Reviewed by Chantal Noordeloos

GLOOMHAVEN (Cephalofair Games, 1 to 4 players, ages 12 and up, 120 minutes; $119.99)


Most of the time I know how much I like a game after playing it only once. Gloomhaven was a different ‘beast’ for me. It took a few plays to really make up my mind about this one, and to be honest, I still don’t fully know where I stand. But I feel like I’m starting in the middle somewhere, so let me take a step back.

I backed this game on Kickstarter in 2015 because it looked very interesting. It was described as “A board game for 1-4 players of cooperative card-driven tactical combat in a persistent, ever-changing campaign world”, which instantly appealed to me. We had played the previous game by the designer Isaac Childres—called Forge War—and were very impressed by it, so it was a no brainer to back this particular project.

The game itself is gorgeous. It’s a monster of a box, the biggest one that is in my collection up till now—though I suspect my backing Kingdom Death Monster might change that by the end of the year—and it is truly filled to the brim with ‘goodness’.

Now, in essence, Gloomhaven has all the makings of a straight forward dungeon crawler. You are playing a party of heroes—whose races are pretty unique, though the classes feel more familiar—that go out on adventures. There is a storytelling component to it, that gives the game a narrative, and it has a Legacy element to it, which will be exciting to some, and to others—like me, who dread tearing up a card—it may be a reason to feel a tinge of panic. Unlike most Legacy games, this game will remain playable after you’ve finished the 95 different campaigns, but they just won’t hold any surprises anymore—though after 95 plays, can we really expect any game to hold surprises for us?

I don’t want to give away too many spoilers, but what I can tell you that I found really interesting is that each character gets several missions to fulfill during the game, and when they have done so, they retire. At that moment you get to choose one of the secret characters. I can’t really give you my opinion on that yet, because I haven’t gotten this far yet. In fact, it took us three tries in the starting scenario to get a feel for how the gameplay works.

This game is not as easy as it looks. Where—like most dungeon crawlers—there is certainly an element of luck involved in this game, it is mostly based on strategy. What makes this game different from simply rolling dice, is that you have to use cards. Each round—unless you rest—you use two cards from your hand, which you then discard. The cards all have two different actions written on them, one of the top and one of the bottom half, and it is up to the player to pick an action from the top half of a card, and one from the bottom half. This in itself can be a challenge, because sometimes you really want to play a combination of actions, and you can’t.

Another thing that makes this game so difficult is that the cards are finite. Whenever you use cards you discard them to the regular discard pile. If you want to take the discard pile back into your hand, you have to randomly (and permanently) discard one of its cards to the ‘we’ll not see you again this game’ pile (don’t worry, you don’t have to tear these cards up, but it’s still heartbreaking to see them go).

It is unlike any other game of its ilk I have played so far. If you don’t plan your moves carefully from the beginning, the game will punish you for it. The first game we played we made the mistake of using up our ‘big moves’ too fast, and burning through our cards. This resulted in us losing the game, because we simply couldn’t do any more actions.

So, what did we think of this game? It’s obviously very popular if we go by the statistics of BBG.

The Good: This game is beautiful. The setting is amazing and the gameplay is rich and interesting. There are a lot of meaty decisions to be made, and it’s really a game to sink your teeth into. I honestly believe that it will appeal to both Euro-gamers and people who prefer dungeon crawlers (could I say Ameritrashers without offending people?).

The Bad: The game is ruthless, and mistakes cost you dearly. This might not be bad for everyone—in fact a lot of people might find that appealing—but it will certainly be frustrating to some of us. I don’t have a huge issue with it, but I noticed that I needed more time than usual to get used to the mechanics. The rewards aren’t fantastic either, and I didn’t like that our hand-size of cards didn’t seem to really go up. I prefer games that are brutal to be a bit more rewarding, that way you don’t feel like you’re ‘doing it all for nothing’.

One thing that bothers me a lot about this game is the box and the components. Though they are beautiful and definitely good for the game play, there’s just too much of this ‘goodness’. There are so many of different chits and things, it was a hell to sort out and I struggled to close the ginormous box. In fact, the sheer ‘quantity of components’ is actually holding us back to put the game on the table more often. It’s ‘Arkham and Zombicide with all the expansions’ all over again, and this is just the base game. Sometimes you just don’t feel like taking ages to sort everything out for set up/ clean up. Of course the components give the game a lot of replay-ability, but it also makes it a bit of a pain in the backside. The box itself is difficult to store, and it feels a bit fragile under the weight of everything.

The Ugly: The player mats that have the trackers for health and XP tokens are not the most ‘easy to use’. I fiddled around with them, unsure of how to work them, and I worried I would tear the mat in the process. In all fairness, I do believe there is a new Gloomhaven coming out that will fix that problem… but that doesn’t exactly help me, and I’m unsure if there will be a lot of upgrade kits for those of us who own the game.

The thing that bothered me most about this game, was the fact that characters could be eliminated. They don’t die, but they don’t get to finish the scenario. This is a personal quirk, so it won’t be an issue for everyone, but I HATE player elimination. What does that person do for the rest of the game? Especially if due to a silly mistake they are taken out fairly early? A lot of other games offer the opportunity to play another character, but this game doesn’t. And on top of that, if a character dies, the game becomes even more challenging, because the monsters still spawn as if you were with the maximum amount of players. And remember: your cards are finite. So it can really mess up a game if one or more players are eliminated.

Despite certain frustrations I have with this game, I do think it’s very good. I would definitely recommend it to players who like a challenge, and who enjoy a board game with a rich narrative. Gloomhaven is a real adventure that will emerge you into the game. I am curious to see what path it will take us on as we delve deeper into the story. – – – – – – – Chantal Noordeloos

Have feedback? We’d love to hear from you.

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