In this guest post bargain ninja Derek Arsenault guides us around one of the most popular travel destinations of recent years: Gloomhaven.
DISCLAIMER: I will try to avoid spoilers in this post. I personally love surprises, and therefore will do my best to not say anything that may take that fun away from anyone interested in playing Gloomhaven.
This was my first post that actually took some thought. Why? Gloomhaven is BIG! So naturally there’s plenty to talk about. This post will provide little snippets to explain how I feel about this beast of a game that sits atop BGG’s top 100 list… still. It is not a “review” to explain the game in great detail (the 50pg rulebook does that pretty well on it’s own).
In May of 2020, I came across the biggest gaming bargain yet on our local marketplace;
Gloomhaven, practically brand new, for only $50 (CDN)!!
I scooped up that deal as quickly as I could, drove the 45-50min away to pick it up and brought the new MONSTER home! When I say “monster”, I mean big… I mean physically heavy… I mean deep in strategy. Gloomhaven is simply a monster by all measures!
Prior to Gloomhaven, Scythe and Caverna were my two biggest boxes in my collection. As you can see, they are puny compared to the mother of all dungeon crawlers.
Let’s talk components
When you first pick up the 20lbs Gloomhaven box (seriously, it’s 20 lbs!), you immediately know there is more than a rulebook and a few cardboard components! From map tiles, to environment tokens, to multiple character minis (only 6 are “unlocked” in the beginning of the 18 total), 240 monster standees, literally 1000+ cards of all kinds… The list goes on and on. It’s incredible, to be honest.
The game was played once and somewhat disorganized. To give you an idea of components, it took me two hours (at a relaxed speed, mind you) to re-organize all components in this box to my liking.
Replayability (or the hours and hours of playing to complete it once)
In fact, Gloomhaven caught my attention very quickly as I dove into the tabletop gaming hobby, due to its theme. However it also went off my wishlist a couple times because I was concerned about replayability (which is very important to me). However, I learned two things that put it back onto my wishlist:
There’s hundreds of hours involved to even finish a campaign (so for me it may be like many video games where I simply enjoy them for a long, long time and never make it through).
You can purchase reusable stickers for the map board, so you can reset your campaign whenever you like (which I did). I believe I’ve seen that you can also download apps to track your campaign progress, unlocked locations etc. to eliminate even doing the stickers on the map board.
I’ve read the odd forum post that says it’s “not worth” replaying once you’ve gone through the game. Without a doubt there will be less surprises, but to me if you enjoy playing an RPG on your table as you develop your characters and kill monsters; you just may decide to keep going back. The game is so big I don’t know if I’ll ever get through it unless I really put all other games aside and make it my mission. All in all, replayability may be a very distant concern for me personally. I still say to each their own in this regard.
The town of Gloomhaven
Here’s the general idea. For those reading who grew up playing RPG video games, this is an absolutely fantastic port of those onto the table. I wasn’t into RPG’s until only a few years ago, despite growing up with video games. Now I find them not only relaxing, but fun and entertaining. With at least a few years of playing RPG’s under my belt, the various aspects of Gloomhaven felt familiar to me and all in all, just make sense.
The town of Gloomhaven is where you start, where you can visit between scenarios to upgrade your characters, purchase items, etc. Throughout the game you essentially choose how often you come and go (unless you have to head there for scenarios). There are also city cards and road cards that may help or hinder you along your journey as you visit and travel to/from Gloomhaven. It really gives you an RPG feel as you purchase items and develop your characters throughout your adventures.
Who doesn’t love minis?
Granted, I don’t have many games with minis so far, but man they’re so cool! To think that you get to choose from 6 “unlocked” characters to start your campaign and there are still 12 more that can be “unlocked”!?!?! That’s amazing! Of course, for those who are into painting their minis, Gloomhaven is a painter's dream with so many characters.
I hope to start doing that in the future myself.
Character boards and setup
Here’s a view of my two characters in my campaign: The Brute (a.k.a Magnus) & The Tinkerer (a.k.a Beeker). Yes I named them. Each character has their own deck of cards that you progressively build throughout your campaign to incorporate stronger/more complex cards. Each character has a card limit though so you can’t just keep piling cards into your deck in a scenario. It really makes you think and be strategic with your play!
Below my character boards you can see a card for each with a checkmark. These cards are scenario goal cards. Each scenario you choose two per character, and keep one. If you successfully complete your character’s scenario goal you track your checkmarks which will lead to some nice things as you move along your journey.
My character’s items are below their player boards in the picture. Each character can only carry so many items depending on their level. Also you can only have 1 head item, 1 torso item, etc. Common sense type stuff really.
Finally the attack modifier cards for each character are above their boards (two swords crossed). When one of my characters performs an attack, a modifier card is drawn that may help or hinder my attack.
Gloomhaven is BIG and is a table hog for sure
I mean come on, it’s a 20 lbs box! What did you expect? Above is a recent play. Keep in mind, the map board (top right) doesn’t really need to be out on the table during scenarios. I just like it for “effect”. Other than the map tiles, everything else can be placed wherever is convenient for you while you play. As much as this game is a table hog, if you have a nice sized table it really just comes down to HOW you choose to organize your playing surface. Granted, with plenty of cards to manipulate it’s good to have things spread out a bit.
Things to consider before investing in this beast of a game
I’m sure if you’re still reading this you’re either interested, curious (or both) in Gloomhaven the board game. As someone who somewhat dived in without knowing too much about it, let’s look into some things to consider from someone who’s only 6-7 plays in, not getting too far too quick, but enjoying every minute of it (except when the monsters kill my characters of course...).
Consider Space: Not only space at your table, but on your shelf. Consider the size of this monster of a game, both playing and storing it.
Consider your Organizing: You definitely will want to either invest in an insert organizer for the game or some sort of DIY organizer (like my plano boxes) for this one. Setup is going to take time in most games, especially as you move into a new scenario. If you don’t enjoy a longer setup, I wouldn’t recommend Gloomhaven. Having said that, if you have things well organized the take down after playing isn’t too bad really.
I’ve found it’s also a great idea to put all of your current scenario components together. For me, I’m playing my campaign solo so it’s easy when I fail a scenario (which seems to be a trend) I have all of my monster standees, character cards, map tiles etc organized so they’re easy to grab and bring to the table next play. It helps cut setup time down for sure.
Consider Time: The designer says 90-115 minutes per scenario, and that seems about right. Then add some time for setup and tear down. Time has been a bit of my issue getting it to the table this year. I don’t always have 2 hours (to be safe) to play. When I do get it to the table though, the time goes by quickly. It’s a lot of fun and you’re definitely engaged in what’s going on. You have to be.
I have yet to experience Gloomhaven with others, but I would say that time would be possibly cut down a bit with others involved. Playing solo, I’m running everything, setting up and taking down etc. Whereas with others involved, you have extra hands and minds to help out, which may cut down on time.
Consider that it’s a “brain-burner”: As I said, I’m playing solo, so I’m running everything; reading the scenario book, working my characters, running the monsters etc. BGG rates the complexity of Gloomhaven as 3.87 out of 5. There’s a lot to manage and a lot to know. The mechanics themselves are straight forward, I feel. It’s the depth of strategy and situations that make you really use that brain power, and organizing/managing all the components involved.
Because of this, if I don’t have the ability to focus on the game, I won’t bring it to the table (long day at work, life stress, etc.). It needs your attention. Personally, I love complexity in games so it really doesn’t bother me. I enjoy it when games like Gloomhaven force you to slow your mind down from the everyday “go-go-go” and make you focus on the task at hand. You get pulled into the game for sure!
Consider that you need to like fantasy and fighting: Boil down Gloomhaven to a simplistic explanation and you get “fantasy and fighting”. Each scenario brings another story element to it. But ultimately you explore dungeons/dark places, battle monsters, collect treasure/loot and hopefully don’t die. I’ve read on forums that people say it’s not very “deep in storyline”. For me, I say “meh”. I absolutely love to read the little story part of each scenario. I feel it “pumps me up” for what lies ahead! However, it doesn’t stick with me. Maybe it will as the campaign goes on? Either way, I’m having fun.
My Final Thoughts on Gloomhaven
$120+ (CDN) is a very reasonable cost for what you get if you like that kind of stuff I talked about here. Although I got an incredible deal, it opened my eyes to the fact that I would pay the full price for what this game offers, had I not found that deal. If you don’t like the sounds of the theme, or even the complexity of the game, don’t invest the money or the time.
I really do enjoy this game. Yet today was my first time getting it to the table since the spring (a little over five months). That’s awful I know! Between unexpected life stress (in addition to three COVID provincial lockdowns with our business over the past 18 months) and lack of time to get this beast to the table, it had been months since my last play! I was honestly intimidated as I was setting up my scenario today, trying to remember certain rules and mechanics. You know it’s a big game when that happens. I put my bluetooth noise cancelling headphones on, some relaxing atmospheric music and dove in.
I had to refresh myself on some things for sure, but within ten minutes of playing the scenario, all I could think of was: “this is awesome!!”. The tough decisions, the brutal monsters to deal with and the character development in the RPG sense, are just fantastic in this game in my opinion. And I’m saying all this even after I failed my scenario - again!
In true RPG fashion, even when failing a scenario I can still gain XP and loot to level up my characters and purchase items to help me in my campaign adventures. Plus, I get to sort out some strategy and learn from my mistakes so that when I come back to this scenario again, I can hopefully take those monsters down!
I am 100% happy to have Gloomhaven on my shelf as part of my collection. I don’t feel everyone will like this kind of game, or this scale of game… but I sure do.