Gloomhaven the video game is developed by Flaming Fowl Studios, an independent new studio with a few developers from Lionhead Studios of Fable and Black and White fame.
The game remained in Early Access (Steam’s label for projects in early stages that develop together with the community) for a couple of years before being released as a final version at the end of 2021. It currently has a rate of Very Positive in Steam with around 87% score. After many hours spend in the game (the digital as well as the board game), this is our final Gloomhaven PC Review.
But what is Gloomhaven? Gloomhaven is a tabletop campaign-based game with an evolving narrative created by Isaac Childres that won many awards and is currently one of the highest rated board game at BoardGameGeek list. You can read our review of the Gloomhaven Board game here (Spoilers: we really like it).
Since the game is heavy on narrative and allows you to discover the story bit by bit, we will avoid any sort of spoiler, including direction of the campaign and unlockable things.
The video game is an adaptation of the board game, but can such an acclaimed board game convert into digital and maintain its charm?
Gloomhaven PC review: Description of the digital version of Gloomhaven
Gloomhaven the videogame is a turn-based strategy RPG. The players can control from 2 to 4 mercenaries involved in completing missions to discover further about the story behind the founding of Gloomhaven.
You are able to choose between a selection of 6 classes to start with, but many more can be unlocked by completing certain quests and scenarios. Each character levels up and can be improved by buying better equipment and upgrading their ability deck.
This is the particularity of this game that makes it extremely strategic. Instead of simply choosing a list of abilities that you can more or less spam in the course of a game, every single action is controlled by the choice of two cards at the beginning of your turn. The first card you choose will also determine your initiative and will then be compared with the initiative of the other monsters and players so that you will never really know the order of the turn until everyone selected their initiative.
Each card has a top and bottom part: in one turn you can only select one top from a card and the bottom from the other one. The top is usually an attack or offensive ability, while the bottom is usually a move or defensive ability, but it depends on the character as each mercenary class has its own unique playstyle.
Once you choose a side of the card, you will be instructed whether to discard or lose that card. If you “lose” it, it means is gone for the rest of the game (except for a few rare abilities that allow you to recover them) and since you have a limited deck of cards, the faster you lose cards, the sooner you will finish them.
Once you end up without two cards to play, you are exhausted and removed from the play. You can rest in a turn, recovering the discarded cards but losing 1 of them, limiting how many times you can rest per game. Therefore each character has a certain number available of turns each scenario, and will need to complete the mission within that artificial time limit. Managing this card resource is the key to playing the game. It is a balance between using powerful “loss” cards, when to rest to get your good cards back and when to just use a turn playing cards that do nothing in order to extend how long you can last in the scenario. This card based combat system is also the very crux of gameplay, so you need to like it in order to love the game (and we really do).
You cannot increase the cards available to a certain mercenary (that is determined by its class and never changes) but you can upgrade the cards available by choosing more powerful cards when you level up or by enhancing them.
Monsters also have their own deck of cards and each type of monster selects the same card for the turn. They are split in elite and normal monsters, with elite acting before normal monsters and having better stats. Stats depend on the type of monster and on the level of difficulty played (from 0 to 7), but all of this is taken care by the game. Once you have selected your cards the game will present all monsters actions for the turn in sequence and then create the flow with the player initiatives.
Once you have an ability that allows you to perform an attack (the game will clearly state if you can or cannot and who are your available targets) you draw a modifier card that will alter the value of the attack.
This can be positive or negative, depending on the modifiers in your deck. You can customise your deck by completing missions (called battle goals) or levelling up. This part of the videogame is transparent to the player. You will see the final damage and can look in the logs if you want to see which modifier was drawn. All monsters share the same deck, meaning that you have limited ability to influence it but that would affect all monsters at once.
Everything I have described so far is just scratching the surface of what is behind this game. There are many other features that are opened to players while playing and their decisions will count.
There are two main ways to play the game: the original campaign and the new mode called Guildmaster. During the campaign when travelling and when in the city you will be confronted with a choice. Sometimes depending on who is in your party you have different results by selecting the same choice; either way, you obtain a reward (in the form of items, coins, perks or new side scenarios) or a penalty in your next scenario.
Completing scenarios can give you choices that can completely alter the setting of the campaign. Since explaining further would lead into spoiler territory, suffice to say that your decisions will count. This game very much acts as a Legacy style board game.
Another decision point in the original campaign is based on the personal goal each mercenary will choose. This is a mission of orts that will eventually lead to the retirement of that mercenary, as he/she has accomplished her life objective, and the unlock of a new mercenary class. This incentivises players to change class often during a really long game of Gloomhaven (a full campaign can be more than 50 scenarios) but also keeps the game fresh as you have internal objectives and mysteries to discover. Indeed, if you don’t want to have spoilers, all remaining 11 character classes are represented in game by a symbol but nothing else is known until you unlock them.
Multiplayer in Gloomhaven Digital
Obviously, it wouldn’t be Gloomhaven, or even a board-game adaptation if there was no multiplayer capability. This is based on a saved game, so clearly one has to “own” the campaign, and then you can invite any Steam friend (in that case they also need to own the game) or share his own computer with some friends around a table.
In the few experiments we made, the multiplayer looked pretty stable and there has not been any concern reported in the reviews either. Of course, you would probably need Discord or another audio-chatting system to ensure proper communication and “feel like you are all around the same table”.
One interesting difference compared to the board-game is that anyone can join in and pick up one of the available characters without the need to create a new campaign, this is even more true in the Guildmaster mode.
Guildmaster mode in Gloomhaven Digtal
The Guildmaster mode is a new feature existing only in the videogame, representing the most casual side of the game with a new map and a new storyline but the same core mechanics of Gloomhaven. It is an alternate game mode from the campaign.
You progress by completing quests that unlock new items and new locations and by completing certain achievements that unlock new perks, classes, personal quests or other type of rewards. Those achievements can be anything from taking advantage of a certain class by performing their core abilities more often, killing a certain type of enemy, or even just levelling up.
There is a plot, as you are directed to various spots by your patron, but it feels more like a sandbox game with nice add-ons. Indeed you can change your party at any time. Swapping classes is actually incentivised in certain situations by scenarios that can be entered only by bringing a specific class. This way you can try out different combinations without worrying too much.
This modality is perfect for those who just want to play a quick game or those that want that feeling of completionism by obtaining all achievements. It is also good for the hardcore players that are not worried about the spoilers and want to try something new or constantly change the composition of the party (some classes can be unlocked much faster than in the main campaign and you can always choose which quests to pursue to unlock what you want).
Jaws of the Lion DLC for Gloomhaven Digital
The latest DLC to be added to the videogame is actually a prequel and a separate game in the physical version. The real Gloomhaven expansion is the Forgotten Circle, maybe Flaming Fowl Studios will go there next (and maybe they will even do Frosthaven at some point).
The DLC had some hiccups at launch but now is possible to enable it in any saved game (but not disable) and allows to play 25 extra missions in the city of Gloomhaven (in the original campaign) and of course, unlock 4 new classes from the beginning. Jaws of the Lion campaign is accessible after completing (or failing) mission 2 of the original campaign.
It also introduces new enemies, new items, new road events and extra battle goals to spice things up a bit (some of these additions were allowed also if you owned both physical games).
For those picky, the Jaws of the Lion campaign would actually happen much earlier than the Gloomhaven campaign and that may feel a bit incoherent, but if you have not played the board game, it kinda of works.
Gloomhaven Digital compared with Gloomhaven the board game
The videogame introduces some house rules that have been quite popular among fans of the board game, but first of all let’s start by saying that they kept the original idea to raise or lower difficulty of the game by having monsters (and consequently gold and trap damage) calculated at a higher or lower level of the party average exactly as the board game.
The videogame then introduces a new Friendly level that adds a Blessed card to each mercenary modifier deck and increases their health by 50% (other than having monsters 1 level below the normal level).
At the start of a campaign you are also given the option of “variants” (the house rules we mentioned earlier) that differ from the difficulty, and cannot be changed in the middle of a campaign:
- Updated enhancements: enhancements are associated with a specific mercenary instead of the class and can now be removed by obtaining 75% of the cost back. Costs have also been rebalanced.
- The multiplier x2 and the no damage card are treated as +2 and -2 respectively.
- Cannot roll a null with advantage.
- Line of Sight is counted from the centre of the hex instead of any border of the hex.
- Summons without focus can still move.
- Spawned monsters can drop gold coins.
Many of these may not mean anything to you if you never played the Gloomhaven board game before, but the video game does tell you which ones are recommended. The “cannot roll null with advantage” is a quite popular one. Of course, you can choose to play the game exactly as Isaac Childres imagined it.
Now, what else is different between the digital and the physical version?
For once, if you used an online Helper (Gloomhaven had a really good one now sadly retired because of disagreements between the author and the developer), then the videogame provides you with a similar experience: it will auto calculate move and attack characteristics of the enemies, provide an initiative order, keep track of health and other status effects (including active elements), etc.
On top of that, the physical version will also control the enemies and summon limiting your decisions to which cards to select.
And here comes a bit of a problem: sometimes it’s hard to see which cards you discarded, which ones you lost, and how many you have left (it is possible to see it, but is not as easy as in the physical version), you may forget your personal quest (in some cases it may still be useful to take notes outside of the game) and of course, you may make mistakes.
Even the small ones, like not directing the game to avoid that trap in front of you. The game is unforgiving: there is no undo of a single action. The only thing you can do if you really messed up is to restart the entire round from the card selection. This means you already know what the monsters are going to be doing, up to the exact damage they are going to inflict really detracting from the immersion in the game. A simple undo of the entire character turn may have been enough.
Final Verdict on Gloomhaven PC Review
The game has different levels of difficulty, but in general, is more difficult than the physical version.
It’s not about cheating or missing some rules, is about the fact that the physical version always interprets something the way it is coded and does not have much flexibility. In other words, he knows the rules better than you, and there’s no arguing about it. Except when you encounter the occasional bug (most have been ironed out during the early access period).
For example, the second mission is brutal, even at the easy level, there are just too many enemies and you have too many curse cards (attack modifier that nullifies your attack) in your hand to ensure you kill all enemies properly. That is not different from the board game, but it does feel off. It is even more rewarding when you do complete successfully a scenario, but the contrast with the Guildmaster mode, much easier, is stark. New players will have a very rough time the first time around.
Overall the videogame is a great game if you like strategic games. The narrative is excellent, and you have enough choices to make two characters from the same class radically different, in true RPG style.
The graphic is good, the animations are ok for the first few minutes, then you start feeling it takes too long, especially if you are used to the board game. But to see characters and enemies in vivid 3D colours is quite an experience, especially considering the poor quality of Gloomhaven miniatures and the two-dimensionality of the cardboard standees that represented the enemies.
If you were used to playing the physical version with the Forteller narration and the Gloomhaven Helper app, then this would add an extra layer of automation but you were almost there already. If you are a classic “only-physical-components” type, then this would be quite a jump, not necessarily in the right direction. Yes, setup is quicker, and you don’t need expensive organisers. However, you don’t have that control you have in the physical version.
Finally, this game is perfect for those that find it difficult to gather their friends in one’s house. Ever stopped a Gloomhaven campaign after 30+ scenarios because you just didn’t have time to meet all once again? With the videogame, this problem can be alleviated, and 4 copies cost less than a board game, and occupy infinitely less space.
Overall, Gloomhaven Digital is a great adaptation of an amazing board game. Playing the real board game we fudge quite a lot to keep the game moving. The digital version is less forgiving because you cannot do that it is clear that it is a really hard game. This is compounded when playing one person and trying to control more than 2 characters. It is just so damn hard to make any sort of optimized round.