Gloomhaven Jaws of the Lion (Game Review by Brandon Kempf)

  • Designer: Isaac Childres
  • Artists: Francesca Baerald, Cat Bock, David Bock. David Demaret, Alexandr Elichev, Jason D. Kingsley & Josh T. McDowell
  • Publisher: Cephalofair Games
  • Players: 1-4
  • Time: 30-120 Minutes
  • Times Played: 5 (9.5 hours so far)
  • Affiliate Link

DISCLAIMER: This review will be as spoiler free as it possibly can be. Some of the photos may contain information that is unknown at the start, but I will tell you nothing about how any of it turns out. Pictures will be there to just show mechanisms involved in the game, plus the look and feel. If you would like specifics on gameplay or story or components, feel free to ask away in the comments and I can find a private way to share, this review is not going to get into that stuff. 

The biggest hurdle in getting people to play board games is pretty simple. Sure, there are a lot of different things that can contribute to the refusal to sit and play, but the number one thing that prevents people from playing games has to be the rule books and how we learn board games. Rule books just aren’t something that most people can easily digest and understand. It doesn’t matter what the game is, or how easily understood by gamers the rules are, rule books just completely ruin board gaming for most people. My parents can’t, or don’t want to, learn Ticket to Ride or Patchwork from the rule book. There is a barrier of entry there that just prevents them from jumping in and playing. Rule books over the past couple years have gotten increasingly better, for the most part. Publishers are hiring competent writers and editors who are trying to open the door to more than just hobby gamers by using easier to understand language and instructions, but the barrier still exists. 

Another thing that really prevents folks from playing games is the dreaded teaching of a game. Most of us aren’t teachers for a living, and judging from some rules explanations I’ve gotten, I’m grateful that some of you folks aren’t teaching my kids in any kind of structured environment. I’m not the best, and I still am never comfortable that I am going to get everything one hundred percent correct the first time. That’s after learning something close to 1200 games, and probably teaching at least, half of those. I am thankful for my group and their desire to play games again, even if I completely screw something up. 

Why am I talking about rulebooks being an exclusionary thing for gaming? I should be talking about Gloomhaven Jaws of the Lion, right? Well, I don’t think that you can really talk about Gloomhaven Jaws of the Lion without acknowledging why it exists in the first place. Gloomhaven is the number one game on BoardGameGeek, the number one source of all board gaming information on the internet. So imagine being that person who just happened upon BoardGameGeek and wanted to find a great game for the first time. A week later, Gloomhaven lands on your doorstep, probably slightly cracking your foundation in the process. I will tell you this before we get too far, I’ve played a fair number of games, and I thought Gloomhaven was a dense, clunky and unfun experience for the first couple of plays. Too many rules, too much setup, just too much everything all at once. I sold my copy as soon as I could I can’t imagine many folks even playing it twice before selling it if they weren’t already gamers or had someone to coach them through the entire process. Another reason for Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion existing is the fact that Gloomhaven wouldn’t fit on Target shelves. If it were on the shelf, new gamers wouldn’t be loading it into a Target cart and paying one hundred plus dollars for it. It’s just a massive thing. Jaws of the Lion, on the other hand, with its sub-$50 price point and smaller box, is more enticing to the Target crowd, which up until now was the only place you could buy it.

Many board gamers come from a video gaming background. One thing that modern video gaming has gotten correct — among a myriad of things they have gotten wrong — is the teaching style. In most video games, you are thrust into the game and learn what you can do as you begin play. The only barrier of entry here is owning the game, well that and a gaming system — but I digress. There is no rule book to read that tells you what you can and cannot do, no rulebook telling you what each button does, you immerse yourself in learning through play. Game teacher and friend, Paul Grogan, uses this method as best he can when teaching board games at conventions all over the world. Now, unlike video gaming, there is almost always going to be some general learning, or setup that has to be done prior to starting a game. But for the most part with Paul, you are into the game as quickly as possible and learning as you play. 

Legends of Andor tried to take that style of teaching and created a board game that taught the game as you played from the book and it worked wonderfully. Your first game you learn the basics, then games after you add complexity and new rules. It almost felt like you were playing a video game and learning while playing, but there is still that disconnect of having to stop and read things, which you will always have to do. At least until Alexa fully teaches me something interactively while I sit at the table. 

Gloomhaven Jaws of the Lion tries to take the things learned from Legends of Andor and insert the teaching of the game —  which quite honestly has no business being taught this way —  into an immersive play-as-you-learn style with minimal rules reading ahead of time. You know what? It works, and it works wonderfully. 

Another thing that Gloomhaven suffers from is the fact that there is just too much of everything. Too many tiles, too many tokens, too many rules. Jaws of the Lion distills everything down to what can only be described as a sort of minimalism, in the same way you would call a mansion minimalist when comparing it to a skyscraper. There is still a lot of stuff in this big box, which is smaller, but still bulky and packed absolutely full. 

One huge difference in Jaws of the Lion is the fact that there aren’t the normal dungeon tiles, everything is laid out in a book. That’s right, the pages of a book act as the playing surface for your heroes, of which there are four in the game. This huge change decreases the footprint needed for the storage by half and it works fantastically. You still have tokens to track everything, and you have miniatures for your heroes and cardboard standees for your bad guys all over the playing area, but that book is something that other game publishers and designers really need to look at for future games. Other examples of games that have done this would be Near and Far and Stuffed Fables. Two games I’ve not played, but now I am kind of curious to see how they did this. 

The first five games of Jaws of the Lion are how you learn the rules of how to play. I believe in the box you can play up to twenty five scenarios. You may not play that many, but you could. So, twenty percent of the scenarios in Jaws of the Lion are dedicated to getting you into the game and learning. The first scenario you learn the basics of movement and combat and completing goals set forth towards your crew. From that point on, each scenario is specifically designed to keep you moving forward, learning new mechanisms, new vocabulary and new ways to win. Making your characters stronger and you smarter and pushing you towards understanding just how to play. 

From memory, there isn’t much that has changed from Gloomhaven to Jaws of the Lion, at least gameplay wise, but this way of teaching the game makes it feel 100% fresher to me than its big box predecessor. A lot of that is just the burden of learning rules being lifted from the shoulders of the players. You certainly still learn, you just learn in a far more engaging way, which makes the process a lot more fun and the game seems to play more smoothly. 

My problem with these style of games is that they take a lot of your time. Twenty five games of Jaws of the Lion takes a big commitment, and while you don’t have to have the same heroes involved, or the same players playing them, it still takes a lot of planning to play through them. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a game issue, this is a people issue. We’ve played our first five games of Jaws of the Lion. Completed the first three in the first sitting of about five hours. The second sitting took the entirety to complete Scenario 4 and the third sitting took the entirety to finish Scenario 5. Each of those settings were between two to three hours long. Had we lost any of those, we of course would have had to replayed them, per the rules of the game. So five games in just under ten hours for us with three players. Now, $50 for 50 hours is a pretty good return on investment, if you get to play them all. But as someone who thrives on variety in my gaming habits, this is going to be tough to pull off, not to mention Gloomhaven (yes, I am a sucker and backed it again thinking the next time would be different) and Frosthaven being on the way as well. The eternal battle of being a board gamer, too many games, not nearly enough time. I do look forward to the challenge though, I look forward to trying to get our group through the story, which is unfolding even as you learn the game. 

Addendum: So, a couple folks who have read and helped me edit this piece have asked why I decided to jump back into Gloomhaven and Frosthaven after not being impressed and selling off the first edition, which had that lovely wooden organizer as well. The biggest reason, which I fully admit, I am PT Barnum’s sucker. The other big thing is that the dynamics of our gaming group have changed quite a bit and Covid-19 made sure that any game group I was a part of was a small select number of people. It just so happens, some of those people like this style of game, a style of game that has been ignored for the most part in my groups of the past. So much so that we’re batting around the idea of thematic game nights to go along with our normal fare. In a perfect world, I would have gotten to play Jaws of the Lion before the Kickstarter campaign for Frosthaven went live, but as we all know, we aren’t living in a perfect world, so I took another chance. But I think that after playing Jaws of the Lion the chance may pay off, we’ll see. Hopefully you all don’t have to endure three years of me posting nothing but Gloomhaven stuff. 

Thoughts from the Opinionated Gamers

Steph H. – Fantastic intro into the Gloomhaven universe. It works in all of the mechanics over several games, so it won’t overwhelm new players. It also gives new content for veteran Gloomhaven fans to enjoy. All-around a great game!

Frank B.– It is missing stickers on cards and swapping out characters. In its place, you get speed and ease of play. A total win, and possibly better than the original Gloomhaven. Even the new character classes are cleverly designed. They are pretty much the iconic roles. Melee guy hits things next to him, BUT has a lot of special terrain manipulation. Archer instead uses axes, but has one which is his favorite — several cards and a token revolve around this axe. 

My one big concern of the Gloomhaven play loop is like Halo. There is an AMAZING game system, but you mostly play the same game with very minor variants over and over. The scenario designs so far are still very similar. For now, the core game is so good that it works, but I worry for Frosthaven. 

Luke H.- Loving this for the self-contained Gloomhaven experience that it is. I, like Frank, hope for a bit of variety in enemies and scenarios in the back half of the game. The first 5 scenarios were fine for me as a GH veteran, if only bc they were very short. Too much more, and I might have been tempted to jump ahead, which has admittedly been suggested by the author. 

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

I love it.  Steph Hodge, Frank Branham, Luke Hedgren

I like it…Brandon K


Not for me

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