The Gloomhaven Diaries – Teaching and ‘The Black Barrow’

The 1st of February saw me getting Gloomhaven to the table for the first time and it was my job to teach this behemoth of a game to the rest of my adventuring party. Teaching games is always tricky and this one has a fair few moving parts, so I thought it might be useful to pass on what I learned from the experience.

This article will contain some spoilers for the first scenario, The Black Barrow.

Teacher, teach thyself

Once I had gotten the whole thing organised I made the decision to play through the first scenario. I cracked open the Tinkerer and Brute and made my way through the game, again following this guide that I had found so useful in the initial organisation of Gloomhaven.

The first scenario setup and played part way through.

This was an invaluable experience as it taught me not only how the basic mechanics work, but also the flow of the game: how cards get lost and discarded, when seems like a good time to short or long rest etc. The Tinkerer and Brute combo seemed like a good one as well as they cover a wide range of abilities: healing, summoning, range, area and melee attacks. I thoroughly recommend doing this to anyone who is planning to be teach the game.

You meet in a tavern…

The night came to teach the game and I had developed a fair amount of nervousness about getting this right. The players (Iain, Megan and Alex) were already pumped for it, one of the reasons I bought the game was I had people lined up who were enthusiastic for it, so that helped a lot with explanation.

I begun by laying out the first scenario board and all the bits for it, monster cards etc. I also figuered out where to put all the various trays that were part of the basically wooden organiser that Iain and Megan got me.

On top of the first scenario board I laid out the world map, party sheet, the stickers I would need and the first 6 classes all in their boxes so I got something that looked like this:

My table setup to play Gloomhaven.
The first bite is with the eye

I had decided to use the board for our first playthrough, as I wanted a physical artefact of our adventures at the end of the campaign. Subsequent campaigns would use the rather good Gloomhaven campaign tracker that I found on the android store, and I believe a slightly nicer version is available on the App Store.

Once we were all settled down I explained things in the following way. I wouldn’t normally go into such thing in depth but I haven’t found any great guides for this myself so I am hoping I can help others out with this breakdown.

  1. We all choice a character to play and I let people crack things open and handle the components.
  2. I read out the intro piece in the front of the campaign guide. We put the first sticker on our map.
  3. We then set about laying out our play areas, putting aside anything extraneous for the first playthrough: extra cards, character combat cards etc. I explained the experience and combat dial and we all drew a personal goal card, deciding to keep them secret. We also sleeved up the starting character ability cards.
  4. We got our equipment together, I didn’t explain any more about it right now.
  5. We drew a city event and resolved it.
  6. We drew a road event and resolved it.
  7. I took the main map away and we setup the first room of the first scenario. Choosing our starting positions I now set about the most difficult bit of explanation, how a turn worked and how the cards in everyone’s hands worked.

Let’s break out of this list for now. There is a definite trick to this part of the explanation as cards can have almost anything on them and use a variety of symbols and phrasing. I started out by explaining basically how a turn would work, that they would either choose two cards and play them or rest to get cards back and heal.  Initiative was up next and I emphasised that although you choose a card for your initiative it doesn’t mean anything when it comes to choosing bottom and top of your ability card.

When it came to using the ability cards themselves I started out by explaining that they could be used for a basic fight or move. We then had a brief tour through the abilities, starting with how attack and range worked, including the modifiers from the combat deck, and then moving onto tracking experience and the elemental infusion and consumption (I actually got the elemental rule wrong, infusing immediately and not at the end of a turn). Finally I covered short and long rests and exhaustion.

First scenario begins
Braving the Barrow!

We then dove into the game and everyone had a blast. We clarified rules as we went as we all got to know our new characters, and of course we didn’t mind if people changed what they wanted to do an action because of a card misunderstanding. It’s always best to handle the strict application of the rules a little loosely on your first run through a game. I’m not advocating cheating, just understanding that everyone learns a game at a different pace and you can always make a mistake teaching it.

Since none of us really understood the pace of the game yet we maybe blasted through some abilities too fast early on but it didn’t matter. We got to the end of the Black Barrow fine, unlocked the chest in the last room and had only 1 member of the team, the spellweaver fall over a bit tired.

First Impressions

I had an amazing time playing Gloomhaven and I was really glad that my teaching didn’t trip up anywhere along the line. I hope the method I used here proves useful for folk approaching the game and I have to admit it wasn’t as daunting as I had feared. The rulebook is excellent and the little summary on everyone’s player board really helps put everyone on the same page. I continue to be immensely impressed by Gloomhaven and we are all looking forward to our next session.

Iain McAllister

Tabletop games reviewer and podcaster based in Dalkeith, Scotland.

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