Genre: Hand-Management Fantasy Dungeon Crawler
Player Count: 1 – 4
Play Count as of Review: 20+
- Gloomhaven is everywhere. If you’ve been a part of the board gaming community since its release, you’ve at least heard of the game and have probably at least seen it, if not played it. It shot to the top of the BGG rank of Overall, Thematic, and Strategy games. Gloomhaven has an expansion, a new stand alone edition that should be hitting shelves soon and an introductory version available at big box stores…but is it worthy of all that attention and praise? To be fully transparent, I cannot answer that without going deep into some spoilers. I will be doing that, but not in this post. I do want to give an idea of what the game is about as it is a sizable investment and if purchased, will take many hours to play. If there is anything that I think crosses a line, I will be sure to give you ample warning but there will be a spoiler filled review in the near future (similar to what I did with my two-part review of Pandemic Legacy Season 1). When I feel like I’m going to mention something that may be a spoiler in this post, it will be marked as such: [Possible Spoiler][End Spoilers]. I only expect to say that once or twice. And before I ask you to read ten points on what Gloomhaven offers, I do want to state up front that I believe Gloomhaven to be worth it. There will be caveats here and there in the post below, but Gloomhaven is one of the best experiences I’ve had in any of my hobbies. Going into Gloomhaven, I knew very little of what was in store for me. I was aware that it was a Legacy game (where each play built off the decisions made in previous plays) and that it had a fantasy setting. That’s about it. I knew nothing of the gameplay (cards? dice? charades??) or how long the game would take. All I knew was that it was the hot game and I had a major fear of missing out. In the depths of my heart, I was hoping for Skyrim: The Board Game. This was a major leap of faith and a substantial financial investment. I could have easily purchased several other games (or paid a heating bill) for what was basically a shot in the dark.
- Gloomhaven can be a daunting experience. The game is packed with cards, cardboard standees and chits. But fear not! Huge shout out to Gloomhaven Helper, an app that helps with some of the tedious bookkeeping that occurs throughout the game. While not everyone likes to utilize technology when playing analog games, I cannot sing the praises of this app enough. It is not vital to enjoying Gloomhaven but it helped us so much and speeds the game up noticeably for those that cannot leave it set up.
- The sheer amount of components honestly might be too much. I hate to say that. There is so much thought and content included for a reasonable cost but it is an absolute pain to set this game up and tear it back down. I am grateful that Isaac Childres didn’t pack the game with miniatures, raising the price 10x the amount and all the components are useful for the actual playing of the game but God it’s a lot…and it’s not perfect. The components, which there are a ton of, are some of the more cheaply made pieces I’ve come across in any board game I’ve played or owned. Numerous cardboard standees and coins have split into two and required gluing to piece back together. I do appreciate the amount of ‘stuff’ the game offers (especially at the price point) but when a large portion of it is falling apart, it makes me wonder if less would have been more.
- Gloomhaven is not a short game. Initial scenarios, while relatively short, can take seasoned gamers more than an hour as they get the feel of their characters and a more formal understanding of the rules. After playing through several scenarios, I would guess that our play time averages around an hour and a half per scenario but there are some that are much shorter as well as some being much longer. Most of our games have been at two-player but there is still a large time commitment as you try to work together to find the best course of action.
- I don’t know if Gloomhaven is a game worth investing in if you can only play one game in a sitting. The issue is you have to validate the set-up time. Taking ten minutes (or more) to set-up for one scenario is hardly worth the hassle. This is a game that thrives on players being able to experience back-to-back-to-back games in my opinion. It doesn’t make one-off games any less enjoyable but I never once got this game out just to play one scenario and put it away. If you have the ability to leave the game out or have a great organization method, disregard these thoughts. I purchased the Gloomhaven organizer from Broken Token but I’m not totally stoked about it. It made things slightly better but if I were buying for the first time again, I would look elsewhere.
- Gloomhaven nails the world building. I feel like I’m taking part in a massive campaign as I look at the sprawling map and large amount of stuff that will adorn each scenario. The individual story telling isn’t the best but it’s good enough for something in this genre and being able to pick and choose what we do and where we go is a great mechanic. So far (as I haven’t finished the campaign), I have felt like my decisions have a weight to them and what I do matters. This is in stark contrast to Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 where I was just along for the ride (but was still quite enjoyable)…but the scenarios themselves also tended to blend together. While the set-up and locale might be different, nothing ever made me feel like it was a completely different situation than the last. Maybe the scenario had unique rules for it, but it was the same rinse, wash, repeat of the earlier playthroughs. This can make the game feel repetitive. It feels like you’re just grinding through level after level until your character is strong enough to be fun.
- Speaking of the mechanics, the individual player deck system is a unique way to handle player turns and turn order. It creates interesting decisions not just for the present turn but for each future turn as well. I don’t think it’s without faults but it definitely creates a dynamic atmosphere with each play. Basically, players will play cards from their individualized decks that have a number on them. It can create some deep analytical thinking as players try to perfectly figure out how they’re going to best approach the landscape in front of them.
- The game looks and sounds like a larger than life Dungeons and Dragon campaign and I was really excited to get into my character but that never really happened. I did grow to like and care for my character but I never felt like I was playing a Brute or a Scoundrel. I was just moving along a character that I slowly became comfortable with. I will say that the characters played and felt different from one another. [Possible Spoilers] The theme, which there is a lot of, will often disappear due to core gameplay or a scenario. Nowhere is this more prevalent than loot. Scenarios will end once the conditions are met which means your mercenaries, who almost sole purpose is to acquire gold, will leave treasures and coins laying as all they really cared about was killing that last monster and the friendships they made along the way [End Spoilers]. The epic experience comes from the unknown (at least for me). While the moving around the board and fighting monsters is fun, it feels formulaic and I really just want to know how the narrative progresses and the different aspects of the branching story. This is in part due to the monster AI can coming across as lackluster. Since they all act the same way, monsters that clearly have roles (healing, ranged archers, etc.) will react in ways that are opposite of what they should be doing. The card system that dictates how Monster attack is nice in that it randomizes how they play but it adds just another fiddly aspect of the game to keep track of.
- Gloomhaven is a phenomenon and not necessarily for everyone. I would recommend Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion for anyone interested but unsure and I may even take that a step forward and say JotL should be tried first because it will truly show you if you’re interested in sinking the time and money into the big box Gloomhaven. The core gameplay is similar and it will help players know if this level of legacy and story is interesting to them. I appreciated the story Gloomhaven was telling as my character picked and chose what they would do or have happen to them but I also felt like sometimes I was playing just to progress the story and not because I liked what I was doing necessarily.