A GLOOMHAVEN SAGA
by Selwyn Ward
Since its first emergence back in 2017, Gloomhaven hasn’t been so much a game as a phenomenon. Published by Cephalofair and launched on Kickstarter, this game’s reputation preceded it. I was one of the original backers and when my copy arrived I was initially ill prepared for such a mammoth box. I posted a picture on Facebook and then was surprised again when this generated a flood of unsolicited offers from people who’d missed the Kickstarter and wanted me to sell them my copy. I hadn’t intended to part with the game but when I got an offer that amounted to more than four times what I’d paid for it, I reluctantly sold my copy on. A reprint had already been announced and I realised that I didn’t have any plans to launch into a long campaign game much before the reprint was due; and even if the reprint was more expensive than my first edition had been, the price I’d been offered would certainly more than cover it…
And so it was that I never played that original copy. I waited for the reprint. Of course, by the time the reprint arrived Gloomhaven’s hype train had well and truly left the station. Those who played the scarce first copies raved about the game and that made the many more who had piled into the Kickstarter for the reprint even more eager. Gloomhaven soared to the top of the BoardGameGeek ratings chart – toppling stalwarts like Twilight Struggle (GMT) and Twilight Imperium (FFG) and elbowing aside upstarts like Terraforming Mars (Stronghold) and the previous smash-hit Pandemic Legacy Season 1 (Z-Man). And Gloomhaven remains seemingly secure in that number one spot.
Designer Isaac Childres has shot to celebrity status and almost certainly become a multi-millionaire as a result of the success of his game. The Kickstarter campaign earlier this year for Gloomhaven’s sequel Frosthaven set out to raise an ambitious $500,000. It raised more than five times that amount on its first day and when it topped $10 million, hundreds of backers responded to Isaac’s plea and upped their pledges just so that he could break the Kickstarter record for the largest amount raised by a game. There were no stretch goals, no exclusives that wouldn’t be available at retail, and for many outside the USA, the ‘discount’ off MSRP was less than the shipping and tax that backers would have to pay to receive their games (Frosthaven did not offer ‘EU-friendly’ or ‘Canada-friendly’ shipping) – making the pre-paid pre-ordered game probably more expensive than it will be next year at retail. Despite all this, the Gloomhaven sequel raised almost $13 million! A phenomenon indeed.
I confess I take BGG rankings with a large pinch of salt. Too often we see games rack up ratings long before players have had any chance to see let alone play the game. Some BGG users seem so caught up in the hype for a game that they post sky-high ratings in mere anticipation of games that still remain what our videogaming friends refer to as vapourware. Gloomhaven’s sequel Frosthaven doesn’t yet exist and won’t be out until well into 2021 but it already has >300 ratings on BGG (almost all of them effusive 10s with a clutch of demining 1s expressly ‘to counterbalance’ them). That said, the games at the top of the BGG charts have attracted ratings from ten of thousands of users. They can’t all be wrong.
They’re not. Gloomhaven is a very good game. But like most of the others in the upper echelons of the BGG charts, it’s not a game you’ll just dip into. Once you get it to the table, Gloomhaven is a game you can expect to become a regular fixture. Sure, you can play single one-off games but the design pushes you to play the game as a long campaign where you’ll have characters that level up, as in a role-playing game, and where you’ll be working through an unfolding narrative so that the game grows as you play it. In short, Gloomhaven is a campaign game: in fact a legacy game where, as in Pandemic Legacy, you’ll be unlocking new content as you progress, adding stickers to cards and to the board and where you’ll be asked to rip up event cards once you’ve seen them. Pandemic Legacy is structured so that you play through successive months, replaying a month if you fail it so that the game is ‘completed’ after a minimum of 12 and an absolute maximum of 24 plays. By contrast, 24 plays will barely scratch the surface in Gloomhaven, which has a branching story involving around 100 scenarios.
Gloomhaven is a co-operative dungeon crawler where scenarios are played out across modular boards assembled much as those in Imperial Assault (FFG) or Shadows of Brimstone (Flying Frog). The game is playable solo or for parties of up to four, and part of Gloomhaven’s appeal is that the design incorporates a lot of scaleability: the difficulty of a scenario and the toughness of the monsters you’ll encounter varies according to the size of the party and the levels of the characters. Instead of the usual dice, encounters are determined by flipping cards from players’ attack decks. The decks are modified as your character develops so you can expect to increase your prowess and prospects of success in combat.
The unique feature of Gloomhaven, however, is the individual character decks. Players each start off with one of the six characters that are unlocked at the beginning of your campaign. The character classes don’t exactly correspond to those in classic RPGs but they have recognisable warrior/mage/cleric characteristics. Each character has their own set of character cards, and you’ll select the deck you play with from these. This will mean you start each game with just 9-12 cards (depending on the character). Each turn you choose two cards to play, activating the top half of one card and the bottom half of the other. You can always substitute a basic melee attack for the top half of any card or a basic movement for the bottom half of any card.
When you use a character card it generally goes into your discard pile. You’ll get your discard pile back when you decide to ‘rest’; except that resting means taking one of your cards completely out of play for the rest of the scenario. And the cards with the most powerful effects are likely to be single use, in that they are lost when used rather than discarded. This makes Gloomhaven a hand management strategy game where players need to make the most effective use of their cards. If a character is ever unable to play two cards, they are considered to be exhausted: they take no further part in that scenario. What makes the game exciting is that the scenarios have been designed and balanced so that they can go down to the wire: it can be touch and go whether your characters will all still be standing to complete the scenario…
And the idea isn’t that you keep your character all the way through the campaign. You’ll have your own individual character objective and you are supposed to ‘retire’ that character once your objective is met. Usually this will unlock a new character class (there are 16 in the box), and you can either start off with that new character or with any other character not currently in use; for example, one of the starting characters you haven’t tried yet or even a character that you or another player has previously retired. The new character joins the party in place of the retiree and the party heads off to tackle the next scenario.
Each of the character types plays very differently and we’ve enjoyed ‘learning’ our characters and working out the best ways of using their card tops and bottoms in combo. This makes Gloomhaven play much as a puzzle game, although there’s always the uncertainty of knowing what the monsters will do next on their turn.
Every scenario will involve three or four different types of monster, drawn from a seemingly endless bestiary that includes the human, humanoid, ephereal and undead. For their movements and attacks they’ll always focus on the closest adventurer, prioritising equidistant targets according to the character’s initiative (ie: the character taking their turn soonest that round). So that much is predictable, but the monsters have their attack deck, broadly mirroring those of the adventurers, and their actions will also be directed and modified by the cards flipped for them each turn. It’s a neat very workable automata that feels like a natural evolution of the Descent/Imperial Assault system, completely obviating the need for anyone to play as the monsters.
Gloomhaven is not without its faults. The monsters may be varied but the scenarios may give you a sense of déjà vu. Strip out the flavour text and 90% of the scenarios boil down to an injunction to kill everything before your team is exhausted. There’s the ongoing narrative but it doesn’t always feel all that compelling. And there are small glitches and annoyances that appear to require players to continue to flip attack cards (and risk drawing a ‘miss’ card) when they’ve already drawn enough hits to kill the monster they are fighting.
But, flaws and irritations and all, Gloomhaven is undeniably addictive. My group of four hardy adventurers (initially a Scoundrel, Cragheart, Mindthief and Spellweaver) first embarked on our adventure in the dim and distant days before Covid-19 appeared on the radar. We soon got hooked and other games were pushed to one side as we replaced them with a regular weekly session of Gloomhaven. This had become such a fixture in our diaries that we were bereft when the social distancing measures were introduced here in the UK and our weekly meets became suddenly against the law.
Our group includes some dedicated online gamers. I’m not one of them. Tho’ I am capable of getting engrossed in a well-designed video game (preferably a sandbox game like Elder Scrolls: Oblivion or Fallout that I can explore at my own pace), I’ve always prized board games for their social interaction. For me, the notion of playing board games via an online platform offers little attraction.
Needs must, however, when there’s no viable alternative. And so I’ve become a very reluctant convert to Tabletop Simulator on Steam. I’m a long-standing Mac user and I guess I still share Steve Jobs’ aversion to the multi-button mouse. My Mac has a mouse I can configure to do more than just click but, to me, the notion of ‘right click’ functions feels like an alien concept. That seems to be a prerequisite for using Tabletopia, however. I’ve joined in some online playtests on Tabletopia but the interface always feels clunky to me and I’m always keen afterwards to reconfigure my mouse so that it is cleansed of its alien multi-function buttons.
Tabletop Simulator (TTS) is more forgiving; more accepting of Mac traditionalists. There are very occasional calls for an exotic right click but, in the main, I can get by with my simple unconfigured mouse. The implementation of Gloomhaven on TTS is surprisingly good. There are some automated functions which can help streamline play but you can override them if you ever feel they are getting in the way. Set up can be laborious, but that’s true too for the physical game. The TTS implementation of Gloomhaven feels, if anything, less fiddly than the original because the plethora of tokens are handled so well, as are the counters for recording each monster’s hit points: of itself a huge improvement on the physical game.
So we’ve migrated in lockdown from a weekly physical game of Gloomhaven to a TTS online continuation of our campaign, again in weekly installments, with our chatter routed through Discord. Two of our starting characters have “retired” during our online play, and two more retirements are imminent. My Scoundrel was the first to retire and I miss her; I’ve enjoyed my time as the Brute a little less. Perhaps I’ve yet to get to grips with him but, too often, I’m finding his low initiative (late turns) can mean a largely wasted turn, tho’ this can alternate with remarkably powerful move and attack combos. The Brute won’t be with me for long, tho’. His personal objective is to kill 20 different monster types and I’ve already chalked up 16 in just five outings… I am already beginning to think about his replacement. None of us have yet played the Tinkerer – a starting character that I think I might enjoy role playing – and then of course we have some new characters about to be unlocked. – – – – – – – Selwyn Ward
Have feedback? We’d love to hear from you.
Other Summer 2020 GA Report articles