Gloomhaven: First Impressions – Glass Cannons, Greedy Adventurers, and Gruesome Monsters
In the realm of Gloomhaven, anything is possible. From earth demons tearing up prison cells, to drunken bar brawls over vials of blood, to ratmen who can bend your mind to their whim. The world is a perilous place, made even more so by the dangers that lurk in the dark.
My gaming group is partial to the adventure style, grid movement based, exploration, RPG. We have recently finished a campaign into the world of Star Wars: Imperial Assault, and with Destiny now taking care of our Star Wars need, we needed another game to fill the RPG void. Enter Gloomhaven.
Gloomhaven is exactly that – a fantasy style adventure game based in a universe not dissimilar to that of Dungeons & Dragons. Now, before we go on, I do need to warn you:
Gloomhaven is a game with secrets. As you pass through the game you carve out your own journey in a “legacy” style system. As such, I am not going to comment too much in regards to the actual story and will upload no images of full maps after the very first mandatory scenario (this you have to play, so it isn’t really a spoiler). All other images are close up and don’t give anything away, as I will attempt to keep this spoiler free.
That being said, if you do not want to see anything to do with the game then please DO NOT CONTINUE PAST THIS POINT. THIS IS YOUR FINAL WARNING.
Initial Impressions of Gloomhaven
When we turned up, just four of us as willing adventurers, we had already picked our characters and the first game was already partly laid out on my friend’s gaming table. The table was full once we all sat down and got our characters out (not pictured below), which isn’t that unusual. It is a large table, but games like Mage Knight and Imperial Assault have taken the whole table up before. Once you have snacks on the table, even a game like Terraforming Mars can take up a large percentage of the surface area with five players.
Below is the image of what it looked like when I entered the room and before we made it messy. I did take pictures of what the full table looked like later one, but it contained spoilers, so…just imagine it chaotic and completely manic.
That being said, nothing comes close to Gloomhaven in size, and I mean that sincerely. The box to Gloomhaven has to be stacked on top of the board game shelves because no shelf is big enough to store it. When it sits on the top, it is the same height as four full-size game boxes stacked on top of one another. It is so large that it could be used as a flood defence. Heck, in some strange alternative future, I bet it could be used as the ballast for lead-lined diving suites. There was only one way to give justice to the size of the freaking box. Yes, we had to use the not-so-well-known “labrador scale”.
That is a fully grown, adult male, black labrador. The reason for this is Gloomhaven is so huge because at any one time you are only playing with a maximum of 1/4 of the components.
What Does Gloomhaven Comprise Of?
There are 95 different scenarios in the Gloomhaven box. How many of these feature in a campaign, we do not know, but in eight hours we managed to play three of them. At this rate there is around 12 days worth of content is played back to back, regardless of story, and assuming none of the scenarios are repeated. That is a lot of playtime for a board game.
Only, Gloomhaven isn’t only a board game, it’s an experience. Within the box, there is not only the 95 scenarios, but over 1700 cards, and 17 different characters. Six of these are available to play as right away, of which in a four-player game there were two unused. As the game progresses your starting characters grow, having a full career as treasure hunters (or whatever your motivation is) only for the next character to be unlocked. After that, the next character is unlocked and so on and so forth. The game continues to evolve and develop as it gets played. It grows as you grow, and that’s something that is really awesome about it. But, alas, I get ahead of myself.
What is the Characterisation like in Gloomhaven?
When playing a long campaign it is important that the characters all behave in their own unique way. They need to have their own feel and their own way of doing things, otherwise, the campaign can fall flat on its face very quickly. When playing Star Wars: Imperial Assault it took about half the campaign to really get into how my character behaved.
Gloomhaven manages to characterise the characters (wow, a great sentence there Luke) really well and makes them feel unique. It does this in a few ways, some of which are similar to Imperial Assault or Descent, but some of which are completely different and more along the lines of a traditional RPG like D&D or Fate.
I played the Vermling Mindthief, a class that didn’t seem to be similar to anything I’ve come across before outside of Superhero comics. The Vermling Mindthief is a basic starter class who is dedicated to psychic abilities and summoning rats. When playing I was immediately given two boxes. One of those two boxes contained my character mini. The other contained a lot more – including a custom deck of cards for each level, a modifier deck, tokens, player mat, and record sheet. This was really cool to receive as it immediately felt personal. The back of the player mat had a couple of paragraphs about the Vermlings and Mindthieves in particular, but the character was mine to name. As of yet, the name field is still blank, but I am leaning towards “Nigel”.
The deck is a fairly interesting mechanic, acting as a mix between the deck in Mage Knight and the magic system of Dungeons and Dragons. Each character has a hand limit of cards (10 for the Vermling), meaning they choose from cards each mission that they are going to take with them out of their available deck. There were 13 available to me as the Vermling Mindthief at Level 1. These cards are split into a top action and a bottom action, and each turn you play two cards – the top half of one and the bottom half of the other (in any order you want). These get discarded when spent, and can only be recovered when resting.
When resting, the player gets their discarded cards back minus one, chosen at random. That one card gets destroyed and cannot be used for the rest of the game. Now, like all games like this, there are exceptions to the rule; for instance, there are certain one-shot effects that get burnt when you use them right away. This means it is highly possible to eat through your hand really quickly, and, once you are in the position where you can no longer play two cards, you are exhausted and leave the mission. You will return afterwards, reentering the next mission afresh (although there is a permadeath version of the rules – that is proper hardcore).
The cards themselves are all unique to the character, with nothing in common with anyone else, and thematic names. This, for the Mindthief, included things like Summon Rat Swarm; however, it also included mental skills like Possession. This is, needless to say, awesome and fantastical combinations can be pulled off to render enemies in twain and banish demons to the nether-realms.
Returning to the topic of characterisation, the characters are built on further using a motivation that is unique to each character. At the start of the game, all players are randomly handed two motivations and were told to keep one. This is their reason for being, and the character will retire (opening a new one up) once it has been completed. This is fine; however, one of the biggest problems I currently have with Gloomhaven revolves around this mechanic. As a player, I got handed two really rubbish cards. One wouldn’t work from a thematic perspective, and the other one feels near impossible. One was kill 15 Vermlings (you can see why that wouldn’t work) and the other was…well…I can’t say as no one else is meant to know – but let’s just say it involves fighting some pretty large and terrifying monsters. The Mindthief is a sneaky character, and isn’t meant to be on the front line slaying giant beasts, so neither story felt right.
That being said, I am just going to ignore it for the time being – if it happens then it happens.
What is Gloomhaven like to play?
So, this is where it gets interesting. I mean, arguably it already is, but this is where it gets more interesting. How does the game actually play?
Well, it is split into two main sections. The first is within Gloomhaven and on the road to missions. In both, you draw encounter cards. These are individual events that happen within the city of Gloomhaven, offering an A/B choice of what you want to do. For instance, a woman asks you for help – you can accept or deny. Choices have consequences that affect how the real-life game works, and that is a level of intricacy not normally seen on the table top. The same kind of thing happens when travelling to missions or between destinations. These road encounters seem to be more extreme so far, however, more cards will later be added to the deck – so I imagine they can get a lot worse. These are both, in a way, world map based encounters. They don’t take place with individual players, but rather the group as a whole.
Where this works really nicely is pulling the players back into their characters. It spurs creative thinking and feeling the character you are playing.
The second type of gameplay is the miniature based game we have been exploring in detail so far. For this I am not going to go into detail about the rules too much, as there are over 40 pages and that’s too big to summarise. Instead, let’s talk about the good, the neutral, and the bad.
The Good: Combat and Exploration
The Gloomhaven combat system is a well thought through mechanic that allows players to strategise whilst also keeping them focused in a thematic way. The game is a mental challenge, which does make days like the one we had even more difficult – but that is a good thing. Combat is simple, yet effective, with players dealing a base damage in accordance to the cards they play, along with the turning over the top card in their own modifier deck of pluses and minuses to aid in the combat.
One thing I should have mentioned at the start of this article, but didn’t (and as you know, it is far too late now to scroll up and add it in), is how the game villains are all controlled by a simple AI system – they move to and attack the nearest player. If they are units like Archers then they would move to their maximum range and then shoot. They avoid traps, but generally speaking, they react to the players. This tends to work well, however, it does require for the players to be honest and accept the challenge for what it is as opposed to controlling the bad guys to make the lives for the heroes easier.
The card-based combat also means it is possible to chain attacks and that can be really fun when you pull them off. Watching something play out in front of you that took careful planning, is incredibly satisfying.
Both the in-game mission tiles and the out of world map add new dimensions to the world of Gloomhaven. When playing games like Descent or Imperial Assault it can be difficult to join up the dots between different mission maps as they lead you on a linear exploration of the world. In Gloomhaven there are a few linear options; however, the majority of the game seems to be open to exploration, creating a huge world with which to explore. What is very impressive is the map is a full game board in its own right, and as you discover locations on the map you place a sticker on it. This gives a “Legacy” feel to the game, where everyone does the first few missions, but after that, it branches out in a unique way.
This is built on by the Gloomhaven encounters and road encounters decks, which not only add a bit of spice to the game, but they also add an opportunity for characterisation outside of a hack-and-slash dungeon crawler.
The mission tiles, in the great tradition of tabletop RPGs, remained blank until they were explored – but hey, I mean, if it’s not broken then why fix it?
The whole way that Combat and Exploration work within the game is really smooth and a credit to Isaac Childres, the designer. He had done an amazing job with making the board game feel like a whole world and, in many ways, it is mind-blowing.
In many ways, Gloomhaven holds a beacon to miniature games, and I am not 100% sure there is a direct comparison. The combat is excellent, the exploration is amazing, and the game is incredibly fun to play. Sometimes it plays out like a well-timed game of chess. Other times it is a shot in the dark; however, this is what makes it exciting.
The Neutral: The Characters
From a neutral perspective, at the moment the characters don’t completely grab me. This is entirely personal, and to give credit where it is due, they are all highly unique; however, I can’t help but feel they are sometimes a bit too unique.
Each character behaves differently to all the others around the table, which is great, with their own unique abilities and ways they behave. This is enjoyable and having that difference makes you really feel like your character is yours. That being said, it is far too easy to try and make a comparison to the classic RPG classes. Going in, and for the first few missions, we assumed that because of the way the characters are positioned within their cards and thematically (on their player mats) we would be dealing with the following:
Brute – Fighter/Barbarian
Scoundrel – Rogue
Tinkerer – Steampunky Ranger (maybe – this is actually the hardest class to define)
Mindthief – Mage
Realistically, however, they didn’t play like that at all. Instead, we found that the Brute was too weak to be a tank, the Scoundrel was one of our main forces for combat, the Mindthief had a few psychic abilities but generally tended to be used to weaken enemies with means like poisoning, and the Tinkerer was effectively a healer. This lead to a realisation that –
Brute – Ranger
Scoundrel – Archer/Fighter
Tinkerer – Cleric
Mindthief – Rogue/Assassin
Those classes are hard to define, as they aren’t really directly comparable, but you get the idea. Nothing played like how we expected it to. Now we know that and as we get a feel for the characters. What it meant though was that there was a divide in the group as we had to do a lot of trial and error to get it right. More often than not, those errors were fatal.
The Bad: Goals
The weakest part of the game, in my opinion, is the lack of ability to choose from more goals. There are three types of goals within the game – the scenario goal is the most basic. So far this tends to be “empty X of bad guys” but I’m fully expecting that to broaden out as the game continues. Nothing particularly wrong there – I mean it is hack-and-slash after all.
The second type is personal goals, which I have expressed an opinion of earlier on in this article.
The third type though is a specific Battle Goal, of which each player receives two to choose from before every battle (they then discard one). These include things like completing the scenario whilst only killing three or fewer enemies, or using all of your items a certain number of times, or tripping a certain number of traps etc.
Completing Battle Goals gives perks which help modify the damage augmentation decks your character uses during battle.
Where I see the benefit of having a perks system, the more I think about the Battle Goals the more they annoy me. Firstly, you only have two to choose from, and like with the profession cards, sometimes they are rubbish. Getting dealt two rubbish cards is game destroying.
The second is they are inconsistent and forcibly augment how you play. They give you a mindset for the battle which may completely counteract how your character should behave and how you want to play, all because the perks are too beneficial. I got things like “Spring a trap on your turn” and “End the game with fewer than X amount of health” (I can’t remember the exact number), of which there was no way I was going to take the second due to being the weakest character. One good archer shot could kill me.
The simple solution to this was suggested by a friend “You can ignore them though, right?”
Yes, you can, but then you end up falling behind. When the other adventurers are levelling up already, and gaining perks, it becomes a battle to keep up. Some of the perks also give two points, which propelled a couple of players further forward than others and, where asymmetry can be good, I do have problems with it in games like this when it is down to the luck of the draw.
That’s just a small thing though, and it may just be luck of the draw, but it is a niggle as minor as it may be.
The Difficulty of Gloomhaven
Gloomhaven is really (really) bloody difficult. Each game was a battle for survival, and we haven’t completed an environment yet with more than two players surviving until the end. It is both a blessing and a curse.
As gamers, it is nice to have games across the spectrum, but Gloomhaven has to be one of the most difficult games we have ever played. The recommended game time was 30 minutes per player, and we ended up having around 45 minutes per player. This means games lasted longer. Of course, it may be we are completely over thinking it, and we need to cut back, but generally speaking, the game just doesn’t relent.
Wave after wave of enemies come at you and, due to the exhaustion issue and having to burn cards when you are not doing something, it means you never have a breathing moment. This is also why the Gloomhaven encounters are so nice, as they break the game up a bit with a small problem for the group to discuss. Otherwise, it is tiring.
We got our butts kicked numerous times over the campaign, with one character dying early on (the Brute actually) in both the first and second missions. One character, the Tinkerer survived both, and I…well…so far I got exhausted in one scenario and died in one – but I also survived in one and that is cool. Yay, go me.
The game is brutal and hard, and we’re only playing it with the bad guys at Level 1. It hurts, a lot.
HOWEVER, it is also incredibly fun. The fact it is so difficult makes it exhilarating. Every moment is a fight for survival. If you look at a bandit and think “yeah, I think I can take him” knowing full well that if you don’t then you will probably be dead, is really fun and gives way to the imagination conjuring up fantastically elaborate scenes of epic action.
Okay, so this has now taken me an evening and a morning to write, and is over 3500 words, so I am going to wrap it up. Gloomhaven is not a perfect game; however, it is an incredibly fun game and incredibly well made. It offers a challenge and I can imagine that, as gamers, we are going to grow into our characters a lot more over time. It is fun enough that we have booked in two more sessions before Christmas so I will be writing a lot more about it in the future.
For now, though, I need to go and do something that isn’t staring at this article whilst trying to organise possibly the largest game I will ever be a part of into a few short paragraphs.
Okay, so I am assuming there will be some Gloomhaven players reading this article. What do you think of the game? Do you agree with me? Where do you disagree? Let me know in the comments below.
If you haven’t played Gloomhaven then what do you like the sound of? Do you want to play it or are you happy to leave it be?