Review: Gloomhaven

Designer: Isaac Childres
Artists: Alexandr Elichev, Josh T. McDowell, Alvaro Nebot
Publisher: Cephalofair Games
Category: Adventure, Economic, Exploration, Fantasy, Fighting
Players: 1-4
Price: Kickstarter $99
2013 left its mark on the world in many ways. Pope Francis was the first pope from Latin-America. Roger Ebert, my muse for reviewing and criticizing pop culture, passed away. “What does the Fox Say,” and “The Harlem Shake” invaded the internet, causing thousands to generate their own renditions. I graduated from college. Breaking Bad was fully released on Netflix.

Forge War, from Cephalofair Games.

Among the mix of events from 2013, including the horrible world disasters, the crowning of a religious icon, and the silly things like Youtube viral videos, one 2013 event didn’t make headlines. It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time. It’s one of those moments that wouldn’t have mattered until pursued. I would wager most people have these moments, but they never amount to anything until they evolve and become something tangible. In this case, we are, of course, talking about Isaac Childres developing an idea for a game called Gloomhaven.
According to Childres’ BGG Development Blog, the idea for Gloomhaven spawned during the process of designing Forge War. The card mechanisms of Sentinels of the Multiverse showed promise in terms of individuality between decks. Childres dreamed of creating a dungeon crawler without dice. Descent 2.0 and Imperial Assault might be great fun, but one is beholden to the whims of a casually tossed die, instead of success or failure by their own hand. This groundwork framed the structure of Gloomhaven, which eventually made its way through play-testing and then to Kickstarter. In September of 2015, Gloomhaven succeeded in funding at just under $400,000.
Childres has since founded his own publisher company under the name Cephalofair Games, now having published both Gloomhaven and Forge War. Gloomhaven was released to nearly universal acclaim, sitting comfortably at #7 on the Board Game Geek Top 100. Currently, Gloomhaven is undergoing a reprint on Kickstarter and has raised just over $2,000,000 at the time of this publishing. This “refurbished” Kickstarter features some upgraded components, updated rules/scenarios, and options for solo games and reusable stickers for re-playability.


Disclaimer

  • My review will just barely uncover a tiny, few spoilers that players will be discovering in their first or second games, so bear that in mind.
  • I received a review copy of Gloomhaven, along with a separate review copy of Meeple Realty’s Gloomhaven Town insert. Backing Gloomhaven on Kickstarter DOES NOT include this insert, as you will need to purchase the insert separately from Meeple Realty’s website. Most of the photos in this review feature the Meeple Realty insert, but this insert does not ship with the Kickstarter.
  • I’ve played roughly 6-7 Gloomhaven scenarios, so my opinion of the game is not comprehensive. That said, I do have a good understanding of how the game works mechanically, and some of the surprises and excitement hidden inside the box.

Content Guide

Players will find themselves facing off against hordes of bandits, the undead, and demons. All violence is more-or-less invisible, hidden behind text on cards and story details. Players will be forced into situations where they must make decisions that affect the party’s morality. Only one character (on the box art) seems to be wearing revealing clothing. I’m not sure what else lies behind the tuckboxes, so I can’t speak to everything in the box.

Review

Splitting the distance between two bear traps, Myra, the human scoundrel, pushed open the stone door to reveal a smaller room than before. As she poked her head into the room, she noticed two living skeletons, bones clacking together as they spun around to meet her. Four yards ahead, she had time to react. Determined to deal with them quickly, she rolled forward, dodging an arrow from a bandit archer in the back of the room. In one fluid motion, the scoundrel retrieved two sharp daggers from her boots and, using her momentum, flung them with a grunt into both skeletons.

Myra, my human scoundrel character.

One dagger completely missed, striking the stone wall behind. The other connected to a boned-leg, chipped off a large chunk, and caused the skeleton to lose balance. This bought Myra enough time to catch a breath from behind a downed table. She was nearly exhausted. Fighting from the previous two encounters left her with a gaping smash along her chitin pauldron, leaving bruises along her shoulder and collar. She clenched the injury, and prepared to fight again, fearing the assault into the barrow wasn’t worth the extra coin.
The archer cautiously approached the table, arrow drawn in his bow, aiming between both skeletons. The flawless skeleton raised its blade, preparing to strike behind the table, the other bony fiend prepared to stab through the wood, hoping to catch Myra through her cover. Suddenly, a huge crash and yell erupted from behind the stone door. Myra smirked, knowing her destruction had met its reprieve.
Waiting no longer, the skeleton brought down its blade, while the other stabbed four inches through the table. A moment passed as the archer withheld his arrow. The skeletons leaned forward to check behind the table to find nothing! Letting out a sigh of confusion, the archer lowed his weapons to his side. Just then, a curved poison blade emerged from the shadows made by torch fire behind him. Myra materialized from the darkness, shoving the poisoned tool deep into the bandit’s side, causing a loud scream, grabbing the attention of both skeletons, now turning to face the two. The poison acted in seconds, weakening the bandit, boiling his blood. Myra took advantage of the moment to reveal a slender blade from its sheath, singled out the archer, and took one long, powerful swipe from top to bottom, cutting down the archer in a single blow.
Poison bubbled from the mouth of the deceased as the corpse crumpled to the ground. The skeletons readied their swords, preparing to finish the tired scoundrel, who now sunk to one knee, mostly unable to continue her fight. They stepped forward, emotionless and cold. Myra tilted her face upward to see the bones for the last time.

Jon, the Inox Brute. Miniatures are unpainted in the game.

Then, a daunting shadow towered over the three. In just a few seconds, the shadow vaulted forward, along with a brutal shout, the rustling of fur, and clanking of shield on chestplate. Jon, the Inox brute, brought down the blunt side of his rusty blade onto the flawless skeleton. The skeleton, totally unready for the attack, smashed into the earth, exploding ribs and phalanges like projectiles around the room. The surprise drove the other living bones to attempt a counterattack. It swung wildly at Jon, only to be met with the brunt of his shield, which he followed up with a powerful shove, forcing the skeleton to the ground, and disarming its sword. Bones scattered around the resurrected creature, its end was near.
The horned behemoth, Jon, helped Myra to her feet. Looking back to the adversary, he stepped over the top of it, nearly crushing its boned foot with his massive weight. “I must rest,” gasped Myra, “finish it.” Jon nodded, taking his shield in both hands above the bones, and summoning all of his might, he delivered an extremely powerful body slam, using the shield as a weapon, and smashing the living bones into dust. There would be no possibility of this creature rising again.
Jon stood up, brushing the bone meal from his plated armor. The two now understood their quarry had ventured deeper into the barrow. The mission was far from over. Myra and Jon looked at one another, and then at a shiny treasure chest in the corner of the room. Both hesitated, then lunged for the box, hoping to be the first to reveal its contents.
This tale is but one of many harrowing situations players will find themselves plopped right into the heat of. Many scenarios in Gloomhaven give players a ticking clock to make their decisions, with cardplay and exhaustion being key resources to manage whilst clearing dungeons of baddies, aiding one another, and gathering loot from fallen foes.

Levi and Jon anxiously count down as they open tuckboxes, revealing their characters.

I watched shipping notifications in my email daily, waiting for new confirmations from UPS. Heavy breathing ensued. Finally, it arrived, crippling the back of the delivery man. As one opens the massive, 21-pound box, they will notice a smorgasbord of tuckboxes, cardboard, maps, stickers, sealed envelopes, paper, miniatures, and more. Few experiences compare to that of one’s first time delving deep into the contents beneath Gloomhaven’s gargantuan box top.
In Gloomhaven, players begin by taking the role of one of six starting classes. One player might play a sneaky, poison assassin, capable of dealing massive blows by singling out opponents. Another plays a hybrid tank, dishing area of effect splash damage and healing. Perhaps you might enjoy a burst-mage, creating powerful magic attacks at the cost of early exhaustion. Any player’s preferred role is available, allowing for DPS, tanking, support, and more.
After choosing classes, players name their characters and party, and start looking through their deck of action cards. Characters are limited in deck size, but will be able to switch out inferior cards as power creep and combos become obvious through leveling. Alongside tokens and tableaus, each character chooses a lifetime goal, determining their reason for existing in Gloomhaven. Upon completion of this goal, the character becomes satisfied with their adventuring and will retire, leaving the player to select a new, unlocked class to start afresh.

Detailed, though the rulebook feels daunting until you’ve taken lots of time to learn it in-game.

Like learning each class, getting started in Gloomhaven is best done through trial and error. Our first game was taught and walked through in four hours. Oh, a mighty, but necessary task. Of course, I punched out the 17 sheets of cardboard beforehand. I also found the need to consult an excellent BGG guide on “getting started.” It was these essential preparatory tasks that made our first game as seamless and educational as possible.
After spending our meager amounts of gold on the class-based, recommended starting items, Myra, the human scoundrel, and Jon, the Inox brute, made their way to the first scenario in the black barrow.
Different situations will prompt players to draw a road or city event card. These events present players with situations wherein they might need to pay off an old debt, meet a strange character, or make an interesting decision based on whatever is taking place. Each decision seems at first, morally obvious, though players quickly learn nothing is certain in Gloomhaven. You might choose what you think to be most upstanding, or perhaps allow the demeanor of your characters to dictate your choices. This provides a wonderfully engrossing experience, letting players sink into the atmosphere of the grimy world. Players enter each event unsure of the outcome, and leave doubly confused or wary their luck was too poor, or bound to run out soon.

The many cards of Gloomhaven. This is hardly as many as the game ships with.

Atmosphere-building flavor is constructed through these event cards, but equally so through the text before and after scenarios. Upon entering a dungeon, one player should act as GM of sorts, commanding players to locate certain map tiles, tokens, and monsters for setup. Each scenario instructs a player to read storyline, then set up the dungeon. This allows the “GM” to have an idea of what lies in the scenario, but leaves the other players in the dark so they can experience the mission more thematically. 
After placing and sleeving monsters, drawing hidden battle goals, and deciding starting positions, players take their deck of action cards in hand, and begin to scheme. Each player will decide on two cards to play, one which uses the top action of a card, the second using the bottom half. Each card also prints an initiative value in the middle. To simulate the swift nature of combat, players are unable to voice specific concerns with their party, and must instead volley for phrases like, “I need to attack in this direction, early this turn,” instead of, “I’m going to attack this monster for 2 damage, can you heal me for 4 damage and go immediately before me?” After all, in the heat of battle, one would hardly have time to communicate, more relying on instinct and party chemistry, learned from previous fighting.

Ability cards and setup for the scoundrel character.

Turn order isn’t decided traditionally by seating pattern, but instead lowest to highest, by the printed initiative value of the card each player simultaneously chooses to lead with. After doing this, each monster type on the board will draw a card, revealing their actions, alongside their initiative value.
A typical turn involves moving and attacking. Attacking an enemy always includes a base damage value, but is altered as each attack requires drawing from the player’s attack modifier deck. These cards can double the attack, add or subtract a few points of damage, or potentially cause the attack to swing and miss. Brilliantly, these cards add lots of excitement that dice simply cannot muster. Where a die roll is completely random, one can know and count the cards in his attack multiplier deck. In fact, by leveling up and completing battle goals, a player can thin the deck, removing poor cards entirely, and replacing average cards with status effects and additional damage. Thematically, your character becomes more powerful over time.

Many enemies will attempt to fell you in combat. These are their sleeves and cards.

Each enemy features a different deck of attack cards, which makes each encounter totally different from the last. Some scenarios are stuffed with poisonous foes. Some are filled with ranged enemies, who can immobilize you in your tracks. Other times, you will face off against bosses with lots of hit points, resistance to statuses, and wildly varying special attacks. Combat always feels fresh and challenging.
Typically, players finish a scenario once a dungeon is cleared out, but every mission is different. Players will find new spawns of enemies behind doors. Sometimes, scripted events take place from taking certain actions, spawning new enemies and items, and reading more flavor text for the situation.
Combat in Gloomhaven is exceptional. As your characters venture further into the dungeon, they become fatigued. Once a card is played, it goes to a discard pile. Some cards are so powerful, that once used, are immediately lost. A lost card represents fatigue and exhaustion. When a player runs low on cards, they can choose to rest for a turn, returning all discards, and restoring health and items at the cost of losing one of their discards.

The monsters of Gloomhaven. Semi-spoilerish. (Insert not included.)

Over time, a player who once started with ten cards in hand must choose from a measly 3-4 cards. Players must balance how frequently they rely on big attacks that cause extra lost cards. Those attacks might be necessary to fell a large foe, but will result in running out of cards more quickly. Players can even lose a card to dodge a huge attack from a monster. This is a problem, because once a player can no longer play two cards, they are forced to retreat from the dungeon, taking their loot and XP with them.
While disheartening, this mechanism is extremely thematic. It’s a constant minigame of choosing abilities carefully. Cards are both your actions and your resources. Managing them wisely becomes paramount to success. Timing your movements and pacing is everything. Will you have time to rest in this safe room, or do you have no choice but to proceed to the next? What dangers lie in wait? Is it safe to go alone?
These are all questions the party will woefully find answers to during their invasion into dungeons. There is loot to be had in the form of chests and dropped coins from foes. Even more important is the necessity of gaining XP from playing specific ability cards and executing actions. Cooperation is key to success, as players work together to guard and heal one another while diving deeper into the mission.
Upon finishing a scenario, players receive gold and XP, and sometimes achievements for their party, unlocking future missions, and placing stickers on the map. More story becomes revealed after successful missions, and players must begin to branch off into different directions of their story tree. Waiting to complete some tasks might remove the possibility of taking the quest entirely, and some quests require specific prerequisites to be met before undertaking them.
The constant unfolding of the Gloomhaven story stirs fascination and curiosity. What I find most interesting is bringing in and out new players. I’ve played with three separate groups, each starting with fresh characters, minus one constant: my human scoundrel character, Myra.

Tokens galore in Gloomhaven.

Myra has acted as a leader of sorts for each group. She’s played and gained experience from replaying old missions, so she’s level three, and leads the pack with the new players. Not only do they learn the game as I teach and walk them through the beginning scenario in the barrow, but they get to watch her bounce around the map. You see, as you level up and accept perks, enemies will increase in difficulty, but some also become play toys. Myra hits for poison damage, turns invisible, and pops out of the shadows for another huge attack.
Those at the table see the weaker states of their own characters, and watch higher level players wreak havoc on their foes. After each scenario, I watch my friends scan the words of their own higher level cards and perks. They start to see multiple cards that combo beautifully together, imagine scenarios where they can chain attacks, killing multiple enemies by drawing a 2x damage modifier. Gloomhaven pushes players to desire the strongest outcomes for their characters. We dream of hitting level five to finally use that card we’ve been jazzed about ever since we first laid eyes upon it. Think about thinning the attack modifier deck and trimming out 4 of the minus 1 damage cards. The possibilities feel endless. Each player can take their character’s design and tweak it to their desired build.

A lot of stuff has to get jammed into this big, big box.

Character progression is one of the most fascinating and relentlessly exciting parts of Gloomhaven. Players finish quests filled with elation as they count up XP to see if they’ve hit the next level. It’s one of the few games I find myself interested in playing over and over again. I’m far too curious to see the objectives for the next scenario. I want to explore side quests. I want to unlock the next tier of items and increase the prosperity of Gloomhaven. I want to know what’s inside all of those elusive tuckboxes. What do the characters look like? What roles are hidden beneath the box?
Every $100 rose has its thorn. In Gloomhaven’s case, it struggles with intense fiddliness.
I constructed a few inserts using the included foam to store the monster tiles, as well as packed the box full of plastic bags for extra storage. Really, the box, in the state it ships in, is not at all conducive to quick setup.
Each scenario would take me 30-40 minutes to set up. I would have to search for specific map tiles, specific traps, specific doors, find our road card, get my character set up, decide on my cards, find the right monsters and monster cards, etc. It takes a lot of time. If I had an extra table and space, I imagine this is the sort of thing I would leave set up for weeks at a time. It’s the downfall of Gloomhaven.

Incredible insert makes playing Gloomhaven quick and easy. (Insert not included.)

However, having received the Meeple Realty Gloomhaven Town insert, Gloomhaven is now an easy option for game night. The insert allows for lightning fast setup. All of my monsters, traps, doors, and other tokens are labeled by beautiful wood burnings. Cards are organized by lovely wooden envelope dividers. The entire game sits comfy in the original box. Alhough the lid rests an inch or so higher, it doesn’t bother me because I know everything inside is structured properly. My biggest gripe with the insert is map tiles don’t have a home, and might be better off in a binder or set of folders or something. If you are a neat freak, I highly recommend this insert for your own sake.
Even with the time it takes to prepare each session of Gloomhaven without the insert, I found it worthwhile, especially if the group knows how you’ve organized your copy. Teamwork makes the dreamwork, though the scenario can be spoiled for some if they examine the setup page for too long.
Finding the cards for each monster takes time, but the actual game places even more onus on a player to keep things running smoothly. Each monster stat sheet is stored in a unique sleeve that keeps players focused on only the current level of each monster, including their health, damage, range, and special abilities. I like the look of these sleeves, but players have to activate monsters in their initiative order. This means flipping a card for each monster type, checking the numbers on each monster, moving/attacking with each monster, then moving or removing damage counters and status effects onto the correlating spaces on each sleeve.

Finding tiles is simple and easy with the insert. (Insert not included.)

This is so tedious. At the end of each round, you will need to remember to move or remove status effects, reshuffle cards if denoted, and move elemental infusions (a mechanic where players and monsters charge a specific element on a table, then pulling off powerful abilities and exhaust said element). It’s a lot of shuffling, and remembering to shuffle, as well as remembering to take monsters damage tokens off the sleeve.
Of course, another issue with Gloomhaven is the initial learning curve. Luckily, like most good things in life, the initial understanding can be tedious, but once players figure out how the game works, it becomes a delight to play. I’m not sure I would have had a good grasp on the game without the lovely linear guide I read through on the BGG forums.
Gloomhaven isn’t too difficult to grok mechanically, but understanding how and why things work the way they do will be critical to enjoying the game. There are so many miscellaneous rules one might forget that can entirely change the flow of battle. You can lose a card to dodge a big attack from an enemy. Monsters move towards the closest player, but when tied for distance, approach the one with lower initiative. These are just a few rules, but I’m still finding nuances I wasn’t originally aware of that changes my perspective of the game and how to handle situations. Due to Gloomhaven’s popularity, one can find huge threads on BGG with questions and answers from other players, as well as a giant FAQ from Isaac himself.

Doors conceal the upcoming room, and our heroes must deal with the elite monster before them.

You know a game is the real deal when you’re trying to enjoy another engrossing board game, when you really would rather be playing Gloomhaven. This sort of thing doesn’t happen for me. I never care to play the same game over and over. I love trying new games. With Gloomhaven, every game feels new. There is new knowledge to obtain, new skills to learn, more tactical combat to enjoy, and more enemies to slaughter.
The few issues I have with the game are entirely overlooked by the massive amounts of content and the fluidity of combat. Some of our sessions have brought forth amazing comebacks. We’ve been cornered when we’ve thought there was no chance for success, until someone pulled an amazing combo and saved the party. We’ve also been completely overwhelmed by our foes and systematically eliminated, one by one.

Tons of characters are hidden inside sealed boxes. Only time will reveal the heroes inside. (Insert not included.)

Despite our successes and failures, every time you play, you leave a mark on Gloomhaven. The choices you make will carry over into your other character’s journeys through the high fantasy world. We’ve replayed old quests for grinding XP, only to rediscover an old friend on the road, opening up a side quest I might attempt solo the following evening. We’ve increased the prosperity of Gloomhaven, when last time I played with a different group, and the world felt more full of despair.
Everything matters in Gloomhaven. Time isn’t wasted, and even if you lose two hours of real time, having lost big in a mission, you still keep your XP and loot and can attempt the mission again at another time. Your characters exist in a world, similar to that of S.T.A.L.K.E.R, where many events take place behind the scenes. Characters could retire, but still exist in the world.
I’ve never played anything like Gloomhaven before. It feels simultaneously alive and at the same time able to convince hardcore RPG enthusiasts to give a board game a go. The world is inviting, and extends a hand of welcome to both new gamers and veteran dungeon crawlers. It’s the most valuable $100 one could bear to part with. This is the sort of game that makes for countless memories with buddies at the table. I can’t help but recommend Gloomhaven. I’m not sure the availability after the Kickstarter ends, but if you are on the fence, don’t hesitate.
This is a game stuffed with presentation, theme, and hundreds of reasons to play again and again. Don’t miss out. Don’t disregard the hype, because this one meets every expectation.
A review copy of Gloomhaven was provided by Cephalofair Games for this review.
A review copy of Gloomhaven Town insert was provided by Meeple Realty for this review.

The Bottom Line

Gloomhaven is the real deal. Few games justify their cost in terms of quality, re-playability, and fun, but Gloomhaven does it in spades. What frustrations you have with setup and learning mechanisms are thrown aside when you discover the rich, fantasy atmosphere, excitement of progression, and complexities of combat. I can’t help but recommend Gloomhaven as an essential title for most gaming collections.

 

9.6