In our first installment of Quick Hits from the Vault, we tackled the classic card drafting game 7 Wonders. This time around, the BGQ staff went with a somewhat newer game in Gloomhaven. You may have heard about this behemoth of a game, because it not only costs $120, but it provides hours upon hours of dungeon crawling adventures.
Gloomhaven is a legacy style, dungeon crawler board game that will have you controlling a fantasy character throughout their career. The goal of the game, other than to beat the scenarios and advance the overall campaign, is to get your character to finish their personal quest, thus retiring them and unlocking new characters for you to play next. The main part of the game is handled in a dice-less dungeon crawl that uses cards for combat abilities and also as a randomizer. There is a wealth of content in Gloomhaven and you can expect to put in 100+ hours if you intend to finish everything.
Gloomhaven was an ambitious project from Cephalofair Games and I have to hand it to them just for the sheer scope of the game. You could literally play this for 200 hours or more. That being said, I was really excited to play Gloomhaven and enjoyed our early sessions. Yet as our campaign marched on, the game seemed to lose a lot of its shine for me. While I loved the thematic elements of the overland and city encounters, many times the battles turned into a giant slog and took way too long. The biggest miss was probably how long it took to retire your character and unlock a new one. As opening boxes is one of the main appeals of a legacy game for me, I felt like I was waiting forever to do that in the game. In the end, Gloomhaven is a good game, but there are just other dungeon crawlers I’d rather play.
I backed Gloomhaven the second go-around on Kickstarter, but was put off by the size of the game in terms of the time duration, which is at least a year, according to most reports online. At that point, Gloomhaven becomes not just a game, but a lifestyle, and one that we were unwilling to commit to.
To be honest, I don’t want to be THAT guy, just unimpressed with Gloomhaven for the sake of age, curmudgeonliness, or standee-rage. However, I have to be. The core reason I’m unimpressed is because Gloomhaven brings together two mechanisms that didn’t need to be brought together. The power of deck building for creating interesting choices and the fluidity of miniatures combat, in my opinion, don’t mix well. Players are forced at times to make choices between suboptimal moves. That creates too much gamey-ness in a miniatures combat format. For skirmish combat to really work, it’s got to feel like a cutthroat battle down to the last HP with tactical choices about positioning and an array of actions available. Gloomhaven more often feels like an optimization against luck of the draw game. Thanks, but that’s not for me.
The reality of scheduling around the multiple grown and grown-ish people in our household plus trying to work in friends’ busy lives means regular RPG campaigns aren’t a good fit for us right now. Gloomhaven scratches that itch. If the stars align we can have a dungeon run set up and ready to go in under 20 minutes with no one having to devote time to prep. There’s even the ability for house guests to drop in and out for a session, or for a regular player to miss a session without entirely wrecking the game for everyone else.
Outside of its accessibility for casual players, I really like certain components like the enemy stat trackers. They’re SO much better than someone trying to maintain a pen and paper list of who’s damaged/stunned/knocked out, etc. I also appreciate that the story isn’t completely linear – having branching side quests as well as decisions that affect the story genuinely make it feel less like a legacy board game and more like an RPG. For me, Gloomhaven gets two thumbs up for design with busy gamers in mind.
I’m still working my way through most of the things that come in the luggage-sized Gloomhaven box. That said, the scenarios I’ve played through thus far have been a good amount of fun. As a campaign game, I want to keep the same players throughout our adventure, so it takes a special day to get it to the table. The story so far is a little thin, but hoping it will pick up and really give us some hooks to start caring out. Big thematic games aren’t really my thing generally (and I don’t buy into Gloomhaven being Euro in any stretch) but I can appreciate everything Cephalofair has be able to put together here.
When I first played Gloomhaven, I loved it. What surprised me the most and what I liked best were using character cards instead of dice – it gave me a sense of control that you don’t have with dice. The game does have a deck builder element and I have to admit I’m not a big fan of deck building. That said it works for the character decks of Gloomhaven. These are not deep decks with less than 20 cards and you have control of what to add and subtract as you level up so I was a fan.
The time commitment of the game is where my enjoyment waned. The personal quest cards that determine when your characters retire and also determine which boxes are unlocked next – I was not a fan. Even with errata tweaks, our group’s personal quest cards seemed unreachable without spending a ton of game time and some were so situational – they felt impossible to complete (and yes we house ruled and revealed ours because none of us seemed close). With all this said, Gloomhaven still a good game but the huge time commitment wore the newness off fairly fast making the game feel more like work.