Game Review: Gloomhaven

Back in 2015, Edmund and I backed the Kickstarter funding campaign for Gloomhaven, a new legacy-style miniatures game. Legacy games are campaigns where actions in one scenario may affect game world conditions and future scenarios. Because they involve placing stickers or marking cards, maps, etc. to indicate persistent effects in the game world, it can be very hard for a dedicated gamer to accept.

Many gamers can’t bring themselves to permanently alter game components! Nevertheless, the scope of the game was ambitious and the price tag ($79 for the full version with miniatures for each player character class) was perhaps steep if it turned out to be a game we’d rarely play, but really cheap if it we worked our way through the 70 or so scenarios then expected to be included, even if we only played through the campaign once, so we decided to risk chipping in. 

Our copy of the game arrived in early February — a massive box weighing 19 pounds (8.6 kg) and crammed as full as could be with components: double-sided map tiles, miniatures, standees to represent monsters and other adversaries, tokens, a map board, stickers to mark achievements, and a plethora of sealed envelopes and boxes that we would unlock through game play. Unboxing, punching out counters and tiles, and sorting components took a couple of hours. Setting up required a big table, our dedicated game table in the gamer lair — the game was too big for the dining room table! And we’ve been playing it since.

 

 

The game feels like a typical fantasy role-playing campaign (such as Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder) in a box, with a set of rules that makes a dedicated game-master unnecessary. But it’s not a world of elves, orcs, and dwarves; it has an array of unique species such as Vermling, Quatryl, Inox, and so forth, and the monsters are also varied. I was pleased that the campaign world does not feel derivative. The beautiful art really helps integrate all this into an immersive campaign.

 

 

System

There are several useful overviews of game play online, notably from Gaming Rules!, DriveThru Reviews, and Rahdo, so I won’t go into too much detail on game mechanics. Here is the gist:

There are six starting character classes, and eleven advanced classes to unlock. Characters get campaign goals in the form of personal quests, which eventually unlock new content, as well as new battle goals each mission, which can unlock perks for character advancement.

Attack modifier cards
Attack modifier cards

No dice is involved in the game. Instead, each character’s action results are determined using an attack modifier card deck that starts out neutral (as many positive modifiers as negative ones), which you improve over time by removing negative cards and adding positive cards as part of your character’s advancement. All character classes have different improvements available for this deck.

Initiative values from 01 to 99 printed on the action cards, including the monsters’ decks, so revealing your action cards also determines your initiative.

Character abilities and actions in a given scenario are determined by hand management. Every round, you play two action cards, one for its A action and one for its B action (see card example above); with the default actions always available (Attack 2 for A, Move 2 for B), these two cards provide seven possible action combinations, so even after committing you still have options if battle conditions become unfavourable by the time it’s your turn in the round.

The action cards are discarded. To recover them, or most of them, you can take a short rest at the end of the round and recover all your discarded cards except one removed at random; or spend your next turn taking a long rest, heal (recover a couple of health points or lose conditions like Poisoned or Wound), refresh used items, and recover all discarded cards except for one of your choice which is lost.

Hand attrition really makes you feel like you’re exhausted and time is running out. When you can no longer play two cards on your turn, or when you fall to zero health (or less), you are exhausted and out for the rest of the scenario.

The game rules automate monster/opponent actions using monster-specific action decks and a series of monster priorities determining who gets targeted, etc. The scenarios mix-and-match monster role (archer, guard, boss, cultist, etc.), which determine actions and initiative; competence (regular or elite), and type (bandit, living bones, Inox, fire elemental, etc.) which determine stats and abilities, thus providing enormous versatility.

Left to right: monster card inside its tracking sleeve; monster action deck; monster standees (white = regular, gold = elite); and monster type card.

I have greatly enjoyed the strategic and tactical aspects of the game: choosing your action cards before each adventure, discovering winning combos, identifying synergies between different characters, planning the missions. There isn’t a bad card among the character action decks!

Components

Game author Isaac Childres brought enormous care to the  design of the game components to maximize the amount of information they convey and the clarity of that information. The various decks, counters, figures, etc. are identified by using color, numbers, and class-specific logos for detailed tracking.

For example, monster type cards are printed with stats for eight levels, both regular and elite, with numbered areas to track damage individually. So one card can allow you to track the separate fate of anything from, say, one lone regular level 0 skeleton (“living bones” in the Gloomhaven setting) to a dozen of them at elite level 7! (Monster level is determined based on average player character level in the scenario.)

Map

During the campaign, successfully completing adventures reveals new scenarios, for each of which you get to place a marker on the campaign map. The markers are stickers that match the map background but reveal the new location — cut so exactly, that they even separate correctly at the folding points of the map board.

You also get to unlock achievements which vary with the choices the characters make. These too are indicated with stickers, festive banners which will decorate the top edge of the map. Individual character upgrades can be purchased (once you’ve unlocked that achievement!) and marked with more stickers: increased range or number of targets, spell effects, etc.

Character board

The original printing of the game was created to match the relatively modest price of this enormous box o’stuff, so some sacrifices had to be made, for example by using paper stock for the rulebook covers rather sturdier card stock. On the other hand, the cards themselves, the interlocking board tiles, the many counters and tokens, etc. are of good quality. The art is beautiful throughout all components.

The very success of the funding campaign was, as is often the case for runaway Kickstarters, a challenge in and of itself: some components could not be manufactured as originally planned in the increased quantities, stretch goal elements strained the shipping capacity, etc.

I understand that toward the very end of the production process, the tracks and markers for health and experience on the character boards had to be redesigned because some parts were no longer available; as a result, the markers don’t stay firmly placed in the tracks.

These are the kinds of annoyances, along with a few misprintings, that are being improved in the second printing of the game, which was recently the object of a second KS campaign. (The improved components were available as separate rewards for those who own the first printing version.) The original KS campaign sold about 4,650 copies; the recent one sold over 35,000 of the second printing!

In addition, Isaac Childres has started releasing additional campaigns including one, “Into the Unknown,” which you can play via Berserk Games’ Tabletop Simulator on Steam (works with Windows, Mac, or Linux platforms.)

I expect we will see this game a lot at conventions and game day events in the next few years.

In short: I love this game, I gave it a 10 out of 10 on BoardGameGeek, and although we’ve played it a lot for several months now, we have enormous amounts of material left to discover. Amazing value for the money.

 

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Game Review: Gloomhaven

  1. This game is a gem! I’ve been introducing this game to middle-school kids and we’ve started a mini-craze! Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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