Type: Dungeon Crawl

Time to play: 45 – 120 minutes per game (Teaching: 30-40 minutes)

Best played with: 1-4 players (Best with 3)

Gloomhaven is perhaps the biggest box of 2017 and earns it’s place on retailers shelves in 2018 following two incredibly successful Kickstarter campaigns. It’s probably worth saying upfront here though that having plaid 30 hrs + of this game I am definitely a fan and would recommend this despite it’s costs to those who enjoy dungeon crawl games.

So what is a dungeon crawl – well in my view this is any game where the general aim is to open up a series of map tiles and kill all the opponents on the tile. You can do this with fixed limited action choices through to full roll-playing-game mechanics, but the principal is the same; explore and exterminate. This is a popular corner of the board game hobby normally occupied by a series of Dungeons & Dragons board game versions, but recently has been encroached by Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars Imperial Assault, their Cthulu themed Mansions of Madness and, Kickstarter giant, Kingdom Death Monster. The context is important, because with all these games getting new editions / new apps etc there’s a lot of choice for a gamer.

So why is it that Gloomhaven is so interesting and how is it different. Firstly; it’s because this feels like a legacy game or avoiding that definition, it feels like a computer game. The choices you make have lasting effects on your character, your party and the world around you. It’s not Fable or Assassin’s Creed, but it’s getting towards that structure. When you come back to play this game a week later you have built up value in the world you play in and despite the time I have spent on this game, there is still a lot more value ahead of me.

I have decided to write the review now though as I don’t actually want to write spoilers about what happens (even in some of the significant things that I have unlocked already), but to focus on the game itself. Gloomhaven is successful not because the story offers you rewards for perseverance, but because the core game of exploring and exterminating is so masterfully executed. I have played some levels 6 times or more in casual mode with different groups because the game mechanics are so good.

What makes the mechanics is three fold: your cards, thematic enemies, and great combat. Let’s start with your cards; each player has a class and there are six at the start of the game. Each class varies by health, number of cards they can take into the dungeon and what those cards do. Playing each character is meaningfully different from the others and even within one class – it’s clear to me that you can adapt and change your character substantially. I have played through two different classes from the starting six personally and each time had a way to craft the deck into three different play styles. This structural flexibility within the class makes it interesting to combine different classes and makes for a lot of variability.

Over the course of the dungeon you will use cards (two at a time) to select your movement, attack and initiative. Losing cards is a core mechanic of the game – and that’s different to discarding them. Over time you will cycle through the same cards over and over again, but each time you do you must lose one permanently. Your hand is shrinking each time, and this accelerates as you reach the final rounds. This acts as a clock on you getting through the dungeon.

The cards are also used in an interesting way. Two cards selected in a turn will drive your initiative (turn order) and will allow you to take the top half action from one card and the bottom half action from the other. Generically each card allows you to attack for 2 damage in the top half and move 2 steps in the bottom half, but the text printed in each section gives you interesting variations on this – sometimes at the cost of losing the card earlier than you would otherwise.

Combos of these cards (top & bottom) are key, and working out how to balance getting the benefits in sequence / getting the initiative right is a really interesting challenge that changes in each room. What I mean is that when you walk into a room with slow lumbering monsters with lots of health, you will choose very different cards to when you walk into a room full of small, weak but ranged creatures who will focus their fire on one person.

That brings us neatly to the thematic opponents you face. They are a combination of a character profile – set out on the monster’s card – and a decision deck. That decision deck is going to tell you what the monster does and what it’s initiative is. Maybe the bear will go slowly but move and attack, or maybe this turn it will not move but it will go much earlier in the turn. Likewise, those stumbling stone golems might move slowly but every now and then they might through a rock a very long distance and be able to hit you! This combination of decision deck and individual profiles makes for a less predictable but more thematic outcome.

The other unpredictable aspect of a dungeon crawl is the fight itself. However, we aren’t dealing with dice in Gloomhaven, but a battle deck with an expected value of “0”. So you know what your expected attack will do, but the modifier could be 2 better or worse and it could even double / miss! At first this might sound just as random, but the game allows you to adjust your modifier deck as you level up. Now you are not only able to thin the deck of the negative cards, but add to it multiple opportunities to do significant damage. This has the effect of making your characters feel more heroic in the occasional quick decapitation of the enemy! The monsters in this game have their own unchanging deck – again with expected value “0”. It’s interesting to see some large attacks fall against the heroes but there’s always the option to lose a card to avoid the damage.

So that’s really how I feel this game differs, and I clearly think all three of these elements combine for a more thematic and enjoyable experience. Despite being co-op there is also so much to do here that it is hard for a player to accurately “alpha player” the game – i.e. one player dominating the party. They might dictate strategy but they are unlikely to know your hand well enough to guide you on which cards and which combos.

The downside to the game is in part the opportunity cost. This is a massive game and needs to be played through fairly regularly – this can be hard if you haven’t got a consistent gaming group. Good news then that there is a solo version and much beloved by reviewers. In taking up this time though, this will draw you away from many other games and make it much harder to get old favourites back to the table. I would argue that this is not so bad if you are all still enjoying this!

The other quibble has to be that there are a few times of playing the game where I feel that I am grinding through another level to unlock some more story / level up / retire a character (yes retirement is a thing, but that’s just to encourage you to switch characters). It’s tough to avoid this in dungeon crawls, but the open world nature of this game is still not a sandbox and I feel there are some levels I am pushing through just to see what happens at the end – and sometimes it’s very little. This is a small point, but in a game built with so much expanse you want to ensure each step is meaningful and there is minimal padding to the story. Most of the time this works well, but occasionally a bit of padding does peek through and it’s up to you if you have the time for it.

Last notes;

  • If you like a dungeon crawl game this brings new mechanic and new types of characters which are well worth the costly experience
  • If you want a game that you can reset and go again each time – there is legacy and that’s part of the value here
  • If you win, you almost certainly have a new location to try next!