Reviewing Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion, the new standalone game in the Gloomhaven world, is a difficult task. Inside this jam-packed box is all you need to play 25 scenarios in a legacy style experience. This review will not spoil any of the story or surprises contained within this amazing game. But in avoiding such delights, there is only so much that I can talk about. What I can say is this: I predict Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion, will become a top 10 game on BGG within the year, perhaps even number one. So, is that enough to make it worth your consideration?
Gloomhaven has sat proudly on top of the tree for a long while now, and rightly so. It is an amazing game. But it has three issues that stop many from playing it. One: the price. Gloomhaven is not a cheap game. Two: time. This game requires you to give it a lot of your time, ideally with a group of friends who you can regularly play with. Not everyone can commit to that. Three: accessibility. Gloomhaven is not an easy game to learn, play, or set up due to the modular boards and many, MANY tiles!
None of these things are an issue with Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion. The game is less than half the price. There are 25 scenarios, which is still a huge amount of game, but a manageable commitment. And most importantly, the mechanics of set-up have completely changed. Learning and playing this game is as slick as a greased up Vermling Raider in a whistle factory.
Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion retains a lot of the things that make the original game great. But all the things that make it inaccessible are gone! This is why I predict it will climb the ranks so quickly and maybe even all the way to the top. Of course, this is not the full Gloomhaven experience, more a taster for the main course! But it is the best starter I have ever had! And still a very satisfying one. This is the sort of starter you finish and think you can't manage your main course now! But if you love it and do have room for some more, you know what to do.
There has been no other game I have ever recommend as much as this. And I don’t think there will be again for some time. Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion is a brilliant game. But is it right for you?
A Box of delights!
Opening Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion is an intimidating thing at first. There is a lot packed inside the box. The first thing you are greeted with is a sheet of paper telling you to stop and prepare yourself for something you may not have experienced before. You are asked to set the game up. Prepare it for its first outing. This involves grouping the monsters with their associated cards and name tags into bags. Not a massive task, but you are looking at about 30 minutes of admin before you even open the rule book. But once this is it out the way, the fun can begin. And because you have ordered everything in this way, the game flows incredibly smoothly for all later games.
The rule book is a thing of genius. You will be quickly assured about how easy it is to learn this game. Even for someone who knows nothing about Gloomhaven, you will be playing the first game within minutes. Scenario one is underwhelming in truth. But you must remember that at this point, you have the training wheels on and are only experiencing about 5% of the game. But the next four training scenarios ramp up the excitement very quickly, gearing you up for the next 20 missions. New rules, mechanics and cards are brought into the game, teaching you the full world of Gloomhaven in an incredibly smooth and easy-to-process way.
As new elements come into the game, there is a real sense of excitement to be able to try new things. You are not bombarded with excessive choices from the get-go. Rather you are eased into this world, all while being absorbed into the story with the brilliant narrative. I won't go into specifics here, other than to say some heavy stuff goes down and you will be captivated more than that Netflix boxset you just binged! Every game I play, I want more.
Sounds great! But what do you actually do?
For anyone who hasn’t played Gloomhaven, you may still be wondering how this game actually works. It’s very simple really. Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion is a fantasy adventure game with a brilliant narrative. The experience is intertwined within a smooth dungeon crawler experience. What does this actually mean? You move your character through hexes, fight bad guys, loot treasure, and generally go on a rip-roaring adventures.
From the off, you are thrust into a deep, dark story that only you can solve. You will feel a part of the Gloomhaven world from the very beginning. But some of you may not know what Gloomhaven is. Well, other than the brilliant game this spins off from, Gloomhaven is a town. And you play as either The Red Guard, Hatchet, Voidwarden or The Demolitionist. Four brilliant characters you can pick at the start to act as your gateway into this world. You are a member of The Jaws of the Lion, a group of mercenaries who take jobs for money, helping those less able to fight!
Very much like the base game, Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion sees you exploring and fighting your way through various scenarios. But unlike in Gloomhaven where you need to lay the specific tiles out for each mission, here you simply open the scenario book. The maps are all there for you, ready to explore and have fun with. Add your characters and any monsters present, and away you go. Oh, and any other things that may be present such as traps, money, treasure, etc. I don’t want to spoil anything for you! But it is all very easy to learn. You are walked through the first five scenarios with ease. And once you have completed these, you will be very familiar with the rules and mechanics for the rest of the game.
But is Jaws of the Lion for me?
With all that out the way, I want to address this point. Is this game for you? Well, firstly, I don’t know you! But, if you are anything like me, then I would hazard a guess that yes! Yes, this is for you! Whether you are looking for a new game to play solo, with friends or in a two, this is for you, so long as you enjoy these three things in board games: adventure, freedom and a good story. If you are a Dungeon crawler veteran this may come across as a little basic, especially the first five scenarios.
If you want a game with a load of miniatures, this will disappoint with the standees that are used. Finally, if you want a game that will absorb you for hundreds of hours, again, this is not the one for you. But for an entry level game in this world and using this mechanic, I would say this is almost flawless.
Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion is full of adventure. From the very beginning you feel like you are on a Tolkienesque quest. The theme is dripping from this game, although in a much darker way than anything you may find in Lord of the Rings! Disemembered limbs, sacrifices and murder are rife from the off. But not in an in-your-face way. It's all part of the narrative, so you can edit as you see fit. But the story is gripping and the sense of adventure is second to none from my current experience.
This is not a sand box game. Each scenario has a very specific task and requirements, and you cannot move outside the walls of the map. But there is a sense of freedom here in the way the turns play out. This game is not reliant upon the luck of a dice roll or constrained by the mechanics of set actions. You feel like you are a rounded 360 character with the ability to make your own decisions. Mechanically speaking, the game is simple. And of course, you are restricted by the rules and cards available to you. But when you play, you feel free and part of this world
All of which leads me to the story. The game itself as a dungeon crawler is relatively simple. Move. Fight. Heal. Use an item. Again, I don't want to spoil anything with some of the other things you will get up to, but you get the picture. But the story you are a part of is why this game is so engrossing to me. It makes all the actions I do so absorbing. They matter as I am invested. I found myself thinking about the game a lot between plays.
I was talking with a lot of people about what I had experienced. And each thought and conversation always gravitated to the story. It was like discussing a film I had just seen, more than a game I had played. Now, again, I must stress, for a hard-core gamer, this may not be the case. This is designed to bring new players into the world of fantasy exploration games. But I think you would struggle to find a better example of a game to introduce new players to this type of game.
As such, I am left with this final thought. If you have not played a dungeon crawler before, but are eager to try one, buy this game. It is the best example of an entry-level game of this type around. For the more experienced gamers out there, be mindful that this is not designed for you. The first five scenarios will feel slow and you may be left frustrated by the kid gloves around you. But I would say there is still enough game in the subsequent 20 scenarios to get your money’s worth from this game.
For anyone who has always wanted to try Gloomhaven, but been put off by the price, time commitment or complexity, this is your answer. Neatly packaged in an affordable box, Jaws of the Lion will guide you into the world of Gloomhaven in a way that will make you never think the same about board games again. Welcome to the world of Gloomhaven!