Tabletop Tuesday — Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion and Forgotten Circles

I’ve already sung the praises of Gloomhaven, but I thought today I’d take the opportunity to discuss the two current expansions—the third expansion, Frosthaven, arrived yesterday!—because our gaming group’s experience with them was quite varied, and we just finished up our journey through Jaws of the Lion.

Wrong Order, Dude

First, I should point out that we did things in the wrong order. It’s not the order they were released, but the sensical order is Jaws of the Lion first, as it’s an introduction version of Gloomhaven, designed to teach you how to play, and then Gloomhaven, and then Forgotten Circles. Instead, we did Gloomhaven, then Forgotten Circles, then Jaws of the Lion. It doesn’t really matter, in the long run, but if you were coming into Gloomhaven from the point of never having played it before, I’d suggest starting with Jaws of the Lion.

I’d also suggest making sure you have the second printing of Forgotten Circles once you’re done with Gloomhaven thereafter, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

Jaws of the Lion

The cover of Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion

Jaws of the Lion comes with four characters, and like Gloomhaven it’s set up for two to four players, and each adventure is set up to scale itself depending on how many players you have. The four characters are unique and interesting: the Voidwarden, a human who balances dark and light energies to effects of good or ill (or sometimes both); the Demolitionist, a cute little Quatryl critter in steampunk Iron Man armor, basically; the Hatchet, an Inox who really, really likes to throw axes (and even has a favourite); and the Red Guard, a Valrath with a shady past and abilities over sand and fire and two very long chains he likes to whip about. The characters had so much flavour. They’re really fun.

Where Jaws of the Lion really excels is in the introductory scenarios. The four characters come with “A” cards, “B” cards, and then regular Gloomhaven cards like the characters in the regular game itself. You use the “A” cards in the first scenario, which are much simplified and teach you the basics of attacking and moving, and also have fully written out descriptions alongside the usual symbols and numbers. Then, in the next scenario, you replace some of the cards with their “B” versions, making them more complex. The scenario also includes some new mechanics for the players. By the time you’re using the normal decks, and you’ve completed the first few scenarios, you’re more-or-less playing the full version of the game, and the story continues, with a few paths to choose from, and a few side-scenarios you’ll uncover if you’re lucky enough to draw them out of an event deck in between scenarios.

The upside to Jaws of the Lion is in the progression and the simplification. The scenarios all take place in booklets, rather than putting together multiples tiles and tokens, which makes set-up so very much faster. The equipment isn’t as powerful, but that’s balanced with the adventures throughout, so it doesn’t feel like a problem, though if you play the Demolitionist like I did, you’ll be scooping up healing equipment because the little Quatryl has zero cards with healing abilities.

The downside to Jaws of the Lion is how short it is. That’s not to say it’s not worth the money—it truly is!—but if you manage to unlock all the side-adventures and play each of the scenarios in order from beginning to end (some get locked depending on which choices you take, so you don’t get to play every adventure in the book, for the record), if you only fail once or twice, like my group did, then you won’t actually make it to your highest, level nine cards. I managed to hit level eight with my Demolitionist, but only for the last scenario. And unlike Gloomhaven proper, there’s no “random dungeon” to play, and unless you fail a scenario, it specifically doesn’t allow replaying a scenario (something you can do in Gloomhaven, and we would do to “learn” our characters or to pick up extra gold we needed).

If you want to play these characters to level nine? There’s a good chance you’ll need to take them into the main game to see them fully explore their abilities. On the plus side, you get access to regular Gloomhaven equipment once you do, which is honestly a freaking joy.

And then there’s the other one…

The cover of Gloomhaven: Forgotten Circles

Forgotten Circles is the first Gloomhaven Expansion, and… oof. To say it was nowhere near as fun as Gloomhaven would be understating. I think where Forgotten Circles went wrong was three-fold.

First, it decided to up the complexity of the scenarios, including using a scenario guide that had lots and lots of “now turn to page X” instructions, so the map wasn’t all visible like in Gloomhaven, but also relied on this for multiple puzzle-like scenarios, where the players had to keep flipping back and forth in the book to see if the choices they made were the right one, which often meant the game ground to a halt while more of the map was put together, or—even worse, and quite often—we had to stop and translate runes to figure out what to do. Every time we saw runes to translate, we had to choose between grinding to a halt or just looking it up online to find spoilers already translated so we could keep playing.

Second, the narrative of Forgotten Circles focuses around the Diviner, an Aesthir character who is central to the scenarios and can open rifts, and create portals, and even teleport. She’s required for every scenario, so someone has to play her—in our gaming group, that was me—and she only retires when the whole plotline is done. It’s also an extra requirement in all the scenarios that if the Diviner exhausts (runs out of hit points or cards), the scenario is automatically lost. She also starts with only nine cards, the least any of the characters can start with, and many of the scenarios involve having to teleport past barriers to get to things—and teleportation is a power only the Diviner has—so for a lot of the adventures, my entire gaming experience was “Okay, I’ll teleport to do thing number one, then next turn I’ll teleport to do thing number two…” and so on, and I had to buy equipment specifically just to regain cards so I could teleport often enough to do so, or last enough rounds and.. it was tedious, not fun. I often felt like I had zero actual choices to make on any given turn, because I couldn’t waste any turns at all or we’d lose the scenario, and it was going to take all my effort to check off the list of things that only my character could do, and they didn’t feel as viscerally interesting as, say, punching a monster.

Third, the Diviner character herself did have some interesting cards, but her initiative was terrible, and the cards just felt so much weaker than all the other characters. This third point, however, does have a patch job and it’s clear the developer realized it. The second printing—and I have to admit, I take umbrage with calling it that, rather than a second edition, which I think would be fairer—changes nearly all the Diviner’s cards, boosting almost every single card in some way. Knowing that had happened soured me to my experience all the more, really, so if you’ve got any intention of playing this expansion, pay close, close attention to which printing it is, and make sure you’ve got the second one.

The positives include new enemies, whose AI cards also include some optional actions whether the monsters are elite or not, expanded equipment, “rift” encounters alongside the usual city and wilderness decks, and a new status: regeneration, which is the opposite of wound (you heal one hit point every round). The other players did have fun with the scenarios much more often than I did, too, though multiple times my husband just said, “No,” when we were playing “puzzle” scenarios and we were flipping back and forth and back and forth through the book to find the right option and instead of failing a scenario, would just locate the answer and put us back on track, because none of us had the patience to drop everything and try to crack a code.

Up next!

I mentioned the arrival of Frosthaven, and I can’t wait to dive into the (truly massive) box. I’m sure it won’t be long before I’m writing about it. I’m really, really hoping it has learned from the Forgotten Circles and isn’t full of code-breaking or puzzle scenarios with lots of flipping through books, but from what I’ve seen, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Either way, I’ll let you know.

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