Where do I even start with Gloomhaven? Do I tell you about how it was designed by one person: Isaac Childres? Do I bring up how much space it takes up on my shelf? Or maybe I talk about its meteoric rise to the number one spot of Board Game Geek’s rankings?
There is so much to be said about this game so I’ll start with this: I love Gloomhaven. I love the world Isaac has created. I love the story you get to tell. I love that I get to play it with my family and they all love it too. I should mention here that I haven’t completed Gloomhaven. I’ve been through less than 20 of the almost 100 scenarios the game contains. Just something to be aware of before proceeding.
Isaac has crafted something incredible that rivals triple-A video game titles. I’ve heard Gloomhaven be described as the Skyrim of board games (and that’s not completely inaccurate). A huge expansive world with hundreds, if not thousands, of secrets to discover and dungeons to explore? Check. A campaign with twists and turns, side-quests, and incredible characters to meet? Check. Dragons? Check. Gloomhaven can be the board game you use to get your video game friends to join you around the table. Despite this, it’s not an introductory game.
You see, Gloomhaven is quite complex. It can best be described as a cooperative, euro-style, dungeon crawl, hand management, legacy campaign game. Not sure what all of that means? No worries, let’s take a closer look.
Gloomhaven is played co-operatively from 1-4 players. Each player will have a character unique to them. They may choose to play as the Human Rogue, or the Inox Brute, or maybe the Quatryl Tinkerer. There are six different classes to choose from at the start, with another 11 being locked away that you can unlock after reaching certain gameplay milestones. You will name your character and, throughout the campaign, they will level up and unlock new abilities and perks.
Each character will also be given a retirement card. From a story standpoint, these are goals your character wishes to complete. This is their reason for being in Gloomhaven. Once you have met the requirements on the card, your character retires and you stop playing as them. You unlock a new class and choose a new character to play as. It is very reminiscent of playing a tabletop RPG.
Depending on the number of players, the difficulty level will also change in a very elegant way. When you set up a dungeon to explore, the book tells you to add monsters. Each monster is marked in different ways to show at which player count they are added, and you can tweak the scenario level based on the player’s levels. This ensures you have a nicely balanced dungeon to explore regardless of how many players there are.
However, balanced doesn’t mean easy, and it certainly doesn’t mean balanced. You might run into a type of monster that has strengths that your characters can’t compete with. Maybe everyone is focused on using spells and this creature isn’t too bothered about spells. All of the characters make up the party, and the party needs to be balanced. You need someone that can tank some damage and output even more. You need people that are strong in melee range or from far away. Putting all of your eggs in one basket is generally not a good thing in these situations.
I also described Gloomhaven as a euro-style hand management game. This is because dungeon crawl games are typically very thematic. You roll lots of dice and kill all the things. Gloomhaven has a much more thoughtful approach. Everything you do in a scenario is done through cards. Each character has a hand of cards. Each card is broken down into two halves with an initiative number in the middle.
Typically, the top half is used for combat, while the bottom half is used for movement. That’s right, even moving is done through cards. The initiative number determines when in the round you will get to act. Each round you select two cards to play. You will activate the top half of one and the bottom half of the other. In initiative order, people and monsters take turns. Once you’ve taken your turn your cards are sent to a discard pile.
In some cases, cards are lost forever. But these are usually incredibly powerful cards that can swing the tides of battle. If a card is not lost it can be recovered by resting. There are two types of rest. A short rest can happen at the end of your turn. Or, you can take a long rest that takes up your whole turn. Either way, you take back your discarded (not lost, those are gone forever) cards, but send one of them to your lost card pile. If it was a short rest then you do this randomly. If it was a long rest you get to choose which card to lose and you recover two of your hit points.
No matter which option you choose, your selection of cards will slowly start to dwindle. Once you have no cards left or if your hit points reach zero, you are exhausted and out of the scenario. This means you are essentially on a timer. Managing your hand of cards is one of the most important aspects of this game, and will make or break the players.
Each scenario you embark on will have its own unique puzzles and ways to win. The goals may be to just kill everything in the dungeon or to recover a lost ancient artefact. Just to name a couple. No matter what though, you’ll be killing things. Lots of things. Whenever you use an attack you get a chance to draw from your random modifier deck. That’s right, another deck of cards unique to you.
At first, these cards will be filled with simple modifications to your damage. Increasing or reducing your damage by one or two, or keeping it the same. Occasionally it will be a critical hit or a total miss. This is meant to simulate combat in a more thematic way. Maybe you hit their weak spot and did more damage, or maybe you hit their armour and it did less. You get the idea.
The real magic comes as you level up. When you get stronger, you can change the deck. Not only do you get to add new cards to your hand, but you also get to remove the crummy damage reducing modifiers and replace them with better cards. Depending on the class you’re playing, you might get to add special conditions to your cards like stun and poison. Or maybe you’ll get to add special elements to the air. That’s right, there are special elemental conditions.
Certain cards will gain benefits if the element is present. Now your regular sword attack can be a flaming sword attack that will do persistent damage each round to the victim.
We’ve Barely Scratched The Surface
It’s hard to believe that the past 1000+ words have been the simplest explanation of Gloomhaven I could do. This barely scratches the surface of this beast of a game. I didn’t even get a chance to talk about the enchantments. Well, okay… since you asked…
Enchantments are a way to permanently alter cards belonging to a class. You mark these cards by adding stickers. This is part of where the legacy aspect comes in. If you aren’t familiar with the term legacy, it means the game will be altered in permanent ways as the game goes on. Usually, this is done by adding stickers to boards and cards – or actually destroying parts of the game.
Enchantments are one of the ways Gloomhaven uses legacy. Adding stickers to your cards to give them more damage or range, for example. You will also have a world map that stickers will be added to as you explore and unlock achievements.
When you embark on your next adventure, you will also have random events happen. Maybe you come across a group of bandits that demand a toll. Do you pay it and lose money, or do you choose to fight? If you choose the latter you will begin the scenario with fewer hit points. Though you won that fight, it wasn’t without a few scrapes. But you got to stand your ground and keep your money. Maybe the bandits were holding someone prisoner and you have set them free.
The event may prompt you to add a new card to the event deck that you can now encounter. What will that card be? Who knows? We certainly don’t.
Final Thoughts On Gloomhaven
As we’ve been working our way through Gloomhaven and forging our own stories, it truly feels like the possibilities are endless. I hardly feel like my friends and I have even scratched the surface. We’ve seen about a fifth of the scenarios, played for about 100 hours already, and had someone retire with another on their way out too.
I’ve lived in Gloomhaven for so long already and each time we arrange to play it I am excited. You know how you make plans with people and then wish those plans weren’t happening so you could stay home and do nothing? Gloomhaven is the opposite of that.
If you’re looking for an epic campaign to commit to and truly feel rewarded for your efforts, check out Gloomhaven. It takes a lot of effort and hard work though. The rules are many and initially complex. You will be making mistakes way past the point at which you feel you should be. I play with two other people and everyone has their own jobs. One player tracks the monsters, another tracks the tokens, etc… If you are the only person setting up the scenarios, keeping track of everything, and maintaining the game, you may grow to resent it.
You’re looking at an approximate 30 minutes of set-up, 2-4 hours of gameplay, and another 30 minutes to pack away. It’s a commitment and all of the players around the table need to be alright with that. There’s also the matter of the price. It’s not cheap. You do get more than a bargain, but it’s still a large investment to find out if this game will work for you.
If you’ve heard all of that and it still appeals to you, then go for it! Gloomhaven is an experience I’ve only ever had electronically, or in a tabletop role-playing game run by a great game master.
Editors note: This blog was originally published on June 20th, 2018. Updated on November 2nd, 2021 to improve the information available.