Gloomhaven is a glorious game, but at first it can be really confusing. I had a hard time figuring out how to set up the first game and start the campaign. The manual does a poor job of holding your hand in these first few steps, which can lead to some hilarious and game-breaking mistakes.
So, to help you avoid the same mistakes I made, this is guide just for you. The aim is to make the setup and start of your Gloomhaven adventure as clear as possible. The guide will make you able to set up the game board and all components before the other players arrive, so when they get to the table the action can get going.
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1. Preparing for your first game of the campaign
If you are trying to get Gloomhaven on the table for the first time with a new group, I strongly suggest one of you take charge and lead the experience for the other players. Having one person at the table who know what is supposed to happen will make everything immensely easier.
If you are reading this, I guess you are that person. Congratulations on your sacrifice for the team!
So what do you need to do to prepare for your first game of Gloomhaven?
- Try to get familiar with the general rules
- Figure out how the campaign works
- Learn how to set up for the first game
- Make sure to understand what decisions each player has to take before you can get the action going
Just follow the steps below and you will get your first Gloomhaven campaign going in no time.
1. Get familiar with the core rules and the rulebook of Gloomhaven
The rulebook is a thick beast, but it is actually explained very well. Each person learns differently, and if you are a seasoned gamer you know the best method for you to learn the mechanics of a game. If you want to watch some videos going over the core rules, you have a ton of options. If you are more the reading type, just start going through the rulebook.
I am personally a fan of watching a short video and then reading the rulebook cover to cover. I find that my retention of obscure and random rules are quite high just from one read through and a small explainer video.
The rulebook for Gloomhaven is quite good in how it is laid out. You get a lot of pictures and the rules (mostly) come in a logical order.
2. Setup City+Road events and the starting items available for purchase
After reading the rulebook, I was actually slightly confused on how to start the campaign. Yeah, I knew how a game was supposed to go, how a campaign worked and so on. But how does the town look in the beginning? How much gold does a starting character have? What characters can we pick?
The rulebook tells you everything about the campaign, except it does not tell you how to start a campaign!
Well the answer to that question was on the first page of the “Scenario Book” (no title on the actual book).
The first page of the Scenario Book details the following steps:
- Find the “City Event Cards” and take the cards marked 1-30. Those are the City Events available at the beginning of the game. Shuffle that deck. The rest of the cards goes back into the box.
- Find the “Road Events Cards” and take the cards marked 1-30. Those are the Road Events available at the beginning of the game. Shuffle that deck. The rest of the cards goes back into the box.
- Find the very big card deck of “Items”. Take all of the items labelled 1-14. These are the items that are available to buy in the city for the first few games.
- When you start the campaign you get a new location, location 1, and the City has the “City Rule: Militaristic”. Both are stickers you should put on the big maps of Gloomhaven.
If you have done this, you have the city ready. You can purchase items from the available item cards and the two decks for events are ready to go.
You also have the one scenario available to choose from, nr. 1, because of the sticker on the map. You can only ever complete a mission once, but you can try it as many times as you like if you fail. Most missions will unlock more missions, making the map a sprawling host of options to pick from.
3. Creating your first characters and the party
Your others players have arrived at the table and it is time to make some characters. I asked my fellow players beforehand what character they would like. We decided to pick purely by the name of the fighter and the logo, so with very little knowledge. I sorted the characters out before the two other players go to the table, so all they only had to do the bare minimum when they arrived.
We ended up picking the Brute, the Scoundrel and the Mistweaver.
1. Each player selects one of the available characters
You can select between the following characters at the beginning of the game:
Once a player has selected their character they must do the following (you can prepare this step if players select fighters before they get to the table):
- Open the little box with their logo on it, containing their personal miniature in it (and squee in joy now that they see what they get to play)
- Open the big envelope with their logo on it
- Take out their Character Sheet out of the envelope
- Take out the Character Board in the envelope
- Punch out the 5 “Character Tokens” from the envelope
- Open the pack of ability cards (the big cards) and take out all of the cards marked with 1 – put the rest of the cards back in the character envelope for now.
- The modifier cards (the small pack of cards) should go back in the envelope/box for now
- Take a “Standard Attack Modifier Deck” from the big box. They numbered 1-4. Each player just needs a deck with the same number on them (player 1 gets all cards with “1” on them, player 2 all the cards with “2” and so on).
Check the image below to see how it should look (the Brute used as an example). The items placed on the box is not needed for the first game.
Note: you are technically allowed to exchange your ability cards (the big cards) with “1” on them with the cards with an “x” on them from the beginning. I would suggest not to try this at first. Before you have played a game and tried out a few abilities, you have no clue what is good and bad anyway, so no reason to use time on this.
The Standard Ability Modifier deck (the deck of small cards) should have the following 20 cards in it (page 5 of the rulebook):
2. Each player fills out their character sheet:
It is time to make a few decisions, so leave this part up to the players when they get to the table.
- Write down a cool name (preferably something the other players will not laugh at)
- Write down that you have 30 gold (and then proceed to spend them all in the town like a true consumer!)
- Make a note that you are level 1
3. Each player draws two random personal quest cards and keeps one
- These are the overall goals of your character. You only keep 1 and the other goes back in the pile of cards
- The goal is now your deep dark secret (or if your group prefers it, you can show it to each other)
- Once you complete the goal, your character retires. Rejoice and pick a new character!
- Remember, this pick lasts for as long as the character exists. Make that pick wisely!
4. Read aloud the back of your Character Board to each other
If you like some immersion and story, getting up to speed on who your companions are can be great. It will also clue you in on the lore of Gloomhaven, which will only be explained by quests and lore text like this.
5. Fill out the party sheet:
- Write down the awesome name of your party (that you totally did not spend 3 hours arguing about)
- Record your reputation to be 0 (yeah, nobody really cares about you in the beginning)
4. To-do before heading into your first scenario
- Each character can buy items for their 30 gold before entering the dungeon. Remember: you cannot trade item nor gold between players (even though it seems contra intuitive) and you cannot have multiple of the same item slot equipped in the dungeon (see page 8. for an overview of how items work and what you can equip). Page 1 of the scenario has some suggestions on what to buy. We followed those and it turned out great.
- A character can also donate 10 gold to the Oak Sanctuary in the city, but for now, I would skip that option (but it is a good option later).
- You have the option of doing the first city event card. Do it! (in fact, always do a city event between missions).
- Before starting the scenario you must complete the first road event card (these are usually not that good for you…).
- Before starting the scenario each player gets two facedown Battle Goal Cards. They pick one and that is the additional goal they have for this dungeon (they get a perk checkmark if they complete it and you also win the scenario).
5. Setup for the first scenario of the Gloomhaven Campaign
So quick recap here:
- The city is complete (road event deck, city event deck and items available for purchase)
- You have all created a character and the party is made
- You have bought some items and completed a city event
- You have decided on scenario 1 (an easy choice, as you cannot choose any other)
- You have set out on the mission and on the road to the dungeon you have completed a road event.
- Each player have picked one of their two random battle goals.
1. To start the scenario you need to have the following items in front of each player :
- A Character Board
- Their miniature
- The deck of ability cards (preferably only the cards marked with “1” on them)
- A deck of 20 modifier cards (in the standard array)
- A Character Sheet
- Their character tokens
- The items they bought in town
- A player reference card
- The HP/XP tracking Wheel
2. Decide if you want any digital help or you will run it purely with the tools in the box
Gloomhaven is a complex game and taking some of that complexity and delegating it to an app can be a very wise choice. You will be busy enough flipping through your ability cards to even consider figuring out how the enemy attacks, what card they need and so on. So unless you have a very experienced player at the table, my suggestion is that you use some free apps to help you out.
We use the following free apps and it helped us immensely in the first few games. In fact, I doubt we are ever going to do it manually now that we have seen the glory of doing it digital.
For combat: if you play it manually, you have to figure out how much health and what ability deck each enemy types draws from. We use the free app “Gloomhaven Dungeon Master“. It has the following benefits:
- Available for Mac, Android and Linux (so you can run it on most things)
- You simply select the scenario and plot in what enemies are on the board
- Each round it will draw ability card for enemy type and sort the enemy by the initiative. It also handles enemy modifier cards
- It tells you how much damage a trap does and how much XP you get when you win
- It can also handle the Element Infusion stuff if you want to
- It has good clear design (even better than the paid versions we tried) and it is FREE!
So yeah, if you can handle having a device as one of your Gloomhaven components, definitely give Gloomhaven Dungeon Master a try!
For handling the scenario:
The scenario book and the scenarios are quite simple to handle, but again there are several benefits for getting help from the interwebs.
We decided to use “Gloomhaven Scenario Viewer” because it does the following:
- Tells us all relevant tile pieces and setting up the board from the start
- It hides enough information for our liking. In the scenario book, you can see exactly what enemies and stuff are in what rooms from the start. We like the surprise of opening a door and hoping for some hot loot.
- We avoid reading the story text before it is relevant
So if you want to help yourself out a bit, I suggest using this as well.
If you decide to not use digital tools, you will need the ability deck for the relevant enemies and the ability modifier deck for the enemies. You also not to decipher how many enemies are on the map based on how many players you are.
3. The tokens and board tiles you need for the first scenario
Now comes to time to punch out some of those tokens. Depending on your demeanour and board game experience this can either be a nerve-wracking experience or something you really enjoy.
Gloomhaven has a crap ton of tokens and storing them in the box can be a mess (more on organising your Gloomhaven tokens later). For my first playthrough I wanted to punch out the minimum amount of tokens and leave everything else in the box.
If you go with a digital combat helper, this is the tokens you need for the first game of the campign:
- L1a map tile
- G1b map tile
- I1b map tile
- The coin tokens
- Damage tokens
- Element Infusion Board
- Round tracker
- The tokens you need to represent various things your character can do (status effects and the sort)
- Wood Element Discs (unless you use the app for it)
- The 6 Bandit Guard Tokens
- The 6 Bandit Archer Tokens
- The plastic stands for the monster tokens
- 2 Living Bones Tokens
- 1 Treasure Tile
- 2 Damage Traps
- 2 Tables
- An objective marker labelled 1
If you are going to run combat manually you will also need:
- Damage tokens
- Monster attack modifier deck
- Ability cards for guards
- Ability cards for archers
- Monster stat card for the Bandit Guards and Bandit Archers
6. Decide how much information you want to keep secret
A big part of the difficulty in Gloomhaven comes from a lack of information. This lack of information is built into the game, but you have some leeway in deciding how to handle it in your group.
How much information do you want to know about the scenario?
In the basic setup of the game, you actually know where all monsters, chests and so on are from the get-go. You can also read ahead to know what is going to happen when you do different things. We have decided to hide quite a lot of this information, to make everything more interesting and a bit more difficult.
How much tactical discussion and information are you willing to share mid-combat?
If you know exactly what other players are planning and their initiative, it is much easier to plan your own cards. The games want you to keep things vague and I really think this is the right choice. If you try to share too much about what you are going to do it, you can end up in endless tactical debates.
Keep it light and fast-moving (at least for the first few games). Chances are that things do not go as you all plan anyway, so keeping the information you share vague keeps you flexible and on your toes.
Bonus Gloomhaven Campaign tips
So yeah, you are ready to play the first game of your Gloonhaven campaign!
Here are some additional tips for your game:
1. Figure out a way to make sure the setup of the game does not kill you!
Some sort of organiser can really help you out and we only played 2 games before we decided we needed to make setup and playing easier. We looked hard at buying the amazing Broken Token Organizer but decided against it because of the cost. We instead went with the Folded Space Gloomhaven (FS-GLO) insert to save some moneyt. It turned out cheap but maybe not the best solution overall. It is okay for storage, but getting the game ready to be played is still a bit of a chore.
Recently we made a guide for buying Gloomhaven Inserts, so check that out if you are in the market for something to help speed up the game.
2. Sleeving your cards is a really good idea
You will quickly notice how much you shuffle cards around. We sleeved all of the cards we constantly have in the deck. You bought the following:
- 1x Clear sleeves for event cards and other cards that have stuff on both sides
- 4x Mini-Europe sleeves for the ability cards
- 2-3 x Different coloured sleeves for ability cards
This was more than enough to cover the things we handle and shuffle each game. The sleeves have the added benefit of clearly marking what cards are part of the game current game and what is not. So sleeved ability cards, modifier cards, event cards and so on are part of the current setup and everything else is not in the game right now.
3. Decide whether you are a bad party or a good party
The game gives you + reputation for helping out people and – reputation if you are some naughty boys and girls. You will quickly realise that having a neutral reputation does not really do anything, and quite a lot of event cards will become meaningless (because they require a certain threshold of either positive or negative reputation).
This is why it is best sticking to either getting a high reputation or getting a low reputation. If you flip flop between helping people out and stabbing them in the back, you will hover around 0 reputations and you might regret this in the long run.
4. Paint the miniatures that form your part
While the miniatures in Gloomhaven are not the best sculpts in the world, they are pretty cool looking. Painting a few miniatures is actually kind of easy. I have an article on the ins and out of painting minis as a beginner here and a host of different painting-hobby articles here.
If this helped you, you can help us in return
We are dedicated to bringing you information and articles that cover everything you need on a topic. If you think this was helpful, you can help us out by your Gloomhaven inserts or the Gloomhaven game from one of the links in the article.
If you are still in doubt about getting Gloomhaven, the video review below is what pushed me over the edge (and I am so happy I did!)