Gloomhaven is one of those legendary Kickstarter stories, fueling the idea that if you have a good, solid game, you can enjoy outrageous success. In 2015, it presented itself as a “cooperative game of card-driven combat set in a persistent fantasy campaign.” Choices would have real impacts upon characters and the world, changing them forever over several sessions (i.e. a legacy game). This first Kickstarter raised $386,104, just over five times its original goal. By 2017, the fact that designer Isaac Childres had actually delivered on his original game (combined with glowing reviews) meant he experienced a much more wildly successful campaign this time. Though the 2017 Kickstarter’s goal was $100,000, Gloomhaven took in nearly $4 million in pledges (40 times the target amount).
Back in 2017, I heard about Gloomhaven through friends who were excited about the second printing, sad that they had missed out the first time around. It wasn’t uncommon to see copies of the game being sold online for around $300, more than $200 over their original Kickstarter price. I was admittedly intrigued by the mechanics and videos I’d seen, but just couldn’t afford to pledge this time around.
Finally, in 2018, I got the opportunity to play thanks to a friend. I had been highly anticipating Gloomhaven for a number of reasons, and not just because of the hype that surrounded it. For starters, there were several selling points that set it apart. The persisting effects of your choices and your combat were in line with RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons, appealing to those who wanted to play a really long-term campaign with actual consequences. For me and my group of friends, we wanted an experience, and Gloomhaven promised to be just that.
With collaborators including Josh McDowell as graphic designer and Alexandr Elichev as artist, Childres has created a beautiful game. The artwork and character design are particularly professional and expressive, and little touches make the game feel more engaging. An example of this is the player-character tuck boxes your character model and mat are kept in. Not only is this an elegant storage solution for the many cards you’ll need to keep track of, it instills a sense of mystery. Characters are represented on the boxes by an individual symbol which can then be connected to a class. An experienced roleplayer could take an educated guess at what the character classes might mean; Brute would likely be a fighter/tank, and Scoundrel similar to a rogue/thief. Some, like Cragheart and Mindthief, however, would be harder to infer.
Though having a character mat with a ready-made character isn’t unique, the implication of these boxes is that there is something special about what’s contained within. Alongside this, each player is given a Personal Quest card, involving certain goals. This might affect their choices in ways the rest of the group won’t understand until the card is completed and revealed. This is one element that helps to build a deeper sense of connection than I’ve ever experienced with Descent, another game that employs persistent campaign effects and ready-made characters.
There is a lot of stuff in a Gloomhaven box, to a point where it can feel overwhelming. A map board helps players track where they have been, with new locations unlocked sometimes randomly. Once a location is discovered, a small vinyl sticker is applied to the board. There are over a dozen unique player character boards, each with a miniature figure, though only six are “unlocked” at the start. A HP/XP dial helps keep tracks of your health and experience gained during an encounter. If I listed every single token or card here, it would be too abstract to connect to play. So, to really cover everything, I’m going to give an overview of how play can work during a scenario.
Players first decide where they want to visit. The scenario book lays out which map tiles will help create the play area, as well as any monsters or effects upon the players. Traps, doors, and other overlay tiles are added to the map. Each player is then given two Battle Goal cards and must choose one, discarding the other. These are a secret, and involve completing a task during the combat. For example, it might be to defeat a certain number of enemies, or use items a set amount of times. Players’ goals might occasionally clash, fueling the idea that while cooperative, everyone has their own agenda.
Each scenario has a victory goal, such as to defeat at least 10 enemies, or to escape. An introductory text explains the situation your group finds itself in, though there may be additional story to be read out once the group gets past a certain obstacle or stage in the combat.
The level (i.e. elite or normal) and number of your enemy is determined by the number of players in a group. A key at the bottom of the scenario page indicates this using colours on the sides of a monster hex to symbolise if there are no monsters, a normal monster, or an elite. Each scenario comes with a recommended difficulty level; these can be increased or lowered, but so too will the damage and rewards.
Before play starts, each character must choose their ability card deck. The card limit is determined by an icon on the character’s mat. Players can possess more character ability cards than the icon allows, but can only take the limit number into battle. Ability cards are divided in two, with a top and a bottom half. At the start of each turn, players choose two cards from their deck, with the aim of performing the top action from one card and the bottom action from another.
In the middle of the ability cards is an initiative number, determining the order of play. The closer the number is to 1, the earlier their turn may be. When players put their two chosen cards facedown, it’s very important to know which one is on top. Let’s say a player has a character with an ability to buff other players’ attack. The player may want to go first to have the maximum effect. One of their cards has initiative 22, the other initiative 89. The player would place the initiative 22 card on top to try and aim for as early a go as possible. The initiative number doesn’t determine the order of your action cards, however. The player could perform the action from the 89 card first when their turn comes around.
One of the compelling and occasionally frustrating things about Gloomhaven is that the rules prohibit meta-gaming. Players are not allowed to tell their group “Hey, I need to go early, so I’m going to play an initiative 22 card!,” meaning friends would try and pick initiatives larger than 22. Instead, players have to talk combat and strategy in a way that encourages roleplaying. To try and prevent people acting too quickly, for example, a player might say, “Don’t move yet! I can cast a spell that will strengthen everyone!” This lack of precise detail might lead to miscommunication, and there’s no guarantee on what happens with initiative with this kind of instruction. However, it does encourage a much deeper kind of roleplaying.
There are also no dice in this game. Instead, a deck of attack modifier cards determines whether players do more or less damage than their base attack, i.e. +/- 1 or 2, or even twice the normal damage. They may end up with a miss, or have no modifier, i.e +0. As you proceed through a campaign, players can earn perks by completing Battle Quests, allowing them to upgrade their modifier decks. Additionally, players can purchase items at the shop that will help with attacks, or protect the player’s character. Sometimes an action “infuses” the battlefield with an element that can then augment certain abilities.
After playing their actions against an enemy in any order, assisted (or hindered) by the attack modifier card, players then discard both ability cards. Some cards are “lost,” meaning that when the player runs out of cards in their hand and need to refresh their deck from the discard pile by taking a long rest, the lost cards cannot be added back to the pile for this scenario.
Because of this, tactical choices are essential. Sure, there may be a great action on a card, but lose it too early and a player can’t use the other action on the card at all for the rest of the battle.
Players are only able to use the top half of one card and the bottom half of another, in any order. However, ability decisions made before the start of a turn aren’t always set in stone. For example, if a player realises their planned actions aren’t going to work with what the monsters or other players are doing, the player can always check whether the other top/bottom actions would be more suitable for the current situation. They can’t change the cards, but they can use a different combination of actions upon them. Ultimately, if nothing really works, no matter how it’s reordered, the top half of a card can be used as an Attack 2 action, and the bottom half as a Move 2 action.
There is a constant pressure upon players, because even after a long rest, one card from the discard pile turns into a lost card. Eventually, players will run out of their deck and may not be able to act further. It adds a nice layer of tension, forcing players to cooperate and coordinate more than they might in a D&D game (where everyone has, at some point, experienced a member of their party pulling a “Leeeeerooooooy Jeeeeenkiiiiins…” or been the person who did that).
One of the positives about Gloomhaven is that all players can be wandering adventurers without a game master. Monsters are automated, in a sense. There is a set order to their play and the monster will focus first upon the closest enemy and then the lowest initiative. The monsters also have ability cards that determine their initiative, as well as movement and actions, if any. On some draws, a monster may be able to heal, for example, but might not be able to move. This allows the adventurers to make strategic decisions based upon this. Each monster has a base statistic card that fit neatly into sleeves, showing only the relevant details that correspond to the scenario’s level.
Though this is a fairly straightforward way to play monsters, it still means players have to also act for them. I naively volunteered to coordinate on behalf of all the different monster groups during one scenario, which meant actually acting for about 10 monsters. It was hard to remember who had acted or died. For practicality, I’d suggest assigning different groups of monsters to different players to lighten the load! There are also a few companion apps, such as Gloomhaven Helper, which can support players by keeping track of monster actions.
A group can either succeed or fail a scenario, but either way they can continue on to further adventures and locations. Flavour text lays out the aftermath, while City and Road event cards give the party other choices to make. Some of these cards are marked as needing to be completely removed from the game with a symbol showing a card ripping in half. The idea that someone might actually do this caused a deep sense of alarm in me, but emphasises the permanence of players’ actions.
While a player might have their own quests to complete, the party also gains or suffers as a whole. For example, a party can earn (and lose) Reputation points. The higher the Reputation, the less something costs in the shop. There are also achievements to be gained as progress is made, including accessing sealed boxes and envelopes when directed by the game. Again, though a small touch, this sense of mystery is incredibly motivating and enhances the sense of this being something special, waiting to be uncovered.
If Gloomhaven feels like a lot after all this, you’re not wrong. To be fair, that’s part of its charm. Amongst the combat, there’s just so much to do and explore. The emphasis on roleplaying that runs throughout fights and choices allows players to immerse themselves in the game. One of my favourite moments in our campaign so far has been a City event where our characters argued over whether to take a deal from a random stranger. Each of us talked through our characters, putting forward impassioned arguments. It was great to feel this emotional investment in what we were doing, rather than making calculated actions.
My group has only just started, with three scenarios under our belt, so it’s not possible for me to give an absolutely complete verdict on Gloomhaven, considering there are literally dozens of scenarios available. We may never get to experience some due to the choices we make. However, everything so far indicates that Gloomhaven offers us something very few games of this kind can: a challenging world where choices have a real impact, branching off our story in a way that will be unique to our party and our party alone. Over the next few months, I aim to keep a diary of our adventures and hope to share this with you as we progress. Rather than following a script, our party is writing its own narrative and, though those paths may be limited due to the scenarios available, there are more than enough to allow us to create our own tale.
Angie writes reviews and stories whenever she is not investigating the latest dating sim or visual novel. She is a full-time Dragon Age obsessive but also plays board games and tabletop RPGs when she can. Besides games, Angie enjoys manga, broody tattooed elves, and TV cannibals.