Gloomhaven. Three years after it originally released, Gloomhaven is still number one on BoardGameGeek’s top 100 games of all time, as well as my personal list of favorite games. It’s a gigantic box filled with adventure, puzzles, betrayal, and seventeen playable character classes that I still haven’t fully mastered. But its massive size and high entry cost make it an intimidating experience for newcomers that many have passed on. In an attempt to ensure that everyone can experience the wonder of GloomhavenCephalofair Games opted to release a smaller standalone expansion that’s far more consumer friendly.
Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion was released in July of this year for $49.99, as opposed to original’s $139.99 but still contains twenty five different scenarios. Even better, Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion adds four new character classes that are compatible with Gloomhaven and the expansion, Gloomhaven: Forgotten Circles. For only $50, it has a substantial amount of content and makes a fantastic game more accessible.
I won’t go into gameplay mechanics very much as I did that too heavily in my review of Gloomhaven and the core gameplay of Jaws of the Lion remains largely unchanged. There are a few nuanced rule changes such as the way that all enemies drop loot on death even if they are summoned and what constitutes as an empty space.
Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion functions the same way as the original. Players will work together to go through a campaign of dungeon crawl scenarios with heavy puzzle elements. Every round, players will select two ability cards from their hand which will dictate what actions they can take that round.
Ability cards are divided into two sections that are referred to as top and bottom actions. Both sections also have an attack two top action and a move two bottom action by default as a consistent plan B. At the center of every ability card is a number referred to as initiative, which determines turn order. In ascending order, players will take turns choosing which top and bottom action combination they want to use from the two cards they played.
Whenever players are resolving an attack they will draw a card from the top of their modifier deck. This deck of twenty cards essentially functions as a creative substitute for dice. Modifier cards alter the amount of damage a player is inflicting by subtracting as much as two damage from their base attack values. But players might get lucky and find that they’ll be able to add damage rather than subtract. Also hidden in each modifier deck is one critical miss and one critical hit card that will respectively nullify all damage or double it.
As the campaign progresses, players will have opportunities to change their modifier decks based on a series of perks available to their character class. These perks could do anything from permanently removing two negative one cards or replacing a plus one damage card with a plus three damage. Over time, players will be able to use this system to help mitigate some of the game’s negative effects on players, making them more effective.
The challenge is that the enemy ability cards have their own initiatives that may cause them to act before or in between player turns, throwing a wrench in the group’s plan. Thankfully it’s not until after players choose their ability cards for the round that they have to commit to which abilities they want to activate. This grants players a greater level of freedom to adjust their plan of attack accordingly.
After players have all finished their turns, they’ll add the two cards used that round to their own personal discard piles. Once a player’s hand is too small for them to play another pair of ability cards, they must either short rest or long rest.
Players who choose to short rest will immediately pick up their discard pile, shuffle it, and randomly choose a card to add to their pile of lost cards. The lost pile is an additional tier of discard pile. Any cards that find their way into this pile are removed from the game and can’t be recovered until the end of the scenario.
Long resting functions in a similar way but provides some additional benefits at a cost. Players who choose to long rest will regain two and can choose which of their discarded cards to add to the lost pile. The trade-off is that long resting forces the player to skip taking any actions on the next round, making them more vulnerable.
The system of losing cards and resting is designed to simulate each characters’ stamina and ability to stay in the fight before getting exhausted. Each class has a fixed number displayed on the player board that represents their maximum hand size. At the beginning of a scenario each player will begin with a full hand of nine to twelve cards (depending on their class). Every time that a player needs to rest, their hand will get smaller and smaller until they no longer have enough cards to play two ability cards. When that happens, the player is exhausted and their character flees from battle, leaving their allies out to dry.
This system is what gives Gloomhaven it’s puzzle-like heart. What we’ve described so far would give each scenario a determined end point but much of the fun of Gloomhaven is learning how alter your fate by extending your stamina or laying waste to your enemies faster.
Many of a character’s more powerful abilities are a one time use. After the ability gets used, that card immediately gets placed into the lost card pile, reducing the player’s stamina. Despite the cost, loss card abilities are often powerful enough to be worth the risk.
The Mindthief’s Empathetic Assault is one that comes to mind. The bottom action is simple move two but also lets her heal herself for two damage. However, the top action is far more devastating and allows her to deal four damage to a target up to five spaces away, gain two experience, and put ice into the room. Effects as powerful as that often come in the form of loss cards.
Learning when to use and when to save loss cards will often be the difference between victory and failure. Typically, this means saving loss cards for either the “perfect” moment which rarely comes, if ever. Or another use for a loss card might be the Spellweaver’s essential Reviving Ether ability. As the Spellweaver has such a small max hand size and so many loss cards, it’s easy for her to burn through her entire deck pretty quickly. But by using the top action on Reviving Ether, the Spellweaver is able to rejuvenate herself and pick up all of the cards currently in her lost pile.
Over the duration of the campaign, players will gain experience that will allow them to level up their character; increasing their health and unlocking new abilities. If you remember, each character’s hand size is fixed so in order to add new powerful abilities to their deck, other cards will have to be removed. Learning how to create an effective character and building a deck that favors that choice is just one more layer to the Gloomhaven puzzle that makes it such an intriguing game to experiment with.
But that’s all just a simple overview of Gloomhaven. There’s a lot to absorb and as the story progresses, so too do the scenarios get more challenging and complex, making it even more difficult to master. For that very reason, I would argue that one of the best moves Cephalofair Games made was to make the first five Jaws of the Lion missions tutorials.
Most games, including the original Gloomhaven, expect players to sink hours into going through the rulebook and absorbing as much as possible before playing. Isaac Childres wanted to make his already head scratching game more accessible and the standard process of learning a text laden rulebook wasn’t going to cut it with Jaws of the Lion. Instead, players can choose their character and dive right in.
The very first scenario guides players through a modified setup, step by step, and gives them a special set of ability cards intended only for tutorial purposes. In the first mission, players only have five ability cards (labeled level “A”) and a few enemies that all move one space and attack for two damage at the end of each round. All the more complicated details I’ve already mentioned are non-existent at this stage.
At the end of the first scenario players are instructed to add two ability cards, from the next level deck (labeled level “B”) The Learn to Play Guide then introduces the concept of area attacks, looting, push, pull, lost actions and a few others. Each new step of the tutorial adds a few new mechanics at a time making it easier to process than trying to digest the entire ruleset all at once.
The tutorial scenarios continue on this way through the first five. By the end of that section, players have been hand-held through every layer of Gloomhaven’s mechanics until they have comfortably arrived at the maw of the lair of the beast. Veteran players might be turned off by the notion of a tutorial section, but I assure you, it takes very little time and sets the stage for the game’s story. My group and I played through the first five scenarios in a total of two hours, letting us get a small sampling of our new classes, while still flying fast toward the grander adventure.
But don’t let the tutorial fool you, Jaws of the Lion is every bit as intricate, if not more, than the original game. While I have no particular complaints about the core box, many of the playable classes followed classic fantasy archetypes, despite the inventive races that they represented. In the starting six (there will be no spoilers here) the Human Scoundrel took on the role of the standard thief/rogue. Meanwhile the Orchid Spellweaver fulfills the role of the mage and the Inox Brute is the group’s warrior. Even some of the hard-earned sealed characters fall under some pretty basic fantasy archetypes.
To be clear, that doesn’t make any of the classes less enjoyable to play. However, in a world filled with new species and fresh ideas, it was a little disappointing to see such familiar character roles. Jaws of the Lion was a new chance for Childres to show that the world of Gloomhaven is alive and well and he succeeded with flying colors.
The four Jaws of the Lion classes were excellent additions that took simplified design concepts and made them deep and exciting. The Red Guard might be one of the best examples of this as it’s the most straightforward class of the bunch. The Valrath Red Guard is the Jaws of the Lion tank class whose abilities revolve around his Kratos-like chained sickles. Close range damage is his speciality so he’ll use these sickles to grab his enemies and pull them in close where he can wail on the while his thick armor protects him.
The Red Guard is not the most dynamic class in the game, but he’s absolutely a key player. By using the pull mechanic to keep enemies close, he inadvertently makes himself the target of enemy attacks and keeps his allies safe. Without spoiling anything, later abilities can imbue special effects onto the sickles and give the Red Guard a wider variety of attacks.
The Quatryl Demolitionist has the best look by far. The Quatryl are a small and frail race that tend to rely on their intelligence and engineering ability to make small items to defend themselves, or stay out of the fight altogether. The Demolitionist called bullshit on that stereo type and decided to put his engineering skills to work in a the most bad ass fashion possible. After gearing up with sets of rocket fists and boots, the Demolitionist is a force to be reckoned with.
The extra power granted by his rocket piston fists allows him to destroy obstacles in the party’s path and gain significant damage boosts for it. The Demolitionist is another direct damage class that’s welcoming for new comers. What sets him apart from the Red Guard is the ability to use gadgets to create traps and lob bombs for AoE attacks. He also has a large number of conditional boosts like adding three damage to a base three attack and gaining one experience points if the target is the objective. Sure, some of the most exciting moves might be more conditional than others, but this little Quatryl packs one hell of a punch.
The Inox Hatchet, the ranged damage dealer, very quickly became a fan favorite. This Inox has given up the ways of his barbarian warrior kin and fully embraced the life of a city mercenary. Hatchet is no city slicker and is still quite capable in the battlefield, but he has developed a particular affinity for his tools of the trade.
The Hatchet class is an excellent and dynamic ranged attack class that focuses around axe throwing. More specifically, one favorite axe known as The Favorite. Throwing The Favorite will add three damage to a ranged attack. But this axe is no Stormbreaker that can be called on to return. Instead, the axe is lodged into its target after it’s used. But what Hatchet would leave their favorite weapon behind?
Whenever an enemy with the Hatchet in it dies, it’s dropped on the ground and players will have to walk over and retrieve it. Or they can utilize the embedded axe to execute powerful attacks like Follow Through which is a range four attack that deals two damage plus an additional two damage and experience if The Favorite is already in the target. As Hatchets level up, they unlock more and more abilities that combo off of the use of The Favorite. While almost all of a Hatchet’s abilities focus around The Favorite, the right combination of abilities can output insane amounts of damage. I often found myself dealing upwards of fifteen damage even at earlier character levels. As the Hatchet is playing a small game of Fetch-The-Favorite with himself, it can take some time to setup the truly powerful attacks making him better suited for patient players.
Last, and certainly not least, is the Human Voidwarden. Leading up to the release of Jaws of the Lion, I was absolutely certain that Hatchet or Demolitionist were going to be my favorite classes. As much of a team player as I am, I typically despise support classes. I find that their range of abilities is limited to healing or a form of protection and little else, ensuring that creative solutions are left to someone else. On the other hand, the Voidwarden has dealt with enough bullshit and is not going to hold back.
The Voidwarden class is the healer of the group but she’s a little touched. The Voidwarden had a near-death experience with the void as a child. Since then, the left side of her body has been a charred black like the coarse black sands left behind by everything else touched and dissolved by the void. Instead of darkness, the Voidwarden encountered newfound power. Over the course of her life she learned how to channel the powers of the Void to bend the will of both ally and foe. She can also heal her allies, but not without leaving a mark.
Voidwardens’ abilities are a complex mix of healing, blessing, cursing, and poisoning. But you aren’t always placing those effects where you initially think you’d want to. Powerful healing abilities like Black Boon’s top action allow her to restore five health to any character within a range of three and put darkness into the room. But, using this ability will also poison whoever she targets for healing. Why would any one want to do this? By using the top action of Close to the Abyss, Voidwardens can restore two health to two different targets within a range of two. Healing effects will remove poison from those afflicted with it. In the case of Close to the Abyss, an ally who has poison removed with this card gets to add a bless (an x2 modifier card) to their modifier deck setting them up for a powerful attack in the future.
Other Voidwarden abilities allow her to take control of enemies to move them around the board, or even force them to attack one another. Close to the Abyss’ bottom action is just such a card that forces all enemies within a range of three to move one space under the Voidwarden’s control. One space may not seem like a lot, but if that one space moves an enemy into a trap, it could easily mean a fresh kill.
Voidwardens are not an easy class to master and are better suited for more experienced players but oh boy is she rewarding. Every one of her abilities is a risk vs. reward calculation that could have significant implications from cursing yourself or getting an ally killed. Every move feel is a puzzle that you’re staking your life on, but I love it when a plan comes together.
One of the challenges of a successful Gloomhaven campaign is creating a strong party. With six starting classes in the original game, it’s possible to choose a poor combination of characters that leaves you significantly disadvantaged, regardless of how much fun you’re having. The difference with Jaws of the Lion is how much tighter the party composition is. With only four characters to choose from, it’s much easier to get a good party combination and develop characters that successfully play off of one another.
One of the larger design changes was the physical representation of each scenario. The big box Gloomhaven came with a large number of punch out cardboard tiles that would be arranged according to a campaign guide to form each scenario. The goal with Jaws of the Lion was to create a game that was easier to approach, including making a smaller box. The Cephalofair team created a scenario booklet where each map was illustrated on the page, making it possible to use the book as as the board itself and save some table space.
The scenario booklet also allows for each mission to be compromised of unique artwork that far better supports each mission. The original modular system was limited to thematic terrain textures and coloration where the book was able to bring extra life to each story. It’s small size also makes it more compact and easier to pack into the game box.
I like the scenario book for its scenario specific artwork and how many components it consolidates. Thanks to the artwork, concepts like hazardous terrain that was previously represented by separate tokens in the original are now map illustrations in the scenario book. That said, I much prefer the bulky map tiles tiles.
Many people, myself included, used the modular nature of the map tiles to create 3d printed scenery or walls to take a flat board and turn it into a more lively and dimensional experience. The scenario book makes that a much harder project to accomplish as the binding is difficult to work around. However, I belong to a group which seems to be in the minority.
The scenario book solution to space saving has been so popular that there’s been a large demand for books to be published for Gloomhaven, Forgotten Circles, and the upcoming Frosthaven. Surprisingly, Cephalofair has committed to producing these books at a later point in time after Frosthaven‘s Kickstarter has been fulfilled. While I personally won’t be picking them up, it’s great to have the such a passionate and receptive team of game designers at the helm of my favorite series.
Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion is a fantastic game, especially at its $50 price point. All the magic of the big box has been paired down to fit into a smaller, less intimidating box. Character class variety has always been at the forefront of the Gloomhaven experience and Jaws of the Lion brings options on par with, if not better than, the original game. Once you’ve had your fill with the contents of Jaws of the Lion, you can use those classes in any of the other Gloomhaven games, or replay it with characters from the Gloomhaven big box.
No matter how you want to approach the series, the Gloomhaven series really provides bang for your buck. But regardless of whether you dive right into the big box or start with a smaller introduction, Jaws of the Lion is an excellent addition to anyone’s shelf and a must for -haven fans.
Estimated at 30 minutes per player.
Gloomhaven has never been a difficult game to learn so long as an experienced player is handy to teach you. It’s only difficult when you’re teaching yourself by reading the rulebook page by page. However, Jaws of the Lion‘s tutorial missions have created a quick and engaging solution that I hope to see continue in Frosthaven.
Jaws of the Lion manages to make many of the already excellent components even better. Some components like the element tokens were changed from wood to cardboard to help cut costs, but Jaws of the Lion delivers the same quality experience as its big brother.
Jaws of the Lion contains a total of twenty four different scenarios, each one could take up to two hours based on the number of players. Not every scenario is a part of the main storyline and branching paths will open side scenarios that can be returned to if they aren’t discovered the first time around.