Gloomhaven is, for now at least, one of the biggest, baddest games out there and it is currently sitting pretty on the top of Boardgamegeek’s list of the best games of all time. Take that, chess.
For those not in the know, Gloomhaven is a campaign-based dungeon crawler where a team of plucky heroes will try to uncover a huge sprawling web of storylines set in and around the titular city of Gloomhaven.
Welcome To The Dungeon
There are two halves to the game. The bigger chunk of the game is where you will be heading into various dungeons, caves and castles to deal with the beasties that call them home. You do this by playing down action cards and resolving them in turn. These cards will let you move about the map and dish out spells and attacks to your various foes.
There is treasure to find and loot to equip. And once you’re done and dusted there are story threads that get revealed and you’re off again to do a bit more adventuring. There are also various random events that can get triggered while you are off on the road and these can introduce you to various new characters and start off new side quests.
It is such a unique experience in board gaming and for what it is it comes in a pretty small package. (The only comparable game I can think of is Kingdom Death: Monster which is many times the size and price of Gloomhaven).
One of the big innovations Gloomhaven brought to the table was the fact that this was a fully cooperative experience. The big dungeon crawler type games that came before, Descent, Imperial Assault, etc. All needed one player to take an adversarial role and take control of the many monsters, hazards and traps that the heroes had to wind their way through. Gloomhaven is different.
With Gloomhaven, each of the enemy types is controlled by a set of AI cards. There are loads of different decks of these meaning different enemies act differently. Archers will hang back and take shots from across the room whereas something a bit bigger may charge at you to give you a good smacking. It’s not quite as good as squaring off against a human player as you can get to learn these AI move sets eventually, but it’s a good facsimile.
And because of this, you can solo play Gloomhaven. You take control of 2 individual heroes and away you go! Also, you don’t quite get the full experience as you know what both characters are going to do each turn, which takes away a little bit of the fuzziness around planning each turn.
You also don’t really get the fun that the hidden objectives bring by players acting a little oddly each game in order to complete their hidden agenda. But apart from those two little downsides, the rest of the game is as good as playing with a group of players.
Dropping In For Tea And Goblins
One of the other nice things about Gloomhaven is that it’s possible for players to drop in and out of a campaign as you go through. This is actually how I ended up discovering the joys of solo Gloomhaven for myself. I started off in a group of 4 players. We all left the city of Gloomhaven with a spring in our step.
Then, after a few months, one of our parties had to drop out as she had a baby. Then covid stopped the other 2 players coming round to dungeon dive a few months later. I didn’t want to give up on our campaign as we were a decent way through it at this point, so I ended up playing solo over the next few months.
I had a great time going off and exploring new regions of the map and heading off on different side quests. Then, as the lockdown eased off a bit, my character headed back to the city of Gloomhaven, walked into a tavern and met 2 of their previous party members and had a big old catch up about what’s been happening on the roads around the city. I showed off all my new shiny gear and then we headed back out on the roads again as a group.
Back Into The Fray
Apart from our character levels being off for a mission or two, it was like old times again. While I’m never going to say that solo is the best way to play Gloomhaven, the camaraderie is a brilliant element of the game, it definitely does have its advantages. For a start, this game is huge. I’ve been playing it for about 2 years now and I don’t feel like I’m near the end of it.
The idea of being able to get the same group of friends together for the amount of time it takes to get through this campaign is bonkers to me. I’m sure there are people who have done it, but I quite liked the flexibility of being able to crack it out on an evening when I had an hour or three to spare and knock through a mission or two.
The story is still brilliant and twists and turns just the same as playing it in a group. What I’m saying is this. If you’ve been intrigued by Gloomhaven and haven’t picked it up because you were worried you wouldn’t be able to get some friends around to play it often enough, I’m here to tell you that you’ll have pretty much the same experience soloing the game.
And then if something changes and you can get a regular game group together you can easily introduce them to the game at a later date with just a little backstory explanation for some context.
A Great Experience
There is a reason Gloomhaven is currently sat at number 1. It is such a great experience and I’ve very rarely heard of anybody who was interested in the idea and then didn’t like the game when they played it.
That said, if you are still unsure about spending what is a large chunk of money on a single, although massive, game. You can always try Jaws of the Lion. Which is a short campaign which contains most of what makes Gloomhaven special. The size is scaled back and you do miss out a little bit of the character progression but it is another great option to get you into the series.