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Subject: Not Perfect, but the Best Dungeon Crawler Despite the Faults rss

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Overall Summary

Gloomhaven is truly an amazing accomplishment as it provides an extraordinary amount of story and gameplay content and does so at a very high level of quality. The designer has demonstrated that the art-of-the-possible is much broader and deeper than previously explored in the medium as far as the creation of a living, breathing world where players feel a part of a story, both in the context of the world around them and the development of their characters. For accomplishing the above the designer deserves an immense level of credit and hopefully raises the bar for future designers of fantasy, dungeon crawl and legacy/campaign games.

That the above was accomplished in the context of an excellent and very rich tactical combat system is what elevates Gloomhaven into the upper echelon of fantasy and dungeon crawl games. I will continue to update this review as I continue to play, but right now it’s the best dungeon crawl game that I have played and barring any unexpected late game scaling issues, I believe it will retain that slot through my full cycle through the game.

With the above said, this is a very difficult game to apply a rating to and I am sure there will be some confusion as to the text of my review and the number rating. I will attempt to explain who will and won’t appreciate the strengths and be put off by the deficiencies as this is a game where you mileage will vary. The game has a substantial number of strengths including: (i) a well told series of story lines, (ii) a simple to understand, yet tactically deep combat system with superb difficulty scaling, (iii) well-designed, multi-pronged character upgrade systems and (iv) a rich campaign system. The common denominator for most of these are a player will need to commit to many playthroughs to fully realize the benefits of the above strengths, such that my high rating is somewhat dependent on the assumption that a player will play enough and value these strengths that payout fully over the longer term.

There are a number of deficiencies with the game, which I will also spell out in detail below. Many of these ultimately fall into the bucket of annoyances more than major impacts on the playability of the game, but potential consumers can read and determine for themselves how much of a factor they would place on any of these. These consist of: (i) component design issues, (ii) game play length scaling at higher character counts, (iii) “forced” scenario replays and odd rules for optional scenario replay, and (iv) weak points in the otherwise stellar combat and upgrade systems.

Assigning a number rating to Gloomhaven is tough, and I do believe it is a game that in a lot of ways transcends a simple numerical rating. With that said, the fairest rating I can give the game is a 10/10 and I do this believing it has a lot of deficiencies and imperfections. Rating it this way is me saying that despite these imperfections, it is better than any other dungeon crawler on the market, so the denominator should be viewed relative to competing games not “perfection”. The campaign elements and story content add a substantially deeper dimension to the game than most experiences. The combat system is really well designed, as it is both elegant and simple to understand, yet provides very substantial tactical decision making depth, a necessity to keep the combat fresh and properly support the numerous scenarios. None of the deficiencies ultimately break any element of the game and to me only mean that the gap between this game and its competitors is smaller than it may have otherwise been. If you have been looking for a meatier, more substantial dungeon crawler, than its impossible not to fully recommend this game. With that said, the gameplay requires a deeper level of tactical play than the average dungeon crawler on the market. While this can be managed through the difficulty system (both easier and harder), this is not a game of move, attack, roll a bunch of dice to resolve and occasionally use a power. Decisions have a lot of weight and mistakes or overuse of one-time cards can have a profound effect on the outcome. If you are looking for a game with more tactical combat depth, this may be for you the amazing find it has been for me. If you want combat with a simplified option set for most of your play and lots of outcomes randomly determined, the combat system may wear on you over time. If you like the idea of a very long and rich campaign, broken into relatively bite-size scenarios, this also may be the amazing find for you it is for me. However, if the story and long-term town and character development do not interest you, this will probably feel like a lot of extra “weight” and complexity that you are not putting value on.


Background

I have 20 scenario playthroughs that include successfully completing 17 scenarios. 18 of the 20 playthroughs have been with 2 players, each with 1 character. 2 have been with 2 players, each with 2 characters. I have the standee version of the game.


Component Review

Component quality is generally a fairly low consideration for me unless they impact the playability and to the extent the most basic of components work, I am happy. With that said, the components are a mixed bag for me.

Strengths of the Components:

• The gloomhaven map (the board) is simple, but attractively drawn. There is limited functionality to the board other than tracking certain achievements, town prosperity and available locations, but all of this is done well (outside some minor quibbles regarding stickers being difficult to mark and being placed on the game fold)

• The standees are very nice. In a world that seems like a miniatures arms race, the standees are a nice change of pace and look very nice. Most importantly, this game has an incredible depth of monsters and bosses. We are talking Descent plus many, many expansions all in one box. From a storage and ease of management, standees are a huge plus and I would not trade them for miniatures if given the choice (even before factoring in the reality that miniatures inevitably would mean much less monster variety, which is crucial for such a long running game)

• Cards are very numerous and while minimalist in art design, what is there is attractive and the simplicity definitely helps make them highly functional, well explained and clear. Some of the event cards have substantial text which is both clear and well written. In the game play section, I will discuss in more detail, but there are a large number of specialized decks for each monster which provide their actions. In addition to being very tactically interesting, these are clear and generally well designed

• Each monster and boss has an information tracking card leveled from 0 – 7, that in part, provides the high level scalability that deeply benefits the game. These are attractive and easy to read. There are sleeves that are used to filter out the information for other levels so that the player only views that which pertains to the appropriate monster level and also provides a simple area to sort the damage and condition modifiers for the various monsters. This system is very nice and a huge upgrade to many other games where you are throwing counters next to the models on the board or trying to set some system to track on the side. Monsters are numbered and these allow for easy tracking of a large number of potential monsters without any board clutter. Very nice

Weaknesses of the Components:

• I have to say it is easy to work around with counters, but the character damage tracking (and to a lesser extent the experience tracking) is one of the most comically bad designs I have seen. By game 3 it just does not work as the sliver of cardboard at the bottom of the character sheet undergoes even a modest warping, it no longer will hold the life tracking. Not sure how this ever made it out without scrapping and just going to counters (which is what I use) or something else

• There are a lot of chits of dubious incremental value that are difficult to find and sort through in scenario set-up. In general, the scenario set-up is not obscenely long, but for two people it can take a good 15+ minutes, a lot of which is sorting through the various chits, standees and cards. Many of these really do add value and depth to the game. However, I have a large bag full of rocks, boulders, desks, tables, crates, stalagmites and various other miscellaneous items that functionally do the exact same thing. Many of the scenarios require a number of these and strangely, many are placed in tactically irrelevant positions. Eventually I have started to just put whatever I grab in these places, which leads to out of place items. It would have been a good design decision to streamline both the number of these miscellaneous items and the usage to areas where they provide tactical relevance

• The tiles can be a bit peculiar. Echoing the above, there are a lot of them and they are very minimally designed. Very little artwork or differentiation besides color and shape. Even with that, many of the shapes are very similar which has resulted in longer time to find them than necessary and a general feeling of tiles that are unnecessarily duplicative of other tiles. The other tile design element that is very strange is that along the outside border of certain tiles, the hexing becomes very vague. As these tiles interlock, it often provides strange points of interconnectivity where it is unclear what is a wall and what is a functional hex. There are certain scenarios where I have just assumed a hex that looks open is actually a wall because there is a door adjacent to it. Either better designed/drawn tiles or at least a colored line delineating a wall in the scenario book should have been implemented to make these points of confusion clear.

All-in-all components are good with the above exceptions. Nothing is broken (other than life tracking which is easily fixed) and I never felt like anything was so vague that a reasonable determination could not be made, despite the above complaints. What probably should have happened at some point was a recognition that (1) there are already a lot (too many?) components and (2) set-up time, while not a big issue, is not a plus either and used those two as a rationale to streamline out some of the fringy, non-value added components and related set-up.

Gameplay Summary and Review

Gameplay Summary

There is a lot that would need to be said to do this justice and I highly recommend viewing a separate, dedicated gameplay walkthrough to better understand Gloomhaven. I have a fairly extensive review that I am not going to bog down with a rules overview, however, this is in part because I think this game will be an all-time favorite for many, but not the game for many others as well. It would serve any potential consumer well to supplement any reviews with gameplay walkthroughs to see if this game is a good fit for them and I don’t think I can do it justice and keep this review to a manageable length.


Scenario and Combat Gameplay Review


The quality of the combat and the thoughtfulness of the design is a real standout. I would characterize it as the epitome of good design philosophy: The combat system is very simple to understand, but offers very deep and meaningful choices. You are always playing two cards from your selection, but the options are numerous and, because of the lost card mechanism, there is always a layer of complexity added from the tension of sacrificing a card with future value for a more impactful turn now. Coupled with a large set of characters with extremely unique card builds, I believe this game has plenty of strategic depth and variety to easily justify the length of the campaign and keep combat fresh. It is significantly deterministic, with limited (but meaningful) randomness added through the customizable attack modifier decks.

Strengths of the Combat Gameplay and Scenario Design

• Hard for me to overstate how much of a breath of fresh air the design is. I believe there is absolutely a place for the dice heavy, random event effect, random encounters that permeate dungeon crawler designs. There also hopefully is a place for a design like Gloomhaven: (i) Very carefully and thoughtfully crafted scenarios with no enemy placement left to chance; (ii) Design driven difficulty not subject to the vagaries of encounter or event decks; and (iii) a significantly deterministic combat system with extremely rich options for thoughtful and strategic play

• Scenario layout is designed and generally does not rely on random placements. Although most playthroughs have been with 2 characters, when I have played with 4, I felt the scaling was generally spot on as each map clearly shows what monsters will be placed in 2, 3 or 4 character layouts. It will be a continual theme of this review, but really the designer did just work harder in my opinion than those of most dungeon crawlers to: (i) not leave anything to chance but truly design thoughtful scenarios and (ii) nail the scaling both from a number of characters and a difficulty standpoint, which are design issues which seem to plague this genre

• I will discuss the upgrade systems in a little more detail later, but I found these to be very thoughtfully designed. I am guessing the way items (especially weapons) work will be strange or offputting to many, as they generally can only be activated once per scenario or once between rests. While that may be unusual, I really appreciate the upgrade design as every aspect (perks, ability cards, equipment, enchantments, life) all provide modest, incremental character improvement. Everyone who has played Descent knows the dramatic power increase from buying an Act 2 weapon, and this is close to the opposite of that. Every improvement is modest and incremental, but once I switched characters and didn’t have my accumulated items, perks, levels, etc. I really noticed and appreciated how much accumulated character power growth there really was. How this game handles upgrades ultimately has a very big impact on making every character very unique. Much of the power is generated from the unique ability decks and even though two characters may have the same or similar item sets, they will play and feel very different through the life of the game. A very important design choice for such a long lived game that really could have stumbled if this area of the design was not so thoughtful

• Monster design is strong and highly varied. There are many more monster and boss designs out-of-the-box than a typical dungeon crawler (4x maybe). Not everyone has a unique tactics deck, but there are a large number (28 if my count is right) spread across the monster varieties. This makes different monsters very unique and probably added the highest amount of randomness to combat as the variety of actions a monster might take could vary significantly across a single monster tactics deck

• While this is a very long campaign, scenarios move very crisply (outside of the relatively long set-up times described above) with 2 players. The advertised time is 30 minutes per character and outside set-up and the first two playthroughs, this has generally been pretty accurate, maybe plus 15 or 20 minutes. As mentioned, this is a much more “thinky” combat system than some of its more dice chucking brethren, so I think people’s mileage may vary on this, but I feel like anyone will leave feeling they had a lot of meaningful and interesting tactical decisions crammed into their playtime

• There is a very good and effective difficulty scaling out-of-the-box which should make the game more accessible as well as provide a very difficult challenge for those looking for it

• I really like the initiative system. Allows for an additional layer of strategy and definitely adds some tension in key situations

• Each class is given optional cards that can be swapped in and out of the base deck which also added good customization and party synergistic opportunities. Provided a nice variety and ability to customize to specific scenario requirements

• Like the status effect system as well. There is good variety and they are easy to track. Generally feel like the power is proportional and the ways to remove the status effects are balanced and thoughtful. It’s funny how prominent it is in the genre for status effects to either require a hit roll, saving throw or some damage. So much that at least once a game someone will say something along the line of “no damage, I’m not poisoned”. In this game that is not the case. If a status effect is used it is generally applied. What I like about this is it gave more design options for the use of status effects. In a lot of games, they are tied to larger damage, super attacks because of the need to cause damage. In this game, that is sometimes the case and sometimes it’s just a very basic one damage attack that adds a status effect. Just seems like these have been used to a more varied degree than a lot of games

Weaknesses of Combat Gameplay and Scenario Design

• I personally like this much better with 2 than 4 characters. The difficulty scales fine and everything works, but it does really almost double the playtime and for me, the increased tactical depth does not justify the extra playtime. I fully acknowledge this falls squarely into the personal preference category

• The single significant element of combat that is a strong weakness is the element infusion system. For what is a relatively simple combat system, this is very clunky. You are having to move elements on the tracking board, and often they don’t end up having any effect. Every turn you have to degrade the elements, which in such a well-designed combat system, is a clunky end-of-round task that is easy to forget. Many characters don’t use elements at all while others need elements that are not easily accessed and the whole thing feels like a much better system could have been put around it. Some type of universal charge that characters could build or have applied that could be accessed in the future to activate abilities (or some other design) just would have been better. Lastly, this is the primary element of the game that scales horribly from 2 to 4 players. The ability to get elements into play is just much easier with 4 players than 2 and certain classes are just artificially nerfed with 2 players as it is too difficult to fully realize their abilities tied to elements. In fact there is one character so dependent on elemental infusions that I think would be not worth playing with 2 players (and have no intention of ever playing) but much more powerful with 4

• As I said above, I really liked the monster tactic cards (despite the slight increase in set-up and game time). Made everything feel more unique and combat just more tense, varied and vibrant. However, I think a little more care needed to be put into certain cards (maybe 5% of the total cards). It’s a small minority, mind you, but some tactics are so situational, that they are effectively going to be “monsters lose a turn” in many cases because nothing useful was coming from the card. This actually added a weird level of variability into what is generally a very tightly designed combat system and game (and to be fair, this would be lost in the shuffle of randomness for most games). For some of those situational cards, there probably should have been an “if” statement and alternative logic to flip to a more traditional move and attack. Not a huge deal, just possible to have the difficulty of a scenario ratchet down when one group of monsters just effectively lose their turn


Character Advancement and Upgrade Review

As mentioned above, I generally think very highly of the upgrade system design. The thoughtfulness and attention to detail is much appreciated. It is all very incremental, with no big jumps or spikes in power, just a number of different systems that provide interesting avenues to make modest character improvements that over time add up to later game characters with much more power than starting ones. The incremental nature and multi-system approach (perks, items, life, ability cards and enchantments) meant that each character archetype starts and finishes very unique from others.

Strengths of the Character Upgrade System

• I love what was done with the items. They are much less powerful than many dungeon crawlers and I think that really helped put the focus on the classes and their abilities. It works fine enough in many games, but for this game, with all of the effort that went into really unique character design, it would have been a travesty for characters to blend together if the item construct overwhelmed the importance of the class unique characteristics. With that said, while no one item ever made a dramatic difference, in their entirety, a fully decked character had a very meaningful power improvement from the items, which often could be best used to amplify the class specific strengths or mitigate the weaknesses

• The leveling system (aside from one complaint below) is very solid. This is probably the most significant step-up in power as life increases with the addition of a new perk and a new ability card is added. The new cards that were added generally provides a nice uplift in power compared to that it replaces, however, since only one card is added, leveling a character always felt like a nice boost, but was never game changing

• In general the new ability cards were scaled nicely from level 1 – 9. The new powers kept the character feeling fresh and more powerful and was always fun to work in the new card to the tactics

• I liked the concept of the perks (with one complaint below) a lot. In general, I liked the modifier deck. It was a nice way to add a modest random element into a generally deterministic system. By allowing perks that could modify the deck, it gave a nice ability to help manage that random element such that it was a controlled random element in comparison to just rolling dice

Weaknesses of the Character Upgrade System

• Experience comes in two forms: from scenario completion and through card usage. I don’t love the card usage element. For starters, some classes really are easier to get experience from, so feels a little off in that regard. The other more fundamental reason, is it almost seems like the actions that award experience view that as part of the “value” provided by the card. This made some cards with experience awards seem like they were somewhat inferior to those that did not award experience. Stepping back and recognizing that the difficulty of the game scales (very well I might add) with the levels of the characters, the experience is not really providing relative improvement vs the game difficulty. The reward is actually just getting additional perks, new cards and improved variety and tactical options. Said a different way, it is more intrinsic than relative due to the game scaling. Because of that, it seemed a little strange to tie experience to taking certain card actions. Not sure that it would not have been better to just up the scenario completion award (and give a lower award for scenario failure). I get why it would not make sense to tie to monster kills, but something different probably would have worked better. Some scenarios devolved at the end to extending the game to burn cards for last minute experience rewards. This was somewhat worsened by the campaign rules around treasure, which I will discuss a bit more below. Kind of clunky

• Enhancements is a substantial system that has been underwhelming to me. I will say, every pro and con described I believe that I have had enough exposure to stand behind them strongly. This is the one area which I must admit I am complaining about without exploring in detail. However, the biggest reason for not exploring is also the fundamental complaint, they just seem horribly low value relative to items. In general these seem to be 1/3 or so the value of items and by the time characters have fully filled their items out they have been generally close to retirement. The system is somewhat underwhelming in that, for the most part, the changes are to add +1 to some attribute (attack, move, push, pull, etc) or to add a status effect. I think the counter argument is that these stickers apply to any use of the card by a future character and therefore justify the high cost. Everything about these seem to be a concession around the fact that once the stickers are on the card, they are there permanently. In every other aspect, there is not a way to directly transfer value between characters, (can’t trade items, gold or experience). This is the one way (at least to future characters) and feels out of place and almost certainly just a function of there not being a clean way around this once the sticker is on the card. Putting stickers on the cards is an interesting idea, but the realities of it are underwhelming

• As mentioned above, I liked how perks in the modifier deck work. The system works great getting these through level-up. The second method to get them is through earning check marks in the scenario play. This would best be described as an achievement that would award one or two checkmarks (each 3 awarded adds a perk). The issue is just that some are much easier to do than others. In fact, some of the two check cards are easier than the one. A lot of them are fairly random things that need to be done and I felt like there could have been a much better way to do this. For example, each scenario could have a specific action that is designed such as an elective fight, or an out of the way room to visit or a minimum finishing hand size that is appropriate for the scenario that would award a checkmark. Again, for a very tightly designed game, these achievements feel random and out-of-place


Story and Campaign System Review

I really appreciate the quality of everything that wraps around the core game and upgrade systems. The story provides a deeper subtext than I experience in most games and the writing is strong. Clearly this is not writing that would stand alone as a professionally written book, but it’s quite good and benefits highly from a couple of things: (i) I think the writer knows very well his strengths and weaknesses. His style, while not elegant and poetic prose of a professional level, is concise and well written. It does not get tripped up with pages and pages grandiose exposition but competently accomplishes two key things successfully: setting flavor and mood for the scenario and providing meaningful advancement to the bigger storyline; (ii) the overall length of the game (90 scenarios) meshes well with the writing style as the story is allowed to come across in well written bite size chunks (half a page to 1 page of text per scenario) and still have meaningful storylines. Obviously I have a lot more to go, so this may require an update, but if quality stays consistent the writing gets high marks.

To give a couple points of comparison, the story is much more comprehensive and meaty than games like Descent that throw in a bare-bones story. There are secondary characters that develop and multiple storylines that play out. Just the overall length of the campaign is a big factor, but individual scenarios on average have more plot development than something like Descent. The high water mark for me in storytelling in a Dungeon Crawler is Mice and Mystics. I’m not sure I think this game reaches those levels. There is definitely more content in Gloomhaven, and while well-written, it does not reach the story telling highs of Mice and Mystics. In a lot of ways M&M benefits from being linear, whereas the biggest storytelling hurdle for Gloomhaven is the non-linearity. While that benefits the overall game tremendously, it does make the story telling a bit choppier. With that said, M&M has great storytelling and if that is the only game I can put above Gloomhaven, that is in a way a complement.

From a campaign standpoint, one point that may trouble some players is the non-linear difficulty curve. Specifically, scenario difficulty is tied to character level, and while this can be brought up to match the town prosperity, ultimately new characters will be lower level than those that retired. That will make subsequent scenarios of lower absolute (not relative) difficulty. All of this is to keep relative difficulty somewhat flat and balanced, but it is different from most games where characters just keep getting more powerful as do monsters. On an absolute basis, the difficulty is rising over the long term, but will decrease in the short term. This did not bother me at all (in fact I am very pleased the effort went in to ensuring every scenario had well balanced difficulty), but will be a bit of different experience for veterans.

Between scenario activities are generally a plus. I will detail a couple of areas where a little more meat would have been additive, but all-in-all these are a strength of the game. These activities include item shopping, character advancement and upgrading as well as participating in events and updating the growth of town and the surrounding area. The event cards are well written and in the choose-your-own-adventure (option A or B) format. City events were generally (but not always) skewed towards being a reward while road cards so far have been a mixed bag probably slightly skewing to the negative. I have to say the outcomes generally were reasonably logical based on the information presented, and this was much appreciated. It made thinking through the choice more meaningful as the outcomes seemed relatively foreseeable unlike some of these types of things where it is so illogical it might as well just be a random outcome.

Strengths of the Story and Campaign System

• Story is well written with an author who does not try to overextend himself and instead plays well to his strength and lets a good story flow develop over a longer term campaign

• Retirement is a very smart decision. Timing seems appropriate as the character develops fairly far, but not to the point of becoming mundane. Allowing characters to level with prosperity is a good decision as this allows ultimate access to the highest level character content without going from level 1 to 9, which in my opinion would have been too long to play an individual character

• There are 17 classes, with 6 unlocked initially. At least the ones I have unlocked are very unique. Their cards are generally very different, and while some trend towards the traditional healer, tank, damage dealer, AOE, thief archetypes, most fit multiple roles well and care has been put into giving them unique options that don’t pigeon hole them. This has been critically important for us, as we have preferred running just 2 characters. This can be very tough in games when characters are pigeonholed as you need 3 or 4. In this case, we have had no trouble covering all the party needs with 2 characters. I wouldn’t say this is perfect, as there is at least one character that looks like a complete dud in 2 player scenarios due to the issues mentioned above around elemental infusions. Overall though, character design is a huge plus and the uniqueness of the classes will go a long way to keeping the game fresh for the entirety of the campaign

Weaknesses of the Story and Campaign System

• As stated above, I generally liked the style and substance of event cards. When I initially read about them, I expected them to have a more lasting impact (something along the lines of Robinson Crusoe) where decisions had a more lasting effect or came back to impact in the future. It has happened a couple of times at a small level, and possibly the luck of the draw has been skewed and I will be updating this in the future, but right now I feel like a bit more could have been done with these

• The one area of the campaign that I feel really would have benefited by having more meat on the bones is the actual town advancement. Out-of-the-box, the key points of advancement are achievements, prosperity and map locations. In reality, the map location stickers really only provide a visual representation of added quest locations. Achievements (at least so far) have not added much outside being gates to what scenarios are or are not available. No persistent powers, abilities are effects have been tied to these. Neither of those are pluses but at the same time, not really issues as there is enough other character advancement options to offset this completely. Where there is a hole is the town advancement. Part of the concept seems to be that the town is the key story point and characters come and go around its development. This development is almost entirely abstract with minimal impact on the gameplay. The characters earn prosperity points which accumulate to “level-up” the town from 1 to 9, with the two relevant changes being each level adds 7 new items to the store and new characters can start at higher levels. As the centerpiece of the game, I think this should have been fleshed out a bit more. In some ways I feel bad saying this, as there is so much incredible content in the box, but at the same time this is the one area that falls flat. Something similar to the map where stickers could be added for a blacksmith, tavern, armory, barracks, alchemist shop, church, etc that could be leveled would have added a lot with related effects being tied to these (character levels, enhancements, new classes, items, etc.). Something along the lines of an upgrade phase post successful scenario completion (with a highly simplified worker placement or resource allocation mechanism) would have gone a very long way to making the town development feel more substantial and real. Would have also provided an avenue to work city and road events into this in a lasting and meaningful way

• Repeating scenarios is also a little odd in two ways. First, if you lose a scenario, you “have” to replay it. We have done this, and generally the second time is much easier, as you get a good feel for the flow of the scenario and the optimal times to burn high powered cards. With so many scenarios, I feel like the game may have benefitted from a storyline that flowed forwards with and without scenario success (and maybe adjusting rewards). Clearly you can just pretend you won and move forward, so this complaint has to be viewed through that lens, but having a story that accommodated this (seeing as it is designed in a non-linear fashion already) would have been my preference. Secondly, if you win scenario but don’t get a treasure tile, you can replay the scenario just to get the treasure. I also think this is clunky and weird. We aren’t going back and I think that should just be the basis of the design. A key part of the tension is balancing the ever shrinking number of cards with the need to kill enemies and the desire to obtain treasure. Just being allowed to go back and get missed treasure (which is beyond bizarre in certain scenarios especially with bosses) is odd to me and defeats the purpose of the loot mechanics. With the tight difficulty scaling and the addition of random dungeons, there is no need to go back and play old scenarios. Again, you can ignore the option to do so, but allowing replay of scenarios to grab a treasure chest is clunky


Conclusion

I am very hard to impress when it comes to board games. I heavily diligence my purchases and have no interest in playing bad, mediocre or only slightly above average games. When I saw this kickstarter, I did not back it. In fact, my thought was that this is a great idea and could be a great game if it is meticulously designed but it would likely be a disaster as the end product would almost certainly fall short of the lofty vision. Fast forward and I have to say, this is an amazing accomplishment that has pulled off the vision in every way that matters (and I guess I am very lucky to have found a copy). Despite the incredible amount of content (seriously unbelievable amount of content) the quality of the design is absolutely top notch. It really is unbelievable to me that this was pulled off and one of the few situations that I can say I am truly impressed by a board game. It’s not a game for everyone, but for those that appreciate depth of gameplay, world building and the highest quality game design, this is one you can’t miss. Clearly this design did not cut corners and there was no 80/20 rule applied. I have to say, I have a lot of respect for the amount of work that had to go into getting a game of this magnitude as tight as it is. With that said, there are numerous items I believe are faults and imperfections (detailed above), but none of these are significant to the point they impair the experience. For me, those imperfections are really about the distance between this game and the next best dungeon crawler.
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Ben Baker
Canada
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Excellent review. I am only 4 games in, but i have very similar thoughts. However, you have expressed them so well!
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Scott Douglass
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I agree with most of your thoughts on Gloomhaven. I've played it 15 times with 2 players each controlling 2 characters, and I think I would like it better with each player controlling 1 character. My biggest complaint about the game is that the scenario portion of the game plays a little slower than I want it to. Now that 3 characters retired after the last scenario, I'm planning on trying a 2 character party.
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Michael D. Kelley
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I love Gloomhaven, but agree with every single one of your negatives in the review. There are parts of the design that are clunky, slow down set-up, feel fiddly, etc.
None of them stop me from loving the game, but small improvements would have made me adore it even MORE.
Nice review!
 
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Kevin B. Smith
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Thanks for this comprehensive analysis.

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if the story and long-term town and character development do not interest you, this will probably feel like a lot of extra “weight” and complexity that you are not putting value on.

I just wanted to point out the opposite as well: For some of us, the story and long-term town and character development would be the most interesting part of a campaign like this, and the combat the least interesting part. For us, the 80% (?) of the game that is focused on the combat feels like a lot of extra weight and complexity that we are not putting value on.

Disclaimer: I haven't played the game, but have read and watched a lot of material about it.
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What a great review for a fantastic game. After about 18 hours into the world of Gloomhaven, also 2P, I agree with most of your points.

The best part (for me) is that when leveling up a damage dealer (for example) you don`t necessarily have to make him a more powerful damage dealer, you can go towards the tank route, or the healer route etc. Combined with the fact that there are 17 classes and the 6 starting ones I`ve seen work very different makes this a lifetime game. The replay value is....surprise
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Excellent review, I absolutely agree with you on all points except the Enhancement system - I love it . A really satisfying, and original part of the character development process. We use semi-permanent stickers for this, as for all the other ones. This is such an epic game, that I feel it's vital to keep it unblemished, for future full re-plays.
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Great review thank you for that.

 
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Thank you for the in-depth review - I've been debating trying to get a copy of this, and where it would fit amongst my other co-op games, so this review has been particularly helpful.
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bk375 wrote:
However, I have a large bag full of rocks, boulders, desks, tables, crates, stalagmites and various other miscellaneous items that functionally do the exact same thing. Many of the scenarios require a number of these and strangely, many are placed in tactically irrelevant positions


While I agree that there seems to be no real difference between the obstacles, I wouldn't be so quick on the "tactically irrelevant positions" of them.

When we first started playing, I thought there were some odd random rocks around. But after playing a bit with Brute and Scoundrel I looked at the Cragheart's deck. He can actually gain benefits from obstacles. I would assume at least one of the other 11 classes can too. Otherwise, their placement can be extremely relevant. I've been seeing them turn up near doors, and without a jump they can add multiple steps to movement. They're used to create chokepoints against the heroes and enemy focus/movement issues which benefit the heroes. I'm pretty sure that the obstacle placement is more clever than it first appears.
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stevelabny wrote:
bk375 wrote:
However, I have a large bag full of rocks, boulders, desks, tables, crates, stalagmites and various other miscellaneous items that functionally do the exact same thing. Many of the scenarios require a number of these and strangely, many are placed in tactically irrelevant positions


While I agree that there seems to be no real difference between the obstacles, I wouldn't be so quick on the "tactically irrelevant positions" of them.

When we first started playing, I thought there were some odd random rocks around. But after playing a bit with Brute and Scoundrel I looked at the Cragheart's deck. He can actually gain benefits from obstacles. I would assume at least one of the other 11 classes can too. Otherwise, their placement can be extremely relevant. I've been seeing them turn up near doors, and without a jump they can add multiple steps to movement. They're used to create chokepoints against the heroes and enemy focus/movement issues which benefit the heroes. I'm pretty sure that the obstacle placement is more clever than it first appears.


I think the reviewer's point is not that obstacles are irrelevant, but that they all serve the same purpose and fishing through looking for a column vs a rock vs a cabinet vs etc is tedious. I don't really mind it, and I appreciate that the scenarios have a consistent "look", but I can see the argument for having half as many map pieces and overlays if all you sacrifice is some fidelity to certain settings.
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Mathue Faulkner
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stephenhope wrote:
stevelabny wrote:
bk375 wrote:
However, I have a large bag full of rocks, boulders, desks, tables, crates, stalagmites and various other miscellaneous items that functionally do the exact same thing. Many of the scenarios require a number of these and strangely, many are placed in tactically irrelevant positions


While I agree that there seems to be no real difference between the obstacles, I wouldn't be so quick on the "tactically irrelevant positions" of them.

When we first started playing, I thought there were some odd random rocks around. But after playing a bit with Brute and Scoundrel I looked at the Cragheart's deck. He can actually gain benefits from obstacles. I would assume at least one of the other 11 classes can too. Otherwise, their placement can be extremely relevant. I've been seeing them turn up near doors, and without a jump they can add multiple steps to movement. They're used to create chokepoints against the heroes and enemy focus/movement issues which benefit the heroes. I'm pretty sure that the obstacle placement is more clever than it first appears.


I think the reviewer's point is not that obstacles are irrelevant, but that they all serve the same purpose and fishing through looking for a column vs a rock vs a cabinet vs etc is tedious. I don't really mind it, and I appreciate that the scenarios have a consistent "look", but I can see the argument for having half as many map pieces and overlays if all you sacrifice is some fidelity to certain settings.

That was one point, but he also specifically said the obstacles were in "tactically irrelevant positions"...and I have to disagree as well. I've played the majority of our games with a Cragheart in play, and the positioning of those obstacles is an integral part of play with that character. Even without the Cragheart, there is a lot of movement manipulation w/obstacles, especially if you can plant traps yourself. Those same obstacles work against the characters in many scenarios as well. I haven't felt there placement was irrelevant at all...

On that other note that you mentioned, I'm happy with the design choices of having many different types for thematic immersion. I would've been a bit disappointed with the proposed "streamlined" obstacles. It sounds like the OP just needs a better way to sort his chits.
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A couple of other points...

Overall, great review and I agree with A LOT of it. Some of it, however, doesn't match my experience. For example, the OP states:
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...actions that award experience view that as part of the “value” provided by the card. This made some cards with experience awards seem like they were somewhat inferior to those that did not award experience.

I just retired a Tinkerer, and it felt the opposite to me. All of his best cards are the ones that give XP, and players are slow to gain XP until they realize that. You have to play aggressive with his cards to get XP. My wife's Cragheart seemed the same way. Whenever she was throwing down big cards, then she was gaining XP.

It just depends on the class.


As for Enhancements, as stated in the rulebook, those are late game upgrades. They aren't met to compete with Items. Once you start to level up, you're going to be running around with a full set of gear, and you'll be collecting more money than you were before. That's when you throw some money into Enhancements.
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Great game ... excellent review. Manufacturing costs and logistics aside, since there might be things involved that my uninformed mind knows nothing about, but I would have loved to have had the monster ability cards (the squares) hidden until the appropriate time. Searching through the cards provided some spoilers that I wish I had not seen.

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Thanks. I put the review in the context of dungeon crawlers, but I play a lot of good co-ops generally. The questions I would suggest asking yourself are the following:

1. Through a combination of group and solo play, am I likely to get the most out of the long-term aspects of the game? If your group likes to play a game a few times, move on, and never come back, you may miss out on some the aspects that push this from a very good to an all-time great game.

2. Do you like tactical combat? There is no getting around this. There are a lot of great additional aspects to the game, but if the core concept of tactical combat is not appealing that will be a problem.

3. If you are satisfied with your answer to the first two, then do you want a more thinky combat system then move, attack, roll dice to resolve and occasionally fire off powers? For me, this is a huge benefit (in combination with the wide variety of classes) and why I think the game will stay fresh for the long term. This is a much more subtle point and looking at walkthroughs would be helpful for you, because by "thinky" I don't mean complicated. It's actually very easy to understand how the combat works. It's just a matter of having numerous tactical options. I have seen it characterized as being "puzzly", which is not how I would characterize it. Being like a puzzle to me is having a small list or one correct choice. In this, there are a lot of options, that really cover the tactical spectrum from bad to great and everywhere in between. You definitely will be punished for bad tactics and rewarded for good, but I have never felt like there is one (or two or three) right ways to win a scenario.

Others may have some guiding principles, but I would say look at this through the lens of it being an amazing game. If you are on the fence, I would say do what you can to find a way to try it out. In the co-op world, I find that quality trumps a lot of things. Tight design and good game balance go a long way and I can say this game is extremely good and definitely sets the bar for big, campaign style co-ops in those regards.

BrokenMnemonic wrote:
Thank you for the in-depth review - I've been debating trying to get a copy of this, and where it would fit amongst my other co-op games, so this review has been particularly helpful.
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Yeah, it's definitely a marginal consideration. Maybe not worth the mention, although I do think anything that reduces the set-up time but doesn't take away from the gameplay is a plus.

I am definitely thinking about crates and rocks pushed against the back side of a wall and random boulders in the middle of otherwise mostly open spaces. Most are well placed and are additive to the scenario design, so again, maybe not worth the mention it got.

You are right it is critical to the Cragheart, so that is definitely a consideration. I can't say the way they work in that class design would be a high point in my opinion, but I won't criticize, and I can see why others may like it a lot more than I do.

stevelabny wrote:
bk375 wrote:
However, I have a large bag full of rocks, boulders, desks, tables, crates, stalagmites and various other miscellaneous items that functionally do the exact same thing. Many of the scenarios require a number of these and strangely, many are placed in tactically irrelevant positions


While I agree that there seems to be no real difference between the obstacles, I wouldn't be so quick on the "tactically irrelevant positions" of them.

When we first started playing, I thought there were some odd random rocks around. But after playing a bit with Brute and Scoundrel I looked at the Cragheart's deck. He can actually gain benefits from obstacles. I would assume at least one of the other 11 classes can too. Otherwise, their placement can be extremely relevant. I've been seeing them turn up near doors, and without a jump they can add multiple steps to movement. They're used to create chokepoints against the heroes and enemy focus/movement issues which benefit the heroes. I'm pretty sure that the obstacle placement is more clever than it first appears.
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Just to be clear for those who might be deciding whether to buy the game, the issues I will discuss below are not significant enough to impact a buying decision on their own. They are good and interesting game design topics, but not something to weight heavily in a buying decision.

With regard to experience, I would say 90% of my issue is around the fact it is tied to cards the way it is and maybe 10% the actual balancing between cards. But to provide examples around balancing, an example in the Tinkerer deck is a comparison of the top lines of Energizing Tonic and Restorative Mist. Both level 1 top line healing. In restorative mist you heal 3 with range two and in energizing you heal 5 with range 2 and get 2 experience and have to burn the card. My assessment is that heal 3, range 3 is generally better than heal 5, range 2 with a card burn and my assumption is that the 2 experience is meant to be a "reward". You see cards in the spell weaver where using elements adds a minor upgrade to the attack with an experience bonus. Stepping back and looking at it harder, maybe the counterargument is that the experience is meant to be tied to "playing better" and getting the most out of the cards, which is an argument that I would accept.

Either way it comes back to the 90% issue I have. I just think this is a clunky way to divvy out experience. One, the tracking is a bit of a nuisance and one of things I have the hardest time consistently remembering to do. Second, its just easier to get more experience with certain classes. And most importantly to me, it can really make the final turns of a scenario weird. The tinkerer is a great example. Every experience giving action is tied to burning cards. There is generally a lot of incentive (and I would argue an example of good play) to minimize card burning early to only very high leverage situations. This can lead to a surplus at the end if everything goes well. You can be left with the decision to finish a scenario or cheese it out for 4 or 5 turns burning cards left and right to get experience. The important nuance is that experience does not change the relative difficulty of the game, so its relevance is more about pacing out upgrades at the appropriate times to keep the gameplay fresh. I just think a cleaner way would be to completely tie it into the end game, and if the desire is to reward "good play" to do something along the lines of giving experience bonuses for having fewer lost cards than try to divvy it out on a card-by-card basis. I probably sound like I feel stronger about this than I really do. It works ok as is (not great IMO) and I do think that leveling is happening for me at an appropriate pace.

Regarding enhancements, someone else disagreed as well. I may be wrong on this, but what I am seeing is that more expensive items are getting added to the store as well and so, while I am getting more gold, there are more expensive items (and more item slots) to fill. Maybe we are just being more aggressive with completing personal quests than the average (we are being aggressive), but have always had better item alternatives than enhancements and then we retire and have to buy more items. Maybe I am missing something. Do you believe that some of the "value" of the upgrades is designed to be embedded in fact that it carries over to future plays? That is my conclusion based on how I perceive its relative value and while I see it is a practical necessity because of the stickers, I think its at odds with how the game treats value transfer between characters. My take, and I may be wrong, is that it is a cool idea, but at some point the realization was made that if these were made equivalent in value to other ways to spend gold, it would work fine on the first playthrough, but throw the balance off in future ones. Raising the prices was the solution.


mfaulk80 wrote:
A couple of other points...

Overall, great review and I agree with A LOT of it. Some of it, however, doesn't match my experience. For example, the OP states:
Quote:
...actions that award experience view that as part of the “value” provided by the card. This made some cards with experience awards seem like they were somewhat inferior to those that did not award experience.

I just retired a Tinkerer, and it felt the opposite to me. All of his best cards are the ones that give XP, and players are slow to gain XP until they realize that. You have to play aggressive with his cards to get XP. My wife's Cragheart seemed the same way. Whenever she was throwing down big cards, then she was gaining XP.

It just depends on the class.


As for Enhancements, as stated in the rulebook, those are late game upgrades. They aren't met to compete with Items. Once you start to level up, you're going to be running around with a full set of gear, and you'll be collecting more money than you were before. That's when you throw some money into Enhancements.
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Excellent review- and I agree with 90% of it. I just want to clarify- are you saying that playing 2 characters is better than 4 characters full stop; or are you saying it's better when there are two players? Wondering, because I don't think you tried with 4 players/1 character each, and I would like to play that way. I have only played solo so far.
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First off, great, detailed review. Much better than the review I did, which focused on my expectations vs. what the reality of the game.

Honestly, after getting Forge War (the designer's last game before Gloomhaven), I was anticipating a game with flaws. Forge War is a very unique design, but it is a bit of a bitch to play. It could have been tightened up in places, but the demands the game makes you (mainly in the areas of time commitment and advanced planning) are a bit much at times. One reviewer said he can't get his wife to play Forge War because she feels like she needs to create a spreadsheet just to keep up with everything. Forge War demands a lot from you, so it's not surprising that Gloomhaven does, as well.

Regarding your experience playing 2p, I am a solo gamer that played two characters at first, then switched to three. Although the combat times have lengthened, they have become more enjoyable due to the great synergy between the Brute, Tinkerer, and Scoundrel. It's possible that 3 players is a sort of sweet spot for Gloomhaven. Curious what others think.

bk375 wrote:


• Repeating scenarios is also a little odd in two ways. First, if you lose a scenario, you “have” to replay it. We have done this, and generally the second time is much easier, as you get a good feel for the flow of the scenario and the optimal times to burn high powered cards. With so many scenarios, I feel like the game may have benefitted from a storyline that flowed forwards with and without scenario success (and maybe adjusting rewards). Clearly you can just pretend you won and move forward, so this complaint has to be viewed through that lens, but having a story that accommodated this (seeing as it is designed in a non-linear fashion already) would have been my preference. Secondly, if you win scenario but don’t get a treasure tile, you can replay the scenario just to get the treasure. I also think this is clunky and weird. We aren’t going back and I think that should just be the basis of the design. A key part of the tension is balancing the ever shrinking number of cards with the need to kill enemies and the desire to obtain treasure. Just being allowed to go back and get missed treasure (which is beyond bizarre in certain scenarios especially with bosses) is odd to me and defeats the purpose of the loot mechanics. With the tight difficulty scaling and the addition of random dungeons, there is no need to go back and play old scenarios. Again, you can ignore the option to do so, but allowing replay of scenarios to grab a treasure chest is clunky



Ah, the GRIND. I absolutely HATE grinding through scenarios multiple times. Because of this, I have instituted two House Rules:

1. Two Is Enough: I refuse to be forced to play a single scenario more than twice just to unlock other scenarios. If I fail twice, I go ahead and unlock the new material, but don't hand out XP bonuses for the completion. As punishment, I make the same party go through either a random dungeon or a fan-made one (like The Pit). This cuts down on the grinding, even though it doesn't save any time.

2. Let's Make a Deal: Because it is difficult to both win a scenario and loot all treasure chests, I now do the following. When playing a random dungeon, if I loot a treasure chest, I give myself the option of either keeping it or trading it in for one of the missed treasure chests from a completed scenario (due to negative treasure chest contents, this sometimes will be the equivalent of trading 15 gold for the goat behind curtain number one). I've tried this once and it worked perfectly since the random dungeon's loot was "Gain back 1 lost card" (all but useless in the last room) and the missed treasure chest turned out to be a big help for one character's life goals. One caveat is that if the treasure I missed is difficult to get due to scenario conditions (like for Scenario #2), I make sure it can only be swapped out if the party wins the random dungeon.
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I have only played it with 2 players, 2 characters each. I am guessing that it would move quicker with 4 players, although we are experienced running multiple characters through dungeon crawlers in general. Other than the obvious reasons of having 4 players to manage the game and make decisions, I expect it to be faster because you would be able to play "closed" information. Having less information available, actually makes decision making for us faster than if you know exactly what cards the other character is going to play.

I also think the game is actually better from a strategic depth standpoint with 4 characters. More enemies, more options and more angles of approach. I just feel like, for us, the additional tactical depth doesn't balance out against the longer play time. I personally like tight play times, so I am guessing others will actually like this game more with 4 characters. As I said in my review, each class has more varied actions than many games, so there is not the necessity to have a larger party to be effective, which has made the choice to run only 1 class each easier.

jasonbaz77 wrote:
Excellent review- and I agree with 90% of it. I just want to clarify- are you saying that playing 2 characters is better than 4 characters full stop; or are you saying it's better when there are two players? Wondering, because I don't think you tried with 4 players/1 character each, and I would like to play that way. I have only played solo so far.
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bk375 wrote:
I just think this is a clunky way to divvy out experience. One, the tracking is a bit of a nuisance and one of things I have the hardest time consistently remembering to do. Second, its just easier to get more experience with certain classes. And most importantly to me, it can really make the final turns of a scenario weird.

While I agree with you somewhat, I believe that this is just a different take on a standard problem regarding experience in board game RPGs. If you tie the experience to kills then there will be some classes that get more kills than others and it encourages vulturing the kills, which is its own issue. If you have an egalitarian way of distributing the XP, then individual play doesn't really matter as much and you lose some of the flavor of character development. Gloomhaven is another flawed way to do gain XP that is independent from kills and gives players some more control of when and how they gain it at the expense of some weird and gamey effects. But people will try and game the XP regardless of how it is distributed. Ultimately, it's a tradeoff regardless of method I don't mind the variety even though I find it annoying sometimes. I hate it when my friend steals my kills too

Edit: Clarity
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bk375 wrote:
I have only played it with 2 players, 2 characters each. I am guessing that it would move quicker with 4 players, although we are experienced running multiple characters through dungeon crawlers in general. Other than the obvious reasons of having 4 players to manage the game and make decisions, I expect it to be faster because you would be able to play "closed" information. Having less information available, actually makes decision making for us faster than if you know exactly what cards the other character is going to play.

I also think the game is actually better from a strategic depth standpoint with 4 characters. More enemies, more options and more angles of approach. I just feel like, for us, the additional tactical depth doesn't balance out against the longer play time. I personally like tight play times, so I am guessing others will actually like this game more with 4 characters. As I said in my review, each class has more varied actions than many games, so there is not the necessity to have a larger party to be effective, which has made the choice to run only 1 class each easier.

jasonbaz77 wrote:
Excellent review- and I agree with 90% of it. I just want to clarify- are you saying that playing 2 characters is better than 4 characters full stop; or are you saying it's better when there are two players? Wondering, because I don't think you tried with 4 players/1 character each, and I would like to play that way. I have only played solo so far.



Thanks BK.
 
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Regarding the character dependent on the elements being almost unplayable in 2 player; triangle class is working really well with spellweaver in 2 player. It also helps that triangle acquired 3 items to produce an element (a headpiece and 2 one handed items), that all come back on long rest.

Definitely agree on these points:
- Elements system is really clunky
- So many different tiles (many double sided) with similar functionality

The best parts:
- Card system
- Initiative
- Monster AI
- Classes all play very differently
- Character power progression feels just right

The road/city events I don't particularly care for. The road events are mostly negative effects that add a random penalty if you don't guess correctly.

I can't see myself ever going back to Descent: Road to Legend after playing Gloomhaven.
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First off - Thanks for your thoughts, they were very well written! I am only 3 scenarios in, but my experience has tracked very much the same as yours so far.

I have been playing solo, but with either 2 or 3 characters at a time. My games have been running closer to 2 hours per scenario, but that is also probably due to the number of characters I am running that have to be played one at a time.

I haven't seen the need to house rule anything yet - but I can see the possibility of something regarding party money down the road. My biggest complaint is that certain events want the party to pay something/give something up - and the whole party benefits, yet they CANNOT share money? I could see having individual characters share or not share based on their role playing/background story. The thematic inequality is frustrating. Or another possibility is to allow the party to loot coins at the end of NON-TIME LIMITED scenarios, but it has to be divided evenly among the party rounded down. Haven't done either - but am considering them.

I am VERY much looking forward to the experience/health trackers that will be available during the reprint's kickstarter. Now WHEN we will actually get them, time will tell as I don't know what Isaac's delivery schedule will be.

Cheers,

Ghost
 
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This is a great write up.

Thank you for the time this would have taken and the thoughtful analysis that was required to explain your impressions and views so clearly.
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