
This rinse repeat nature of clear a dungeon and then move to the next should become repetitious yet it never does. Every cleared dungeon channels that Warcraft crack-like rush of new locations, items or the hint of a bigger growing threat and combined with the character levelling and choices available results in breathless anticipation of what might be around that next corner.
Every character starts with a retirement quest that once fulfilled (everything from murder hobo like behaviour to travelling to specific locations) unlocks one of the eleven sealed classes in the box. All you have to clue you to what this new characters unique set of skills may be are cryptic icons.
Retirement is an event worthy of some bunting. Your trusty character having accomplished whatever selfless act bids their farewells and presumably settles at a cabin by a lake puffing on a pipe while congratulating themselves on being bloody great.
You then pick from the available unlocked characters to start over, Gloomhaven becomes more prosperous potentially adding more goodies, and new events are shuffled into the decks. This may not be the last time you hear from these characters and bumping into an old friend during subsequent adventures is a nice touch that in itself might add some more twists and turns to your adventures.
And that’s the game. Level characters, seek fame and fortune and be either the best of the best or dirty rotten scoundrels, it’s your call. It’s all about the journey.
The Review stuff.
Playing Gloomhaven -or more to the point – organising Gloomhaven so you can play it is a job all its own.
And that’s probably the games biggest detriment. All this world building and an endlessly sprawling campaign comes with a biblical setup and tear down and more bookkeeping than a junior accountancy exam. Some players are quite sensibly going to check out, it can be an intimidating prospect just opening that box. Personally, I’m still discovering shortcuts as the incredibly supportive community around the game creates them.
None of the components is comparable to the shiny chrome of a Fantasy Flight, it’s not festooned with miniatures and the dungeon boards are pretty bland. For all its heaps of components, it has some rough edges although I think of it having a rugged charm.
I’ve been playing it solidly since December that’s five months of at least a weekly session. In that time faithful companions have come and gone, the world has expanded bringing with it tantalising glimpses of the bigger picture the city has flourished and we’ve never once grown tired of any of it.
The combat system, levelling and card play bring with it so many options that you are constantly refining your optimum way to tackle each new scenario. The dungeon runs are enthralling from that initial blast of multiple possibilities to those last desperate moments of a scenario where every action carries with it a knife edge of victory or defeat.
And yes a great deal of these adventures revolve around clearing rooms of critters, there are still gems of scenarios that slip in challenging goals and tweaks on what we’ve seen before resulting in there always being fresh surprises around each new corner.
And probably one of the greatest aspects of the game is its sandbox-like nature allowing you to adapt your sessions to what best suits the players.
Struggling to clear those early first dungeons then simply make them easier, how everything seemingly balances despite the sheer abundance of moving parts is staggering. Its a game that is never afraid to let you do what makes you happy, it’s never beholden to the letter of the law and its all the more enjoyable for that.
Yes, it’s expensive, and maybe the component quality isn’t uniformly fantastic. But this is a game so much more than the sum of its many parts, I’ve never once found myself staring at a new dungeon set up and bemoaned its drabness.
Even now I’m thinking of all the cool stuff I’ve not mentioned or can’t and really I’m just anticipating getting back into the game it’s as enthralling now as it was when we first started.
For players that have embraced the game who have stuck with it and encountered its many charms then assuredly that answer is a resounding yes. As with any game in our hobby, it’s not going to be for everyone, we are all as unique and special as much as this game is.
For me, the answer is yes, unequivocally. It’s worth all the hype bestowed upon it and every penny that I spent on it. The fact Gloomhaven even exists is astounding, it boggles my mind whenever I just sit and think about how Issac even approached designing it.
For lovers of epic adventures that grew up playing video game RPG’s then this is one of the closet cardboard interpretations of those style of game. I recently saw a comment on a thread discussing wish fulfilment of pairing designers with beloved licenses and Mass Effect and Issac were a combination that caught my eye and I’d be a lier if I didn’t for a brief moment have the biggest smile on my face, somebody make this happen and just take my money already!