With the early morning chill, and the Vermling’s appalling singing for company, you adjust the straps of your pack and stride away from Gloomhaven. The dull hubbub recedes behind you and before long even the traders in their caravans become rare sights, then, nonexistent as you truly enter the wilds. Your destination? A mysterious crypt spoken of in rumours. What will you find? Who knows. But whatever it is, you have a sharp blade more than ready to make the introductions with.
Gloomhaven is now less of a game than it is a phenomenon. An already successful Kickstarter, it has rocketed to the very pinnacle of gamers minds over the last couple of months. Based on sheer scale, we’ve never seen anything like it before. 90 different scenarios, and growing? Each taking a good evening to play. A mountain of cardboard in the form of room tiles, standees, and card decks. Sealed cases of new characters to unlock and play. An FAQ as long as most novels? This is a monument to dungeon crawling excess.
Size isn’t everything
Cards Against Humanity has a lot of cards too but that doesn’t make it a good game. So what does it mean to Gloomhaven? What occurs on those dark nights when 4 friends gather to worship at the feet of the great cardboard idol?
Your blade bites deep into the soft flesh of the bandit who had dared to ambush your party at the entrance of the crypt. His anguished cries go ignored as you jerk the sword back while turning away the thrust from his friend with your shield.
“Watch this!” Yells your vermling companion.
The second bandit’s eyes go wide and his mouth goes slack as his arm freezes in mid swing, his legs turn him around around he staggers in jerking movements straight into the pit of spikes blocking the door. He never even made a sound.
“Remind me never to cross you,” you say. Your companion only grins.
For all its airs of being an “RPG in a box” or a Legacy game or even a dungeon crawler, Gloomhaven is a tactical combat game first and foremost. Viewing it in the most cynical light possible, a Gloomhaven scenario is 3-5 rooms full of monsters that you have to kill. But looking at in this way does a disservice to what is, without doubt, the most incredible combat experience I have ever had in a board game.
Your fate is in the cards
The reason for this is cards. I seem to be soundly in the camp that says a hand of cards is a good thing to have in a game and Gloomhaven whole heartedly embraces this outlook. Each player takes a hand of cards into a scenario from some pool that player has available and with this hand you attempt to complete your objective.
Each card has a top half, typically some kind of attack action, and a bottom half, typically some kind of move, and an initiative value that determines how early in the round you go. A round is simply a case of choosing two cards to play from your hand, the top card of which will decide your initiative value. When your turn comes around during the resolution, you then choose a top half action from one card and the bottom half action from the other card to perform. That’s pretty simple and rarely takes long, aside from the very first round of the first game when you are staring at a hand of 10 or so cards you’ve never seen before.
What is far from simple is making good decisions. You see, while every card can do a basic move or a basic attack instead of its main action, you want to be smoothly utilising your powerful abilities to the max. If you have an attack that hits all the enemies in front of you, you don’t want to be using it to only hit a single monster. That card that lets you sprint across the board, will you need that soon or can you play it for its attack now?
These decisions are constantly shifting with the board state since being in the right place at the right time is so important. Should you fail to time things right or to predict your enemies then it’s not, or perhaps I should say, it’s rarely disastrous but you feel like a failure. You see yourself putting that sweet Attack 4 card into your discard pile unused and that hurts. You want to do better and that brings me to the thing I think Gloomhaven does best out of any game I have ever played. It makes you learn.
Pay attention class!
The skeleton shambles out of the darkness, twin swords held threateningly before it, a dark gleam in the place where its eyes should have been. You step carefully towards it, half an eye on its blades half an eye on the shadows for more of its kind. You know you shouldn’t have to rush, it will come for you.
With a screech like nails on chalkboards, the creature strides forwards and as deftly you spring to the side, sweeping blade into dry bone with a satisfying shatter. The swords and finally lifeless bones drop to the floor. If only it had been so easy the first time round!
Your first game of Gloomhaven is going to be rough. You’ll spend an evening on it, because you spend an evening on any scenario, but you’ll almost certainly lose. That’s because your cards represent not only your available actions, but your available energy as well, and this is only going to be sapped as the game goes on. To pick up your discards you must rest, which means permanently sacrificing a card to your “Lost” pile. Certain powerful abilities require that card to be lost. And while you have a health bar, you have the option to lose a card to ignore a hit, useful when the enemies hit hard and healing abilities are scarce.
No matter what you do, you tire over the scenario and your pool of available actions decreases. Once you have fewer than two cards available, that’s it! You’re out! Exhausted. When you don’t realise how dangerous the enemies are, you have a rookies over confidence, rushing into danger and ultimately paying the price. You don’t know when the right time is to sacrifice one of your cards for its powerful ability. But you learn.
Of course, every game with any depth sees you learn. You’ll lose your first games of Pandemic! But there’s more to it than that. Firstly you learn to fight better yourself. Those hurtful failures become less and less frequent and instead you have fantastic turns where the cards you play work exactly as you wanted. You learn how to avoid taking so much damage. And because you fight with a persistent character it feels like you are growing and developing. That’s already pretty unique.
Then you learn how to fight as a group and this is huge! When you start out you’re too busy keeping your own character under control, and so you get in each other’s way, stealing kills, blocking up doors, and generally embarrassing yourselves. This in a big way comes down to the initiative values on cards. You’re not explicitly supposed to discuss these but you can hint at how early you can go. Out of this restriction you develop your own language for planning out your turn. You learn the capabilities of your friend’s characters and how they fight and you mutually adapt to one another. You feel like a group of adventurers bonding together. It’s perfect for what this game is about.
The final step on the learning curve is knowing your enemies, and there is a lot to learn here! The game comes packaged with a vast bestiary of enemy types, each of which has a stat card with their basic abilities and a deck of cards that determine how they act on a given turn. Whether they are moving, if it’s a stronger attack or a weaker attack or whether it’s something particularly unusual. These also have an initiative value on them so the monsters may move before you do. This AI system works extremely well once you figure out the rules for how monsters move around and prioritise certain players over others. Importantly they provide a suitable threat and challenge for the players to overcome!
As you play more you get better, you level up, unlocking more powerful abilities and letting you improve the combat modifier deck you draw from each time you attack. You get the chance to remove those negative cards and add in more positives. So the central game seems to get easier and so a different element emerges. The scramble to get coins.
Each enemy killed drops a coin where they fell and if you want to collect that coin, you need to either end your turn on it, or use a loot action which hoovers up all the coins nearby. Both of these options are inefficient. Plus, everyone is racing to collect those coins! There are treasure chests to open too which typically sit well out of the way and reward you with new items or other surprises. Thus when you out match your enemies, the selfish nature of your characters gets to take over.
But that only lasts so long as eventually the average level in your party will be high enough for the monsters to level up too and then things get properly challenging again. The monsters stat cards rotate to reveal their higher level stats in the cardboard envelopes they sit in. It’s a very clever system, whose only downside is having to put together multiple bits of information to resolve a round. With multiple enemy types in play at once it can feel a little overwhelming and bog play down.
Overall, Gloomhaven’s combat features cooperation in a way you’ve never seen before. There is no dominant player controlling proceedings because only you understand your hand of abilities. It’s no dry mathematical puzzle because of the random damage modifiers and behaviour of the enemy. You’re constantly adapting, reevaluating, and using the instincts you’ve developed over numerous games to guide your decisions. Playing Gloomhaven isn’t just hitting the right monster at the right time. It’s a skill that you work on, but it’s so fun and satisfying that it doesn’t feel like one.
A story to sing songs about?
The other side of Gloomhaven, the side that ties it all together, is the story. There is a main, branching, story line to follow that tie scenarios together but, from what I’ve seen 8 scenarios in (including a couple of side scenarios), there’s not a huge amount of real story to sink your teeth into. The gameplay and the challenge is going to be what draws you back, in my opinion, not finding out what happens next. This is one area where this crazy box is actually limited, with typically only a paragraph or two book-ending the scenario rules in the great big binder of missions that comes with the game, and most of that is really just scene setting.
Now, while I’ve put a good 30 hours into this game, perhaps the story does get more involved, maybe it doesn’t. And even if it doesn’t, maybe that’s ok. Because I don’t feel that Gloomhaven is about some grand narrative to be drip fed to you. What I’ve been taking from it is the narrative of our characters, and of the city itself. Let me tell you about my character.
I play Irkan, an Inox Brute, which is about as strong and unsubtle a stereotype as can be imagined. The Inox are seen as an unsubtle race. The warrior race. But Irkan has noticed something strange. A bizarre… Thinness to the world that he has become determined to investigate. This isn’t the action of an unsubtle, simple, “brute”. The drawing of a character objective transformed him into something far deeper and more interesting.
When choosing his starting items, I chose to eschew the leather armour and hide shield he typically starts with, and instead took a pair of Eagle Eye Goggles. It felt like something he might do. A piece of fragile, complicated tech in the hands of a “brute,” because he is determined to understand something incomprehensible about the world he’s in. It’s a wonderfully heartwarming story, I can’t help but want to help him achieve his aim! But when he does? He’ll retire and be gone forever.
The retirement objectives are a fascinating part of Gloomhaven. Mechanically they are a necessity to keep characters from growing too powerful for the game to handle. In terms of the grander “meta game” they give players a mid term objective to strive for that makes the sheer size of Gloomhaven more manageable and allows them to open mysterious boxes, advance new storylines and refresh the game after numerous hours with a whole new play style. But they also fundamentally define your role in Gloomhaven.
Unlike your traditional D&D style RPG you are not the star of the story. You are merely a guide, an observer, and the characters you control are not your avatars in this world as much as they are companions to share your journey for a while. Eventually they find whatever it is they were looking for and retire, while you move on and find new companions to share the road with. One day you too will realise you’ve experienced what you wanted from Gloomhaven… and you’ll retire.
“Do you wonder why we do this?” You ask after another night sleeping under a bush for cover.
“For glory?” Your erstwhile rodent friend asks.
“Some glory,” you say rubbing at ache in your neck.
“Well one day they’ll speak my name in reverence! The greatest Vermling warrior in history! Slayer of the mighty!”
The city that never sleeps
And while one day you will leave, Gloomhaven will live on. Through the quietest of measures, Gloomhaven is a city that feels alive, a world that is more than mere cardboard and words on a page. Your interactions with it are typically limited to a city event you draw from the top of a deck with each scenario. It offers you a snapshot of life in the city and a choice you must make. To help an old crone clear her house of rats, or taking part in an eating contest. The choices are simple, but opaque. You never really know what’s going to happen, but in the same way that a real life decision has unknown consequences. And they never feel unfair. You chose the best you can and maybe it’s a nice little bonus or maybe it’s a little cost, but bit by bit these events let you in on the daily goings on in the city you are ostensibly fighting for. It gives it a little dash of flavour and your imagination fills in the rest.
Then there is the persistence. Certain choices you make, and the act of retiring characters, causes you to add in specific new cards to the city deck. This allows your choices and discoveries to come up again in the future and it is a wonderful mechanism. Even if the size of the deck means it might be quite some time before they do come up again!
Choices are an important part of Gloomhaven. Your party is free to pursue darker paths and classical heroic roles. But such choices aren’t always clear cut and perhaps you, a band of brutal mercenaries, are not best placed to make those distinctions. Is the helpful character merely using you for their own nefarious ends? Will your curiosity to explore certain avenues have greater consequences than you can appreciate? You can’t know until you make a choice, and you can only hope you have the opportunity to correct any errors you do make.
Gloomhaven is a masterpiece, there’s no other word for it. But that doesn’t mean it’s all things to all people. The role playing side of the game is small to non existent. You are not the characters you control. You can embellish their story as I have done but that doesn’t make them you. There aren’t conversations to be had with NPCs, there are no subtle routes through missions. This is a game of combat and violence and there’s no way round that.
But it is an incredible game of combat. Sometimes exhausting, but so so clever. It keeps drawing me back after 10 solid weeks of play so far. You and the group of friends you play this with will band together like nothing else and you’ll get the most from this game if you can arrange a regular get together like that.
I hope I’ve made clear in this article what Gloomhaven is. What it can be. Because when the hype train gathers this much speed it’s easy to think it’s going to be everything you want. What Gloomhaven does, it does exceptionally well, and it’s up to you to decide whether that is the perfect something for you.
You crest a final rise and spread out below you is Gloomhaven in all its majesty. The line of travellers making their way to the city is vast and all are looking for something. But Gloomhaven cares not a whit for any of them. Come rain or shine there’ll still be a hard bed waiting and another story to tell over a mug of ale. You shoulder your pack and with the ghost of a smile on your lips, head down towards the city gate.
If you want a more thorough overview of how to play Gloomhaven, check out Gaming Rules videos, here.
Gloomhaven is still on Kickstarter but only until Tuesday morning (GMT).