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Gloomhaven Review: It this Big Board Game Really the Best?

Gloomhaven is my favourite campaign based board game and in this article I’ll convince you why it’s a game deserving your attention.

Cephalofair Games, the creators behind Gloomhaven, define the game as a “Euro-inspired Tactical Combat in an evolving campaign”.

BoardGameGeek, the definitive online resource for board and card games, classifies Gloomhaven as the top board game ever recorded in their website. With a Geek rating of 8.5 and an average rating of 8.9 is at the top of every ranking. Its simplified follow-up / prequel, Jaws of Lion, is number 6. In an unofficial poll from BGG, Frosthaven, the proper sequel for Gloomhaven, is the most anticipated game overall for 2021.

The first Kickstarter campaign for Gloomhaven collected almost 400,000 US Dollars, and Frosthaven campaign was at its time the most successful board game campaign ever, collecting just short of 13 million of US Dollars with more than 80,000 pre-orders.

So why do I like this game so much? And is it really that good? Follow us in our journey in Gloomhaven.

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Description

Ok, so Gloomhaven is a well-loved and successful board game. But what is it exactly?

It is a non-linear campaign for 1 to 4 players exploring the grim high fantasy world created by Isaac Childres. Each game session is made of one scenario at the end of which players will be confronted with some decisions that will open new locations, new items and new pieces of the story.

The game itself is played entirely without dice. Instead, each character has a deck of cards they can use to move and act during the scenario. Which card they choose will also determine the initiative for that round. Enemies also have a pre-determined deck and their actions for the turn are chosen randomly. We will go into more details about this mechanic later, as this is one of the main characteristics of Gloomhaven.

Initially, players can choose between 6 different mercenaries, but more can be unlocked by progressing in the campaign and they are incentivised to switch character every time they complete that character’s personal goal. This makes a long game (there are 95 scenarios in the core game) still enticing, as new characters also represent new strategies and new ways to tackle the challenges ahead.

Gloomhaven also features a persistent world where every decision made by a party of adventurers has consequences and affects the setting. You can play this game with different groups of people, each with their own party, whose story intertwine to create a massive narrative, or you can play it solo and explore every single corner there is.

Gloomhaven itself is a frontier city with a mysterious founding whose details you are going to discover while progressing in the story. The more actions you perform to improve the city prosperity, the more items will be available for purchase, and the more story threads will open up. Every decision you make will have some consequence and open (or close) other missions.

All these branching opportunities are recorded using stickers. Every time you open a new location you unlock the relevant sticker to place on the board map. You can enhance your cards, making them more powerful, by putting the relevant sticker on a specific slot in the card. Since the world is persistent, every sticker you place affects all parties working in the same world, but every party will have their own achievements that will allow them to enter certain missions (or not).

The last point to discuss is the miniatures. The core game features 17 classes (only 6 usable from the beginning) with a total of 18 miniatures. There are however 47 monsters (or enemies) that are represented by cardboard standees. If you have a 3D printer, or you want really to use miniatures, online there are plenty of catalogues to help you replace the standees with miniatures. Being a fantasy world with a strong storytelling focus, the various races in the world are well described and all interact with each other, with Humans being only a portion of the city and even rarer in the wilderness.

Set up

Gloomhaven is a campaign game, and as such there are many components to consider even before starting a new game. Once you have decided your party, the next scenario’s setup will be quicker.

When starting a new game for the first time, you will need someone who reads the rules thoroughly. They are relatively simple and clear, but even so, you can find the official FAQ online as there are so many different combinations of things that can happen that they cannot possibly be sorted in one single booklet.

A note of advice on the first scenarios: don’t try to have the exact answer to any dubious situation. Note down your question, agree on a house rule on how to proceed and continue the game. Later, you can google your question and see if there is an FAQ or someone already had the same doubt.

At the back of the booklet there is a cheat sheet with all icons present in game and the page number for where to find more information. It’s a quick reference to various rules and if you forgot something important, that’s where to find them quickly.

Once the rules are sorted, you need to decide upon your starting characters. If you have multiple players, each should choose their own character (up to 4), but if you are playing solo or with only one companion, you can choose to have multiple characters. Note that it becomes easier the more characters you control. While the game supports 2, 3 or 4 characters, the best way to play the game, in our opinion, is to use 4 characters (if possible having 4 players as well).

At the beginning you will have access only to six characters, every time you retire one or you achieve a particular objective, you unlock new characters that future players can use. Retirement is the completion of the personal quest of a particular character and there are different retirement goals from killing enough of a type of monster, to complete certain scenarios.

There are different steps before starting a game. Without going into too much detail, suffice to say that there are different decks to set up (not all cards are available from the beginning), characters to be chosen (each tuck box contains a miniature and the relevant ability cards) and then you are ready to start your campaign from the first scenario.

One thing that it’s important to mention at this stage is the use of an organizer: the game is composed of different decks, each further divided in cards unlocked, and cards locked, and sometimes even cards that have been discarded and can’t be reused. Then there are the tokens: a multitude of them between those representing statuses, damage, money, objectives, summons, etc. There are 155 double sided overlay tiles, those are placed on top of the map tiles to give context to the map: they can be obstacles (like rocks or trees), traps, hazards (like lava) and so on. Finding the one that you need may be more arduous than it seems.

And we have not discussed about the 236 monster standees, each type of monster coming with its own ability cards. In summary, you need to have a really good way to organize all components before starting a game or you will spend most of the time just finding the pieces you need. Luckily, we have a guide on a variety of inserts that can help you.

First round

Once you have set up the board, and you’ve read the scenario introduction and goals, you are ready to start. Each character needs to choose two cards from their deck. Of the two cards they can only use the top of one and the bottom of the other. Normally the bottom represents a move action or a defensive ability, and the top part represents an attack or offensive ability.

Each card has an initiative value that decides who starts first in a round: the lower the value, the earlier that character acts.

Before revealing your cards, you have to choose one of the cards as your initiative for that round. Once all players have chosen, they reveal their initiative simultaneously and draw a card for each monster type currently on the board. This way, each round is completely different from another, and monster abilities are randomized in a way that even if you know their usual behaviour, you can never exactly predict what they are going to do.

Models then act following the initiative value from the lowest to the highest, giving priority to the characters in case of a tie.

Once you select an attack, and you are in range to perform that action, you then draw a card from your modifier deck (each player has its own but all monsters share the same deck) and that represents how much more (or less) damage you inflict to your target. Isaac Childres has never hidden his distrust in dice, and a customizable modifier deck well serves to limit the level of randomness in the attacks while not leaving them completely predictable. There are effects that force you to draw two modifiers and use the best (or worst), modifiers that double your damage or that reduce it to 0, and so on.

There are tons of different abilities and all characters (including Frosthaven where all characters from Gloomhaven can potentially be used) have their own flavour and thematic use. For example, without providing spoilers, the Inox Brute is a massive damage dealing character able to smash anything. He is pretty straightforward to use. On the other side the Spellweaver can cast spells of different types, affecting different units and with different effects from damage to support. But most of her spells are lost directly instead of going in the discard pile.

This introduces us to another aspect of the card system that characterizes this game: every time you run out of cards, you can reshuffle the discarded ones but you have to “lose” one in a pile from which they can normally not be recovered. Once you run out of cards, it’s game over for that character independently of how much health they have left. This means you have a limited amount of turns for each scenario based on how many cards you have, how many you lose straight away and so on. This creates a complex strategic component of the game that always lingers there and prevents the “lost rounds” where you just want to rest and recharge before opening the next door.

This mechanic may seem hard to grasp at the beginning, but after a while it becomes a second skin and it increases the re-playability of lost scenarios. When you win a scenario at your literal last card, you’ll know what we mean.

In the first round there is almost always a monster ready to prey on you. They are usually strategically placed so that they can interact with you from the first round. Once you have selected their card during the initiative phase, all monsters will follow the instructions on that card starting from the elite ones (represented by a yellow stand), then the normal ones (in white) with the number on the standee breaking ties. Some abilities are straight-forward Move + 0, Attack +0 type, some are more complex and involve buffing allies, hindering enemies (you in this case), summoning, etc.

Each monster has a specific level determined by the scenario’s difficulty. You determine that based on your average character level plus/minus 1 to make it simpler or harder. Each monster level has basic attributes, for example Attack 2 that means the base damage on an attack is 2, but this can be further increased (or decreased) by the card ability and the attack modifiers.

Further rounds

The further rounds are all similar to the first one. Remember that you have a limited number of rounds to complete your mission. You can, however, replay any failed mission without any consequence, and you even keep all gold and experience collected.

Once you complete the scenario objective you calculate how much experience and gold you collected and read what you have accomplished. At the beginning this will most likely mean opening new scenarios to play later, but, depending on your decisions, you will also earn achievements that have an impact on which scenario you can play (even if already unlocked). For example, sometimes you may be able to help or defeat a particular villain. Choosing one of the two options will block the other one forever.

Returning back home, you are ready for some more shopping, reading a town event (more in the campaign overview) and preparing for the next scenario.

The game advertises itself as a 30 minutes per player game. Assuming you are well prepared during game set up and don’t lose time there, it can still take more than 2 hours to complete a scenario, but usually includes arguing about event cards and so on.

Campaign

In a separate article we go through the steps to set up your first campaign. Here we detail the main aspects of the game when you are playing a campaign.

The event deck is a collection of cards that represents things happening in Gloomhaven every time you return from your adventures. The list grows with each progress you make, certain choices will open new paths, and this is represented with new event cards added to the deck while the used ones are discarded.

There are two types of decks: the city event that is used when you are in town, that usually gives rewards or unlocks new events or scenarios, and the road event that mostly represents a penalty for the next scenario with some exceptions. Some parties may be able to avoid penalties altogether and you could also unlock new scenarios, making every journey unpredictable.

Your growing success will eventually increase the prosperity of Gloomhaven itself, unlocking new items available for purchase and increasing the minimum level at which each new character is created. Certain missions will enable you to open one of the envelopes containing even further secrets.

Completing scenarios will unlock new branches: each decision will bring you closer to the mystery behind Gloomhaven, but don’t forget that in the end you are just a bunch of mercenaries each with his/her own goal and therefore the road to enlightenment may not be that straight. There is a rough concept of evil and good, but once you choose a path, stick to it. You are rewarded more to be either cruel and disinterested in the city’s wellbeing or helpful and merciful than to just stay neutral.

Another interesting aspect of unlocking scenarios is the fact that each one is linked to a sticker that you have to stick to the main map. This way, you immediately have a visual way of seeing where you can go, bringing the map to life. One of the drawbacks of this system is also its point of strength: a persistent world that keeps evolving despite which party plays in it. If you do have a single party playing in it however, it becomes harder to remember why a particular place is open and what was the plot that you were following.

Towards the end of the campaign you’ll have probably around 15 scenarios to choose from, each mercenary vouching for one or another depending on their career goals, and you will want to achieve them as it unlocks new characters, new secrets, new events. But it comes at the cost of forgetting what you were doing in the first place.

The last point to make is a completely optional puzzle with hints hidden across all game. This is the famous envelope X, talking of which, would spoil the experience. Just know that there are secrets to be found, an alphabet to decipher and a reward to be gained. But it’s all optional and to complete it, you will need to play the game a lot.

Final thoughts

As someone who invested a lot of time in Gloomhaven but hasn’t completed most side quests yet, I can assure you that if what you read so far attracts you, that is only the tip of the iceberg.

There’s so much more to discover, and the high customization represented in the deck building, the variety of characters and the constant opportunities opened by a branching narrative make for a compelling game.

This game is not for casual gamers. While at low levels the initial deck of cards helps a lot to introduce a character to any newcomer and challenges are balanced even for an unexperienced party, the middle to late game requires expertise. Building a deck can be an experience where you’ll ask for help online until you get your head around.

The narrative also forces you to keep going, to open more and resolve more mysteries. While you can play some scenarios (there’s also rules for random scenarios) on their own, I would recommend the videogame instead as it represents that aspect much better and is simpler.

The enormous number of components and things to keep in order and separate, requires further investment in an organizer or inserts. While they are completely optional, once you start the game, you’ll understand why you need to immediately find a solution to this problem.

Finally, you can play the game solo, but it reduces the challenge a bit. Despite being a collaborative game, having a party with their own agenda makes it entertaining. Each one will vouch for a scenario rather than another, adding a bit of competition, further increased by the challenge to have individual stashes of gold rather than collective (and once you play together with a Scoundrel, you’ll understand why).

Optional extras and resources

Before leaving you, if you have been hooked by what you read so far, there’s so much more. Everything described below is completely optional but increases in the experience in various ways.

First of all, Gloomhaven has an official expansion with a new miniature and new mechanics, to be played after the main campaign has been completed: Forgotten Circles. This is a compelling new adventure that extends the core game.

There are also more stand-alone campaigns that can be played by fresh level 1 characters. 4 have been designed by Isaac Childres, the game designer, in collaboration with the community. In this thread you can find further details.

Another cheap expansion of the existing classes is available in the Solo Scenarios: a small booklet with a single scenario per class to be played by that class alone that challenges level 5 players to use their class at their best in order to obtain a unique item specific to that class.

If you liked what we talked about here, but still on the fence and think it’s too complex, a simplified version of the game, with all its core mechanics intact, is available in Jaws of the Lion. This is more of a prequel of the main Gloomhaven campaign, with four balanced characters, a booklet to use as board instead of board tiles and a more linear story. Perfect for starting your adventure in Gloomhaven, but also perfect for integrating with the main game: the four new characters can also be played in Gloomhaven and some components (like the battle goals) can be used in the core game to add new choices.

We already discussed the importance of organizers so we will just reiterate where you can find more information.

Sometimes you may feel there is just too much to keep track of. For some players this is heaven, for some it’s a burden. If you don’t mind getting some help from an app or a desktop application, we strongly recommend Gloomhaven helper that helps controlling the monster cards, damage, special effects, etc. without having to go through the various monster decks during set up.

There are also helps to set up the scenarios, especially if you want to keep the next rooms or what objects will be available a secret. Our preference goes to an iOS app called Gloomhaven Scenario Viewer but there are valid alternatives available online, like Gloom.

Another highly recommended way to enhance your experience is though the narrated voices from the amazing guys at Forteller Games. You’ll find yourself immediately immersed in the scenario.

If using standees for monsters is not your jam and you want to upgrade everything with miniatures, then there is already a few posts that describe where to find inexpensive plastic miniatures to replace the cardboard standees. Here is our favourite post on BoardGameGeek, but remember, it’s more than 200 miniatures and tokens!

If you have the same urge, but you are a pro 3D printer, then you can find cheaper alternatives with lots of free slt files here. And while you are there printing, you can expand with all sorts of upgrades, including player boards, monster stands with wound and token trackers, or if you are using miniatures circles to distinguish elite from normal and so on…

Ok, you have finished everything and are looking forward to more? Unfortunately, the late pledge manager for Frosthaven, the sequel game of Gloomhaven, is currently closed but soon will be available pre-orders. Follow the KickStarter page for more details about this highly anticipated sequel. And remember, it also comes with its own organizer, solo scenarios, and narrated voice.