Gloomhaven. For many that is all I need write. You have already decided, good or bad, if Gloomhaven's hybrid dungeon-crawling euro-gameplay is for you. In fact you have probably already stopped reading. I agree. Gloomhaven is seemingly everywhere. It's hard to avoid. I don't mind if you skip to the next game. Really, I don't.
For those still here — perhaps you are on the fence about Gloomhaven? Maybe you are wondering how it plays with children? Or you need more justification for the $100 price? Whatever your reason, thanks for sticking with me. I'll answer all your questions soon (and those I didn't get to, please ask in the comments)!
Gloomhaven requires dedication. Not only is it roughly the size and weight of a small dog, it also demands the same commitment level. You will be spending lots of time with Gloomhaven. This is not a game you will play once or twice before bundling it off to the basement shelf. Once accepting the adventure Gloomhaven promises, plan on spending 2-3 hours a week exploring and learning this game.
(Unlike a pet, Gloomhaven probably won't need to be fed or taken for walks.)
Gloomhaven's content is daunting. There are 50 story missions, 45 side missions, and 17 solo missions. If that wasn't enough, there are random dungeon generation cards, fan made scenarios, and a new official mini-campaign. There is enough stuff here for a year's worth of gaming.
Truthfully, you probably won't play every scenario during your campaign. Gloomhaven's story structure has many branches. Actions from previous scenarios will unlock new adventures and simultaneously shut down other paths. Side quests also need to be unlocked — it is unlikely you will see every side quest in a campaign. We're really enjoying the branching story structure. It allows us to tailor the story experience to our own personal play style. If we prefer city intrigue over dungeon delving, we can choose which to focus on. Gloomhaven is fine with whatever path we take.
It's important you are invested in the story you choose, since you will spend quite a bit of time with the scenarios. With two players, setup, game play and tear down takes about 3 hours. That's quite a bit of time if you aren't interested in the story. And you will likely play each scenario multiple times.
(A ton of cardboard promises a ton of adventure.
Gloomhaven is a hard game. Even on easy level (which I recommend) Gloomhaven is very challenging. In our first playthrough, my son and I were killed pretty quickly, not even making it through the first room of the 3 room dungeon. Part of the challenge is that starting characters are severely under equipped for the adventures. We found grinding through the first mission, dying multiple times, was necessary. Fortunately when a mission is failed, you keep the gold and experience you collected. After multiple visits to the town store, we were sufficiently equipped for the challenges ahead.
It's not just grinding character stats — you are also improving your own knowledge. Mastering Gloomhaven is hard. The game system is very flexible and a huge departure from traditional dungeon crawlers. Each player has a hand of approximately a dozen cards. These cards are all different and tailored for the character you are playing. An Inox Brute may have cards that let him run around the battle field, trampling foes underfoot and pushing others out of the way. A Quatryl Tinkerer may have cards that let her build contraption decoys and deadly traps. Learning to play Gloomhaven starts with thoroughly understanding all of your character cards.
On your turn, you will select 2 cards to play. Each card has a top and bottom action — you must chose to play one top and one bottom action. Each card also has an initiative number, with lower numbers going first. You pick which initiative number you will use. When you complete your turn, the two cards played go into your discard pile (or into the lost pile if they are a single use action). If there are no cards in your hand, you must rest. Resting moves your discard pile back into your hand, except for one card which you must lose. Should all of your cards become lost, your character is exhausted and out of play.
We really love games where your deck is a timer. The two timers in Gloomhaven work well together. In a typical game you must rest after every 5 turns. As you rest, more and more cards are lost. The further you progress into the scenario, the more often you need to rest, and the faster you lose cards. After 5 or 6 rests, you are out of cards and exhausted.
These timers give a nice arc to the scenario. At the start, you are fresh. Your play is measured, choosing the best card to capitalize on the current situation. As the scenario progresses, cards are lost, options are reduced, and actions become more desperate. By scenario's end, your strength is gone. It is all you can do to lift your sword one final time, launching a last desperate attack before exhaustion sets in.
Enemy actions are also unique, with each enemy type having their own deck of 8 cards. Action order follows the same initiative system, so you never know if you or the monsters get first strike. Scouts may run around the battle field, coming to you for their slaughter; guards will move less often, standing their ground and making you come to them. Each new enemy brings new attacks — learning and anticipating their tactics is immensely fun and challenging.
This action flexibility is Gloomhaven's biggest strength. The system allows for truly memorable moments. Like the time a Quatryl Tinkerer rushed into the thick of battle, revived a near exhausted ally, and then, donning a cloak of invisibility, safely snuck away. Or the Inox Brute, surrounded by undead, who knocked everyone down with a great, sweeping blow and then, sensing the bandit approaching from behind, stabbed a spare poisoned dagger in his chest. That Gloomhaven can accommodate such variety is truly amazing — it feels like you have complete freedom of choice and action.
(Items also provide single use abilities.)
The best moments are when characters co-operate. One character sets an explosive trap into which their ally pushes an unwary boss. Gloomhaven would prefer if players speak about their plans in character and not share precise information. It makes true synchronicity rare and allows for some pretty funny goofs. Even though limited information is the designer's ultimate vision, Gloomhaven wisely comes with a variant where perfect information is shared between players. This variant is primarily for solo play, but my son and I prefer playing this way (we found the "correct" way too hard and frustrating). We really enjoy discussing what we could do, inventing new tactics and combos for our characters.
Gloomhaven's legacy aspects are well handled. First, there is a giant board, the sole purpose is for stickers. These stickers track your progress, showing new locations you discover and chronicling those dungeons you have defeated. This board is entirely superfluous. You could play through the entire campaign without putting any stickers on the board, but I would suggest against that. While not necessary for gameplay, adding a new sticker is great fun, a reward my son relishes!
The other legacy aspect is stickering the action cards. After completing the "Power of Enhancement" achievement, players can permanently upgrade action cards with stickers. These upgrades would be harder to undue, but the game suggests thinking of these enhancements as improvements to a character class, as if they were discoveries made by the profession instead of individual training. In this light, a second campaign play could be justified, especially if trying the game on a harder difficulty.
I really appreciate that these upgrades are saved for later in the game. Initially there is so much going on, it would be nearly impossible to tell what enhancements would be best. After living with a class for dozens of scenarios, it is easier to know how they play and what improvements would work best with the character and play style.
The final legacy element — sealed boxes! — is the best. As you progress through the campaign, your characters will retire. When this happens, you can open a sealed character class. While we love our current characters, the lure of that sealed box, the promise of something new and amazing, can't be ignored. This one mechanism ensures that we will experience several new characters as we play through Gloomhaven, learning new actions and tactics.
(What surprises are hidden in all these boxes?)
There is so much more I haven't discussed. Like how our actions are modified by drawing a card from a deck we build and tune throughout the campaign. Or the choices we make traveling to the dungeons and the lasting consequences of those decisions. I've also chosen not to dwell on some of the rougher edges (keeping track of effects and spell "infusions" can be tricky). These would simply be minor nit-picks, an attempt at softening my praise.
Gloomhaven isn't simply a great game — it is among the best media experiences I've ever had. It is on par with my favourite movies, books and video games, something I will remember fondly for years to come. Sharing this game with my family is amazing, a gift I am grateful for. The system is fantastic, providing variety and depth out of the box with potential for endless content expansions. And the challenge easily scales from light family game to hardcore brain burner. There is (literally) a ton of enjoyment to be had in Gloomhaven!
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Good review. As a veteran of the game, I can add one thing .... it's breadth is its fault.
To truly appreciate this game, you pretty much need to play Gloomhaven and nothing else for a long, long time. Finding that kind of time, for most, is not that easy.
Certainly, that is not a knock on the game ... it is great game. Just know what you are getting yourself into.
Great write-up. Played the first scenario last night and already thinking about ways to improve play, work better combos, and dive into the Gloomhaven story.
It is an immense game that will take a long time to fully explore. Definitely worth the purchase price for me.
I too am playing this most weekends with my son (11). learning how it works as we go is awesome and we are getting better at anticipating how best to approach scenarios succesfully as we get to know our characters (i'm a brute and he's a mind thief, we just managed to clear the most recent mission, he was exhausted and the round later with my last cards I took out the boss. we both managed to level up with the bonus xp for completing the mission and it was so much fun to have that gaming experience with my son....