Gloomhaven: Does it live up to the hype? (Review by RJ Garrison)

Gloomhaven

Designer:  Issac Childres

Publisher:  Cephalofair Games

Artists: Alexandr Elichev, Josh T. McDowell, and Alvaro Nebot

Players:  1-4

Playing Time:  60-120 minutes (I’ve also seen 30 minute/ player)

Ages:  12+

MSRP: $140.00

Photos provided by Cephalofair Games

In December of 2017, Designer Issac Childres took the #1 spot for board games on the world’s #1 board game site, www.boardgamegeek.com (BGG), with his massive “Euro-inspired tactical combat” game, Gloomhaven.  Gloomhaven knocked Matt Leacock and Rob Daviau’s Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 out of the top spot and has been holding steady since.  

Gloomhaven’s first kickstarter in 2015 raised over $386,000 and the kickstarter for the second printing raised nearly $4 million!  The upcoming sequel to Gloomhaven, riding on the coattails of Gloomhaven’s popularity, Frosthaven broke records for crowdfunding and raised close to $13 million!  To date, over 200,000 copies of Gloomhaven have been sold.  That’s a lot of people owning a lot of Gloomhaven.  The game has a rating of 8.8 (out of 10) on BGG with 39,366 ratings as of the printing of this article.  Over 15k gamers have rated the game a perfect ‘10.’  But does the game live up to expectations?

Gloomhaven is a Legacy cooperative adventure/ dungeon crawler/ tactical card combat with some Euro flair thrown in.  

The game takes place in the city of Gloomhaven and its surrounding lands.  Players form an adventuring party that work together to overcome a variety of dungeons, defeat monsters, slay the big bads and get loot.  Each character starts the campaign with a goal and once they achieve that goal, that character retires.  Then new characters are unlocked with new abilities which allows players a variety of gameplay throughout the campaign.  That being said, this is not a stereotypical dice-chucking dungeon crawl where you simply run through and kill as many bad guys as you can.  There’s hand management, strategy, and each dungeon along the way offers a puzzle.  How does a party best utilize their characters and their resources without getting exhausted and losing the level?

There are a lot of things that happen outside your main adventures.  There’s a City Event Deck and a Road Event Deck that take place in either a.  Gloomhaven as you are about to leave the city prior to an adventure, or b. On the road heading towards the chosen adventure.  These cards have a little flavor text on them and offer the party a choice that will occasionally reward or punish them depending on the decisions that are made.  The front of the card offers a scenario and the backside of the card has the reward or consequences of that decision.  There are a few cards that have the same wording on them but different outcomes to your choices, and I would have liked to see the wording slightly different on the cards so your party isn’t sitting there thinking they’re experiencing deja’vu. 

The main gameplay in each dungeon is fairly straight forward:

On your turn, you choose 2 cards from your hand and play the top ability from one and the bottom ability from another.

You start with a hand of cards, which act as your character’s stamina and abilities. If you run out of cards, you exhaust and you’re out of the game for that round.  Characters aren’t killed off.  They just get tired and hopefully your companions are able to complete the scenario while dragging your passed out sorry butt with them.  Each round you choose 2 cards and play them.  Each card has a top ability and a bottom ability on the card.  You choose one top from one card and the bottom from the other.  The cards have initiative values on them.  Turns run in order of initiative.  Everyone reveals their cards at the same time, then monster cards are flipped (these cards also have an initiative value) and you play in order of initiative.  That’s pretty much how a turn is played.

COMPONENTS:  The box comes with 22lbs of cardboard, plastic and cards.  This is a huge amount of game in a big, big box.  The miniatures are a decent quality.  Not the best I’ve seen, but certainly good quality and each distinct and able to tell who’s who on the board.  The game comes with 17 playable character miniatures. Gloomhaven offers 34 new monster types, and 13 Boss monsters with close to 240 high quality monster standees!  There’s over 1500 cards in the box.  It’s a lot of stuff. 

I will warn you, don’t break this out until you’ve looked at some of the storage solution options out there.  There are a number of different inserts for the game available, that can cost as much as 2-3 new games.  Because I’m cheap, my personal favorite is the Y.A.S.S. (Yet Another Storage Solution) by Ryan H. found at Y.A.S.S (Yet Another Storage Solution) | BoardGameGeek.  It ran me about $20.00, is made up of 4 plano boxes, a 12 slot accordion binder for the map tiles and a bunch of labeled plastic baggies.  This helps to keep this monstrosity organized and much easier for setup and breakdown.  I would not recommend diving in until you have some form of order and control over the set up!  

The one thing that puzzles me is the game comes with a fairly nice board which you get to place stickers all over showing where you’ve been and what grand feats you and your mates have accomplished throughout your adventures.  But you don’t really use it that much.  Really.  We don’t really use it at all.  I purchased the upgradable/ removable sticker set for the game in the case I need/ want to reset it at some point and start playing with a different group of adventurers.  This set comes with a folder that has a check box system showing you where you’ve been and what you’ve accomplished.  The board is nice, but it doesn’t really do much and there’s no room for it on the table anyway.  

The rulebook is a 52 page rulebook but is fairly well laid out.  It’s just not a quick read and setup to get going.  In addition to the rules and what each of the symbols/ traits/ turns/ etc. do during the game, also covers a lot of the “if this happens, then do this…” scenarios.  The gameplay isn’t extremely difficult, but there are a ton of different scenarios that come up and the rulebook does a decent job covering a good number of them.  If players run into an issue they can’t find the answer to in the rulebook, there is a fairly comprehensive official FAQ online.  Does having a game that needs an FAQ mean the rulebook is bad?  No.  There’s just a lot of things that can happen during your adventure and while the basics are covered in good detail, the FAQ starts to cover those pesky little “what about this weird scenario” type questions.

MECHANICS:  As I’ve mentioned, there is a lot going on in this game.  A lot of things you have to remember.  A lot of different symbols that come up with different monsters, etc.  The game utilizes a variety of mechanics including deck building/ grid movement, hand management, variable player powers, and more in a fully cooperative Legacy game.  The mechanics work really well together.  

Playing 2 cards on a turn determine a players initiative, the characters abilities and powers/ movement and how much stamina (cards left over) the character has left on that turn.  Sometimes cards can be reused, sometimes they are lost until the end of the round.  Part of the fun is deciding when the opportune time to inflict the most damage is, spending a card that will be lost vs using other cards that deal lesser abilities or damage so that you can recover them during a rest to be able to strike again later.  

The game also has built in really great synergistic effects. For example, the Scoundrel character has some nice adjacency bonuses that can do some pretty serious damage if paired with a character like the Brute or Craghart that can get in and up close to the enemy.  

TIME, AGES & PLAYER COUNT: More often than not, a 2 player scenario runs around 120 minutes for me and my adventurer friend, but not by too much, including setup and breakdown.  If we rerun a scenario, the second time through goes much quicker.  I’ve led some single, smaller scenarios at GenCon with 4 players and were able to complete them in an hour, but those scenarios were set up specifically to be achieved in an hour, with 4 players.  With 95 scenarios that players can come across during the game, time will depend on the group and scenario.  But the 60-120 minutes for 1-4 players seems to work well across the board.  12+ for ages is appropriate and that seemed to work fine at the convention, getting a variety of ages sitting down at the table, but rarely people less than 12 years.

ARTWORK:  The artists, Alexandr Elichev, Josh T. McDowell, and Alvaro Nebotdid a phenomenal job with the artwork in this game.  Each character is distinct, the monsters (for the most part) are easy to tell apart and well designed.  The artwork does a great job of setting the city as dark, fantasy with a variety of races that give the game a variety of gameplay and look while adventuring.

FINAL THOUGHTS:

Pros:  This game is fun!  This is an amazing game, with a lot of replayability.  Finishing each campaign level leaves me wanting to come back for more, and more and more.  

The puzzley feature in figuring out the best way to select and utilize a players hand of cards to get the mission accomplished is amazing. 

I haven’t hit a scenario where it just feels like I’m doing the same thing over and over again.  

The ability to retire a character and start with a new one and completely have to change how you’ve been playing is a nice addition to the game.

The rulebook is massive and covers a lot of territory.
There is an Official FAQ as well as plenty of forums if you run into problems or questions along the way.  Google is your friend.

This is one of the few games I have rated a “10.”

There is a ton of game here.  

For as much game as is inside the box, the price point is awesome.  

COVID note:  During COVID, I have given my adventuring companion his character set, any items that are available in the store that there are multiple items of, blessing and curse cards, etc.  He also has the character he wants to play next (that will be unlocked due to his current character’s goal card.)  This way, we are able to continue the campaign via Zoom meetings where I set up a camera over the board, snap pictures of the monster cards we’ll be going up against and have everything set up for the scenario on my table.  Not as great as getting together and playing in real life, but we still make it happen and are enjoying the game experience despite pandemic challenges.

Cons:  This is not a stereotypical dungeon crawler.  If you’re looking for that, or a dice chucker that you can go and mow down dozens of enemies without having to think, this is not that game.  (I suggest Zombicide if that’s what you’re looking for. ) 

There is a steep learning curve and some people can be turned off by how many different things are going on in the game. (See note below about Gloomhaven:  Jaws of the Lion)

The rulebook is massive.  

Setup is a pain in the butt.  Seriously.  Get a storage solution.  Then it’s just a pain in the neck.

This takes time and commitment to play.  If you don’t have either of those yourself or with your gaming group, you’ve got a really nice, heavy, expensive paperweight.

It’s expensive (see above comment in Pro section).

Cephalofair has recently released Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion.  (See OPG review here:Gloomhaven Jaws of the Lion (Game Review by Brandon Kempf) | The Opinionated Gamers)  If you are thinking about jumping in, this would be a great place to start and learn the game before plunging in and getting it’s big brother.  Jaws of the Lion has a quick learning track and has put all the maps into a book, so setup is much more streamlined and gets you into the game a lot quicker.  

*Cephalofair will be releasing Frosthaven this spring.

THOUGHTS FROM OTHER OPINIONATED GAMERS:

Jeff Lingwall There are games, and then there are lifestyle games. Lifestyle games are ones that people devote themselves to pretty monogamously: chess, go, D&D, and Magic the Gathering might be examples of these. Devotees don’t really mind what’s going on in the rest of the gaming world, because their game is an entire universe unto itself, with professional players and an entire industry employing people who run the world of that game. 

The games we typically write about on this blog aren’t lifestyle games for most players and readers. For example, if I can get 20 plays out of even a Spiel winner, I’d consider it a good investment. Part of the joy of modern gaming is sampling from the vast buffet of ever evolving modern game designs!

So how does this relate to Gloomhaven? Gloomhaven sits about halfway between game and lifestyle game. The commitment required to really play Gloomhaven is tremendous. I’ve been “playing” Gloomhaven for a year, or maybe two? Given the vast amount of setup and the length of many scenarios, I’ve spent what for me is substantial time in the game, and we’re not even halfway through the campaign.

This is both exciting and worrisome to me as a trend in gaming. I love that for around $100 I can get a game that could potentially absorb all my spare time for a year. That’s tremendous. At the same time, do I want to devote myself to a single game for that amount of time? If gaming increasingly tends toward monster campaign-based legacy games, does it limit our potential for common dialogue and shared gaming experiences? Are those playing Gloomhaven and the like entering a brave new world of gaming in which Gloomhaven, and Frosthaven, and Jaws of the Lion form a new series of lifestyle games, that is simply too much commitment for someone with a day job and kids? I’m not sure.

As far as a review of the actual game, it’s pretty good. It’s probably my favorite dungeon crawl, with interesting campaign progression, great tactical choices, wonderful ability to cooperate while also pursuing individual goals, and a truly vast gaming space to explore as characters progress, drop out, confront new challenges, relate to new characters, and so on.

It’s great. It’s just … a lot.

Patrick Brennan: We finished off the main campaign and got about halfway through the Forgotten Circle expansion campaign when covid brought us to a crashing halt. That’s about 2 years worth of fortnightly sessions. I’m not sure we’ll pick up again or invest in the new frosty version, perhaps due to the gameplay now feeling explored, the impetus waned, and the ever-ongoing drive and need to find time for other games. But there’s so much to love about this game. It’s a tactical dungeon crawler, sure. But the decisions each turn are really hard and meaningful (unlike most dice-based dungeon crawlers which are more play-it-for-the-ride games). It can be agonising trying to get the right action combination for yourself and for the team for this moment and keep enough powder dry for future. There’s just the right amount of variance for your plans to play out mostly as expected but with enough surprise to maintain tension. I’ve tried the random dungeon generator, but setting up each room (with new monsters) is tiresome so it’s not pulled for casual gaming. However I’m a legacy campaign fan, and we’ve had great value for our money and time investment in this one. 

Patrick Korner: Between picking up a copy of this when it was on Kickstarter the second time, and the onset of COVID-19 and its attendant restrictions on face-to-face gaming, I will conservatively estimate that my game group has played well north of 100 scenarios, including nearly the entirety of the original campaign, most of the side scenarios, and about half of the Forgotten Circles campaign (which is Most Definitely Harder). It is easily one of the slickest systems out there, with a ton of variety and innovation in scenarios, lots to discover along the way, and some pretty interesting ‘how the heck do we kill that’ puzzles. I rate it a 10 despite a number of flaws which bear noting:

  • The campaign is disappointingly linear, and even seemingly fundamental decisions don’t actually affect the in-game world all that much.
  • Town and Road events are a bit of a random element, as the ‘right’ answer is often impossible to guess at, so they’re more like flipping a coin. This can get a bit aggravating.
  • Despite all the room for variety, too many scenarios just require you to ‘kill all monsters’. Killing is fun, but sometimes you want to have other goals in life.
  • The loot system is not bad, but the costing system for the more advanced items is such that most of them are completely pointless to buy. Once you have some decent weapons and potions, and maybe a cloak or armour, the rest of your gold goes into enhancements, leaving a huge piece of the game mostly ignored. Some items are hilariously overcosted for what they do, which is a shame.

Yes, it seems like a long list. No, they’re not in any way shape or form dealbreakers. Despite the above I rate this game a 10! I understand that much of the above has been tweaked and corrected in the upcoming Frosthaven, which is a true ‘prequel’ and not an expansion to Gloomhaven, i.e. you can use your Gloomhaven characters in the game, but everything else is new and shiny. At this point, with SO many copies of Gloomhaven out there, you can probably pick one up for a reasonable price. Or dip your toe into the waters with the more-easily-accessible Jaws of the Lion and then grade up to Elite ‘Haven when Frosthaven drops. The choice is yours – you’re not going to go wrong with any of them, unlike some of those road events…

Alan How: i played this about 20 times with the same person. I’d endorse the comments everyone else has made. It is engaging, clever, interesting and brilliant. Unlike others I did not get anywhere near completing the campaign so I’m sure I’ve missed out on some great moments. But for me, the volume of games and the cult of the new won over consistently playing the same game. 

Gloomhaven Jaws of the Lion awaits the second half of COVID. Sometime.

Brandon: I was one of the original backers of Gloomhaven when it launched the first time on Kickstarter, I got it, I sorted it, bought a good organizer, which it absolutely needs, and still ended up trading it away after 3 plays due to that dense rulebook that managed to make the game even more of a fiddly, convoluted mess than it already was. Fast forward to the Frosthaven kickstarter and the bug hit again, and I backed both, for some unknown reason. Thankfully, I found Jaws of the Lion though, because with that, I’ve had a great time learning and playing, and I think that if we ever finish that, it’ll lead well into Gloomhaven. Sadly, our Jaws of the Lion campaign has been on hold due to Covid and obligations of the players, so who knows when finishing it will happen. This is a Lifestyle game, and everyone is correct, there is dedication needed and a lot of luck to get everyone on the same timeframe to play. I like variety in gaming, that’s why I churn so many games, so I just wonder if I’ve bought two giant doorstops, or boxes for the cat to sit on when he climbs up on the game shelves. I enjoy it, I think there is room for individuality in play, meaning the choices you make for your character can matter, but I wonder how long I’ll be able to stand the basic, kill these things to get this type of quests. I guess really it doesn’t matter if I ever finish any of the titles, right? As long as we have fun playing when we actually get to play. 

RATINGS:
I Love it!  RJ Garrison, Patrick Brennan, Patrick Korner, Alan How

Like It.  Jeff Lingwall, Brandon Kempf

Neutral.

Not for me.

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3 Responses to Gloomhaven: Does it live up to the hype? (Review by RJ Garrison)

  1. Nik says:

    We’ve been playing for a couple of months, & were supposed to be joined by a friend for gaming weekends but… lockdown. Interesting to read that you have managed to play by zoom, that’s something I was wondering about.

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