Tabletop Tuesday — Gloomhaven

The cover of Gloomhaven.
This box is giant. Huge. I cannot explain how large this game is.

Hey all! It’s Tuesday, and that means tabletop day for me this year, and I thought today I’d talk about the game I’ve played the absolute most over the last few years (or, well, it and the expansions and follow-ups): Gloomhaven. I backed Gloomhaven back when it was a Kickstarter—I had never spent this much on a board game before in my life and was terrified it would be a mistake—then wrapped it up for Christmas in 2017. The next year, we gathered two friends, Jason and Kim, and started playing and… holy flying crap, that was a journey. It took us years to get through this giant box, playing on a mostly-weekly basis, and I’m not sure I can explain just how much of a trip this game was for us, but I’ll try.

First off, the mechanics are deceptively simple, and it’s all about cards. Your character comes with two decks of cards. The first deck is your character’s abilities, upon which there are three items of note: a top half (usually some sort of attack or other big action), the bottom half (most often a move action of some kind), and in between, a number, which is your initiative (lowest first). Every turn, you select two cards from your full range of cards, with one of them designated “the lead” to be the initiative number you’re going to act on, and once everyone has chosen their two cards, they’re revealed. There are AI decks for all the monsters, which tell you what the monsters are going to do, and their initiative count, and that’s the core “how you choose what you’re doing each turn.”

Now, there’s no drawing when it comes to these ability decks, you start with access to all of your cards, though you do have to choose to leave some of them behind every adventure, and as you level up, you gain new cards to add to your library of choices, so you’re messing with your deck on a fairly regular basis, or even just on a case-by-case basis for certain adventure scenarios. But after you play cards, they go into your discard pile, or they’re “lost” (removed from play for the rest of the scenario), or some stay in play as an ongoing effect (or for a certain number of turns, or what-have-you), and when you run out of cards, you have to rest—either a short rest (you shuffle your discarded cards, move one of them at random to the “lost” pile, and you’re back to choosing cards) or a long rest (you don’t do anything this turn, but you get to choose which of those cards is lost, and you also heal a little bit, which can be important). If you’re out of cards completely (ie: you don’t have a way to draw two, even if you’ve rested) you exhaust, and your character is done for that scenario.

So, basically, you’ll have all your options slowly reducing as the game goes by, and those cards you have that are immediately lost are definitely ones you want to use at the right time, as they also shorten how long you’ll be in the game. The characters are a really cool mix of options, and while you can play this one with two players (and we did, especially the “random dungeon” option, during the pandemic when it was just myself and my husband), we found it to be a lot more fun with four, most specifically because of the ways the various character abilities can blend and work together—or sometimes not work together well. It is a cooperative board game, but some characters make you feel like that’s not always the case.

Hi. Let me introduce you to my flamethrower.

Speaking of the characters, and there are seventeen of them—you start with six options right off the bat, and eleven wait to be unlocked (your characters have life goals and retire over time once they reach them, often unlocking new characters). Each of those characters has unique abilities and the world building in Gloomhaven is fresh and interesting (if at times rather dark), so this isn’t elves and dwarves, but the elemental-wielding Savaas, the bull-like Inox, and the demon-tainted Valrath, alongside humans and ratlings (sorry, Vermlings), and in the unlockable classes, some truly disturbing species. They’re not just mages and rogues—though there is a “Spellweaver” and a “Scoundrel”—but things like “Tinkerer” (he has a flamethrower, which I enjoyed using), and “Mindthief” (who can manipulate and control the monsters—and other players—on the board). The flavour is fun, and the titles of the various cards are fun to announce on your turn. “I’m using my net gun, and potent potables!” And when you’ve got a team that really works well together, it can be almost painful when one of them hits their goal and retires. Though the good news is, you can create a new version of that same character type, if you really didn’t want to start a new and exciting character type you hadn’t tried before.

The randomness is dealt with by the use of modifier decks (that’s the other deck your character gets), of which the monsters have their own twenty-card deck (a miss, a critical hit, some zeroes, some plus ones, some minus ones, and a single plus two and single minus two), and the players each start out with the exact same deck to work with, so when you’re making that “Attack 3” you flip a card and it could be a critical (doubling it to 6) a miss (nuffin’), or adjusted up or down by one or two, or just as-is, if you draw a zero. But as your character grows, you also get to mess with that deck, swapping cards in our out, adding new cards, and personalizing that deck for the character in ways that are a lot of fun to play with, and make the sense of “I’m getting stronger” really work as the character progresses. There’s also equipment, and even more ways to modify your character that unlock as the game progresses.

You want me to tear the card in half? I… I can’t do that.

It is a legacy game, in that you open envelopes, add stickers, and make changes to the game pieces as you play, and for me that was a huge stumbling block at first, but I got over it—this was my first legacy game—and honestly, most of what you do can be undone and reset if you wanted to start the game over again—and I didn’t tear up cards. I just put them in an envelope marked “destroyed.” The slowly revealed story is interesting, opening up the little envelopes is cool, finding the hidden messages is neat, the scenarios are varied, and really, the only thing that was a bit frustrating was the set-up, which can take a long time, and the inclusion of some riddles and codes that sometimes ground the game to a halt and interrupted the flow as we tried to figure something out before we could continue. But that was fairly rare in the base game of Gloomhaven, and honestly, it’s barely a speed-bump in the enjoyment we got out of the game.

For someone who loves Role-Playing Games, this was like RPG-lite—it’s not roleplaying, though there are decision points you make before and after scenarios that we found ourselves doing “in-character”—but the flavour and theme of each character absolutely lends itself to certain styles of play, and it scratches most of the same itches of playing an RPG in my experience, though I’d never say it replaces one. That said, I don’t think I’ve ever played a thief in an RPG, but I was the Scoundrel in Gloomhaven, and man did I hoover up the coins while I played her, even when I wasn’t trying to. It was just the way her cards worked, and it became a running joke. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to take these coins, but…” And it was fun. Even when we players were groaning at how the characters were stumbling, fumbling, or getting in each others ways sometimes, it was amusing, not frustrating.

Scenarios are an evening’s investment, time-wise, much like an RPG session, and though we occasionally did lose a few, it didn’t happen often enough to stymy our enjoyment, and you can just start over again, and you get to keep the experience and money you earned on your failed attempt, so really, failure isn’t so bad. A few times, on holidays, we got together and played a couple of scenarios back-to-back, but more than two tended to leave us all feeling a bit woogy. Finally, everything fits in the box when you open it, but putting it away in a fashion that makes it easy to set up the next gaming session is really just not an option. I ended up spreading it out among three boxes just to make it somewhat easier to set up—grouping the various monsters, their AI cards, and their little figures into a zip-loc bag each, for example—and that made it take up way more space, but was so worth it when it came time to set up a new scenario.

But wait, there’s more!

Gloomhaven’s success was meteoric, and there have been three sequels since, one of which is actually a prequel, Jaws of the Lion, which is a simplified (but not too simplified) version of Gloomhaven that eases you into all the mechanics and the game itself, which it was unfortunate didn’t exist when we first played it, as I think it’s the best way to start, really. Then there’s Forgotten Circles expansion, which… remember how I said things were amusing not frustrating? Forgotten Circles wasn’t like that, unfortunately. I played the Diviner, the new character that comes with the expansion and… Actually, you know what? I think I’ll save discussing Jaws of the Lion and Forgotten Circles for another day.

Coming soon, though, is Frosthaven, which is shipping right now and is a full-on sequel and I cannot wait to tear into that box once it arrives. We’ve played through Forgotten Circles, and Jaws of the Lion is a few sessions away from being done so we’ll likely hop right into Frosthaven thereafter.

4 thoughts on “Tabletop Tuesday — Gloomhaven

  1. As a lifelong ttrpg fan, I’ve been curious about Gloomhaven. My group these days really consists of my gf and some other willing friends who aren’t as engaged as I am. Figured this might be a good way to scratch the itch so to speak.

    When you say that a 3-4 hour investment would be sufficient to complete a scenario? While there is no actual role-playing, do characters advance from session to session?

    Liked by 1 person

    • We tend to find a scenario lasted us two hours, so 3-4 is plenty of time.

      The characters absolutely advance. You start with a certain number of level 1 cards (plus three level X cards that are a bit more complicated) and you choose, each adventure, from those cards to start with (leaving three of them behind).

      As your character levels up, the first thing that happens is you gain access to your choice of one of two level 2 cards for that character, which then means every adventure you’ll be leaving behind 4 cards, but now you’ve got access to a better card than your Level 1 and Level X cards. You make a choice between two cards at every level from 2 to 9, and they just get stronger and stronger.

      At the same time, you also add and remove cards for your battle deck—the twenty cards that replace dice rolling with x2, +2, +1, zeros, -1, -2, or x0—and you get to pick off your character’s specific list every time you level up, and every time you earn three “checkmarks” from goals you draw at the start of every adventure (one of those, for example, is gathering no coins during the adventure). Modifying that deck is also really, really satisfying, and really feels like forward growth for the character—swapping out +1s for +3s, for example, or adding poison to whichever attack is happening when the poison card is drawn.

      Add in buying equipment, and you really do personalize your character. I played one character one way, and after that character retired, another player wanted to try it out, and she played it completely differently to what I did, and it really did fell like a completely new character.

      Edit to add: I’d honestly suggest Jaws of the Lion first, just because it eases you into how the game works. When you’re done Jaws of the Lion, you can even keep playing those characters right into Gloomhaven, with an exception or two (the equipment in Jaws of the Lion is scaled down, so you’ll want to “cash in” your equipment and buy new for Gloomhaven).

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you for your thoughtful response. This is very good information. While I’d love to get them settled into a regular RPG group, I think simply getting them to the table is the first objective.

        I also appreciate your insight on Jaws of the Lion. Saw that at Gen Con last year but wasn’t sure whether that was the way to go. Cheers!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Tabletop Tuesday — Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion and Forgotten Circles | 'Nathan Burgoine

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