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Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion Preview

Jaws of the Lion Feature

Designer Isaac Childres is clearly not a man to sit back and rest on his laurels. Not only is one of his games, Gloomhaven, currently the top ranked game of all time over at board game geek but earlier this year its sequel, Frosthaven, shattered the record for most funded board game on kickstarter. And now he is back with something else to make gamers sit up and pay attention.

Gloomhaven is a very appealing prospect to boardgamers. It is a big immersive game with a unique setting where 1-4 players can take characters through a long winding campaign with side quests, progression, legacy aspects and a great story. There is one thing that often put people off though, and that was its sheer size.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that this game can take 20-30 minutes to set up a scenario when you have to sift through the box for all the cards, characters, monsters and tokens that you are going to need to play a game. And this is where Jaws of the Lion finds its chance to shine.

Welcome to the Dungeon

Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion is a new, smaller, game which acts as an introduction to the world and mechanics of Gloomhaven. But that is not to say there is nothing here for Gloomhaven veterans as well, Jaws of the Lion is also a stand alone expansion to Gloomhaven. I feel like I should stress that I said that this is a smaller game, not a small game. Jaws of the lion still offers a 20+ mission campaign with a story and opportunities for character progression which will still take a good while to complete.

Just in case you’ve not really heard of Gloomhaven, I’ll explain what all the fuss is about. It is a diceless fantasy dungeon crawl game where players use an innovative cardplay and initiative system to complete missions on a dungeon map. As the scenario progresses players will begin to lose their action cards as their characters become fatigued during the fight until eventually, they will not have any cards to play and the mission is failed. This system gives the game an almost puzzley feel as players are trying to work out the best way to combine their powers to overcome obstacles and complete missions.

Snatching victory

The main way that Jaws of the Lion differs from full fat Gloomhaven is that the maps are no longer made out of a jigsaw of room tiles. Instead the maps are printed in the scenario book itself. This may seem like a bit of a step back but remember that long set up time in Gloomhaven? A lot of that was setting up the map correctly. Now you just open the scenario book to the right page and boom, you’re ready to play. You may be giving up a bit of table presence, but this is definitely a good move for a game where you are trying to make Gloomhaven more approachable.

The scenarios in Jaws of the Lion play out pretty much identically to the ones found in its big sibling. You still have a deck of unique ability cards to play for each character as well as a deck of modifier cards. The monsters are still programmed with behaviours meaning you don’t need a player to take on the role of an antagonist like you do in games like descent or imperial assault.

From the Jaws of defeat

Where the mechanics of Jaws of the Lion differ are in the systems around the battle scenarios. There are only 4 heroes included in the box, because of this there is no way to retire a hero by completing its personal quest. This was a cool feature in Gloomhaven especially as you could bump into your old heroes further down the line in the story. However, from memory I would say my group were somewhere around our 15th game before we were in a position to retire our first adventurer. So, although retirement is not found in Jaws of the Lion, it’s not as if you’re missing out on a core feature of the experience.

The other mechanic you won’t find in the box is card modification. During a Gloomhaven campaign you could get the chance to put modification stickers on your action cards to make them better. Again, this is not part of the core experience of Gloomhaven. It takes a while to get to a point where you could do this and its removal from Jaws of the Lion makes sense.

Another cool thing is that if you finish Jaws of the Lion and want some more, you can obviously go and pick up a copy of Gloomhaven. The characters you have been using with Jaws of the Lion are compatible with Gloomhaven and vice versa. This means that there is something here for long time fans of Gloomhaven who are looking for a new story to play through while we all wait for Frosthaven to arrive.