15 June 2017
Prepare for this fantasy epic to take your hours and your heart
Quality over quantity, as the old adage goes: it’s much easier to achieve something small but perfectly formed than it is to produce a vast work of greatness. Yet, it has been achieved, and – without overstating it too much – Gloomhaven may just be to the tabletop what Ulysses is to literature, Lawrence of Arabia is to film or The Beatles' White Album is to music.
Let’s first condense Isaac Childres’ enormous creation as much as we can; in a sentence, Gloomhaven is an RPG in a box. Players create their characters, track experience earned through both combat scenarios and other events, and set out into the eponymous fantasy world in search of treasure, renown and a good fight.
There are 90 separate scenarios included, each of which takes around an hour or two to complete, providing easily over 100 hours of unique story and experiences to explore. Gloomhaven harnesses the legacy concepts established in Pandemic Legacy and SeaFall in arguably their most natural fit yet, as completing missions and encountering the surrounding cast of non-player characters unlocks new location stickers to place on a central map board which serves little other purpose than to simply track the current state of the world. As in an RPG, players keep a record of their own experience, gold, items and skills on separate character sheets, unlocking new perks and abilities as they level up, while a party sheet makes a note of experiences that affect the whole group.
While the partially pre-defined character creation aspects don’t allow you to flesh out your individual avatar and make them as unique as you would in a traditional roleplaying game, the classes all feel distinct and avoid slotting directly into tired fantasy tropes – although the archetypes definitely float in the background.
Tracking progression and customising your adventurer introduces a significant level of investment, helped by a unique personal quest that provides an overarching goal for each hero to achieve, allowing them to retire once their driving desire has been fulfilled. This allows the player to start afresh with a new class, an effective way of stopping characters and play styles growing stale over dozens of hours – as well as thematically encouraging players to see as much of the box’s content as possible.
The party’s collective conscious is developed through city and event cards, which can be drawn between scenarios and act as one-off moral decisions with potentially short- and long-term repercussions depending on the group’s actions – at a basic level, a reputation track impacts the price of goods at shops and the ability to perform other options later on.
Gloomhaven’s writing and narrative will be familiar to anyone who has had at least a passing experience of fantasy plotlines in the past – twists are easy to see coming and many of the missions, especially in the first dozen or so hours, end up falling into the ‘go to place, kill something’ mould. The game doesn’t try to convince you it’s something it’s not, so the text is using sparingly, applying enough atmospheric dressing and narrative propellant without overegging effective – if unremarkable – storylines. The world is engrossing enough thanks to its outstanding mechanical delivery to overcome any minor blips in the writing.
Venturing out on a mission involves going through Gloomhaven’s weakest aspect: setup. There are thousands of components in the sizeable box, but the overall organisation is poor, making searching for a specific tile or monster standee frustrating and resulting in a pre-playing time of up to 15 minutes for each encounter.
Most of the scenarios are a comfortable length and stick closely to the estimated 30 minute per player, which makes the prolonged setup even more frustrating – this would be an ideal game to digest in hour-long segments each day, like a Netflix series, if it wasn’t for the extra time required simply to unpack everything.
Speaking of which, invest in plastic baggies to store all of the cardboard pieces and make finding things a little easier. You’re going to want baggies. Outside the drudgery of fetching the components and cards, setup is surprisingly intuitive, with smart difficulty scaling for different numbers of players and the ability to adjust things on the fly if the odds feel stacked.
When you’re rolling on a mission, Gloomhaven’s combat shines. Using a blend of hand management and random attack modifiers drawn from a stack that only reshuffles after specific results, the game offers a deep and involving level of strategy and the opportunity to set up satisfying combos without saturating the core systems with unnecessary complexity.
Each player starts with a full hand of cards, which can be customised depending on their level before embarking on a scenario. This card has top and bottom actions: each round, each player can perform one top and one bottom action, with their place in the turn order dictated by the cards’ initiative value. Generally, top actions are bigger attacks while bottom actions are more passive effects such as movement, making every turn feel dynamic and keep the flow going. Each card feels worthwhile and there’s plenty of flexibility in the characters' skills to adjust play style to dish out heavy damage, take the hits as a team shield, provide healing and support, and more.
The combat tension is reinforced by the game’s key exhaustion mechanic, where performing more powerful actions means cards are ‘lost’ rather than discarded. Spending a turn to rest involves losing a discarded card and, with the exception of certain actions or items, lost cards cannot be recovered – lose all your cards and it’s game over. The value of knowing when to lose a card for maximum impact is crucial, and lends a tense tactical edge to the otherwise easy-to-parse combat. Having said that, it’s surprisingly easy to lose scenarios, especially early on, but the game simply tells you to try again rather than accounting for your failure and progressing the story based on the outcome, taking away from the naturalistic evolution and living sense of the world that is strengthened to such an impressive standard by its more roleplaying-centric elements.
Enemies are controlled by the game and driven by individual decks of cards which dictate their actions and buffs or handicaps that turn. While enemies’ health, power and abilities scale with the average level of the player group, the semi-randomised nature of their actions makes combat thrilling and unpredictable to just enough of a degree where it feels engaging, rather than unfair or frustrating. Unlike many other fantasy games, there’s an impressive variety of monster types you’ll come up against; every creature feels uniquely talented and requires a slightly different approach to defeat, allowing scenarios to feel exciting and varied throughout.
Gloomhaven isn’t a perfect game, but the component niggles and other minor issues are engulfed by the sheer scale of ambition and achievement on offer. Night after night, we found ourselves returning to the captivating world and stories, desperate to explore a crypt we had discovered hours before or chase down the latest evildoer on our hit list, all the while pursuing our character’s personal quests and increasing our wider notability.
When the game lands its hits – which it does far more often than it misses – it’s bested by little else on the tabletop. In many ways, it is everything the tabletop world has to offer brought together and combined into a hybrid of dizzying accomplishment: an RPG without the need for a GM, an accessible combat system with the depth, strategy and weight of a Eurogame but the exciting luck-driven aspects and thematic dressing of Ameritrash, and a legacy title with permanence and consequence but with more replayability than most people will ever need.
Gloomhaven is a game to invest not only your money in, but your time and heart. It will reward you justly for years to come.
A thrilling combat system, absorbing world and ingenious use of legacy concepts come together to make Gloomhaven a standalone experience on the tabletop. It’s an epic achievement in both scale and ambition, with its multifaceted gameplay offering something for everyone.
Publisher: Cephalofair Games
Time: 30 minutes (per player)
This review originally appeared in the June/July 2017 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here – or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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