Tabletop Review- Gloomhaven
Way Too Many Games first mentioned Gloomhaven just after Asmodee Digital announced a digital version at GenCon. I bet you’re wondering why it took so long for a gaming site to utter the title Gloomhaven. First off, we weren’t covering board games at the time. Secondly, I’ve been too busy playing Gloomhaven to stop and write about the contents of this delightfully cumbersome box.
Gloomhaven was my introduction to heavy campaign board games and despite how long I’ve been playing, it hasn’t grown old. The twenty pound box put together by Isaac Childres contains so many stories, unique characters, and interesting item cards that the experience is always evolving.
Enter Gloomhaven: a bustling city of warring cultures. The holy Sanctuary of the Great Oak cares for the impoverished citizens, while cultists subvert their efforts by summoning elemental demons in service to formless voices. Vermlings scurry about the slums and sewers for scraps. The reptilian like Quatryls focus on engineering new tools to make up for their lack of strength, while the brutish Inox find work as the muscle for crime lords. Whatever your reason for coming to Gloomhaven, the city is alive with adventure and mystery.
You and your party play the role of mercenaries looking for work in Gloomhaven. By chance you meet a Valrath woman dressed in a red cloak by the name of Jekserah, who hires you to chase down a thief who stole valuable documents from her. A mercenary has to eat, so why not?
As with all games, the starting quest only leads to new and grander adventures. After completing the first and second scenarios of the game, the party can choose to either continue to pursue the original questline or chase down a new and shadowy villain. This will be the first of many instances where players’ parties will have to choose which branching narrative to follow, sometimes at the risk of permanently closing off the other scenarios.
Gloomhaven is a highly modular game. Guided by well organized rule and campaign books, each scenario is setup by arranging double-sided modular map tiles and placing obstacles, traps, and enemies on the board. Each scenario opens with narrative flavor text that keeps the overarching story moving forward, be it the main quests or side quests.
Each round, players will play two ability cards from their hands. These cards will determine what actions each player can take on this round. Cards are divided into top and bottom sections with a number in the center. The number, referred to as initiative, determines the turn order for the round, including enemies. Once each player has selected their cards, cards with attack actions and initiative are also drawn for the monsters. The character or monster with the lowest initiative number starts the round and turns proceed in ascending order of initiative.
The ability cards each have four possible actions on them. By default, the top section of every card can be used to attack for two damage and the bottom section can be used to move. But the other top and bottom actions on the cards are special abilities specific to the character class. On each turn, players can choose to execute two of the actions on the cards, but they must be the top action from one of the two cards played and the bottom action from the other. This system forces players to strategize and think at least one turn ahead. It also means that there are is a back up plan for players to fall back on should a teammate interfere with their original plan.
Even after ability cards are played, there is still an element of chance involved. Gloomhaven uses a small deck of cards known as the attack modifier deck. Taking the place of a more traditional system like dice, players will draw the top card from this deck that will impact the effectiveness of their attack. The deck of twenty cards contains -2, -1, +0, +1, +2, a critical failure (nullify) and a critical hit (2x) card. The number on the modifier card gets applied to the attack value, altering its value for better or worse. As each character progresses through the campaign, they’ll earn perks that will let them alter the modifier deck by adding cards with status effects, elemental infusion, or removing negative modifiers. I understand that randomness is something that some players are abhorrently opposed to, but take my word for it that the attack modifier deck is a constant source of dramatic tension that helps make Gloomhaven so exciting.
As if that wasn’t enough, various items and abilities infuse the room with elements or consume the elements in the room to boost attacks. Consuming elements can add bonus attack damage, shields, range of attack, or even restore some health, but they can’t be used on the same turn in which they are generated so parties will have to work together to generate and consume as needed. However, monsters can also use elements and steal them before players can use them, unleashing more devastating attacks. But because each element can only be used once, it creates just one more way that players on the same team can undermine each other and make Gloomhaven a wonderfully dynamic experience.
Objectives and initiative can often backfire in Gloomhaven. The party will always share the same scenario objectives, but each player has two additional goals: a Battle Goal and a Life Goal. Battle goals are drawn at the beginning of each scenario and are kept secret from other players. Battle goals might be something like never allowing your health to drop to half of its maximum or revealing the next room on your turn. Life goals are objectives that each character has throughout the duration of the campaign. If one of the mercenaries completes their life goal, they retire and players can unlock one of the many locked items in the game.
But both battle and life goals are incentives for players to ignore the scenario objectives and go off on their own. Completing personal goals grows characters, increases their health, grants new abilities, items, and perks. Jumping back to player turns, if someone with faster initiative decides to go and open the next room to complete their battle goal, suddenly there’s whole new horde of enemy monsters that the party will have to deal with and players will have to change their approach using whatever abilities are on the cards they’ve already played for the round. As a result, there’s a constant push and pull between doing what’s best for character progression and what’s best for game progression.
In most games, it would make sense for players to choose the party over themselves, but not in Gloomhaven. One of the game’s greatest strengths is the incredible variation between character classes. Party composition is so important in Gloomhaven that prioritizing character growth to better help the party later isn’t a bad thing, even if it comes at the cost of defeat.
When you first begin playing Gloomhaven, there are only six classes available to play as: Cragheart, Mindthief, Tinkerer, Scoundrel, Brute, and Spellweaver. The other eleven classes are all in sealed boxes that can be unlocked after completing a life goal. Gloomhaven does a wonderful job ensuring that each class is unique from the others.
Among the starting six there are two character classes that can be effectively used as the muscle: Brute and Cragheart. But even though they can both be used as tank characters, they are vastly different. The Inox Brute is more of a traditional tank class using heavy attacks and shields with much more health than his counterparts. Meanwhile the Savvas Cragheart has more nuanced skills: using obstacles, traps, and heavy area of effect attacks that deal collateral damage to nearby allies.
The other four starting characters have much less health and act better as quick melee, support, and ranged characters. The Human Scoundrel is your party’s rogue character. She moves quickly, collects gold constantly, and gets bonuses for attacking next to allies or isolating enemies.
The Vermling Mindthief is a great melee character that can hit low and fast while moving and become invisible. Thanks to her mind control abilities that develop later on, turning monsters against one another while she disappears and watches them kill each other, she is a personal favorite of mine.
Arguably the most co-dependent class in the starting six is the Orchid Spellweaver. She is a magic user who specializes in in area of effect and infusing/consuming elements. With the right party members at her side, she can be an absolutely devastating force, but she has the least number of cards at her disposal.
Last, and controversially not least, we have the Quatryl Tinkerer. Frequently considered the weakest of the starting six, the Tinkerer is designed as the earliest accessible support class. He can be built as either a low damaged ranged character, a healer, or something in-between. He often gets a bad wrap because of his lack of powerful cards, but I’ve played many games where the victory came from the Tinkerer saving the party at the last possible second. Without our aptly named Tinkerer, Tinkerbell, we never would have made it beyond the first few scenarios.
Each character class has a max number of ability cards that they can carry noted on their character card. This maximum can never be altered and essentially acts as a timer for each scenario. For each round, players select to play two ability cards from their hands and then discards them. But if each character can only hold a few cards at a time, what happens when all your cards are in the discard pile? Well, you rest.
When you can no longer play two cards for the round, you either short rest or long rest. When you short rest, players pick up all the cards in their discard pile at the end of the round, randomly choose one to be placed into the “lost” pile and then return the remaining cards to their hand. Any cards placed placed into the lost pile are permanently removed from the game session and can not be retrieved. Similarly, the long rest option allows players to recover their discard pile and choose which of the cards will become lost, and they can restore two health and refresh and spent items. The trade off is that they will have to forfeit their turn that round.
The balance between discarding and losing cards is a delicate one. Once all your cards are lost, your character is exhausted and departs from the party, leaving your party to continue without you. Some of the most powerful ability cards of any class have a “lose card” symbol making them a one-time use card before they are sent to the lost pile for the remainder of the game. Even if the situation seems dire early in the game, playing loss cards means burning through your hand faster than necessary and you may not survive until the end of the round.
Even after all that, there’s more. Between scenarios, parties will find themselves in the city of Gloomhaven itself where they can level up, buy and sell gear and potions, and donate to the Sanctuary of the White Oak for an extra critical hit modifier for the next scenario. The city of Gloomhaven essentially acts as the central hub to do all things outside of game scenarios. As your party progresses through the campaign, you bring more wealth and fame to the city and market inventory improves and carries more effective armor and weapons.
With each visit to the city, someone in the party will draw and read a City Event card. Each City Event describes a situation within the walls of Gloomhaven and presents the party with a choice of what to do. Maybe you’ve encountered a shady merchant that wants to sell you stolen goods, or a beggar offering information in exchange for some gold. Your party must then come to an agreement on the best course of action. Perhaps that merchant has a one-of-a-kind item that will save your life. Maybe that beggar lied and just wants to take your coin. Regardless of what your party chooses, the difficult to decipher City Cards will either grant rewards like gold or experience, or force players to start the next scenario with poison or a few points of damage.
And that’s just the campaign. I recognize that it’s a lot to digest, but it’s one of the reasons why Gloomhaven is so great. There’s an overwhelming number of systems and things to keep track of and it can take awhile to learn the rules, but each system has been designed so intuitively that once you understand the general order of play, everything else falls into place.
Gloomhaven is so well balanced that even if you misunderstand some of the more nuanced rules, it doesn’t ruin the game. In fact, there’s a running joke among fans that if you have played the wrong way for at least ten sessions, you haven’t experienced Gloomhaven. We’ve actually enjoyed the process of learning rules that we previously missed. With each new correction it changes the experience ever so slightly and introduces new ways to strategize and play hands.
But at the heart of it, that’s the Gloomhaven experience. No matter how you play, it always feels new and different. Each campaign scenario progresses the party’s story forward with new environments, objectives, and monsters, keeping it fresh and exciting. The occasional big bad boss will show up with devastating special moves that leaves every character scrambling to stay alive and desperate to make the slightest dent in their gargantuan health pool.
Completing life goals unlocks new characters, each one with their own play style. Some of them, the character class with two miniatures for instance, introduce distinctly different rule sets. It’s always exciting to open up one of the new boxes and play with the coveted new class. But maybe you really liked the character class you just played, but were forced to retire them. Play again with a new character and build and try something new! Earlier we mentioned that the Tinkerer could be used as a healer and ranged attack. If you wanted to return to a familiar class you could create an entirely different build and have a fresh new experience.
It’s difficult to play Gloomhaven and not stop to appreciate the quality of the components. Each of the map tiles are made from bulky and durable interlocking cardstock. My copy is starting to see a little bit of natural wear, but it took around eighty set ups and tear downs of the game to start seeing any of that. The standees are equally as thick and durable and their bases grip them well without causing any damage. The ability cards are quite durable but as with any game that you intend to play heavily, I would still recommend getting sleeves for cards to protect them and that goes for the ability cards, attack modifiers, items, battle goals, etc. It’s a lot to sleeve but it’s worth the time to protect your game. And I absolutely love the wooden element tokens.
But let’s not forget about the minis, the real stars of the show. These little guys are so detailed and wonderfully designed. There’s a lot of character in each and every one of them and that’s part of why it’s so thrilling to unlock a new character. You get a new deck of cards, a new miniature, and a new style of play, creating a trifecta of features that fit together and just feels special. Every time we earned a new character we unpacked their box and began setting up a new scenario because we couldn’t wait to give them a test run.
There’s a tremendous deal of hype around games that pack boxes full of plastic minis, but I never bought into them. Gloomhaven is the first (and hopefully only) exception. I got so attached to my characters that I wanted to customize them a bit and truly make them my own. So I hired someone else to paint them because I have zero visual art talent.
The sheer amount of content in this one box is incredible. Think of it as “The Skyrim of board games.” Seventeen different character classes, ninety five different scenarios, fourteen bosses, and a whopping two hundred thirty six monsters! Since I bought Gloomhaven, I’ve spent more hours invisibly scurrying around dungeons as the Mindthief and stabbing elemental demons than I have put into any other game and there’s still a ton of game that I haven’t seen yet. I completed the campaign and have continued to go through the side quests I unlocked along the way. But when I’m done with that, I’m putting together a new party to experience the game all over again and hopefully get to enjoy some of the scenarios we were locked out of the first time around.
Any one can pack a bunch of stuff into a box and sell it. But Isaac Childres created an incredible world for us. Each race has a distinct look and culture that makes them feel established. The Savvas for example are a race of rocky skinned creatures that value raw power more than anything. Within each of their chests are energy cores that grant them elemental powers. The Savvas’ entire culture is based around the mastery of these elements. Until a Savvas has mastered one of the elements, they are considered worthless. But a Cragheart is the term applied to those Savvas who never master an element. The cores in their chest are shattered just before they are cast into exile. Your yet unnamed Cragheart from the starting six classes is just such an outcast.
Gloomhaven is filled with rich lore for those who want it. The Cragheart description above is paraphrased from the back of his character card. With each character comes more lore about both their race and their place in it. That and a small bit of flavor text are all that we’re sent into the world of Gloomhaven with, but each new scenario, city/road event, or if you’re lucky, character class gives us a deeper look into what the world is like outside of our party’s isolated adventures. And that’s just what comes in this box.
Isaac has continued to support the game with a regular schedule of free content. Since the launch of the game there have been two community driven side campaigns that haven been released in the form of pdf files, each campaign only ten scenarios long. The first community campaign, Into the Unknown, and the second campaign, Capital Intrigue, are both complete and available to print and play just about anywhere.
But just this week, Isaac released the first scenario in the third community driven campaign entitled, The Infinite Beyond. Every two weeks, Isaac will be releasing a new scenario in this ten scenario side campaign. On the off weeks, Isaac sends out a poll giving fans the ability to vote on the direction they want to go with the story based on the conclusion of the last scenario. He then takes those results creates the event for the following week and so on until the story has concluded.
The Infinite Beyond is a particularly special community campaign as it includes a print and play version of the Diviner class from the upcoming expansion Forgotten Circles to be released in February. This “small” $30 expansion will include the Diviner class, a number of new monsters and bosses, and a book containing twenty new scenarios that take place after story of the core box. But as Isaac does, any one who wants to play as the Diviner class now can print the needed cards from home at no cost.
Nothing in the sunlight as large as Gloomhaven can stand without creating a shadow. As great as everything about the game is, it’s a tremendous time commitment. It’s a commitment that you and your friends will be excited to make, but once you start, it’s unlikely that any other game will get its time to shine until your done.
No one will complain about the time sunk into playing, but the setup and tear down time for this game is atrocious. The retail box is packaged with foam core to separate components and protect them from damage, but it does little for organization. Before you start any game, you’ll have to look ahead at the scenario and retrieve all of the correct components; i.e. map tiles, monster card, monster ability cards, monster standees, obstacles, traps, treasure, counter tokens, gold pieces, and then all of the pieces needed for your character. And that’s only if you’re jumping straight into the scenario. If you’re going to the city of Gloomhaven first, you’ll also need: the map board, deck of unlocked items, road event deck, and the city event deck. It can easily take forty minutes just to set up.
Out of the box, it takes a lot of work to set up Gloomhaven. There are a ton of organizational tools to help expedite the process and I can’t emphasize the need for them enough. If you’re on a budget, you can re-purpose the foam core packaging to store and organize all the monster standees. My WTMG colleague, Jordan Best, was the one who suggested this solution and did it for me. Using an X-acto knife to cut holes for the standees into the foam makes for an excellent light storage solution.
We play Gloomhaven frequently enough so that I eventually had to go for a much more intense solution. Broken Token, Daedalus, and Meeple Realty all have laser wood cut organizers available that cut down on that time. After a lot of research I finally took the jump and purchased an (very thematic) organizer from Tower Rex. If Gloomhaven becomes a game that you regularly play, I highly recommend investing in an organizer. We were able to cut our setup time by at least half making more time for us to enjoy the game itself.
It’s also worth noting that the advertised time that goes into Gloomhaven is a fallacy. The box art states that it takes roughly thirty minutes to play per player. Assuming that excludes setup time, it’s still a gross underestimate. You can’t understate the weight of your decisions at the end of a scenario. Every player’s hand is down to the last few cards with only a round or two left but six more monsters stand in your way. Every decision counts and it’s impossible not to hesitate in your decision making. The game slows down, but when the tension is highest it’s at its peak. If we’re really being honest about game duration, it takes about forty-five minutes for each player you have in your party.
In the case that you don’t play very frequently, it may be difficult to recall your campaign progress thus far. Gloomhaven comes with character and party sheets to help track bonuses and all of your characters’ progress, but the story itself can get overwhelming to follow, especially when you wander off the main trail to pursue one of the many interesting side quests. There are a number of free apps that have been created by fans to help track your overall progress in a more detailed and visual way than the provided campaign sheets and I highly recommend them. My personal recommendations are Gloomhaven Campaign Tracker and Gloomhaven Scenario Viewer.
The Campaign Tracker app is a great way to track character and party progress as well as all unlocked scenarios, items, perks and achievements. Any tidbit of information you’d need to know about your campaign is stored within one app. The Scenario Viewer app is less necessary but equally recommended. When setting up and playing through a scenario with the provided book, one player will always have their eyes on what’s waiting in the next room, but much of the joy of the game comes from the constant surprises. The Scenario Viewer app places grey boxes over each room and piece of text that players don’t yet need, maintaining the delicious surprises for all.
I’m not sure that I’ll ever get tired of Gloomhaven. I have personally played with four of the seventeen different classes and I eventually want my chance at all of them, but with a few of the characters still locked and an eighteenth on the way, who knows how long it will take to get all the way through them. For anyone looking for a gaming experience that will stick with them, Gloomhaven is where you want to start. At an MSRP of $140, it’s a steep entry price, but it’s worth every piece of gold.
“30 minutes per player.”
Dungeon Crawling and Hand Management
There is a lot to learn before you can start playing and you’ll absolutely have to before you begin. It pays to play with someone who knows the rules for your first time out.
Beautiful artwork and sturdy components emphasize the incredible amount of care that went into Gloomhaven’s creation.
With all the scenarios and classes packed into the original box, there are endless combinations. Over 100+ hours and we’re still going strong.
Gloomhaven is available now with a fourth printing coming soon. The Forgotten Circles expansion is due in February 2019.