Gloomhaven is one of the more celebrated board games of recent years, but it’s also an absolute beast to deal with; the base game itself will set you back around $200, and you will need a big table to play this one. It’s also designed to be a stiff challenge, and while it’s not necessarily complex (though it’s also not a board game for beginners), it’s still a big, bulky thing, with a lot of pieces and some substantial set-up and pack-away time involved. If you’re going to play Gloomhaven, get your friends around for the full day (or make a weekend of it). Especially if one of them hasn’t played before. They’re in for a learning curve.
Gloomhaven on PC is worthwhile if for no other reason than it gives you the Gloomhaven experience without needing the labour to set up and get playing. Additionally, you can enjoy the full experience without having to get a group together and no one needs to learn the rules first. Here Gloomhaven will teach you how to play within its tutorial, and then you can either jump online or challenge yourself with your own party, and the AI taking on the role of being the game master. It’s on-demand in other words, and truly, there are few physical board games that benefit from this as a feature to the extent that Gloomhaven does. Because this adaptation makes Gloomhaven about as accessible as it is ever going to be, if it helps introduce some people to the game, then so much the better, because once you’ve actually wrapped your head around it, it really is a good one.
In many ways, it hearkens back to the philosophy of Hero’s Quest from the youth of just about anyone who grew up in the 80’s and 90’s. You take control of one (or multiple) heroes, as they delve into dungeons filled with enemies, and are armed only with a handful of skills, unique to each hero. Success in getting through those dungeons rests with how well you use the combinations of skills that are available to your party, because the challenge level with the game’s systems themselves are baked towards “difficult,” and most heroes are far outclassed, if not useless, if you can’t successfully tag team their abilities with the skills of other heroes.
To be clear: while I am making the comparison to Hero Quest, that classic was a super-streamlined and introductory board game. Gloomhaven is pitched at experienced board game fans and takes some learning. The game has got a good tutorial built into it, but characters each have dozens of skills available to them, and there’s a “refresh vs discard” system at play with these skills that I’m not going to explain in-depth here, but the crux of it is that if you’re not careful about how you manage your resources, you could run out of abilities before reaching the end of a quest. Just go in being aware that the early going and even the easiest quests will be touch-and-go as you acclimatise yourself to Gloomhaven’s systems.
Once you are comefortable with the systems, you’ll come to appreciate just how well designed Gloomhaven is, and how perfectly it strikes the balance between streamlined gameplay and tactical depth. You’re not going to have to pour over a thousand details to make a decision, which can slow down the pacing (and enjoyment) of the more complex board games out there, but at the same time, success does rest on making the right decisions, so Gloomhaven isn’t one of those experiences that feels like it plays itself.
When you’re playing by yourself, the developers have implemented a ridiculous amount of content into this thing. While it’s not necessary to complete every quest within the campaigns, when you consider that each can take around an hour to play through, you’d be looking at around 200 hours of raw time required to play through every quest built into this thing. Thankfully, the variety in the quests is adequate, and there’s an additional mechanic thrown in that will keep you on your toes; each hero has a personal goal to achieve, and when they do that, they ride off into the subset, never to put their necks on the line again. They are mercenaries rather than true heroes, after all.
Once retired you’ll need to recruit a new character into your party. I like this structure, as it puts the pressure on for players to be flexible with strategy, and really master every character class, rather than rely on any one trick and combination for too long. Because the balancing in Gloomhaven is so good, all characters are equally valid, but significantly different to one another, so the particular learning curve invovled in mastering them all remains invigorating right until the end.
Now with all of that said, Gloomhaven has never been my favourite board game, and to be blunt it’s because it lacks personality and depth in the setting. It aims to be a dark fantasy thing, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that… except that there are so many dark fantasy things, and this one doesn’t do all that much to distinguish itself from the many other examples out there. The development team has done a good job to render characters, monsters, and diorama-like dungeons, and they’ve struck a good balance between offering a board game aesthetic while attaching the bells-and-whistles that the upper echelons of digital board game adaptations offer, but I still struggled to connect with this world. Perhaps we just need a couple of Gloomhaven novels, like the Dungeons & Dragons and Warhammer properties have had over the years, to add that bit of background and context that is lacking from within the game itself. That’s not the fault of the developer, per se, but the dry quality lying underneath the production values does limit this game somewhat.
That aside, Asmodee continues to demonstrate why it is the best digital board game developer going around. Gloomhaven itself is a little insular compared to the likes of Game of Thrones, Arkham Horror, Ticket to Ride, Pathfinder and Lord of the Rings, so I suspect it will appeal to a narrower band of players than some of Asmodee’s other adaptations, but the faithful quality of that adaptation and the stellar production values make it an easy sell to existing Gloomhaven fans, and the ideal way to those that were intimidated by the size (and cost) of the box when they’ve seen it in their local game store to give it a go in the first place.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb