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Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion Review (Great Gloomhaven Lite?)

Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion is a stand-alone sequel of the award-winning Gloomhaven board game of which you can view our review here (spoilers: it’s our favourite board game right now). Board gaming is hot right now, so your are likely interested to play the best board games out there.

Jawz of the Lion is produced by Cephalofair Games and is defined as a “Euro-inspired Tactical Combat Game in an evolving campaign”. And off the bat: it is a great game! It is a cooperative campaign game of tactical combat, set in the same unique fantasy world as Gloomhaven.

This Jaws of the Lion review will discuss the game as a stand-alone board game but also compare it with the main Gloomhaven game. The comparison will be detailed in the relevant section just after the description. Feel free to skip that section if you are not familiar with Gloomhaven mechanics.

The feature image for the Jaws of the Lion Review
Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion. Credit: Cephalofair Games

Jaws of the Lion Review: What is this game?

Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion follows the adventure of a band of mercenaries (the Jaws of the Lion, one of the most infamous mercenary groups) that investigates a case of missing people, soon discovering there’s something else going on behind the scenes.

This is the same unique fantasy world and setting is as the previous game Gloomhaven, only a few years earlier and concentrated in the city of Gloomhaven itself (instead of sprawling out into the surrounding area). So it works as a sort of new prequel campaign.

It has a simplified setup and a few clarifications on the rules but contains the same tactical depth of its predecessor Gloomhaven. While the game is advertised as containing an easier rule set, the main simplification comes from using a scenario book instead of tiles, a really well-executed five scenario tutorial that will introduce the rules piecemeal, and a glossary that will help you remember key information.

The game contains brand new characters, a few new monsters and bosses, and a completely new plot, while maintaining most of the mechanics from the main game.

If you are not familiar with Gloomhaven, here is a quick recap of what the board game offers:

  • A non-linear cooperative campaign game 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 and new pieces of the story.
  • No dice is used. 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.
  • Stickers. Every time you open a new location you unlock the relevant sticker to place on the board map. There are far fewer stickers than in Gloomhaven, but they still help you to track your progress in the campaign and which locations you have unlocked.
  • Miniatures and standees. There are a total of 8 miniatures of which 4 are character cards and the last 4 are sealed away in tuck boxes that you will be instructed to open at predetermined steps. There are however 16 monsters (or enemies) that are represented by cardboard standees. You could replace the standees with 3D printed miniatures (if you got a 3d printer), or you could wait for the next Kickstarter that will add miniatures for all games in the series.

But let’s see in detail what Jaws of the Lion is about.

Difference between Original Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion and Gloomhaven (same unique fantasy world but in a smaller package)

As Jaws of the Lion uses the same mechanics as the board game Gloomhaven, this section is specifically built for returning players that play Gloomhaven and want to klnow the difference. If you have not played Gloomhaven, feel free to skip this section and go to Setup. If you are already familiar with the main game, then you should read this section and Setup to get a better idea of whether this game is for you.

Gloomhaven:Jaws of the Lion is smaller and also comes at a lower price than the main game, making it a perfect entry point to the world of Gloomhaven (don’t forget a proper follow-up game named Frosthaven is coming in 2022).

Jaws of the Lion has 4 new characters, fully compatible with the original game and usable from the beginning. Conversely, all Gloomhaven characters (without their perks from retirement and enhancements) are compatible with Jaws of the Lion but they would need to start at least from scenario 4 (to avoid using the tutorial cards).

Jaws of the Lion has 16 monsters (seven new standard monsters)each with their own deck of cards, of which 10 are brand-new, including 3 bosses. None are compatible with Gloomhaven.

The biggest change comes from the absence of map and overlay tiles as all scenarios are played directly from the scenario booklet. This change is important as it dramatically reduces the initial scenario setup.

Tokens remain the same with the addition of destroyed obstacles (since you can’t remove them from the printed layout) and activation tokens (to represent open doors as you don’t have the door tiles).

Jaws of the Lion comes with its own set of item, city event and Battle Goal cards. Only 24 Battle Goals are different so you can decide to combine them with the main game and use this new deck in both games. Items and events are unique to Jaws of the Lion. There are no road events as the entire cooperative campaign game is set within the city limits.

There are no personal quests (all characters are unlocked from the beginning), no reputation and no city prosperity (and therefore no item discounts) and there’s no enhancement feature (however if you play Gloomhaven with Jaws of the Lion characters, some of their cards can be enhanced).

There are also some more small rule changes:

  • Monster focus in the earlier edition may have been different, but in the current set of rules of Gloomhaven, they are pretty much the same
  • Line of Sight is calculated drawing a straight line not touching walls from any point of the targeting figure’s hex to any point of the target’s hex. In Gloomhaven only the hex’s corners were considered.
  • Advantage. In all ambiguous situations when determining the best card to choose, the player chooses. In Gloomhaven, and in both games when the worst has to be chosen (disadvantage), you always pick the first.
  • Monsters can now also loot treasures, not only money tokens.
  • Spawned monsters in Jaws of the Lion act immediately as opposite to Gloomhaven. They also drop coins now.

Every other mechanic, including stickers, character progression, secret miniatures and campaign-changing choices are there. But this is still a stand alone game, so you do not need to own Gloomhaven or anything else to play.

Jaws of the Lion tokens
Tokens in the out-of-the-box organizer. Credit: Cephalofair Games

Set up with Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion

Jaws of the Lion contains 25 scenarios; however, you cannot do all of them in one single play-through / campaign as certain decisions will lock you from completing others.

The first 5 scenarios are used as a tutorial that will teach you the most important mechanics step by step. I will go in detail with the rules explained in each scenario in the next section. Here, we will concentrate on the setup and the changes to it compared to Gloomhaven.

When starting a new game for the first time, you will need someone who reads the rules thoroughly. They are relatively simple and clear, and you have a useful Glossary with every term explained. This is a nice addition that’s missing in Gloomhaven main box. If you are still struggling, 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.

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 the game 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).

In Gloomhaven you had a scenario booklet instructing you which tiles you needed (both map and overlay), monsters, tokens and of course the rules of the scenario. If you didn’t have an organizer (we strongly recommend getting an organizer for Gloomhaven), collecting all objects required may have taken you ages.

In Jaws of the Lion, even without an organizer, the scenario booklet presents all you need from the beginning, reducing the things you need to start the game to:

  • Characters with their cards, miniature and sheets
  • Monster standees with their cards and stats
  • Tokens to keep aside

You could even reduce this further using tools like Gloomhaven Helper to automate initiative tracking and monster abilities therefore keeping those components in the box. If you do not like using a phone or a computer to play board games, there’s no problem: You can still use the components and cards from the game. If you are willing to receive a bit of help from a friendly computer, then you save in putting sleeves to all cards and setup time.

In certain scenarios you may be instructed to see the supplement scenario booklet that contains part of the map or instructions/conclusion hidden away to avoid peeking.

Jaws of the Lion also has a narrated audio guide for the campaign and event cards, nicely integrated in the Forteller application if you want to immerse yourself even further in the game. Otherwise, you can just read the scenario instructions yourself.

Once this is done, you are ready to start playing.

The scenario booklet versus map tiles has advantages but also disadvantages:

+ quicker set-up
+ less components, hence lighter box and cheaper product (and shorter playtime)

– you can see the entire map from the beginning, unless there is a page in the supplement booklet. In Gloomhaven this issue could have been resolved by using free apps that show you only the area you have uncovered
– by having monsters and traps printed on the page, their icon will remain even after they are dead creating a bit of confusion with unopened doors and reducing the immersion

One last comment goes to the Organizer. While for Gloomhaven we strongly recommend it, Jaws of the Lion comes with nice plastic inserts that cover most of the setup. It may struggle a bit to support sleeved cards, though.

We found that the use of Gloomhaven Helper to avoid using monster cards and the hp/experience dial, reduces the components to pull out every time, making the already included token tray all you need to start a scenario every time. We miss the character tuck boxes to easily separate character cards, but it is not essential and if you really need to, you can buy them separately or 3D print them if you have a plastic printer.

But, if you really want to, Jaws of the Lion also has several organizers available.

You can also get some removable stickers for Jaw of the Lion (these are helpful if you want to resell your game once you are done with it).

Playing a scenario directly on the booklet jawzs of the lion
Playing a scenario directly on the booklet. Credit: Cephalofair Games

First round of Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion

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.

The figures then act, following the initiative value from the lowest to the highest, giving priority to the characters in case of a tie. In Jaws of the Lion, every miniature has its own initiative tracker that you can order every round to keep track of whose turn it is. We use Gloomhaven Helper and skip this stage.

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. 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 have their own flavour and thematic use. For example, without providing spoilers, the Hatchet has a favourite axe that you can use for extra damage, but then has to recover it from the corpse of the killed enemy (or if it is still alive has to chase it) before being able to use it again.

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 replayability of lost scenarios. When you win a scenario at your literal last card, you’ll know what we mean. THe card mechanic is very much where the tactical combat set the tone of the game.

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 straightforward 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.

Playing Jaws of the Lion image
Playing Jaws of the Lion

Further rounds in Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion

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, sometimes making decisions that will force you into a path, locking the other.

Between scenarios you read a city event and can do some shopping.

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 Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion

The first 5 scenarios are a tutorial to the game. They slowly introduce you to the concepts of the game.

  • Scenario 1 will teach you with simplified cards how to choose the 2 cards for your turn, initiative, monster focus and movement, attack, attack modifier cards, short rest and the first few conditions.
  • Scenario 2 will introduce new concepts like money tokens, treasures, traps and doors, new rules like looting, area effects, pushing and pulling, but also monster decks and items.
  • Scenario 3 adds difficult terrain, experience, section breaks and the use of the supplement scenario booklet, long rest, the remaining conditions, perks and city events.
  • Scenario 4 finally gets to the heart of it (and is also the starting point if you are using Gloomhaven characters instead of Jaws of the Lion characters) with full character decks, spawning monsters, elements, battle goals and objectives.
  • Finally, scenario 5 shows you the first Boss, how to level up and how to choose the difficulty of a level.
Removable stickers for jaws of the lion
Removable stickers are not essential but a cheap investment in case you want to replay the game or resell it. Credit: Cephalofair Games

Every time you unlock a new scenario you can add a new sticker to the map. This is the moment to discuss the optional buy of removable stickers whose only purpose is for you to reset the game in case you want to start it again or resell it. Every other component can be easily put back in place, but if you use the original stickers they will be permanently attached to the original map.

And obviously there are those four locked boxes containing juicy miniatures. You want to know what’s inside, don’t you? No spoilers here, but play the game and you will eventually unlock them.

Every character can progress by levelling up once they have accrued enough experience points. This increases their hit points, allows to replace cards from your existing deck with new and more powerful ones and of course, increases the difficulty of the game accordingly.

Final Thoughts on Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion (one of our favorite board games)

If you love Gloomhaven, as we do, this is just more of it. While Gloomhaven can be played using other semi-official campaigns, let’s be honest: once the main cooperative campaign game has been completed and all those secret envelopes and characters are open, there’s not that much incentive to play extra scenarios (and by then you have played a lot of Gloomhaven).

Jaws of the Lion would ideally be your entry point in this world: you should start here, love the game, complete it and move to the main dish in the same unique fantasy world. However, it also works the other way around. You start from the main game and then you relax a bit with this smaller one.

As an entry point Jaws of the Lion is perfect: it has the same core mechanics but reduces the complexity by removing extra features; it is quicker to set up, smaller to carry and has a shorter campaign to complete.

It still has a sense of mystery, but not as much as the main game that has secret characters to unlock, secret envelopes to open and puzzles to solve.

Overall it gives you a taste of Gloomhaven without spoiling the experience. It is self-contained but can also be used to integrate the main game.

If you are doing it the other way around, playing Gloomhaven first, maybe you have already completed Forgotten Circles and are just waiting for Frosthaven, it can be a bit too simplistic. If you just want more, it is perfect, and would make sense to invest in even just to add the extra battle goals (some are much harder to achieve, increasing the fun) and the extra characters to use in the main campaign. You can even play Jaws of the Lion with the characters you unlocked in the original Gloomhaven game but have not used yet (remember to start from Scenario 4).

The price is super competitive for a game of this complexity, and all of this is possible because of the absence of map tiles. This can be a big drawback for some, as indeed using the scenario booklet to play makes for better drawn maps, avoiding the square feeling of some map tiles, but at the same time creates cognitive dissonance.

You know the monsters have been killed or traps have been triggered, but you still see their icon on the board. You know you should not peek on the rest of the page because you have not opened yet a door, but is there, right next to your miniatures and you can’t do otherwise.

The latter was a problem that also existed in the original scenario booklet for Gloomhaven, but could be hidden away by using apps that show you only what you are interested in. In Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion, this is not possible because you are playing on that booklet (unless you print and cut all pages to make your own tiles, but we would not recommend it).

If you can live with this break of immersion, then the game is solid. The deckbuilding is still there and still important, allowing for customization of the existing characters. If you are not a fan of dice, then this game will definitely intrigue you.

The narrative and storyline aspect of the board game is also great. You very much feel like you are being one of the most infamous mercenary groups. The artwork is unique and something that really sets the tone of the game.

As a solo gamer, this is also game you could enjoy and play for a long time.

However, this is not a game for the more casual audience and gamers. The tactical combat set quite a high bar for how focused you need to be to get through a scenario. 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 wrap your head around it. While it is a simplified rule set, it is by no means simple.

The narrative also forces you to keep going, to open more and resolve more mysteries. You cannot play stand-alone scenarios (neither would make too much sense), if you are interested in casual one-off games, Gloomhaven has rules for random scenarios. In general if you like role playing games in this style, this game is great for you.

Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion definitely gets thumbs up from us. We would recommend to start here before venturing in Gloomhaven but even if you have done it the other way around, there’s still enough to keep you entertained without losing much. This works great as a more light new prequel campaign, especially if you cannot stand to take out that big Gloomhaven box anymore. Look no further than here for your new campaign!


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