Gloomhaven Review

May 24, 2018 by brennon

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Gloomhaven. This game by Isaac Childres of Cephalofair Games has been at the top of the Board Game Geek rankings for a while now. It has seen two successful outings on Kickstarter and continues to be one of the games to pop up in a lot of tabletop gaming personalities ‘must own’ lists.

Gloomhaven Cover

Ridiculously big, packed with cardboard and plastic (although just enough!), and featuring months and months of gameplay there is a reason that this game has reached the heights that it has. Isaac Childres has created a classic that I have no doubt is going to stay in many people’s collections for years to come.

What Is Gloomhaven?

A rather big question right off the bat! Well, I know what Gloomhaven IS NOT. It is not a game for those that like the idea of role-playing your characters and coming up with cinematic and cool ways to dispatch your foes. Well, it is. Kinda. Gloomhaven IS a tight, tactical movement game about resource management, careful planning and also...smashing monsters in the face.

Gloomhaven Base CharactersOk, I think I may have lost some people at this point. Trust me, whilst Gloomhaven is a game all about delving into dungeons, slaying monsters, making decisions, and stealing all the loot, it’s not one for the faint-hearted. The game won’t ‘let you off’ if you make some bad moves. Gloomhaven is a tough game that rewards communication and teamwork. I’m all for this, and later we’ll talk about why, but I had a hard time getting my head around this at first. I’ll explain why...

I started playing Gloomhaven as the Savvas Cragheart, a big rock creature of elemental power. I had a power called Rock Tunnel and as soon as I saw it I turned to my friend who had taught us the game and said: “Oh awesome, I can use this to go under the walls in rooms and surprise the enemy!”.

Gloomhaven First Attack

He smiled and shook his head, promptly told me that you can’t do that, and have to follow the hexes on the floor. Yes, the card has the ability to bypass obstacles, but you can’t use your cards in such a ‘free’ way. Everything in Gloomhaven is firmly rooted in its grid-based system and tight mechanics - and I had a hard time separating myself from that at the beginning.

As someone who loves role-playing games, I’ve been used to playing games with this degree of freedom. Gloomhaven was a shock to the system but thankfully one that I have now fallen in love with, even if it was a tough road. If I was to try and compare this to another system, it’s a bit like the difference between the heavily prescribed grid movement/combat of Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition and...well...any of the other editions of the game.

Why Do You Love Gloomhaven Then?

A good question indeed. Gloomhaven for me shines because of the tight mechanical system it has built. It is frankly quite a feat that Isaac Childres was able to for all of this, and for it not to fall over flat, but the game truly has a solid mechanical basis which underlies everything else that is good with the game.

Gloomhaven Layout

I, for all my love of dice chucking, really adore Euro-style board games. Removing the randomness of dice and having gameplay and victory based on your choices, mitigating luck to a large degree, appeals to me a lot. That’s where Gloomhaven’s card-based mechanics shine and what has kept me coming back to it after so many sessions.

Those Darn Sexy Cards...

When you make a character in Gloomhaven you’re given a set of cards. As an example, my Cragheart started with eleven in his hand to choose from. Each turn you play two of these cards. You can then carry out the top action on one of the cards, the bottom action on the second (usually movement), and the number in the middle of one of the cards dictates the initiative you act on.

Gloomhaven Tinkerer Cards

Immediately this invites the idea of combinations, tying together actions and knowing when to push the murder button on some of your more powerful attacks. Some of your cards can be repeatedly played over successive rounds whilst others are what we call ‘burned’ or lost, so they go straight out of play.

The cards aren’t just your actions but also your life. When you run out of cards you are exhausted and have to leave the current dungeon. So, you can’t just blow all your high damage attacks early and burn cards as you’ll just end up failing to be there for your friends at the end of the scenario!

Of course, everyone else at the table is ALSO playing with a hand of card…oh and I missed an important point, you play these facedown and CANNOT communicate what you’re doing to any of the other players. You’re all mercenaries and cutthroats, after all, so you’re out for yourself more than anything else! I should add that whilst you’re not meant to be blatant about what you’re doing, you can hint as to who you are going after, and your overall idea for a isn’t that harsh!

Gloomhaven Boss & Deck

This interplay between the different players at the table, getting to know each other's decks and feeling out when someone might act, means that while at the beginning you’re going to stumble as a group, you’re slowly going to feel closer knit and in sync with each other. It’s kind of like how a real group of mercenaries might gel over time!

One of the cool things about this system, however, is that even if you do screw up your turn order, each card can always be used as a basic movement and basic attack card. You might have messed up that strike, but you’ve still got a chance to get back into the groove next time.

Even the enemies are driven by their own AI as you'll see above with the Boss and his Deck of cards. This means that each can be tailored, and you're just as surprised by what they'll do each turn. Their movement and attacks can be brutal as well, but you always get the chance to work things in your favour if you can - meaning there is some control over what happens to you.

Those Darn Sexy Smaller Cards...

Combat is then resolved by a fixed value on the attack card followed by the flip of a combat deck. The combat deck is a small deck of cards which features lots of extra values which can either take away from your attack total, add to it, double it, or maybe even throw in additional effects (as you level up).

Gloomhaven Attack CardsThis means that you have a clearer idea of just how much damage each attack is going to do and the randomness is minimised significantly. You can then, as you level up, tailor your deck with perks, removing some of the minus cards and making it more dangerous! Again, it shows the mechanical development of a fighter or mage as they get more adept at their craft.

The monster deck is also driven by a similar combat deck meaning that you can almost plan out how much an enemy is going to do to you in response, shifting your front line so that someone else can take the next blow. Both decks, for players and monsters, also have Critical Hit and Critical Miss cards in there, so you can have some nasty surprises...but they feel rather epic rather than cheap.

...So, Back To Why You Love Gloomhaven, Right?

Well, all of the core mechanics help of course there, but then the rest of the game is just so expansive and inviting. As a lover of Fantasy worlds, Isaac Childres has done some sterling work bringing Gloomhaven to life. All of the races are atypical and in most cases entirely new creations.

Gloomhaven Scoundrel & Spellweaver

Everything about the game, despite its first impressions, is oozing with character. The enemies are incredibly well designed and level up alongside your party so you always find yourself facing a challenge rather than just walking through dungeons with ease.

The map is also HUGE. There are so many different places you can go and visit. A lot of the game focuses around key story quests which push forward the narrative but there are also plenty of sidequests for you to go and explore, learning more about interesting aspects of the game world and maybe sneaking off with some impressive rewards at the same time.

My group has pushed through a quite a few different storylines and scenarios now and we’ve felt like each choice we’ve made, each avenue we’ve walked down has been an exciting adventure. Yes, there are some scenarios which you might complete easier than others, but no scenario has felt unfairly rough (bar one)...which again speaks to the amazing quality of the game, being able to produce such a landmark and expansive series without too many duff quests as part of the package.

The Little Things Matter

A few of the additionally cool things that I want to highlight about the game include the ways in which the game throws some fascinating lore bits at you to help build the world of Gloomhaven. The first of these are Road and City Events.

Gloomhaven Cards

A Road Event comes up when you head out on a journey. As you wander the roads looking to get to the next dungeon delve you might come across bandits on the road, a choice of differing paths, or something else entirely. Each of these events gives you two options (sometimes more) and your outcomes can be negative AND positive - changing things in the storyline AND your immediate adventures.

City Events are the same and happen every time you come back to Gloomhaven to level up and buy new equipment. Interestingly, each time you take on one of these events if you have a specific character in your group you might get a cool additional bonus! As an example, there was an event where we had to calm down some Savvas workers and because my Cragheart was in the group we were able to do it more successfully.

Gloomhaven Card Fan

They also threw in another neat bonus for each dungeon delve called a Battle Goal. This Battle Goal earns you ticks which you can use to unlock perks. Battle Goals are hidden from other players and might be things like ‘pick up five or more coins’ or ‘don’t kill more than three enemies’. It means that you’ll be trying to play suboptimally and starts to add a whole new dynamic to the group as everyone works out how you’re all out for yourselves!

Last of these little features that really stick out when it comes to Gloomhaven is Retirement. Each character, when created, has a Personal Quest that they are trying to achieve. This could be any number of things and is the way that you unlock new characters and other secrets in Gloomhaven.

Gloomhaven Character Boxes

This gives your character a focus and helps guide your choices when it comes to gameplay, and offers up a tasty surprise when you finally complete your Personal Quest and retire. It keeps the game fresh and moving, adding new elements just when you might start to get tired of a particular character. There’s nothing to stop you ‘tutoring’ your Personal Quest though and just avoiding it if you like playing a particular class, but it means that you have another awesome avenue to explore story-wise in a game that is, otherwise, rather mechanically rigid.

A Note On Miniatures & Component Quality

Gloomhaven only comes with miniatures for the main characters you’re playing. Thank God. I don’t think I could have handled having a game like Gloomhaven be one of those miniatures heavy investments. It means you can hobby away and paint the heroes, then just enjoy the lovely artwork on the other models rather than feeling like you’ve failed yourself!

Gloomhaven Components

It also means that Gloomhaven could feature looooooooads of different enemies for you to fight without having to worry about how they were going to sculpt them all. The Gloomhaven miniatures won’t be winning any awards however as a heads up, but they look good when painted and serve as board game miniatures...which is what this game is.

I will also note that there is a good mix of male and female characters in the game too, and the artwork for them, by Isaac Childres instruction, is practical and stylish - meaning you won’t see a lot of boob armour and chainmail bikinis here! This art direction, plus the weird and wonderful races we talked about before, making for a nice collection of hero characters...who just keep surprising us after everyone box we unlock!

Beyond the models, some of the components, at least in the First Edition, can be a little bit lacklustre. The character boards don’t hold the tokens for health and experience well, and you can sometimes end up running out of health tokens for some of the monsters when you get into tough fights...but, these are small niggles and most were solved by the Second Edition.

Most of the other components in the game though are great. The tiles, terrain, tokens and more are nice and simple to get to grips with...but we would suggest you DEFINITELY get yourself an organiser to hold all the bits for this game. It is not forgiving on shelf/box space.

Final Thoughts...

Gloomhaven is practically too expansive to try and review in a traditional sense and so I hope that my enthusiasm for a number of the different facets of this game has come through. I went into Gloomhaven thinking I was going to not enjoy it all, but when you get everything to combo together the mechanical core of the game melts away and you can start to get lost in the game world a little bit more. The awesome gooey centre of the Gloomhaven cookie remains, keeping everything ticking, but you’ve also got so much more to enjoy, regardless of what angle you might approach this game from.

Gloomhaven Map

The achievements, goals, quests and more keep you wanting to play more, a bit like going through daily challenges in video’s just so addictive!

You have to be able to take the rough with the smooth with Gloomhaven though. Despite its solid mechanics, there will be turns where you don’t do much. The fact that this is a cooperative puzzle you’re trying to solve means that as long as your cog in the machine keeps going, you’ll get to do something great in maybe a turn or two.

Honestly, the price is also a big barrier for a lot of people too but if you can bear it and know you’ve got a group that could sit with you for a while playing the game then it could be worth it. Gloomhaven does dungeon delving better than Descent or Imperial Assault by a long way - and in many ways just by removing the dice!

I wasn’t lying when I said that you could potentially play this game for decades. Once you’ve exhausted the myriad quests and side missions you can simply play through randomly generated dungeons with new, or indeed, old characters and keep trying to find new ways to engage with enemies and the environment.

Gloomhaven Forgotten Circles Expansion

This is all without the inevitable expansions for the game, one of which has already been planned to release later in 2018.

There is a reason why Gloomhaven climbed so high in the charts and why it remains one of the favourite games on many lists. It has a solid core and a superbly rich exterior that so many games fail to get right.

Hopefully, this gives you a good insight into whether or not the game will appeal to you and your group. If you have any more specific questions you want me to answer on Gloomhaven then I will do so in the comments!

What do you make of Gloomhaven?

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"It has a solid core and a superbly rich exterior that so many games fail to get right..."

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