Don’t worry, there aren’t any serious Gloomhaven spoilers coming up!
Gloomhaven weighs 9.8kg. For reference, when my three-month-old nephew was born he weighed just 3.5kg, the current 18 carat gold FIFA world cup trophy weighs a meagre 6.1kg and for the same weight you could have 9 Pandemics (the board game, I’m still unsure on the weight of infectious diseases).
What you get for all that weight is quite substantial. Gloomhaven, being a legacy game, comes full of unopened (and in some cases sealed) boxes, a chunky rule book and even chunkier scenario guide, a veritable album of cardboard pieces and boards, and a cavalcade of (1700!) cards. If you know nothing of Gloomhaven I’ll clue you in; Gloomhaven is a fantasy RPG-esque tactical combat game designed to be played over several scenarios with a party of differently able characters as a single coherent adventure. Its scope is ambitious, and part of the major appeal is that it’s a fully fledged fantasy adventure without the need for a Games Master (DM) to guide the players.
The drawback of any new game, especially the ambitious ones, is that players must first learn how to play. I imagine writing a rule book must be very difficult and this is why so many publishers get it so wrong and more and more we see ‘WATCH THE VIDEO TUTORIAL FIRST’ plastered across the cover of so many manuals. Gloomhaven’s manual is not bad, for such a big game with so much going on it quickly and reasonably succinctly describes what each facet of the game is for. If you were the type of person in the habit of sitting down and ploughing through every word on every page of a 50-page rule book, you’d get to know all of Gloomhaven’s idiosyncrasies and features so as to perfectly play every scenario (I imagine). If you are anything like me however you’ll want to read as little as possible so you can get playing, this is what Gloomhaven is not so good at.
The advantage a typical RPG like Dungeons and Dragons is that new players have to read relatively little to be able to play, and instead can listen to their wizened DM, sit back and go along for the ride. Gloomhaven has no such hand-holding and immediately you will be given a hand of 8-12 cards each with umpteen symbols, terminology and minutia and be told to play two cards, which determine both of your actions and when you can do those actions. That being said, individual turns are actually surprisingly simple, satisfying yet meaningful.
Gloomhaven employs a clever system whereby cards are either lost or just discarded from a player’s hand. Discarded cards can be reobtained by taking a short rest between rounds or sitting out a round to perform a long rest, but 1 card is always lost this way. Once all cards are lost a player is considered exhausted and can not longer continue to fight. This, although not entirely intuitive, is a very clever way of limiting the length of interactions without necessarily cutting them short. Play recklessly and burnout quickly or play very deliberately and you might find that your enemies get the better of you.
At the start of the game there are 6 characters to choose from, each very different. Some, like my chosen character: Venus the Orchid Spellweaver, has only 8 starting cards and although her spells are powerful if played foolishly is prone to burning out quickly and early. Other characters have more cards and greater staying power but won’t unleash as much damage. Ultimately it is down to the skill of the player how much utility they can get out of their character.
Teamwork is more important that it first seems. Although the game can be played solo, I would recommend grabbing at least 2 friends for the best experience. Cards played determine the order in which characters play and while players shouldn’t communicate any of the numerical values on their cards they are encouraged to communicate qualitatively when they might be taking their turn. Action order (or initiative) is very important and any RPG player will tell you action economy is even more important. Maximising your own actions while minimising the actions of enemies can be the difference between winning and losing.
Completing a scenario is enormously satisfying and gives the campaign a great momentum. Depending on the reward players will unlock new items or a new location. Players who became exhausted during the interaction still share in the experience gained, which I think makes a great deal of sense as characters who fully exerted themselves, probably heavily contributed.
Let’s talk about how the game looks for a second. The polish on the game is phenomenal, each sculpted mini comes in it’s own little card box and so I haven’t even seen them all yet but they are fantastic. Each map piece oozes with possibility yet aren’t fussy or overly complicated. The world map serves little purpose other than to tie all the scenarios together into a single campaign but I think it’s a great addition.
For £130 I think perhaps they could have made the map double sided and given you two packs of stickers for a little more replayability, or so you could play through it with two different groups at once. That being said, the game is so vast and offers (at least) 95 plays, lasting between 1 and 4 hours, would anyone want to play it twice? An unexpected benefit that I have discovered is how easily Gloomhaven can be repurposed for your other RPG needs, modular maps, detailed minis and numbered enemy pawns make great resources for Dungeons and Dragons for example.
For any serious tabletop player, Gloomhaven is an absolute must play. If you liked Pandemic Legacy or Risk Legacy for it’s ongoing momentum and mystery there is no doubt you’ll love this. If you are new to anything like this maybe first pick up a smaller board game RPG like Zombicide Black Plague or Massive Darkness, it’s less of an investment, but don’t forget to come back, Gloomhaven is waiting!
Written by: Andrew Johnson (d20 Board Game Café Manager)