Plausibly the most talked about game in the last year, Gloomhaven, is an epic dungeon crawl adventure, and probably my most played game in 2017. Probably because of its narrative campaign but also because it was just amazingly satisfying to play. Now, it’s designer/publisher has a new game set in Gloomhaven or, more appropriately, the area of land where Gloomhaven will one day stand. You are going to build it. I’m talking about Founders of Gloomhaven.
Founders of Gloomhaven is a big, meaty Euro game. It’s a city building game, featuring similar hand management to the excellent Concordia, with the added twist of follow actions. When anyone plays one of their cards, you get the chance of performing a weaker version of their action. Which can be huge because once you’ve played your card, it doesn’t come back until you stop playing to pick it up, triggering a vote over which important prestige buildings are brought on to the board.
It’s a game of managing access to resources, brought on and controlled by players who construct specific buildings. Initially you might have a small source of Wood and a small Livestock pen. But when you bring those together on the map, by laying down roads, you can construct a level 2 building, acting as a source of the more valuable Hide resource. Later you might try to build up to level 3 resources.
Since any new resource relies typically on two lower resources, the map and how the city develops spatially is hugely important and directs everything else. But it makes those early decisions of where to build your opening resources, who you pay to access their resources, hugely important. Almost painfully so. You can really put yourself in difficulty with poor choices in the opening rounds. It’s a game you need to play multiple times to get the most out of.
But what I want to know is whether it is truly a “Gloomhaven” game?
What do I mean? Well, It’s all well and good having the name on the box but that name means something more. Fans of the original will flock towards Founders of Gloomhaven because that name carries the weight of their experiences in the world that Isaac has created. We want to spend time in that world. But a world doesn’t just have a name and some artwork, it has a feel. Something that makes it uniquely Gloomhaven and not just The Lord of the Rings 1.5 or the Warhammer World.
The world of a game is, in many ways, defined for the players by the interactions they have with it. Gloomhaven presented a broad array of interactions: combat, helping individuals through story decisions, magic. None of these have any presence in Founders of Gloomhaven and while, of course, the focus of Founders is very different, the result is a game that is missing much of the spirit I associate with Gloomhaven.
Imagine how it would be different if Founders had the magical elements board as in Gloomhaven? With actions raising or gaining bonuses from these magical elements. It would be immediately and recognisably Gloomhaven in a way that goes beyond the names of buildings and races. What about a mechanic that represents the religious influence of the Church of the Great Oak, or the dark cults on the city? Something about the dangers of creating a society between multiple races on the wild frontiers? Instead all you have is the names of buildings and races you might recognise. These are nice Easter eggs for Gloomhaven fans to appreciate, but little more.
Founders of Gloomhaven is a very interesting Euro game, I think one that could be really rewarding for players to dig into. It’s a relatively rare treat too, a Euro game with a great deal of player interaction, that has you caring deeply about what others are doing. I’m tempted to liken it to Food Chain Magnate, although it’s not nearly as punishing as that game. But it is so disappointing to me that it is not a “Gloomhaven” game. Buy it because you want the Euro game, not because you want a Gloomhaven game.
Founders of Gloomhaven is on Kickstarter until August 10th.
This First Impression of Founders of Gloomhaven is based on full demo at Manor Con. Hear more about my time at Manor Con this year on the recent Gaming Rules! podcast.