Play Time: 90-120 mins.
Has the search for a true Cooperative Campaign RPG game come to an end? Gloomhaven is Isaac Childres’ attempt to take the rare and very heavy crown.
We will be reviewing Gloomhaven once, and then again at the end of the year to try and truly judge quality of this release, given the sheer amount of game and the Legacy nature of it!
Tabletop Cooperative RPGs and The Search for the Grail
Carl Sagan stated: “You have to know the past to understand the present.”
Tabletop games have truly had some remarkable moments and achievements in the last decade or so. I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that every one of us who even as much as dips their toes into the hobby is witnessing some truly special, and remarkable games. The first review I wrote here was for Blood Rage, which is an incredible game in its own right. Still, expressing my own positive experience with Blood Rage was my way of paying homage to Chaos in the Old World. Chaos was the game that showed our gaming group that there was a lot more out there to discover than just Risk, or even our first Gateway Game in Ticket to Ride.
Long before unboxing Chaos, however, large parts of my childhood were spent digging into the vast, and wondrous worlds of Dungeons & Dragons. I can distinctly remember borrowing the Player’s Handbook from the library (…and now I feel old) – and bringing it home to read through and digest every part that I could. I also remember how thac0 kind of sucked. Imagination was stoked and the sheer thought that there was a “game” which was so vast, and practically limitless blew my mind. It still does!
One of D&D’s greatest strengths is that creative element, the storytelling and sharing of an experience. The other side of that sword is that in order to drive that story one player had to take on the role of the Dungeon Master. I want to be clear that I don’t think this is a bad thing – it’s just an inherent part of the system. The issue that I always had with the system was that the Dungeon Master was typically the person who had all of the books, and the most knowledge of the game system and story.
I wanted to roll up a hero, and go on quests with my buddies.
The other inherent “issue” with D&D is that once you know it exists, and just how incredible the lore and depth is, it is incredibly hard to replace. Our look at RedJak’s cooperative variant for Descent 2e shows just how much effort different folks have put in to try and bring the cooperative RPG to life. Some of those attempts and efforts have had some great results too. The D&D Adventure System Board Games are a fun beer-and-pretzels version of just that.
If I’m being totally honest with myself, however, I can’t say that the real underlying “itch” of that Cooperative Tabletop RPG has ever been truly scratched. In many ways, that search has defined a good part of why I keep buying games, and continue to search.
“Gloomhaven is cooperative game of card-driven combat set in a persistent fantasy campaign which will change and grow as you play the game.
There is always more to unlock and explore in the world of Gloomhaven.”
It sounded promising. It also sounded very optimistic and ambitious. I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t think it would likely deliver on many of the goals. In late 2015, Kickstarter wasn’t completely fresh and new, but it was also far enough along that I had seen just how disappointing a project can be (sorry, Myth!) so I tempered my expectations.
Now, with three weeks of solid play under our belts, it’s time to relay to you just how Gloomhaven turned out. Has Isaac Childres crafted a true Grail Game for those of us searching for that elusive Tabletop Fully Cooperative RPG?
SPOILER ALERT!!We did our best not to show too much of the surprises that come in Gloomhaven. You will see some cards from the initial opened classes, and if you look hard enough might accidentally see some other bits of the game that are visible when you open the box. If you are trying to remain completely fresh to Gloomhaven, this might be a good point to turn back!!
Advanced Game: Well Worth the Effort to LearnGloomhaven is a game that will require at least one person (the owner) to sit down and watch a video or two, and read the instructions along with knowing how to set the scenario up.
The other players could get a much more abbreviated version of the rules, as the actual dungeon-crawling portion of the game is not too difficult to pick up at all!
Gloomhaven’s box is huge. It’s friggin’ huge. Even just picking this monster up will convey not just the size of it, but the weight as well. It is LITERALLY chock full of cards, tokens, standees, minis, maps, stickers, books. I’ve been lucky enough to open up almost 170 boardgames and I’ve never seen anything close to this amount of content in one box.
The phrase “shock and awe” fits the experience of opening Gloomhaven for the first time accurately. There’s 18 sheets of cardboard to punch. BIG SHEETS. Last week we posted an article with some very helpful accessories and a great starting guide to consider before even opening Gloomhaven. I would definitely recommend checking it out (the starting guide from a BGG user in particular) before opening the box if you can contain your excitement to dive right in! Alternately, you can just gird your loins and go for it – if you like a challenge!
To begin, an overall statement of Gloomhaven’s component quality: Everything included in the box has been very well constructed and considered. I may joke about how “terrifying” opening the box might be, but there was also a real feeling of being a kid on Christmas morning, opening up some huge present that I had no idea how to put together myself.
The map tiles in Gloomhaven are all very well detailed, and heavy-duty. They seem quite similar in many ways to the map tiles from Descent 2E / Imperial Assault / Doom – and for the most part, that is a good thing. The size of them is a bit of a double-edged sword – as the maps constructed WILL take up a decent amount of table space and having lots of variations in shape will make for some tricky methods of storage for easy retrieval and searching.
The hero characters are the only miniatures in the game (Retail release will have hero minis as well), while all of the monsters, enemies and bosses are all cardboard standees. The standees fit into small plastic stands representing either normal or elite enemies. I think the minis for the heroes all look pretty good, and have seen some excellent examples of how they turn out painted. There are 13 character classes in the game!!! You start with 6 of them “unlocked” and the rest will be opened up and accessible through game events and other characters going into retirement.
As for the decision to go with standees for the monsters, I’ve found it to be a very reasonable tradeoff. Ultimately, it comes down to cost, of creation and then storage. By electing to use standees, Isaac Childres was able to give the player 45 types of enemies and 12 different bosses!! If he instead chose to go with miniatures we would have either had significantly less variety in enemies, OR had to pay much more than the unbelievably reasonable price-point of Gloomhaven. Also considered in this decision is the amount of scenarios included: with close to 100 scenarios in the game, having a wide selection of enemies adds an almost NECESSARY amount of variety to the game.
The cards are also copious, serving multiple functions of gameplay. There are cards that describe random encounters the party will run into during visits to Town, and then other encounters while on the road to each adventure. These cards are one of the ways that Legacy elements are introduced to the game. You will start with a deck of Town/Road cards and then remove certain cards and add new cards based on the events that take place. It gives the players the sense that the world is progressing with them, as their characters grow and change.
Beyond that there are ability cards and attack modifier cards that are unique to each character in Gloomhaven. Each of these individually gives each character a very different flavor and is truly one of the most exciting aspects of opening a box with a new character to try.
DO YOU LIKE OPENING BOXES? NOW YOU CAN OPEN BOXES INSIDE OF YOUR BOX
There are also very cool sets of Career Goals and Battle Goals, one of which is an objective for your character to complete before they retire, and the other as kind of an extra achievement to try and complete while in one of the scenarios.
There are tokens abound, tokens for health, tokens for status effects, tokens for treasure, tokens for gold, tokens for summons, tokens for traps, tokens for tile overlays. There’s a ridiculous amount of tokens. I would HIGHLY recommend some form of sorting and storage for the tokens and enemy standees. The map overlay tokens are also where I found my first complaint with Gloomhaven. It’s probably a personal gripe, but I just have very little patience to find a particular individual map overlay when I’m constructing the dungeon. If it’s a one-hex overlay, I just grab the closest one I can find, and similarly for two-hex and three-hex overlays. It’s a minor complaint, though!
The design of the enemy stat cards and the enemy action cards is where I’ve found some of the most brilliant design decisions that Isaac Childres made with Gloomhaven. The enemy stat cards, in particular, are incredible. They are each double-sided and on each side have a quadrant for the level of the enemy that you’re facing. This allows not only a huge variety of enemies, but gives each of them multiple levels and unique ways of giving them each vastly different statistics.
…but wait, there’s more! The overlay sleeve that they sit in hides all but the current level of the enemy, and on that overlay there are numbered sections (1-6 on most cards, with a few having 1-10). I don’t know if this technique has been used before in boardgaming but THIS RIGHT HERE is absolute friggin’ brilliance. Let me explain:
Here’s a picture exemplifying a dungeon crawler before Gloomhaven: You hit an enemy. You do three damage. Enemy needs 8 damage to die. Enemy then moves. Move Enemy. Move all of enemies wound tokens around. Move enemies. Move multiple move tokens around. Repeat until you never want to see a damn wound token EVER AGAIN IN YOUR LIFE MOTHERFGNDODND$#$@#
Isaac, instead, says “calm yourself, gentle reviewer guy – there’s a better way. Let me show you:”
Now instead of placing tokens around standees or minis moving on a board, each mini has an associated number and you place the wound tokens and status tokens on that associated number on the enemy stat card sleeve!!
I can say, with very little hesitation at this point, that this is my new favorite tabletop gaming innovation of the last few years. It might not be as far-reaching as the concept of the Legacy game, but for those of us who play and enjoy any kind of miniature/standee based dungeon-crawler, THIS is how health tracking for enemies should be done. From this point forward. Full stop.
Gloomhaven’s Map is another very cool addition that is the primary focal point of all the stickering that you’ll do along the way. If you don’t like the idea of placing stickers and permanent marks on the game or the town’s prosperity track, there’s plenty of files available to make individual copies and leave everything pristine. The map is also pretty big!
This is probably a good segue to the biggest potential negative, or drawback from the wealth of content in Gloomhaven. This game is insanely greedy for whatever playing space you have. It honestly seems that however big a table you have, it probably won’t feel like enough. You’ve got the aforementioned map, the dungeon tiles, playing space for each character’s cards, board, and items. You’ll probably also want to be able to easily reach the plethora of tokens and other cards that come up from time to time during play.
This will be a critically important issue for many potential players of Gloomhaven. Especially if you don’t have a space to leave the game out from one session to another, the decision to pick up Gloomhaven is not an easy recommendation. With that said, there are a number of ways to ease the setup and teardown of the game, and our previous article on some of the helpful accessories is a great starting point to help with that. It also would be very easy to print out some of the helpful BGG files that put more of the party and map information onto sheets, using them to track locations instead of the pretty, but admittedly huge (and not wholly necessary) map!
The other aspect of this production that I would be remiss to leave out is the price. I pledged $79 for Gloomhaven. Shipping was expensive, but in terms of component amount and quality for the price, I’ve never opened a tabletop game that came close to this one. I sincerely hope that Isaac Childres was able to make some profit off of this game, because that dude DESERVES IT.
Instructions and Rules
Slight Spoilers AheadWe show a page from the Scenario book, but you’d have to zoom in to see any details!
The content bonanza seems to never end with this game. Gloomhaven ships with a beefy rulebook and an even beefier Scenario book. The Scenario book comes in a very well-designed binder format that works perfectly to help with the physical space that Gloomhaven is so demanding of. Simply being able to flip the page fully over and not have to lay normally bound book out flat is another subtle, but very smart touch by Childres.
There are also tons, and tons, and tons of scenarios. You start with a single point of entry into the world, and from there the options open up. Certain scenarios open up further storylines and occasionally (when playing in Campaign Mode), some scenarios will be closed to the group after different events take place. I’ve played roughly 15 games of Gloomhaven now and 10 scenarios in those plays. Each one seems to offer either an entirely new variety and grouping of enemies, or mixing in a new type or two quite often.
Another great idea in the Scenario book was to handle player scaling partly by the amount of enemies and types (elite/normal) based on player count. More players typically means more enemies and mixing in more elites. The maps all clearly display what will go where, and make setup generally a breeze.
The rulebook, on the other hand, seems to have a much harder task. I’ll admit that the thought of writing up instructions for a game that has quite a bit of breadth AND depth like Gloomhaven is a daunting prospect. I’m also not sure that there would have been a way to do it right. The inherent difficulty is that Gloomhaven is a game that attempts (and largely succeeds) in doing a lot of things almost all the time. It’s a campaign game, with many legacy elements on top of that. It’s a dungeon crawling game with quite a bit of depth to the decision making, as well as just the available types of actions, movement rules, and multitude of status effects. Oh, there’s also an entire (small, but not immediately intuitive) system to track magic strength and consumption of those elements.
There is a lot to learn, and there’s also not a very easy way to jump in with a tutorial sort of scenario or learn to play guide. Now, to be fair, I don’t consider learn to play guides a required part of tabletop game documentation. We do tend to see them quite often, however, and it seems like an inclusion of one might have eased some of that initial shock.
With that said, the two-video series produced by Gaming Rules! is a perfect starting point for learning how to play the game. I would almost consider this required viewing, as it will serve as a perfect basis of the rules and then going back to the rulebook as a source of reference.
One of my biggest negatives with Gloomhaven also comes in this topic of documentation. In our previous article discussing accessories, we also posted a link to an INCREDIBLY HELPFUL starting guide written by BGG User navmachine. If the video above is required viewing before learning Gloomhaven, I would absolutely consider this starting guide to be required reading. Yes, you can go through the rules and the scenario book and figure all of this out on your own… but in my mind, a “before you go any further after opening Gloomhaven, follow this guide”-type instruction sheet is the most notable and unfortunately missing part of the Gloomhaven production.
The funny part about this negative is that it’s only the relative completeness of everything else in the game that makes one small gripe like this stand out. In some ways that’s a testament to the overall production thought process. Looking back, though, this is the one and only suggestion I would have offered to Mr. Childres through the production process: Add in a concise starting guide to tone down the initial intimidation factor.
Slight spoilers ahead!We show a Road Event card, front side only! We also show one possibe career goal! Avert those eyeballs if you need to!
The Campaign portion of Gloomhaven’s gameplay is quite engaging, and successfully gives the players a real sense that their party of mercenaries aren’t just romping from one dungeon to the next, slaying non-specific fantasy creatures for the sole sake of levelling up and getting stuff. Gloomhaven is a town that is part of a world, and seeing things change according to the actions that your group takes is exciting, and also pretty remarkable.
The concept of the Legacy game goes a long way to create this sense of progress. There is a starting deck of Road Events, Town Events and available Items for sale at the beginning of the game. When your group decides to head to a dungeon, you will encounter a Road Event that could alter the upcoming adventure in some way, or could add a new Road Event or Town Event to be found later. Town Events function similarly, and both of these types of events present the group with a choice. It usually isn’t more than a binary choice, but it still gives the players the option to role play the types of mercenaries they want to be.
The other crucial part of those decisions and events that gives them weight is that some of those decisions are one-and-done! There are events that, once completed, are removed from the game. Similarly, certain Scenarios have dramatic effects that alter the entire world and could either open up new Scenarios or block other Scenarios from being attempted in Campaign Mode.
This idea is something that was initially a bit off-putting for me, I didn’t really want to see anything “closed off”. In execution, Gloomhaven has the concept of Gampaign Mode and Casual Mode in place to take care of this. Playing a Scenario in Campaign mode opens up Campaign-Specific objectives and completion achievements. You can always go back to any Scenario in Casual Mode to earn more XP, or gold, or treasure chests that you missed. In that sense, nothing is ever truly closed off.
The town visits are great in Gloomhaven. Coin is a bit tough to come by, but coming back and seeing the items available to add to your character always gives an extra bit of excitement to the end of an adventure. The Items are also another legacy item that grows as time goes on. As the town of Gloomhaven’s prosperity goes up, the available items increase and upgrade as well. While the first set of available items has some interesting stuff in it, unlocking new items starts to really show off some awesome upgrades that can vastly alter the way your character performs!
In some cases, chests in Scenarios unlock new item designs, in effect adding new items to the town. This gives a lot of added excitement and enticing motivation to try and open up the chests in scenarios. Other times, the chests in dungeons will reveal new map locations, leading to entirely new adventures that depart from the Main Campaign.
Your mercenaries in Gloomhaven also end up getting a good bit of personality built-in when you select a Career Goal for them when first creating them. This is an overarching achievement to complete, and it may take quite a few scenarios to do so. Once it’s completed, that character comes back to town and retires. This is another point where I was initially hesitant, and wanted to keep a character around forever.
I’m happy to report now that I could not have been more wrong about retirement in Gloomhaven!! Retirement means that the town’s prosperity goes up, which potentially unlocks more items for everyone else to purchase in the future. More importantly, retirement unlocks a whole new friggin character class!!!
Maybe you’ve played Pandemic Legacy before. It was easily the game of the year for lots of gamers in 2015. Opening up a new role in Pandemic Legacy was exciting. It meant the next time you played, you had one or two new options available to you. That excitement is cranked up to an entirely new level of awesome when you finally crack open the first locked class in Gloomhaven.
It all comes down to the nature and true love spent in crafting each of these classes (that I’ve seen so far). You open up a box that contains an entire set of starting action cards, and then a matching set of upgrade cards as that character progresses from level 1 to 9. On top of that, you also get a set of modifier upgrades that are unique to each class as well!
Gloomhaven is friggin’ Christmas in a box, and I don’t think that’s much of an exaggeration.
It’s all of those gameplay aspects of the campaign, when combined together, that create true moments of that D&D-in-a-box feeling that Gloomhaven provides. You’re all working together, but also accomplishing individual goals, and all the while moving this party of adventurers through the story of a world that you can easily become invested in. Even if you pay no attention to the lore or the story of the game, I think you’ll find that there are moments of attachment to the current character you’re playing, and a tiny bit of weird-boardgame-sadness when you send them to retirement.
The Scenario portion of Gloomhaven’s gameplay has teeth. If you are a fan of rolling to move, rolling to hit, rolling to wound, rolling to go poop, this might not be the game for you. Childres clearly went in wanting to design the basic tactical component of the game stand on its own, and I’ve been exceedingly pleased to find that this was executed to great success.
Hand management is at the core of the Gloomhaven experience. To start with, your hand of cards is your life. We’ve seen this a lot lately with card-based RPGs, notably with the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game series. Each character gets a full complement of their available cards as their hand, and this is what they have to work with throughout the entire course of a dungeon crawl.
Each card has a top section and a bottom section, and on each turn you will select two of these cards to play. The cards also have a number value in the middle representing the initiative value. You can select one card as the “top card” for that chosen initiative. The other players will also select their two cards in secret and play them, revealing at the same time to determine initiative by who hast the lowest number and working their way up.
Once its your turn, you take those two cards and then select one top action and one bottom action. These actions are the heart and soul of Gloomhaven, and the variety and styles of gameplay that are created from each are absolutely friggin outstanding. Some characters have long range and broad attacks, while others focus on movement and positioning to deliver devastating blows. Even still, in that moment when you actually play your cards you are faced with interesting decisions CONSTANTLY. You might have initially wanted to drop a huge attack on 3 enemies, but when your turn came up, maybe your partners have already wiped out all of those enemies instead. Now you can elect to use a loot option, or a bigger move perhaps to advance your character preparing for the next turn.
What really adds a ton of weight to each decision is that as you use your cards, they are either discarded or lost. A lost card is, for the most part, gone for the scenario. (there are very rare ways of retrieving them) Discarded cards, however can be recovered with a long or short rest. As your hand dwindles down, you start to run out of options and eventually must choose to rest. Long rests allow you to gather all of your discards and select one to go to the lost pile, and gain some HP. A long rest comes at the cost of an entire turn resting, however. A short rest means you grab all of your discards and return them to your hand at the end of your turn, BUT you do not get to select the card you lose.
Guys and gals, I wish I could accurately convey to you through words on a screen just how much tension this adds to every turn taken in Gloomhaven. When your group is playing at a well-balanced dungeon level, the rules for card play will very often have you coming down to the very last turn for either successful completion of a scenario, or a last-minute failure. Also the tension can ramp up quickly and builds steadily along the way – as each time you rest you end up with a smaller hand of cards and are losing options along the way. It’s an impeccably designed system and creates for many exciting moments.
…but wait, there’s more.
The enemies in Gloomhaven, as mentioned earlier, each have a unique set of stats. The other aspect of variation that gives them all a lot of flavor is the matching set of enemy AI cards that go along with them. While there are a few repeated uses of enemy AI cards, for the most part, one type of enemy will have a specific set of cards and that dictates their own initiative on a round-to-round basis, but also how they act.
In execution? This means that a big lumbering earth elemental will move slow and hit hard, according to their stats, but then they might have a card that on one round has them moving quicker for a light hit, and on the next round having their initiative come very late but deliver a devastating area of effect blow. The addition of AI cards for each enemy does add a bit of extra fiddliness to the game, but it’s absolutely a wonderful inclusion because of how interesting it makes the combats with each type of enemy.
It also creates a game where the Scenario component isn’t some boring repetitive slog where you are just playing it to get to the next part. The moment-to-moment gameplay is fun, and very engaging. In a game with as many scenarios as Gloomhaven has, this ends up being a critically important aspect to the overall success.
A gluttonous amount of replay value. The kind of replay value that’s probably going to make me have to go re-write all of the other Replay Value sections for every other game I’ve reviewed. Thanks a lot, Gloomhaven.
The main feeling I’ve come away from my first few weeks with Gloomhaven is one of an exceedingly ambitious promise being delivered on. I’m beyond impressed. For someone who wants to share the love of the hobby, it’s one game that I knew very early on would prove difficult to find a way of trying to hang on to a decent amount of objectivity.
The extended introduction at the beginning of this article was my best attempt to express that this has turned out to be the game that I hoped it would be, and I think many of the backers will feel the same way. In many respects, it’s the feeling that many backers go into a Kickstarter campaign feeling: hope.
Many times, the reality of production comes in along the way and cuts into that hope. Other times, the production goes off without a hitch, tons of stretch goals are added and the end result is just another game. It might have a fun, pretty face on it, or the perfect theme – but the gameplay itself just falls flat.
Isaac Childres had set himself up with such ambitious goals for this project that it’s honestly surprising to find everything in Gloomhaven clicking as well as it does. I’ve played the crap out of some games for a week or two week period, and usually by that time of the initial review phase being over, they get shelved and possibly pulled back out on occasion.
Gloomhaven, on the other hand, is still set up on the table. I have a sneaking suspicion that it will remain there for quite a while. I’m looking forward to trying out new classes, unlocking even more and seeing just how the story progresses and what other cool items are waiting around the next dungeon door.
This is a game that seemed designed precisely for that 12 year old version of me reading about a game that I didn’t have the means to truly be able to play. To have delivered on that promise is remarkable, and Isaac Childres deserves every ounce of praise he gets for it over the coming months as Gloomhaven is more readily available.
Gloomhaven: One Year Later
Hoo boy, have I got some explaining to do for you all.
First, looking back at this review, I have to correct one major error I’ve made: Gloomhaven may FEEL like a fully cooperative RPG-in-a-box for someone who hasn’t actually played a tabletop RPG before, but if you’ve actually gotten to sit down and play through a campaign of D&D… Gloomhaven will not be scratching that itch.
Sometime soon after finishing a few months with Gloomhaven, I actually took the step to see what tabletop and virtual tabletop D&D was like. It was well worth the experience, for comparison’s sake, as well as just getting to actually appreciate what is out there. I can’t recommend it enough to anyone with even a little bit of curiosity, and honestly there’s never been an easier time to start or a better version of D&D to jump into!
Now, back to Gloomhaven!
One year later, I can still honestly say with little reservation that Gloomhaven is the best boardgame I’ve ever played, and filled with the most value of anything close in terms of what you get for the price. The exciting aspect of opening classes lasts for quite a while and there’s so much replay value oozing from every crevice of the game. Seeing the follow-up Kickstarter campaign really seems like it added some great enhancements, minor fixes, and cool new scenarios to help provide even more ongoing gameplay potential.
Storage, and ability to keep it on the table are the two main sticking points that I think could hold someone back from truly appreciating and enjoying this game. If you don’t have a decent amount of physical space to play, or can only pull a game out for an hour or less at a time, this is a very difficult title to recommend.
Otherwise, honestly, unless you totally hate cooperative or tactical combat tabletop games, Gloomhaven is incredible. It was when I first played it, and pulling it back out months later, it holds up without missing a beat.
Gloomhaven – The verdict
Gloomhaven is everything you could want out of a Cooperative or Solo RPG experience on tabletop. If you have any love for that style of game, you will want to pick it up. Also, maybe invest in a table or six.
What we Loved about Gloomhaven
– The new standard for Legacy game, unlocks and new characters are awesome, and very unique.
– Using enemy sleeves to hold wound and status tokens for enemies is an innovation that should become the standard for dungeon crawling boardgames.
– Moment-to-moment gameplay is always interesting and creates challenging decisions and multiple paths to victory.
– Ridiculous amount of content for the price.
What we didn’t Love as much about Gloomhaven
– You will always want more table space.
– Would have been much better off with a “start here” guide for even unboxing.
– Begs for accessories, for storage and setup/teardown.