Suppose your understanding of Dungeons & Dragons comprises the adventures of Bobby and Uni, his gorgeous sister Sheila *swoon*, and other brats. In that case, you’re in good company: I know little about the subject either, including Gloomhaven – coincidentally, not a D&D game – just to prove my ignorance.
Still, with access to an advanced search engine that isn’t AltaVista, I’ve concluded that Gloomhaven is a dungeon crawler with all the traits an outsider would associate with D&D type games or tactical RPGs. It’s overwhelming, yet gripping stuff once you don your cloak and get stuck in.
After a stint in Early Access, it’s time to come out of the basement and project to the world: this is a game worth shouting about. If you are even remotely knowledgeable about the board game, take this Gloomhaven review with a pinch of salt as I am admittedly out of my depth in the genre, but not as much when it comes to video games.
Coincidentally, you can get Gloomhaven on the PS5 now, and this review should apply to the console version aside from controller usage.
Gloomhaven Game Review
The first thing worth noting about the game is your position. You’ll form a guild made up of mercenaries, each with their motivation for signing up and not just for the free pen and stickers you lured them with during Freshers Week. But fear not: the narrative paths – flexible – are not overly complicated and are enjoyable. You don’t need to know anything about the lore or what-have-you, but you do need to master the mechanics.
I’m not that skilled a writer to summarise a game of over 100 scenarios and multiple classes into 1000 or so words. You’re not going to read that anyway. I will mention the importance of decks in Gloomhaven, as there’s no dice in this tactical RPG. That’s a fair generalisation, right? Tactical RPG?
With your chosen mercs, you’ll operate out of Gloomhaven, choosing your own paths to eventually overcome the scenario bosses and have each fulfil their life goals. A world map will show your options that include the scenarios, encounters that potentially reward you well, gain blessings from the Temple of Great Oak if you get stuck, “Hey, I’m back”, plus a merchant that has all the wares an adventurer could ever need.
Burn Them. Burn Them All
Skimming over the merchant side of things (there are lots to buy from the ample loot you earn in dungeons), the core to Gloomhaven gameplay is the combat and understanding how it works. Even though there are difficulty settings in the game, this is pretty tough and very much a thinking game, not one you can rush through hoping to be successful based on notoriety alone.
First of all, you’ll start each dungeon by selecting your card order. Turns are organised by initiative, so the lowest goes first. The sacrifice here is the card’s power, but you can couple it with a significantly higher card as it won’t affect the first card selected.
The second part is how the cards work. You can choose an action and ability from the top and bottom parts of the card, but you must use both cards in your turn – actually, you can skip turns, which is more frequent than one could imagine. So, if you pick the top part for the first part of the move, you’ll have to choose the bottom on the other and vice versa. This adds another strategic factor to the game as you’ll aim to go early, but you also want to make sure that you can balance your turn with the right actions.
Instead of action points, your player will discard each card after a turn and need to apply a short or long rest to regain your cards. Now, this is the killer part: you will burn your cards with specific actions, such as deflecting a hit or a debuff applied at the start. This means they can’t be used for the rest of the scenario. To top this, some cards have this function built-in, so you may burn it after one use. Can you run out of cards? Of course. You’ll exhaust your player, and they’ll be out of this run. Also, if you don’t rest, you won’t have any cards to play.
What’s Your Motivation?
Sometimes video games get it right and replicate reality in some way that makes us go, “Ah, yes… that is probably what would happen”. Gloomhaven is a fantasy world (I think), but like real people, your guild members have aspirations. When they’re achieved, they leave the guild, a.k.a. retire. You’ll never see them again. There aren’t even any hangers-on: the moment their personal quest is fulfilled, that’s it.
This was a bit of a deterrent as I was pretty fond of the Brute (fellow knucklehead): complete four boss scenarios or experience your party members becoming exhausted fifteen times. With my skills, the latter was a reality, but with the first, I could drag it out a bit and perhaps avoid any boss encounters, make Steve the Brute a powerhouse, and hopefully, make a name for the guild with some ‘showstoppers’. But it’s not as easy as that, is it?
Gloomhaven, for someone not-in-the-know, is the epitome of what I imagine a board game of its ilk to be; engaging, demanding, exciting and rewarding. Simple words, but with significant meaning. When running through the tutorial, I was a little frustrated with the pace and thought it was a bit too much, but once you get past all that, it really isn’t a complicated game – demanding, yes, but accessible – definitely.
Fantastic Mercs And Where To Find Them
The visuals are very good, as is the general mood and voice acting. It’s not fully voice-acted as perhaps insinuated – there’s a fair amount of text here – but when there is any voice work, it’s top quality and generates an enticing atmosphere where I’d want to close the curtains and indulge in a turn-based excursion. As with any strategic title, this isn’t a pick-up and play 10 minutes raid; you’ll be expected to invest a bit of time.
Besides the main adventure, there’s a wealth of other modes that perhaps result from community feedback when Gloomhaven was in Early Access. Guildmaster gives you a list of objectives (and a full crew to command) – when each task is fulfilled, you’ll be rewarded with more character classes, quests and bounties. This mode was perhaps my favourite and a little more accommodating than the campaign.
There are also modding sections, join a session (not touched), a level editor and even a sandbox mode. Gloomhaven is already a game with vast depth, but with these added features, anyone who’s devoted the time to the original board game can relive this epic once more, in slightly different circumstances.
Heading Out Of Town. For Some Time
Admittedly, there was some faltering about whether to cover this as title, as I assumed it would be a complicated game. However, after getting familiar with the card burning aspect and anticipating ten moves ahead rather than spamming my most potent attacks, the game was much more immersive and far from the complexities of other tactical games. While the game is undoubtedly a challenge, of the meticulous kind, once you understand the classes and send them out, the gameplay is a lot more enjoyable. The more mercs you play, the harder it becomes, but it almost balances itself out as you now have a variety of options on the board that can turn the game on its head with a couple of moves.
To some extent, reviewing Flaming Fowl Studios’ game would be the equivalent of a month’s worth of games. If you’re pushed for time, you might want to rethink your excursion into Gloomhaven, but if that’s not an issue, check this out – regardless of your board game/RPG background.