Review: Gloomhaven

I’m usually quite resistant when it comes to new & shiny and when I first heard about Gloomhaven, I shrugged it off as yet another Kickstarter hype. However, the more I read about it, the more intrigued I became. When I finally watched the review on Shut Up & Sit Down (which, incidentally, is one of the best video reviews I’ve ever seen) together with K., we both looked at each other and decided: we want this game! I have to admit that I also had a hidden agenda: we’ve been playing D&D with our nephew, but I was really tired of being DM, so I hoped that this game would supplant D&D and get us back to gaming with the kid more often.

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After lugging it home from the local games store – the box weights around nine kilo – K., the nephew and I opened the box and sorted the contents. There really is a lot in there! We were especially fascinated by the sealed stuff – things that you only unpack when certain conditions are met during play.

Gloomhaven is basically a glorified cooperative dungeon crawler. It is also a legacy-style game: The game itself changes permanently when you play it. For example, when you unlock a new scenario, you put a sticker on the map. This, of course, reduces the replay-value, but as the game is designed to take around 100 game session to complete, this shouldn’t be too much of a problem – it will keep you occupied for a long time to come.

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At the core of the game is a card-driven mechanic: Each character has a unique set of action cards which can be played to move, fight and do all sorts of cool special actions. There are no dice – again, each character has his or her unique deck of combat modifier cards. The interesting thing is that those decks can be changed by adding or removing cards, so the probabilities will change with the development of the character – something that would be hard to achieve with dice.

Apart from the single scenarios, which seem to be more or less dungeon bash games, there are also all kinds of events during the travels and in the city of Gloomhaven itself. Together with the branching paths of the scenarios – a finished scenario may unlock two or possibly more other scenarios – this really comes as close to giving the feel of an RPG as a board game without a DM might get. The designer himself compared it with a chose-your-own-adventure book, and this seems about right.

We’ve played three games now. During the first, we where quite overwhelmed by the cards and their interactions, and I already became a bit nervous if this is the right game for us. However, during the second game we already got the hang of it. Gloomhaven is often called a Euro game because luck doesn’t play as big a role as in other dungeon crawlers and knowing when to play the right combination of cards can be the key to success. As a matter of fact, this is not something I usually enjoy, as I prefer a more spontaneous and narrative style of play and get bored by the meticulous bureaucratic planning required by some Euro games. However, when we played it, it worked fine with our style of gaming. Admittedly, after our first abortive try we chose the lowest difficulty setting, which is much more forgiving. And as we are more into it for the story and the crazy action than for the puzzle-solving, we will keep it that way until we are proficient with our characters.

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That Gloomhaven manages to convey a sense of narrative after no more than three games does say something about this game. The branching scenarios as well as the event cards create unique decisions that almost from the outset help to define the group and the characters. Will you be reckless? Will you just do the jobs offered or will you stick your nose into things that shouldn’t concern you? Will you be kind to people you meet, or will you prey on them? Such is the stuff stories are made off.

If you want a unique gaming experience and if you have a dedicated group of two to four players who enjoy an RPG experience without anyone wanting to do the hard work of DMing, I can highly recommend Gloomhaven.

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