Gloomhaven – In Focus

Iain bought Gloomhaven with his own money.

I’ve reviewed Gloomhaven previously, and even written about the early adventures of my Cragheart Larimar (who is still adventuring through the world). It’s a big box full of cool moments, emergent narrative, and just making it to the finish line. What makes it truly tick though? What is the glue holding this behemoth together?

One of the elements that impressed me most in the design of Gloomhaven was that all the different systems just fitted together. Initially it seems as if there is too much: the elements, the shopping, the map with stickers, retirement, the combat mechanisms, the AI. It’s a lot. Every single part just slots together and through it all runs a single unifying factor.


Let’s start with the mission level considerations. Every time you lay out the dungeon tiles and accept a new mission the game inherently gives you a time limit to achieve that goal in. There isn’t a number of turns to remind us of when the clock runs out (though I believe there are some missions that do use this but I haven’t seen them myself). Nothing so crude is employed by Issac Childres. Instead time is an emergent property of the decks of the characters.

A mission in progress for Gloomhaven
Engaged in battle

Deck is maybe the wrong word actually. Each time you venture into a level you take a collection of cards with you, the number being limited by the character you play. Each turn you choose two of these cards to play. They will tell you when you act in the round and what you can do. Cards are how we do everything in a dungeon: move, attack, heal, loot, buff ourselves and others.

Each turn you’ll choose a top action on one card and a bottom action on the other. Once an action is performed on the card it is either discarded or “Lost”. Does this mean we eventually run out of actions to take? Yep. As our resources dwindle, as our skills are drained we need to rest. When we run out of cards to play we are out of the mission. Time is cruel.

When we rest we get most of our discarded cards back, but not our lost cards. Two options are available to us: a short rest and a long rest. With the short rest we get to still take our turn still, with a long rest we have to skip our turn. Short rests have the advantage of being improvisational, but with the penalty of having a random card from your discard pile becoming Lost. Long rest requires a bit more planning but gives you some healing for your foresight, allows you to untap equipment you’ve used and you get to choose the card you lose.

The element we are interested in here is that both rest methods require the loss of a card. Yes we get a load of cards back, but the options are whittled away by one each time.The sand trickles from one half of the timer to the other and it is inevitable that we will run out.

Some of the classes in the game play with this. I’ll be avoiding spoilers here and just talk about the core 6 classes you have access to from the off in the Gloomhaven core box. The Tinkerer has a card called Reinvigorating Elixir that gives someone back discarded cards, giving them a little more time during the mission. The Spellweaver has a very small allowance of cards but also has one ability that allows them to get all their Lost cards back, rewinding the clock and giving them their really powerful spells back. I am sure there are other classes I haven’t seen that play with this part of the game.

Cards Reinvigorating Elixir for Tinkerer and Reviving Ether for Spellweaver

The way cards are lost are discarded also gives an ark to each individual character in a mission and a pace to the overall play. The big moves, the moments of high action, are usually followed by a trough of smaller plays. This gives others their moment to shine giving a lovely rhythm to the action.

The dwindling mission resources are not the only way that time guides the feel of Gloomhaven. Each character is given a personal goal to complete at the start of the game. This might be to kill a bunch of a particular creature, take down some bosses, or adventure in certain areas of the world.

Once your goal is complete, your character retires. Their legend comes to an end. When a character retires you unlock a new class and start a new character. This can be the same class as the one you just retired or any of the available classes your group has access to. We’ve been really enjoying the new classes that have been revealed as we play.

I could say that the card crafting is also an element of how time runs through Gloomhaven. Cards that are change through the card crafting system can be used by that class throughout your run of Gloomhaven. Narratively it means that the new Craghearts learn from my previous Cragheart. That is pushing it a bit I’ll admit.

It is unarguable that Gloomhaven has a lot of mechanics, but the core is of course the dungeon fights. They could just be a gentle traipse through the hexes, but the addition of a constantly ticking clock puts pressure on every move, weight to every decision. One of the reasons that Gloomhaven stuck with me was the pace of play and this core of tough decisions and bold action powered by the multi-use cards you take with you on every adventure.

Although I absolutely advocate for the core Gloomhaven experience I suspect that anyone interested should really get into it via Jaws of the Lion. A smaller, more affordable experience that still has the core of the game intact and a better way to learn. I hope that you’ll give Gloomhaven a go, or Frosthaven when it arrives, as it is a truly monumental piece of design that will stand the test of time.

Come and talk about this piece with Iain in our Discord.

Iain McAllister

Tabletop games reviewer and podcaster based in Dalkeith, Scotland.

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