Gloomhaven is many things to the board game community. It was, until I started writing this review, the number one game on Board Game Geek (you’re welcome Brass!). It’s a thematic dungeon crawler that has broad appeal to both Euro and ameritrash gamers. It’s a legacy game where you retire characters and unlock new ones based on a life goal. Its straight-forward concept yet deep gameplay makes each of the 90+ scenarios a puzzle to solve.
Starting out in Gloomhaven reminds me of a story from high school. I was testing to be a lifeguard at a Boy Scout camp and the last drill was to save someone “drowning”. Long story short, once I swam to the water polo player I was supposed to save, he leapt out of the water, tackled me, and then proceeded to spend the next few minutes tossing me around the waterfront much to the amusement of everyone else watching before he got bored and let me save him.
What’s that story have to do with Gloomhaven? That’s kind of how the first mission felt but without the merciful ending.
Like most dungeon crawlers there are a lot of rules in Gloomhaven Jaws of the Lion so this section will just touch upon some of the key mechanics. The game also comes with a Learn to Play Guide which introduces the game and slowly adds mechanics through the first five scenarios to ease you into the experience (unlike its big brother which threw you in the deep end and smacked you around like my lifeguarding final).
Each scenario is played out in a spiral-bound book, like many Plaid Hat games, and has some flavor text along with special rules and goals.
Each turn of the game you pick two cards to play from your hand with a plan to use the top half of one card and the bottom half of the other card. You’ll select one of the two cards to be your initiative value between 1 and 99 with lower numbers going earlier in the round than higher values. Then draw a card for each monster type to determine their initiative and behavior. Then activate each character or monster in order.
Since players aren’t supposed to share their initiative, there’s a chance for miscommunication as well as the enemies doing something that thoroughly ruined your finely crafted plan. Each card can also be used as either a basic attack or basic move of two damage or spaces, respectively, which allows for some improvisation.
Some powerful cards are lost when used while the normal discard pile can be put back into your hand with a rest action. However, if you opt for a short rest, you can take a turn and then get your cards back but you have to randomly move one to the lost pile. If you take a long rest, which consumes your whole turn, you get to pick the card you lose.
Players continue using cards until they either complete the scenario or are exhausted, which allows them to try again.
First off, Jaws of the Lion solves one of its big brother’s problems with a much faster set up and tear down time thanks to the scenario book and having much of the iconography directly on the page you’re playing on. And while the icons can break the immersion of the thematic background, it makes setting up much easier.
In addition to the enemy cards and the element track, the last thing that Jaws of the Lion shares with Gloomhaven is the tight scenario balance. It’s rare that I finish a scenario with cards for more than another round or two. But this tightrope of card management is one of the reasons Gloomhaven isn’t for everyone. That balance requires careful planning and execution to succeed. I love having interesting choices but sometimes Jaws of the Lion surpasses what I want to put into playing a game. And losing a scenario after 90 minutes to have to retry it isn’t something I typically enjoy in long campaigns.
One of the largest differences between the titles is the way you start the campaign. The tutorial is great and eases players into the game by introducing one mechanic at a time. It’s very linear up to that point but after the sixth scenario, I had two main quests and two side quests to choose between for my next mission so the game does open up in a similar manner to Gloomhaven, even with the reduced scope of Jaws of the Lion. But even the reduced scope of 20+ scenarios is a good amount of content at a very reasonable price point. The narrative setting up and closing out each scenario is serviceable and entertaining but it’s not the main draw.
Unlike most games that have settled into the MMO-style tropes of tank, damager dealer, and healer; Childres’ world is full of characters that often don’t fit into any individual category. The Voidwarden is a healer, a debuffer, and controller who can make allies and enemies move or make attacks. While most cards are cool (which makes losing them during long rests a painful decision) some of your best cards can only be used once. And that’s one of the things that holds all the Gloomhaven-associated titles back a bit for me when compared to Chronicles of Drunagor. In the latter, I felt like I got to do cool stuff every round while in Gloomhaven I have to save my coolest abilities for the end or risk running out of cards too early.
I had late pledged the first printing of Gloomhaven, played it 20 times or so before parting ways with it. I ended up with two characters that I didn’t love, didn’t synergize well, and wasn’t clicking with their playstyles while I found the “kill everyone” missions too repetitive. But Jaws of the Lion intrigued me so I jumped at the opportunity to review it. And I’m glad I did as the game is fantastic with some caveats. It’s a great game while simultaneously not what I’m always looking for in a dungeon crawler.
If someone wanted to try Gloomhaven I would highly recommend Jaws of the Lion as the perfect starting point. If you like to maximize every action and really plan out your next few moves it’s a satisfying experience but it’s not for those desiring a lighter affair. Likewise, I wouldn’t suggest it for someone looking for an entry-level dungeon crawler. Like its big brother and Frosthaven—Jaws of the Lion is the quintessential dungeon crawler for euro-gamers.
Final Score: 4 Stars – Jaws of the Lion does a lot of what Gloomhaven does well while also smoothing out some rough edges and being scaled down to a reasonable-sized experience without skimping on the content.
• The tutorial that eases you into the game
• Interesting characters with a lot of cool abilities
• Incredibly well balanced scenarios
• The card combat system provides a lot of depth and satisfying choices.
• Fast to set up
• This game requires a lot of mental overhead
• Need to horde your best abilities for the end of each mission