I’m not sure I will ever be entirely ‘ready’ to review Gloomhaven, given its scale and ambition, but I am certainly not going to wait till I’ve finished the campaign before putting finger to keyboard. My group have recently concluded what could be regarded as the first narrative arc of the game and I feel like it is the right time to try and take on this behemoth, a game that sits atop the BoardGameGeek rankings as the best boardgame of all time.
Is it though? Is this massive box of cardboard and, well, more cardboard, really worth the commitment of time and money it asks of you? Does it live up to the considerable hype? Let’s crack it open and work out not only if I like it, but if it is for you.
The Nostalgia Factor
I think it’s worth taking a moment to chart the journey that got me to Gloomhaven, as at £120 it is certainly not a game to be bought lightly, at least not for me. On a recent episode of Brainwaves we talked about Fireball Island and the dangers of giving into feelings of nostalgia over all other factors. Gloomhaven does fall guilty to this for me to an extent, because essentially what I have been looking to do for many years is to replicate the feelings of playing Warhammer Quest when I was younger (saying kid is probably a bit disingenuous).
I’ve done the rounds of several dungeon crawlers having tried both editions of Descent, Shadows of Brimstone, the D&D series of boardgames and checked out via demos games like Dungeon Saga and others that I honestly can’t recall at this moment. Whilst each of these games had something to recommend them none of them really grabbed me as much as Warhammer Quest had back in the day with it’s mix of tactical dungeon play and cool interludes back at the town where you could get into all sorts of trouble.
All this meant was that when Gloomhaven appeared on the scene I was already looking for it. I did baulk at the price and it wasn’t until the second printing when I really started looking at it seriously. I read reviews, with a wide a variety of opinion as possible, I watched videos and eventually I decided it was for me after watching the excellent Shut Up & Sit Down review.
However this was not the end of me procrastinating. Before buying it I consulted with my friends as I knew that this game was going to need some commitment from the group I would be playing with. Luckily 3 of my social circle seemed really pumped and I hit the go button on the purchase. I would strongly recommend that you do the same as this game is going to ask for a lot of your time.
My God, it’s full of Cardboard!
You can look at all the photos and videos you want but the first thing that strikes you about Gloomhaven is the sheer sense of scale of this massive game design undertaking. My previous post covered punching it out and organising the thing, including the very generous gift of an organiser from Basically Wooden by two of the group, but I would like to emphasise again what a joy this thing is to unbox. Sheet after sheet of beautifully illustrated cardboard, hundreds of cards and the tantalising sealed boxes and envelopes (don’t forget to look under the plastic insert!).
Much has been written about the use of standees in Gloomhaven over miniatures and I for one am totally on board with the former. I don’t have to paint anything in this game to have it look absolutely gorgeous and the choice to go with cardboard minis over plastic means the designer has been able to put a massive variety of monsters in the box to tussle with (should you want to check out artist Alexandr Elichev you can do so here). On top of that the decision to have minis represent the players means that the board is a lot clearer than if everything had been grey plastic: it’s easy to pick out where the heroes are amongst the standees.
Let’s dig into the core of the game: the tactical dungeon bash. In the end Gloomhaven is a dungeon delve and if that is not what you are looking for then you are reading a review about the wrong game. You start each dungeon with access to a bunch of cards, gaining more as you level but you must choose only a certain number of those, based on your class, to actually take into the dungeon with you. The first beautiful mechanic here is that you start with every single one you choose available to play, not in a deck waiting to be drawn, meaning you can plan out your tactical arc to an extent. Thankfully it isn’t quite that easy.
Every round you will choose two of these cards to play and reveal them alongside with your fellows and then see what the monsters are up to, each type of which has it’s own little AI deck. Each card you have chosen has an initiative on it and you choose one of those as yours for the round. Each monster has an initiative as well and of course so do your fellow adventurers, but you can’t tell them exactly when you are going to be acting before you flip your cards over.
What this basically means is that we have a two fold system of risk/reward and improvisation. I play a Cragheart at the moment so maybe I have a perfect plan to leap into the middle of a bunch of enemies and punch one really hard in the face. Unfortunately I am a slow lumbering dude and everyone else has gone before me decimating the group I was going to attack so now I have to improvise a different plan, or maybe the monsters go before me and split up, forcing me to move off from the party and tackle something on my own.
You can get cards back that you have played, but every time you do you will permanently ‘lose’ one of those cards not getting it back until after the adventure has concluded. The most powerful abilities you have access to often get ‘lost’ when played and if you ever run out of cards to play you are going to have to have a nice lie down, removing you for the remainder of this particular delve. You have to manage this loss of cards well or there will be less opportunity for you to gain money and xp as you get knocked out early from having nothing to play.
These intertwining systems give a wonderful feeling of controlled chaos as you try and not only figure out when the best time to go in a given round is and what cards to use, but also manage your powers over the course of the whole dungeon, hoping to not fall over before the mission is concluded. Issac Childres has designed an incredibly tight core game and then built a world on top of it for you to explore. Let’s step outside the door and see what elevates Gloomhaven from merely a dungeon crawler into a living breathing story.
There’s no knowing where you might be swept off to
Although the core of the game is fantastic, it would be foolish to ignore all the bits around that game as well. From the moment you crack open a character box and pour your components across the tabletop you are stepping into the role of that class as they find themselves in the City of Gloomhaven for the first time. Your character board gives you background on your race and a personal story card a reason why you might be out and about in the world. Something else to note here is that until you crack open a box, and its accompanying miniature, you aren’t even going to know what that particular class even looks like!
Breaking the back on the extensive quest book sets your characters on their path in a very cliche way: you need money, this merchant person has some for doing a job. I think the cliche is part of the strength of the setup though, giving you a familiar and understandable hook into an unfamiliar world. The setting reveals itself in lots of lovely little touches from the existence of a sanctuary you can donate to for bonuses to the city and road events that give you glimpses into how the denizens of the world operate whilst the ‘heroes’ are out on adventures.
All these little touches succeed in a building a world without filling it, allowing the players to find their own place within it. We have established a morality for our particular group through the choices presented to us in the events decks and the quests we have chosen. Up to this point, at the end of the first arc, we are definitely ‘the bad guys’ but that has emerged organically out of the choices we felt like taking and has bonded our group together in our adventures. It feels fantastic.
However, it is not just these story choices that make your game of Gloomhaven uniquely yours: choices you make also affect your base of operations, the City itself. You start out with some items about you of course but always there is a shop with more tantalising treats to buy for your next adventures into the wild. Your actions can affect the Prosperity of Gloomhaven opening up not only more items to buy but also allowing you to start new characters at the same level as the city.
Ah yes, retirement. We are yet to experience this but from the off you only have 6 classes unlocked, and in a lovely touch these are the 6 classes that you can see on the side of the box and on the cover art (you also quickly realise that your first employer is the lady in the middle of this art with two burly bodyguards). In the depths of the box you will find several boxes waiting to be opened, all sealed with a little sticker. The main way to open these is to have a character reach the end of their personal story card and retire. Sure you can just play the same class again if you like, but don’t you want to crack open one of those boxes that is just aching to be prised apart.
Alongside these boxes are envelopes you open once you reach certain milestones and an ever changing world map that has stickers showing you the missions you have unlocked and achievements obtained. This really lends a feel of intense anticipation to the game: wondering what future effect each flag you put on the map will have or what lies inside the envelope that opens when you have donated enough money to the Sanctuary. With each quest we know that our current character’s story may come to an end and whilst I will be sad to say goodbye to my Cragheart Larimar when the time comes, I am equally excited to see what new character I will meet when I crack open a new box and what that will tell me about the world I and my fellows are journeying through.
Gloom-having a good time
Gloomhaven is a remarkably elegant game for it’s size. You would think something like this would feel clumsy and lumbering but it skips over the potential problems with a lightness of touch that takes my breath away every time I get it to the table. I have been consistently surprised by how ‘necessary’ everything feels in Gloomhaven: despite the giant number of components and systems within nothing feels like it was thrown in there just for the hell of it, each one has been thought about, considered and found needed.
Gloomhaven is also a perfect example of what Kickstarter should be for. This is pretty much one man’s vision and I cannot see a publisher taking on a game of this sheer physical size. That he carried off this ambitious product is testament to Childres and his team and I am going to be keeping a close eye on everything he does in the future.
Whether or not it is for you is very much down to your ability to commit time to what the game asks of you. There are 95 scenarios in the quest book and though I know you don’t play all of them, you are bound to play through a good number before your game comes to an end. It is a big commitment of time and money, and if you don’t have a group that are really pumped for a game like this, then it may be that cash is better spent elsewhere.
However, if you are looking for a game that feels like a genuine adventure, where the world feel dangerous, exciting and intriguing, where unknown treasure and monsters wait round every corner and the setting is just begging for you to carve your name in it with your deeds, then look no further. Gloomhaven is all these things and more and if it is not my game of the year I will be very, very surprised.