To Play Is Human: Gloomhaven Review
In February 2017, my legacy game night group started playing Gloomhaven, published by Cephalofair Games. We’ve had 24 sessions, two of which were random dungeons on nights when we all couldn’t be at the table. We have 20 wins and 4 losses. Two weeks ago we put the campaign on pause to check out Pandemic Legacy: Season Two, but we will definitely be returning to Gloomhaven.
This review will go over The Basics, How To Play, What We Think, and the Bottom Line.
Gloomhaven is a RPG/board game-hybrid done as a legacy style campaign that is played over several gaming sessions. There are 100+ hours of content for this game! The game features tactical combat scenarios that are played throughout a thematic campaign adventure. The world (game board) changes based on decisions made and scenario outcomes. The game acts as its own Game Master, so all players take the part of characters.
Each player takes on the role of an adventurer who has their own reasons for exploring Gloomhaven and the surrounding world. Private goals fuel decision-making throughout the game, but players work together to defeat foes and uncover mysteries surrounding Gloomhaven. New characters, locations, information, and treasure are discovered throughout game play. Each character gets a lifetime achievement goal, which causes the character to retire when fulfilled. When a player retires a character, they get to start a new character in the same party at an accelerated starting level (balanced with the current game state). The Reputation of the group and the Prosperity of Gloomhaven fluctuate over time based on event and scenario outcomes. Reputation and Prosperity affect certain opportunities within the game and which items are available for purchase in the town market.
The story unfolds in a non-linear fashion and the game becomes like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” experience.
- Designer: Isaac Childres
- Artist: Alexandr Elichev, Josh T. McDowell, Alvaro Nebot
- Publisher: Cephalofair Games
- 1-4 Players; Age 12+
- 90-150 Minutes
- BGG rating: 9.0/10.0
- BGG weight: 3.75/5.0 (Meadium heavy game)
- Categories: Adventure, Economic, Exploration, Fantasy, Fighting, Miniatures
How To Play
Start with these two Gaming Rules videos. The first is a campaign overview and the second is on the actual rules.
You can find PDFs for the revised rulebooks (2nd printing) here.
What We Think
Gloomhaven is A LOT of game, so… there are a lot of thoughts…
When the original Kickstarter for Gloomhaven was launched, I was amazed at the art and game play description. The decision to back the project was instant. A hybrid game that included elements of RPGs and tactical board games? With character miniatures? And lots of content? Yes, please.
When Gloomhaven arrived, we were blown away at the sheer size of the game box. The gorgeous, gorgeous game box. The anticipation grew as we opened the box and saw all the secret boxes inside that we couldn’t even open yet. And the sweet, sweet cardboard. The components for the first printing are stellar. Beautiful matte dungeon tiles, mob standees, and environmental tokens and markers. My husband, Greg, spent some time finding the perfect Plano boxes and other organizers for all the dungeon tokens and item cards. You can see several organization ideas on this BGG forum.
When we finally sat down to play with our group there was a lot of excitement. We opened the starting characters and started discussing who would play what and what sort of group we wanted to put together. Each character comes with a character card that includes some backstory, a miniature figure, and a deck of ability cards. We used all of this information to build our group – making sure we were fairly balanced while also choosing characters that we each wanted to play.
The first few sessions we played with a Scoundrel, Tinkerer, Mindthief, and Cragheart. Greg, who was playing the Cragheart, ended up switching to the Brute because he wanted more of a true tanking character. The bulk of our sessions have been with that final makeup: Scoundrel, Tinkerer, Mindthief, and Brute. The Tinkerer is the only character that has retired so far and has been replaced with the Summoner (not a starter character, she was unlocked with the Tinkerer’s retirement achievement). Greg painted all of our minis, too, and they look great! The Summoner is in the middle of a paint job right now, but it is coming along nicely! Greg even amputated the hand on the summoner to add a portal to the mini to match the character card art!
The first scenario was exciting and a wake-up call. Our first attempt was a bloody loss (as is the case for MANY), but we learned a lot about the flow of mechanics and the balance of our characters’ abilities. And, well, that is the point of the first scenario – they do not bring you in on easy peasy mode.
I love how the ability cards work. Each card has a top ability and bottom ability and at the beginning of each turn, all players select two ability cards to play and they MUST use the top from one card and the bottom from the other. Abilities include movement, attacks, healing, summoning allies, etc. and are specific to each character. Figuring out your best ability combinations is half the fun of learning your character.
Each character has a pool of cards from which they can build their ability deck. Decks can be reevaluated prior to each scenario, as well, if you need to swap anything in or out. Each time a character levels, a new card is chosen to be added to the pool, so players have control over how they build their deck and with which abilities they go into battle. I love this aspect of the game. While it is true that every character has specific abilities, the final deck build will vary among multiple people who have played the same class. It reminds me of the talent tree system in many MMORPGs. The tree is built in a specific manner, but the branches you take are up to you.
At the beginning of a new round, ability cards are supposed to be chosen in secret and then revealed simultaneously, but after a few sessions, our group decided to be more open about planning our turns. We all still have full decision over our own actions and anyone can choose cards privately if they wish, but we tend to openly coordinate our plan of execution/initiative order among the party.
When executing an attack, instead of rolling a die, as you would in a traditional pen and paper RPG, to determine how successful (or not) the attack is, there is a modifier deck for each character and dungeon mob that modifies every attack. Every character begins with a starter modifier deck, but the deck will change for each character over time as the character levels up and earns perks for completing quests. Over time, you can tailor your modifier deck to your advantage by choosing perks that remove negative cards or add conditions (stun, poison, etc.) to your attacks. While there is still a “luck of the draw” feeling, it’s much less chaotic than using dice. This method adds a little strategy and removes some randomness to the outcome of an attack. There is a critical miss card that can never be removed, as well as a critical hit card. Drawing either of the critical cards will force a deck reshuffle at the end of the turn, which is a good way to keep the cards cycling and keep up anticipation during the scenario. You can read the designer’s thoughts on cards vs. dice during development here.
Dungeon mob AI is pretty straightforward. Each mob has an ability deck and after players reveal their card choices for the round, the top card of the mob deck is revealed. AI cards include the ability that the mob will try to execute during the turn, as well as an initiative order number. Players must choose their cards and initiative BEFORE seeing the mob cards for the round. My group has navigated this process pretty well because it feels fairly intuitive.
The City Events and Road Events are a lot of fun. They add some flair to the story and can potentially introduce modifiers to your next encounter. Some events earn you a bit of cash/loot, too! The events provide further immersion into the story, as well, as they create a fuller storyline that continues on the road as you travel from city to dungeon location. You are introduced to the many peoples of the Gloomhaven world via the event cards and have a chance to shape your group’s reputation and ethical code in the world. Our group often makes decisions by roleplaying out the thought process for our characters instead of just making a decision that might yield a more positive result (more cash, less curses, etc.). The group we are currently playing is a friendly helper group, so if we encounter someone on the road who needs our help, we will usually help them out even if we think the outcome will give us some form of curse or exhaustion going into our next scenario.
The ability to scale an scenario based on number of players and level of characters is pretty fluid. If your group really gets stuck on a scenario, you can play at an easier level next time (and the rewards/loot scale with the scenario level, too). Likewise, if you want more of a challenge, you can scale a scenario up, as well. It is a smart way to include various play styles and levels of play.
The game board itself is a series of modular tiles. The scenario book will tell you which tiles need to be set up for every scenario, along with mod placement and environmental effects. Having a modular board is great because it allows players to create custom dungeon layouts for their own scenarios. The game also comes with Random Dungeon Scenarios if you feel like playing a game outside of the game story (while still earning cash and experience for your character!) and these random scenarios make use of the same modular tiles. You could also use Gloomhaven components for creating your own game in general, if you wanted.
I do not want to post any spoilers about the story itself, so all I will say is that I have been enjoying the story. It is a fun fantasy adventure and the art in the game helps to bring it alive if you are into the storytelling aspect of playing. If you are less into storytelling, the scenarios offer a lot of tactical combat for strategy players, as well. I look forward to playing this every time we have a session scheduled.
We typically get through a city event, road event, one full scenario, plus any clean up/character leveling/market purchasing, etc. every session. Our sessions last about 3.5 – 4 hours, but part of that time is socializing, ordering and eating food, etc. We did a full Sunday of play once and got through three scenarios and all relevant city and road events.
If you get to the end of your story line and want to keep playing, there are a lot of ideas for doing that in the forums on BoardGameGeek.
A few notes from my gaming group:
Gloomhaven plays like what I’d consider a classic RPG more than any board game I’ve played. During play, it kept reminding me of my time years ago playing Baldur’s Gate. Immensely replayable and always a good time to play. The only complaint was the strange communications rule about mentioning specifics [during ability card selection], which we quickly house ruled out.
I grew up loving dungeon crawler games. Thanks to the existence of Kickstarter, Gloomhaven was able to see the light of day. Out of the dozens of games I have helped kickstart, this one provides the best gameplay experience I have ever encountered. It is the perfect board game adaptation of a dungeon crawler with the bonus of being within a legacy format. After every gameplay session I find myself craving more, but there is not enough time in the day to play. What will the next encounter be? What epic equipment can my character buy from his spoils of war? When can I play next?!
Gloomhaven is a great gamemasterless RPGish fantasy dungeon crawl with an enjoyable overarching storyline. This game combines elements of choose your own adventure books, dungeon crawling tactical board games, and RPGs. The game setting is dressed in enjoyably dark fantasy tones with interesting races populating a gritty world. The story branches are limited but sufficient. There is an amazing amount of playtime and content here. The mechanics are excellent. Character building enhances player investment in the characters and while it is sad to retire a character, the reward of exploring a new one is compelling enough to strive for completing character life goals. Gloomhaven itself is like a character in the game, expanding as the characters grow.
Deck construction shines in this game. Each turn in combat requires choosing two cards from all the cards you used to build your deck. Each card has an upper and lower special effect. Some effects require losing the card for the scenario, others allow it to go into a discard pile until your character rests. In addition, all upper effects can be passed for a standard attack while all lower effects can be passed for a standard movement. Passing on a special effect always results in a discard rather than losing the card. Thematically, this represents the endurance of the character. When your hand is empty, you must rest to regain cards from your discard but one card is always lost during rest, so the character’s endurance diminishes over the course of the scenario.
This two-card-per-turn mechanic, at the core of the game, leads to interesting tactical decisions. First planning of the deck construction for the scenario matters. Then, the cards chosen each turn matter. Further, if something happens in a turn that wasn’t planned for, there is still enough versatility between the two cards to react to the unexpected (especially if planned well enough). This mechanic is incredibly engaging. The scenarios can run long but I have never felt bored with them due to this mechanic.
There are some difficult portions of the game. The monster AI can lead to some confusion but my group has been able to work through ambiguous situations. Another part my group did not enjoy is the hidden information between players. While I understand the design choice for this, we enjoy sharing tactics openly and now play with fully open information. This did not make the game too easy for us. It is inherently challenging. Further, should we find the game difficulty to become too low, there are means within the game to increase difficulty.
This game has become my favorite within the following categories of games: dungeon crawls, campaigns, and legacy games.
The Bottom Line
Play this game. If you like storytelling, if you like co-op adventure, if you like the idea of a world that changes around you based on decisions you make… PLAY THIS GAME.