95 unique scenarios, 17 playable classes, 1500 cards in a box. If you’ve been wondering about Gloomhaven, Cephalofair Games’ masterpiece that was published in 2017, we’re here to tell you what’s what in this edition of "Will Your Relationship Survive?".
Table-top gaming predates video-games in ways that are more than just about chronology. Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), first published in 1974 is well-regarded as the seed of modern role-playing games. Much of what we love about role-playing video games such as Divinity: Original Sin and The Elder Scrolls draw influence either in spirit or in form from one of the most prolific games ever to be made in D&D.
The resurgence of table-top gaming locations (such as Battle Quarters and Battle Bunker) in Singapore, alongside the prominent feature of D&D in Netflix’s Stranger Things, seems to suggest that the 21st Century video-gaming weapons of VR, touch controls, and lootboxes have failed to kill off the Demogorgon, and only strengthened our collective desire to return to its Mind Flaying complexities. Even video-gamers constantly crave a return to form for the isometric D&D-styled RPGs, often chasing “the next Baldur’s Gate”.
Admittedly, before Gloomhaven, we’ve only played one other “Legacy”-style (where past actions have effects that carry over within an extended campaign) table-top game in Pandemic Legacy: Season 1. Otherwise, our table-top experience largely fell under the Avalon, Werewolf, Cards Against Humanity-type games that are more geared towards casual/occasional table-top gamers.
"You must gather your party before venturing forth."
Even for someone who has known gaming (albeit mostly video-gaming) his entire life, delving into worlds such as that of Dungeons and Dragons seemed daunting - especially when visiting the aforementioned shops to find large parties hunched over character sheets, tablets (for the more tech-savvy), and scenario books. It was thus, with a mix of fear and excitement, that my heart was pounding as I carried the mammoth box of Gloomhaven home.
Perhaps it was also the additional cardiovascular load that the 9.8 kilogram box gave me.
Gloomhaven is a heavy game, not just in weight, but in its complexity, and it is a daunting task to start the game, especially when the rulebook spans 52 pages. I will not mince words to say that to read and understand all of it at once is like trying to study for a physics examination without having attended any of the lessons. Thankfully, there are wonderful and informative video guides that teach you to set up your first campaign such as the two-part series made by Gaming Rules
This guide from Gaming Rules! will set you on the right path immediately.
Nevertheless, the beauty of a table-top gaming experience is that there is tactile impact to everything you do: from moving your character tokens (which you can choose to paint), to deciding initiative, and drawing the attack modifiers for the various attacks. The cards were good quality and wonderfully designed, making it even more of a pleasant experience. We would recommend getting sleeves for them, though, especially if you intend to play through the hundreds of hours the game promises you (which you should, if you blew a couple of hundred of dollars on this!)
Where Gloomhaven stood out two years ago, and continues to stand out in, is its battle system which takes some liberties with the tried-and-tested adventure role-playing game foundations. As first-time table-top adventure gamers, we found the system complex enough to be stimulating while being manageable to learn as we eased into deciding what our characters can, and cannot, do in each scenario.
Outside of combat, setting up the game scenarios was tough at first, because there are Just. So. Many. Pieces. Desperate to not take 30 minutes setting up scenarios, we did a quick google to find the wonders of an accordion file. After indexing board pieces with the appropriate codes (C1a, A2b, H8a, etc.), and using tackle boxes to sort the smaller tile pieces (like traps, obstacles, etc.) it became a breeze to find the right board pieces to set up, cutting set-up time to a something more like 5 minutes.
he game also comes with a customisable token for each character that you can play.
Monsters for each scenario come with levels of difficulty which can you decide before starting each scenario with. Higher difficulties yield better rewards, but mean the monsters pack an even harder punch, which can be deadly in the early stages of your campaign. While we found the card-and-sleeve solution to filtering only key information for each difficulty level to be really cool, we cut it out from our set-up for each scenario by relying on digital solutions such as an iPad app.
Entering as a New Adventurer
As first-timers, the occasional ambiguous moment in deciding what a monster would or would not do, along with the highly detailed set of rules (not necessarily a bad thing) that we had to pore through and review over and over again, made it initially frustrating. Add to that the universally confusing mix-up in descriptions for the Wound and Poison status ailments (in Gloomhaven, the former means you take damage every turn, while the latter means you take more damage when attacked, which is the exact opposite in almost every other game), and it took a scenario and a half before things clicked into place.
What this meant is that in our first 5 hours, one of us would sometimes end up sitting patiently while the other tried to understand what was supposed to happen next - which was the exact moment as I stared deeply at my sad, grey, cragheart, that I decided I would like to paint the fella.
Don’t get us wrong. Completing a scenario - especially if we failed it once and had to restart it - was very, very satisfying, and the level of choice given is incredible, even from the start as you also get to shop in town and complete City and Road events in-between scenarios. Perhaps the deepest draw of this experience, for us, was becoming more attuned to each others’ tendencies (you’re not allowed to say EXACTLY what you are going to do in your turn, to simulate the heat of battle) and making decisions together (because, you know, a married couple clearly don’t do those enough already). We also picked up the hobby of miniature painting, which meant more YouTube videos and money spent at the store, and more hours spent on the game without actually advancing the campaign.
A long but enjoyable campaign
For seasoned, or more analytical gamers, Gloomhaven would clearly be a better fit, as they are more likely to find greater enjoyment in the freedom to scale the difficulty of scenarios as they deem fit. The various types of skills each character is capable of doing also offers so many great ways to complete a scenario, and I would imagine synergistic groupings of character to min-max efficacy in battle to be a highly satisfying possibility. This suggests that the game also has similar longevity for newcomers, as they would perhaps feel like their real experience starts becoming a factor in their characters’ ability to take on even greater challenges.
And, if you somehow managed to complete all of the base game, there are already hundreds of custom-made scenarios out there online that you can download to play.
All in all, all is not quite doom and gloom in your household if you picked up a copy of Gloomhaven.
Rating: The Five Love Languages (5 out of 5)
This game is a truly cooperative experience which will push you to communicate and become stronger together, especially if you survive the rulebook and setting up. An argument could be made for half a point off for the price along with the learning curve which forms a minor barrier to entry, but it gets added back in for enabling a table-top adventure gaming experience that is rich and deep while being relatively friendlier on newbies or small groups with no natural Dungeon Master. It would not be fair at all to penalise a game for working exactly as intended, and Gloomhaven does what it’s meant to do in a wonderful, wonderful manner while keeping things manageable even for newbies.