Gloomhaven is an intimidating game. To start with, it weighs in at nearly 10 Kg so just handling it is a challenge and then there’s the fact that there are about 1,500 components in the box, not to mention the extensive rulebooks and mysterious sealed items. The price tag is pretty hefty too at around AUD 180-200 so other than an awful lot of cardboard, what are you getting for your money?
For the uninitiated, Gloomhaven is a fantasy dungeon-delving boardgame for solo play or co-op with up to four players and featuring an epic narrative persistent campaign of 95 (!) linked scenarios as well as random events and encounters. The second printing recently has just been put on general sale following the delivery of a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign which raised a fraction under USD 4 million from over 40,000 backers.
The mechanics for controlling the player characters are somewhat unusual, not least because they don’t involve dice and instead rely on players progressively tuning decks of ability and attack modifier cards as they progress through levels of experience. For an introduction to the components and game mechanics, I would highly recommend watching these tutorial videos covering campaign and scenario play. I believe the videos are from the first printing of the game so the components might vary slightly but the core mechanics are still the same.
The sheer volume and diversity of game components is confusing when you first open the box so even though I was playing with another experienced gamer and we’d both watched most of the tutorial videos, it still took us nearly an hour just to get everything we needed to play the first scenario and to work out what we were supposed to be doing. The map for the first scenario was pretty compact but with all the player and enemy components, you’re going to need decent space to play in (we used a 4′ x 4′ table for two of us). If you’re going to play as a campaign (which is what the game is intended for) I think it would be ideal to leave everything set up between games or there will be quite a bit of time spent unboxing and sorting out all the game components between games.
A couple of other things that strike you when first start to look through the box is that there are a quite a lot of sealed components which are designed to be opened as the campaign progresses. For example, the game includes a total of 17 playable character classes but only 6 are available at the beginning of the game with the remainder of the character cards and miniatures being sealed and labelled with symbols so you have no idea what they are until they are unlocked through campaign play. There is also a sealed log for managing the town of Gloomhaven itself later in the campaign game and other mysterious looking envelopes and packages marked with symbols only.
- Sealed envelopes
- Sealed character packs
- Sealed character miniatures
Finally, looking through the components you realise that as sold, the campaign game will involve using stickers to modify various game components (particularly the campaign map but also item cards) and these stickers are permanent so you’re really only going to be able to play through the campaign once and it’s going to somewhat limit the possibility of resale once the game as been played. Personally, I think that it could take years to play through the full campaign so replay-ability isn’t a major issue for me but if it’s a concern, removable versions of all the stickers in the box will be available from February priced at around AUD 20
With most of the non-sealed game components unpacked, we decided to play through the first scenario in casual mode (without a city and road event) just to get the hang of it.
Each player chooses a character and lays out a dashboard cards and other components – shown here mid-scenario.
- Character dashboard, including rules summary
- Attack Modifier deck and discard pile – these provide a random element to modify the effectiveness of attacks
- Discarded (used but potentially recoverable) ability cards
- Active ability cards that have an ongoing effect
- Lost (permanently expended) ability cards
- Ability card deck (unused)
- Battle goal card (kept hidden from other players)
- Miniature (normally placed on the scenario tiles, not next to your dashboard)
- Status reference card
- Equipment cards (can be looted or bought in the town)
- Lift and experience tracker
- Character record pad to track character development within the campaign (there is also a party record pad)
Character ability cards drive the choices of action you can make during each round of play and also the order in which the characters and their enemies act. You construct a deck of them before each scenario and as the scenario progresses you will end up with more and more ability cards permanently used as you move towards a state of exhaustion. The exhaustion mechanic gives a real sense of urgency to each scenario and means that you have to carefully weigh up the benefits of gathering loot and gaining experience against completing the scenario’s mission.
The scenario book will direct you to set up the map tiles and scenery overlays for the chosen scenario and provide a narrative introduction, objective and any special scenario rules in effect.
The character miniatures are then placed on the appropriate map tile in the entry hexes and the cardboard standees for enemies in that tile are placed. Enemies scale based on the number of characters, both in number and quality (standard vs elite). I’m tempted to raid my miniatures collection in order to replace all the standees with actual miniatures but judging by the number of standees in the box, that would involve a lot of miniatures!
Enemies have stat cards which are put into a sleeve to show the appropriate set of values based on the level of the characters and difficulty of the scenario. Each enemy has a small deck of ability cards which randomly control how and when they will react to the characters but they’re never friendly!
- Monster standees (these will normally be place on the scenario map tiles)
- Monster stat card and sleeve
- Damage and effect tokens (the sections of the sleeve correspond to the number of each monster in the scenario
- Ability cards and discard pile
- Attack modifier cards and discard pile
The rules suggest a typical scenario play time of 30 minutes per player but for our first game we ended up taking about double this as we needed to work out the rules as we went. By the end we both felt that we had a good handle on them and would be able to play future scenarios much quicker. On the basis of the first casual play of one scenario, we’ve decided to try to work through the whole campaign together which is likely to take a considerable amount of time as there are 95 scenarios in the book and it’s highly unlikely that we’ll be able to complete them all on the first attempt!
Overall, a significant commitment in terms of money, time and space but based on initial impressions only, feels like it could deliver on its promise of a compelling GM-less RPG-lite gaming experience that will be engaging and entertaining for a long time to come.
I’ll post more articles on Gloomhaven as the campaign unfolds and we get more familiar with the rules but hopefully in the meantime this gives a little taster of what’s involved.