Review – Gloomhaven Digital

Gloomhaven is a bulky, cost inefficient, monster of a board game that most people never finish, but it’s worth every cent. If you’re looking for a campaign style game, a dungeon crawler, or a puzzle game, Gloomhaven hits all those notes in a unique way that it’s critical acclaim and several years as the top rated game of all time on Board Game Geek. I have personally put more hours than I can count into the board game and its various expansions and standalones like Gloomhaven: Forgotten Circles and Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion,  and even more time into customizing my copy (which has been painted in greater detail ever since).

I was thrilled when when they announced Gloomhaven Digital back in 2018 and I jumped into Early Access on Steam as soon as it was available. Little did any of us know that there would be a lot of time to play through the gaming backlog in 2020. Well before the full launch of Gloomhaven 1.0 on October 20th, I managed to sink two hundred fifty three hours into the Guildmaster mode alone. But now with the full launch of the campaign and a more stable multiplayer mode, Gloomhaven can be enjoyed as the fully cooperative story the original board game was.

In Gloomhaven, players take on the role of up to four mercenaries-for-hire in the titular city of Gloomhaven. What begins as a normal night of drinking and seeking work at the Sleeping Lion tavern turns into a sprawling adventure when the wealthy merchant Jekserah approaches you with a simple job. Bandits stole something valuable from her and she’s hired your group of mercenaries to retrieve it for her in exchange for a massive payday. With the promise of a fortune for a small feat, your party packs up their belongings and heads to The Black Barrow. What they discover in the Barrow sends our beloved mercs on an unwilling journey to save Gloomhaven from the hidden machinations of cults and bandits alike.

I typically find that the gameplay in fantasy RPGs hold my attention much less than the story itself. Dragon Age: Origins is a great example where I didn’t care for the gameplay experience but absolutely loved the world building and narrative. Gloomhaven is the exact opposite experience. While the promise of story is strong, the story is copy and pasted from the original iteration of the board game. In subsequent variations like Jaws of the Lion, the plot is vastly improved and is expected to continue that trend with the upcoming release of FrosthavenBut for the digital version of Gloomhaven, the narrative is as thinly spread as ever.

Thankfully, it’s the gameplay and mechanics that made Gloomhaven the massive hit that it is. While it wears the skin of a dungeon crawling, loot hunting adventure, the heart of the game more closely resembles that of a puzzle. The tutorial provides a clear, albeit dense, overview of the card based combat system, and more importantly, the enemy AI.

Players choose their actions at the start of each round by selecting two cards from their hand unique to each of the game’s character classes. After selections have been played, turn order of all the players and enemies are determined by the initiative numbers on the ability cards. On a players turn, they will activate the special ability on top of one of their pre-selected cards, and the bottom ability of the other. The number in the center of each ability card, referred to as initiative, determines when in the round each each character takes their actions.

This is where the puzzle element comes in. Understanding the enemy AI is the key to maintaining control of the board and anticipating who they will attack next is central to success. Enemies have a hierarchy of priorities that determine how they target players:

  1.  Enemies targets the closest player.
  2.  If characters are equidistant, the enemy will target whoever had the fastest initiative.
  3.  If the path to the target is blocked by an obstacle or trap, the enemy will move in the most direct path to their target that will optimize the amount of damage they can inflict and avoid any trap or hazardous terrain damage whenever possible.

Since players have all pre-selected their actions, it’s entirely possible the enemies will act before player characters and throw off players’ plans by moving out of range or dealing heavy damage. Players will be forced to adjust their plans and use the alternate abilities on the cards already played. Of course, each character class has powerful abilities that can obliterate the battle field, but players will want to be cautious with how they use those skills. A character’s card deck not only dictates their abilities, but also their stamina and ability to stay in the fight. 

Each player starts with a number of cards in the hand based on the character class they’ve chosen. As ability cards are used, they get added to a discard pile. After a player’s turn, the two ability cards they used go into their discard pile. When all the ability cards are in the discard pile, players can either short rest or long rest to pick them up. Short resting lets players regain all their ability cards immediately, but they must randomly burn one of their cards, removing it from the game. Long resting means players will have to skip their next turn, but in addition to regaining their cards, they restore two health, refresh their items, and can choose which card they want to burn. 

Some of the more powerful ability cards have a burn card icon in the lower right corner. This will mean that once that ability is used, it gets burned and removed from the game, typically after dealing massive damage or gaining obscene bonuses, like the Spellweaver’s ability to regain all of her burned cards once per game. 

Likewise, players can choose to burn a card to avoid taking damage. At the start of a campaign, even the tank classes like the Brute don’t start with more than twelve hit points so managing health bars can be quite the daunting task, especially for frailer characters like the Mindthief and Scoundrel. Card burning is an excellent way to keep character health from getting too low. However, when players have burned too many cards and don’t have two to choose from at the start of around, their stamina has run out and players are exhausted.

The ability card deck is the main set of cards in Gloomhaven, but there is a secondary deck that is just as significant. In the board game, the Modifier Deck is front and center but it’s a little more hidden in this edition of the game. When making an attack the game will draw from a deck of that modifies the damage dealt. The starting deck consists of twenty cards that will alter the base damage of an attack by -2, -1, +0, +1, +2, 2x, or the dreaded critical miss which removes all damage. 

This same effect could be managed by a die roll, however there’s a bit more to it. Over the course of the game, whether by leveling up or achieving specific objectives, players will earn perks that allow them to modify that deck by removing cards or adding class specific ones to turn the odds in their favor.

But wait, there’s more! Many abilities have colorful icons representing six elements: Fir, Earth, Air, Ice, Light, and Dark. At the end of a turn where an ability with such an icon is used the corresponding element becomes active on the board. Some player abilities, and even enemy abilities, can consume these elements to improve the effects of their abilities. For example, one of the Mindthief’s starting abilities is Frigid Apparition. The top ability deals a base of three damage, but can also stun the target enemy and award experience to the Mindthief if they consume the active Ice element. 

Speaking of experience, we should take some time to talk about leveling up since that’s such a central part of the Gloomhaven journey. Despite what so many other fantasy RPGs have instilled in us, experience isn’t awarded just for taking out an enemy. Instead, Gloomhaven only awards players with experience for completing scenarios or using specific abilities that have an eight pointed star experience point icon on it. 

When a character has enough points to level up they get three types of rewards. First, their max health increases. Then, they unlock two new ability cards. However, players can only choose to add one of them with each level up. Lastly, the character applies a perk specific to their class, most of which alter the Modifier deck, removing negative cards for positive ones.

In addition to the perks awarded for leveling up, at the start of each scenario, players will choose from one of two Battle Goals. These are additional objectives that reward players with one to two perk points depending on their difficulty. For every three perk points earned, players can choose a new perk to further improve their Modifier Deck. 

Now for the big one. Similar to Battle Goals, each character selects a Personal Quest during the character creation process. These quests are their personal career goals. They’re lofty objectives but the rewards are well worth it. Once they achieve their goal, the character will retire and no longer be playable. But the character’s fondness for the city means they will retire within the walls of Gloomhaven, bringing it greater wealth, raising the prosperity level and adding new items to the shops. It will also unlock one of Gloomhaven‘s eleven locked classes. 

At the start of a campaign, only six of Gloomhaven‘s seventeen character classes are available to choose from, each one with a unique approach to gameplay:

  • The Brute is a fairly standard tank character that focuses on dishing out heavy melee damage to single targets and blocking damage with shields.
  • Frail Tinkerers do little little damage, but make for excellent support in parties of three or four. They can also set damage and status inflicting traps, or use their engineering skills to summon bots to battle for them. 
  • Spellweavers are the mages of the group. They have the smallest max hand size and deal small amounts of damage from a distance, unless they exhaustion by using their many strong abilities that burn more powerful ability cards. Good use of Reviving Ether will give a clever player ways to make this low-energy class a real force to be reckoned with. 
  • The mighty Cragheart is a tank adjacent class that can absorb a lot of damage, but still requires careful planning. Craghearts have AOE status inflicting attacks and more movement than most tanks. What’s interesting about the Cragheart is its ability to create and manipulate obstacles on the map to deal damage and hinder enemy movement.
  • Scoundrels are fickle and deal extra damage based on where they, or their targets, are positioned on the board in relation to allies. Standing adjacent to allies or targeting an enemy that’s on its own grants her significant bonuses to damage and sometimes, even outright kill her target. Her movement abilities make it easy for the Scoundrel to get around the board with minimal effort. 
  • The ugly rat-faced Vermling Mindthief is my favorite starting class for no other reason than how different she is. Her abilities rarely deal a lot of damage, but she’s often able to Stun her targets. What’s even more fun is the Mindthief’s ability to control her enemies and force them to attack one another.

With each unlocked class comes a new way to discover the world of Gloomhaven. Since so much of the fun of the locked classes is discovering what each one is and the new mechanics they introduce, I won’t refer to them in any way that would spoil the surprise. I can only say that the locked classes cover many the classic fantasy RPG archetypes that we’re all familiar with. My personal favorite is the one that’s become known as “Two-Minis” to the Gloomhaven community since its comes with two sealed boxes for the character miniatures. As one might infer, playing this class gives the player control of two figures on the board and how it works is just way much fun.

The digital version of Gloomhaven has two modes to experience this all in: Campaign and Guildmaster. Guildmaster is a new mode added by the developers for the PC version of the game while the Campaign is the full digital recreation of the campaign from the board game.

Guildmaster is essentially the arcade mode where players can jump in and play through Gloomhaven scenarios without consequence. Naturally, Guildmaster starts with the same six classes being available to players while the others still need to be unlocked. However, the criteria to unlock the additional classes are more global. Rather than each character striving to reach a personal goal that unlocks new classes, these are unlocked global goals like killing twenty Elite Bandit Guards. As a result, new characters and items come much easier than in the campaign mode. The map in Guildmaster is significantly different as players aren’t going through a single branching narrative, but are instead clearing roads between different cities that unlock new scenarios and treasure hunts for new rare items.

But Campaign mode is where the real bones of the game are, inclusive of Road Encounters, City Encounters, and a branching story. I feel that the inclusion of Personal Quests adds a layer of push-and-pull tension between players that is missing from Guildmaster. Since every player will want to reach their personal goals, it’s not uncommon that players will base their ability decisions on their Personal Quest, rather than the what will help the part complete the scenario objectives. It’s this selfish decision making in an otherwise fully cooperative game that gives Gloomhaven its character.

Your experience with Gloomhaven will change dramatically based on whether you chose to play alone or in multiplayer. As each character class has unique gameplay mechanics and strategies, it’s difficult to mentally manage a party of three or four characters. Most of the time I’ve spent playing Gloomhaven digital was controlling four characters in Guildmaster as a solo player. To say that it was a brain-melting experience would be an understatement. Keeping track of so many details stretched my brain cells thin and resulted in me making some sloppy mistakes.

That’s one of the many reasons why I prefer playing Gloomhaven as a multiplayer game. It’s much easier to play a character effectively when you’re focused on controlling only one character. I also feel that the dynamic between players is what makes multiplayer fun. However, there are some caveats to that statement.

While I do love how accessible the digital version has made Gloomhaven, there are some design choices that hold it back from achieving its true potential. Since there’s no matchmaking, one player will have to host a multiplayer session and distribute a code to other players. There were some uses with this on launch day that have since been fixed. This method does however mean that you’ll need to have other people to play with before you start your co-op adventure. Once players have joined the multiplayer session, the host will be able to assign them control of various characters. Thankfully, this makes it easy to assign one player to multiple characters so that two people can play with a full party of four.

Between scenarios, players will experience City Encounters and Road Encounters. These are short bits of flavor text that present players with a choice of how to proceed at the end. Let’s say your group comes across a merchant who was just robbed. You’ll be presented with the option to help the merchant recover the goods or steal the boots off his feet (or whatever else the thief didn’t get). These encounters always get a fun conversation going with players about consequences and risk against rewards, where the final decision really comes down to player consensus.

Gloomhaven Digital‘s multiplayer puts the final decision into the hands of the session host. The multiplayer host is the only player who is able to select an option in an encounter, somewhat eliminating the need to involve other players. I would have preferred if there was a voting system where all players could participate and use the host decision as a method of tie breaking.  

Gloomhaven digital is a great experience but is not without its design flaws. Key aspects, like the attack modifier deck that only appears as a text log at the bottom right of the screen during scenarios and in the perks menu. I wish that it was animated in a way that better represented the cards and how they function so it’s easier for new players to understand. 

I also think the way that unlocked scenarios are displayed is too cluttered to keep track of what’s part of the main narrative or a side story. I do wish there was a cleaner looking scenario tree that illustrated what’s how scenarios are connected. Currently it all appears as a list on side of the map are are sorted by City, World, or Completed Quests. Since scenarios can take such a long time to play through, it’s important to have an easy way to go back and review where players are in the story, and that tool just doesn’t exist. 

But with all that said, this version of Gloomhaven is an excellent substitute for the physical game. First off, all of the content of the core box has been faithfully adapted into a much more affordable and accessible version. Gloomhaven‘s core experience is one that I have raved about for years and I’m thrilled to see it come to life in a way that more people can enjoy. 

The massive amount of content alone is worth the $35. With ninety-five different scenarios and seventeen different character classes to experiment with, the number of ways to experience Gloomhaven are damn near endless. It is without a doubt my go-to game, not just as a board game anymore, but now also the video game. If I’m not spending my free time playing it with friends or my WTMG colleagues, I’m passively enjoying it in the background while watching Netflix.

Now that the Flaming Fowl Studios has laid the groundwork, I am eagerly looking forward to see what other Gloomhaven content gets added in the near future. After its initial release in 2017, game designer Isaac Childres began working on additional content for the board game that could easily be adapted to this edition as additional content. Gloomhaven: Forgotten Circles adds twenty new scenarios and a new character class that acts a direct sequel to this version. Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion is an entirely separate story that takes place within the city and adds four more classes. And of course, the upcoming big-box Frosthaven that adds a whole new set of seventeen playable classes and a brand new story even larger than the original. While it’s all speculative at this stage, the very possibility that these could exist in the future is enough for me to continue to spread the good word about this glorious monster of a game. 

Graphics: 9.0

Character models and map environments are an excellent example of just how great high-resolution cell shading can look. 

Gameplay: 8.5

Gloomhaven offers a mechanically diverse single and multiplayer experience that will challenge and entertain Puzzle RPG fans. 

Sound: 8.0

The excellent atmospheric melodies of Gloomhaven set the tone and are playing in my head while I sleep. However, there aren’t as many tracks as I would have hoped and the music can get repetitive.

Fun Factor: 9.5

Anyone who likes character building and puzzles will find a remarkable amount of rewardingly deep gameplay. 

Final Verdict: 9.0

Gloomhaven Digital is available now on Steam.

Reviewed on PC.