Gloomhaven Review: A Behemoth in a Box
Updated: Mar 6, 2020
The gate's iron spikes crash to the floor barely missing your head. Looking back through the impenetrable metal bars, you see the dwindling light from the cave's entrance. Your only means of escape has been cut off! Across the room, you see a mysterious switch which you can only hope will reopen the gate. But between you and your only hope of salvation is a swarm blood-thirsty winged serpents, their venomous fangs at the ready, showing their intentions of making this underground chamber your tomb. You are left with no choice. You must fight your way through without succumbing to your enemies. Luckily, you are not alone. Your traveling companions bare their weapons and ready their spells as the hungry serpents encircle your party. Maybe if you make it out of this one alive, you'll finally give up this reckless life of fame, fortune and glory and return back home to Gloomhaven. And maybe, just maybe, mustering the courage to propose to your beloved and live out your twilight years together selling wares out of the little shop.
This sample adventure is just a taste of the many scenarios (over 90) you and your gang of valiant adventurers can find in this beast of a box that is Gloomhaven. And there's no getting around the fact that Gloomhaven is a beast. Weighing in at 20 pounds, the box practically bursts with components, cards and pieces. It's more than just physically big, at the time of this writing (and probably long after), it's #1 on the board game enthusiast site BoardGameGeek.com and has maintained that top spot since shortly after its release in 2018. Originally on kickstarter and now selling retail, Gloomhaven has received a lot of attention over the past couple years. The smash hit from Cephalofair Games already has one expansion with a sequel in development. Another expansion, called Jaws of the Lion doubles as a smaller stand alone version of the game is due out later this year. There's a lot of excitement in the board gaming community around Gloomhaven, but let's get into the details and see if it's the right fit for you and your gaming group. This review will cover the major mechanics of the game's play but some things like character retirement, item shops, leveling your character and upgrading your skills will not be cover extensively since they only happen on rare occasions and won't be a factor until you are already well into your campaign.
At its core, Gloomhaven is a legacy RPG that uses a card driven combat system. As a legacy game, Gloomhaven doesn't reveal all of its possibilities the first time you open the box, it is designed so that your character's choices impacts the world they live in. The feeling you get each time a new card, envelope or character is revealed, can rival the excitement of Christmas morning.
The bulk of the game will have up to four players working cooperatively in a thematic location chosen from the overworld map. Unlike some other games where another player is required to control the bad guys, Gloomhaven allows all players to work together against the deck of monster skill cards. These cards determine how the monsters will move and/or attack each round and are drawn at the same time the players' cards are revealed. Goals are clearly defined in the scenario, usually something like "kill all enemies", requiring you to slay every monster in sight.
At the beginning of the campaign, each player chooses from the available six starting characters. Over time, they will gain experience and as they attain new levels the player chooses new skill cards to add to their characters available pool of skills. These cards function as your movement, attack actions and energy. Once they are all used, your character becomes exhausted and you can no longer move for the rest of the scenario. If all the characters in play become exhausted or are killed, the adventurers have lost and may either attempt the scenario again or return to Gloomhaven to nurse their wounds and shattered egos.
This is a gross oversimplification of all this game has to offer but at it's center Gloomhaven focuses on combat that allows you to move your character into position where they can be the most effective while planning with your allies the best strategic moves against your enemies. Over the course of several games you will begin to understand the abilities that are unique to your character and how best to use them. The 16 characters in the base box, play entirely differently from one another requiring your play style to shift and change over time. These pivots, as you retire one beloved character and learn to master another, will keep the game fresh and interesting throughout the expansive campaign.
Let's break this down using my (far from) P.E.R.F.E.C.T.E.D. review system.
Play time (How long are you at the table?)
The box says 30 minutes per player and that's pretty accurate once you understand the rules and have a few games under your belt. Expect to spend some time between each scenario to set up a new location. The entire setup from placing the modular boards, terrain markers and finding the monsters and stat sheets can take around 10-20 minutes between each location. This could probably be sped up quite a bit if you invest in a storage solution that would improve on having all the cards and tokens loose in the box.
Ease of Play (Are the rules clear and easy to follow? Is play intuitive?)
While the rule book is about 50 pages, it's quite concise and well organized. The basics of combat is covered in the first 30 pages and contains most of what you need to get a game started. The rest of the rules cover how to use the world map and legacy elements in the game. There are great pictures of the cards, components and symbols and there are plenty of examples of gameplay to help with a clear understanding. Separate from the rules is another book containing all the scenarios and most of the game's story. It will guide you on how to setup the modular board pieces for each location.
There are a lot of moving pieces and though I don't feel like I am doing a lot scorekeeping or board maintenance, I could see this being overwhelming or tedious to some. While most of the components are great and functional, in order to simplify and/or speed up gameplay, you may prefer to use a free app like Gloomhaven Helper, which will reduce the need for managing many of the counters, cards and stats sheets.
Replayability* (Is this a game that you will be able to play over and over?)
While the campaign is designed to be played once through, I think it's a highly replayable game because of the includes 100 scenarios as well as a random dungeon generator. These are cards you can shuffle and pull from to make all the elements of a new challenge. Additionally, every time you start a new character you will have to change your style of play which keeps the gameplay and tactics fresh over time. Even though it is only designed for a single play through, if you are willing to buy the removable sticker set, you'd be able to reset the entire campaign and start from scratch. With (eventually) two expansions and a sequel which is compatible with the base game, I think you'll have plenty of reasons to try the new content before starting over.
Focus Audience (Who is this game for?)
If you are looking for a dungeon crawling adventure in a box this is it. This feels more like Dungeon & Dragons in a box than any other board game RPGs I have played. This is because of the leveling system, depth of the story, character backgrounds as well as the items you can buy in the city of Gloomhaven between scenarios. This game often feels more like a classic video game RPG with its leveling system and the achievements you get throughout the campaign. Like some of the best video games, you are encouraged to play again to see what surprises are in store after new achievements and locations are unlocked.
Essential Strategy (What strategies/tactics does the game use?)
An essential tactic to Gloohaven is balancing your movement, attacks, timing and refreshing of cards (meaning returning card to your hand that acts as your energy supply). There is always a push/pull between when to fight and when to run because of the constant fear of using all your skills/attacks/movement and becoming exhausted. The best abilities will drain your character faster, so while you may decimate your enemies quickly, you run the risk of slumping over unconscious before meeting your goal. Much of the balance comes from understanding your characters abilities and learning to adapt your play style to suit them, presenting a fun and interesting challenge as you retire your old character and start with someone new.
Additionally, Gloomhaven's choice to use cards to determine whether an attack is successful allows the game to be more strategic than others that may subject you to the random outcome of dice. You will be less likely to fail due to pure bad luck and you will improve your chances of success as you level up your character.
Complexity (How easy is it to learn and play?)
It's not as complex as you might think. While it might be challenging to some new to modern board gaming, the rules can be taught and learned quickly. I was able to cover the basics of combat in less than 10 minutes with two players new to the game. Since it's cooperative, I could help them with the rules when they needed.
Theme (Is the theme applicable to gameplay?)
The theme is very fitting to this style of game. While the game has a fantasy theme, the characters you play are nothing like the typical races/classes of dwarves, elves and wizards you encounter in other fantasy. Their abilities and personalities are unlike the common tropes with which you may be familiar. The world is full of interesting characters to encounter and the city begins to feel like a lively bustling metropolis as you revisit it between missions. At a certain points you will shuffle in new encounter cards which allow for the possibility of you to meet up with characters that have retired or run into consequences of past actions/choices as you travel to and from the city of Gloomhaven. This makes the world you inhabit feel more alive and effected by your choices.
Economical (Price and Value)
At the time of this writing, the game is $100 which is down from its $140 retail cost. Even at $100, its a steep price for any game to be sure. But in my opinion, what you get from Gloomhaven outshines some of the best AAA video game titles for which you would pay $70-$80 for a campaign around 20 hours long. One thing that makes a game truly special is when you think and talk about it long after you've left the table. With Gloomhaven, you will be strategizing about how to reorganize your skills to better support your allies strengths and about the interesting and surprising twists revealed by the games narrative. If the cost seems too high but you like everything else, the stand alone expansion, comes out later this year may save you some cash.
Design (Quality of artwork, iconography and components)
The rule book is well laid-out with pictures of examples and the iconography on the cards is easy to interpret at a glance. The back page of the rulebook has a handy reference with page numbers listed. The scenario book makes it simple to build out the board for each location. The cardboard cut outs for the monsters are well made and the art is excellent. The character miniatures are good for the price given that you get 16 of them. They are made from a soft plastic that will bend without breaking.
The Botton Line
Are you looking for a challenging cooperative game with immersive story and the ability to solve interesting puzzles through combat, while adding more abilities to your growing list of skills? In my opinion, there is no better board game experience than Gloomhaven. Some of the best of what modern board gaming has to offer can be found in this box. However if you are new to the hobby or just don't think you have enough time, table space or money for one of the biggest boxes in board gaming, waiting until later this year for the stand alone expansion, Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion, may be a better option for you.
If you are looking for a cooperative game with a campaign and interesting story on a smaller scale, checkout Near and Far from Red Raven Games. However if what appeals to you is the heavy strategy and large scope of the game, Mage Knight might be worth your consideration. Finally, Pandemic: Legacy Season 1 has coop, an excellent story narrative, constantly evolving (albeit much simpler than Gloomhaven) rules and might be one of the best legacy experiences you can have.
See a list of pros and cons below.
So much content! Over a hundred of hours of gameplay in a continuing narrative arch
Art work is fantastic and evocative
Combat rounds are quick and line of sight rules are easily applied
Symbols are clear and easy to understand when reading cards and applying effects
Combat feels more like solving a puzzle using a carefully planned strategy
As you level up, card drive battle deck allows for improved odds of success on attacks
Feels like a new world with races and classes that don't conform to the typical fantasy genre tropes
Every new character you play presents new challenges and opportunities to change your play style keep the gameplay fresh over time
Modular board makes you feel like you are seeing something different when you set up a new scenario
Many different monsters, each presenting their own unique challenges for the heroes to overcome
Can be played solo (if you are into that) without any adjustment to the rules
Too many to list
It's a large investment of both time and money
Takes up a lot of table space (there is a world map board, the scenario board, all the character boards, monster stat sheets and cards)
Setup and tear down time is longer than most board games
Two hour game when there are four people - may be too long for some players
While having players dropping in and out of a campaign can be facilitated, it's probably best to pay each scenario with the same group