Ten Observations on Gloomhaven
For the duration of the next month, the enormously popular Gloomhaven is back on Kickstarter for a second print run. Perhaps more tellingly, it has blitzed its way onto the BoardGameGeek top ten, currently hovering at number nine. Who does it think it is, Pandemic Legacy?
Personally, I haven’t played enough of Gloomhaven to warrant a review. Even after a dozen-plus hours in its presence, I just haven’t seen that much of it. Some laughs, some battles, some leveling up, some tinkering with character and party builds — yet still only a fraction of the gorilla that is the game’s twenty-pound box. For many games, six plays is easily enough to form an impression. In Gloomhaven, it doesn’t even mean getting your feet wet. Damp, perhaps. Perspiring, maybe. But not wet.
All the same, what follows are ten impressions of those first half-dozen plays. A sort of review-in-progress, as it were.
#1. The Star of the Show Is the Combat System
One of my greatest reservations about Gloomhaven was the simple fact that I don’t like dungeon crawls. I can’t think of anything duller than a long evening of Warhammer Quest, for instance. I’d rather watch the weather channel. At least then I’d have a chance of seeing the pressure rise.
The problem is twofold. Firstly, I never feel like I’m in control. We’ll talk about that in just a second. The other problem is that dungeon crawls have a way of getting repetitive, of forcing me through the same actions again and again. Move forward, bottleneck, swing, miss, connect, take damage, lather, rinse, repeat. As a general rule of thumb, anything that segues neatly into a shower joke is probably something I want to do even less than take a shower.
Gloomhaven, on the other hand, has managed to not only seize my interest, but keep it captive for far longer than I anticipated. A lot of this comes down to the way it handles its combat, because in Gloomhaven there’s no such thing as a basic attack, a basic move, or a basic anything. Instead, each class gets their own set of cards, each of which is an entirely unique set of options. The way a Cragheart moves is not the way a Spellweaver moves, let alone the way they go about attacking, healing, beefing themselves or their allies up, or anything else.
Better yet, a single round is all about using those cards — two at a time, using the top option from one and the bottom option of another — to craft an entire dynamic action on the part of your character. Not only does your chosen pair of cards indicate your initiative, they also slot together into a combination of moves and attacks. This means it’s possible to leap backwards while casting a spell, or chuck rocks before moving up close to deal proximity damage, or slink into the shadows and perform a backstab on a now-unsuspecting bandit. As a combat system, it’s supremely flexible, easy to get a handle on, and even pulls triple duty by simulating your character’s waning stamina.
See, when you’re done with a pair of cards, they’re set aside in your discard. Not a big deal. Picking them up is as easy as resting for a turn. But resting also means setting one of your recovered cards aside in your trash pile, effectively losing one of your options for the rest of the battle. Lose too many and you won’t be able to do anything at all.
There are a few significant benefits to this, not the least of which is the fact that even skipping a turn becomes an exercise in tough decision-making. It’s telling, for example, that the bulk of my fallen comrades have been eliminated because they were too tired to continue a fight, not because they were beaten to a pulp by skeletons and reanimated corpses. In Gloomhaven’s take on combat, every little decision matters. And that’s great.
#2. Diceless Has Never Been This Good
I have nothing against dice. Honest. You don’t get to regard Greenland and Neanderthal as two of the finest games ever crafted by not reaching a place of peace with the occasional flubbed roll. Rather, my problem is with doing nothing but roll dice all the time, without feeling like I’m doing much to alter the outcome. See my previous frustration with dungeon crawlers, a genre that has traditionally been a little too infatuated with the notion that you can’t predict the outcome of implanting a mace into someone’s skull via crude medieval surgery. Buddy, I know roughly what happens. It hurts, is what.
Gloomhaven doesn’t use dice at all.
Let that sink in. A dungeon crawl, about monsters smacking heroes and vice versa, without any dice at all. So what are you doing all the time? Surely the game isn’t — gasp — deterministic?
Not at all. In place of dice, everything is just handled by a deck of modifiers. Hits will still deal more or less damage, cause critical attacks, and even sometimes miss. What this accomplishes, however, is twofold. First of all, since you’re pulling from your own personal deck, a string of botches isn’t necessarily the worst thing in the world. All it means is that you’re more likely to hit harder on your next attack, at least unless you miss and have to shuffle the thing. Even better, your characters can gradually modify their decks. Entering a crypt is a great way to get yourself a pair of curse cards in your deck, little guaranteed misses that result from being buried alive in a funk-scented tomb. And leveling up means mixing in some choice cards of your own. Just like that, rather than using a regular deck, you’re pulling from a carefully-manicured deck of special attacks and perks. So cool.
#3. The Character Classes Are Lovely
I don’t want to give too much away, in part because a lot of the joy of Gloomhaven is discovering what it has to offer for yourself. It’s like a cult in that sense: better for you to watch through fogged glass, wonder what everybody is up to with those robes and chanting, then pay your dues and find out that we’re just playing board games.
That said, the character classes really are a treat. Instead of outfitting you as the usual thuggery, each of the classes hews close to archetype while also hitting a few of their own beats. My current character is a Cragheart, a big rock dude with a heart of… never mind, I’m not sure he has a heart. He has a ton of hit points, lumbers around, and generally behaves like your usual tank. Except he isn’t your usual tank. He’s a ranged rock-chucker who periodically hurts everything around himself, boasts some plentiful healing magic, and can make dust tornadoes to confuse everybody stupid enough to get caught downwind. He’s a cross between a ranged hurt-bringer, a damage sponge, and a utility class, and he fits the game’s weird-as-weird setting perfectly.
It’s also nice to note that you aren’t stuck with the same person forever, which makes the decision of which character you’ll be guiding a lot less stressful than picking a mate. But we’ll talk a little more about this in a few minutes.
#4. That Said, It Can Feel Enormously Repetitive
It’s never as bad as a regular dungeon crawler. Never that. But it still occasionally feels like my group of friends has been caught in the same perpetual loop of moving through doors, lining up enemies at choke points, and hoping we draw the right cards. That and telling Geoff that, no, he can’t swap classes.
I’ve seen plenty of people talking about how quickly they’ve plumbed the depths of all that Gloomhaven has to offer, and I can’t help but think they’re bananas. For me, this is a game best enjoyed deliberately, one sampling at a time.
#5. There’s a Price to Be Paid for Not Having an Overlord Player…
In stark contrast to the Descent/Imperial Assault school of thought, there’s no need for anybody to be the baddie here. Just as each player character gets their own deck of options, each type of monster — and there are a boatload — is given their own short deck of behaviors. Archers fall back and chuck arrows, bandits behave with some modicum of sense, and skeleton warriors shift between clattering forward and reassembling themselves, the dusty gits.
Naturally, there’s some degree of stupidity to this process. One of your teammates might be bleeding on the ropes only for an entire rank of enemies to figure it’s a good time to hide behind their shields, and of course there’s nothing a host of bad guys love more than picking a narrow corridor to die in. Sometimes you’ll be harried by archers from a distance, other times they’ll just sort of stare blank-faced at where you’re standing approximately three feet out of range.
#6. …But It’s a Price I Pay Gladly
No, not because the dorkiness of your enemies can be explained away as their actual in-game dorkiness, though it’s true that engineers and doctors don’t usually become bandits or animated corpses. Rather, I’m happy to endure the occasional tomfoolery of the enemies bumping into each other like overeager rabbits because the combat in Gloomhaven usually puts up a stiff enough challenge that I’m not going to worry about it. At least my half-eaten party at the conclusion of each skirmish would say so. For the most part, the game feels balanced enough to permit the occasional Thermopylae.
Also, can you imagine one person having to be the bad guy through this entire game? That would be madness.
#7. Decks, Decks, Everywhere
Just for the pleasure of a quick monster-poke, Gloomhaven requires that you manage more decks of cards than your last five game nights combined. In one sitting, you’ll need your character’s combat cards and combat modifier deck, the monster behavior decks for every single monster you’ll face and their combat modifier deck, and any road or city cards flipped while en route to your adventure, any market cards you perused to buy extra potions or bouncy slippers, not to mention your character’s long-term goal and this-battle goal. All that, and I’m probably forgetting something hugely vital to the experience. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d started a scenario only to realize that I’d left something out.
Between that and the fact that you’re setting up each job from a wide selection of rooms, props, monsters, traps, and treasures, and you’re looking at a fairly significant setup and breakdown after each trip to the wilderness. Sure, you might be one of those folks with a dedicated table and no need to ever clean up after yourself. In which case, congratulations. You’re better than the rest of us. Now stop pretending that we all lead lives of such casual splendor.
#8. All Those Decks? They Serve a Purpose
On the other hand, Gloomhaven is in pursuit of true depth of experience, and all those little decks reflect that.
I mentioned earlier that picking a character doesn’t mean you’re stuck with them forever. Instead, you’re stuck with them exactly however long it takes you to accomplish their personal goal. Everyone in your company of mercenary adventurers is here for a reason, drawn at random at the beginning of their career, and upon fulfilling that goal, there just isn’t that much left to tether them to this crummy city and its tendency to get overrun by demon-kin.
What makes this so nifty is that accomplishing your goal means your character is retired. Maybe you’ll open another character class or add some new cards to your road deck, but either way you’ll be picking a new character to play for the next while. Just like that, the little rat-mage who’d been getting stale is rotated out for somebody fresh.
And that’s just one of the game’s many decks. Everyone is also given little per-battle goals to pursue, events to argue over, and equipment to round out their weaknesses. Sure, the loot system is absolute garbage, and I guarantee you’ll tremble with betrayal the first time you find an amazing artifact only to realize that you’ve just added it to the local shop rather than your inventory. But for the most part, all these decks are necessary to craft the wide-ranging experience that Gloomhaven is offering.
To be perfectly clear, after a half-dozen jobs, I’m excited to see more. Not too quickly, mind you, lest the entire thing overstay its welcome. But I’m as excited to see what lies in the next dungeon as I am to learn what changes are in store for the Bawdy Lasses, our group’s company of misfit mercenaries. It isn’t often that I’m totally swept away by the grandeur of a game, but Gloomhaven has managed it as completely as I’ve ever experienced. That this game exists at all is a sort of miracle. That it’s this good is downright dumbfounding.
#9. I Reached a Scenario That Locked Me Out of Another Scenario
Not sure how I feel about that.
#10. Maybe I’ll Just Play One of the Other Eighty-Odd Levels