If you’ve seen Gloomhaven, you won’t forget it. This 21-pound enormous box from designer Isaac Childres and Cephalofair Games is rivaled only by Kingdom: Death Monster in sheer magnitude. It’s a dungeon crawler packed to the brim with over 100 hours of content. It’s also the fourth Legacy-style campaign game, walking in the footsteps of Risk Legacy, Pandemic Legacy, and SeaFall. The hype knows no bounds and threatens to swallow you whole.
The world of Gloomhaven is not your typical fantasy fare. Here, we have wild frontier countryside on the edge of the world inhabited by a range of oddities. You can play a rock humanoid world-beater similar to the Thing from Fantastic Four, or even a mage who has crystals jutting out of her skin and can manipulate the environment at her whim. You will run across goat-men, golems, and little squirrel-rat hybrids that deserve to be stomped out despite inherent cuteness. You will delve into strange caverns with otherworldly effects and nasty surprises. That sense of wonder is front and center as you cling to little bits of lore and try to decipher pieces of the whole.
Play consists of taking a party of adventurers through different locations on the world map. You will unlock new dungeons and story paths, gain experience, and manipulate your surroundings. The world responds as event decks reincorporate choices and career-altering decisions are made regarding advancement. The city of Gloomhaven itself develops and grows with you. In many ways, it’s fascinating.
When judging this product it’s very easy to get swept up in the permanence of world building and story development. Yet, the core mechanisms at play are a very solid foundation and enjoyable in their own right. Gloomhaven’s core is a Euro-style dungeon crawl board game of hack and slash delight. Much like the recent Perdition’s Mouth, it’s a type of design that eschews dice and sheer momentum for a thoughtful and measured approach.
Each character class possesses a unique set of action cards. At the beginning of play you will have access to your entire suite–a number roughly ranging from 8 to 12–and you will need to make careful strategic decisions as you wrestle with the tempo of play. Each card has an ability listed on both the top and bottom half. Every turn you will select one card from your hand to play for its top action and another for its lower. These choices dictate the sum of your capabilities in that instant, as your movement and attack will be completely determined by those cards. Don’t have a four movement card available to get to that chest across the room ? Suck it up and do something else like heal or blow up that adjacent obstacle.
Typically, the cards you play will go to your discard pile, requiring a turn resting to recover them. The catch is that resting will cause you to remove one of your discards from the game. This card is lost just for the current scenario as it will return to your reserve before the following mission. Additionally, some of the more powerful abilities allow you to burn a card directly, achieving a tremendous effect, but costing you in stamina. As the session wanes and your deck shrinks, tension rises.
While player choice and tactical analysis are paramount, there is a solid dose of good ol’ luck. Each player has their own deck of modifier cards that you draw from when making an attack. Results vary from -2 to +2 and this value is added to your attack value. The total is the amount of wounds the target suffers straight-up. Most battles are a war of attrition with you chipping away at each other’s health as opposed to a blitzkrieg through multiple foes while you hurdle the dead.
Spice and drama is achieved through the fantastic inclusion of a null and 2x card. The null result indicates outright failure and a damage output of 0. The 2x outcome doubles your attack power and will let you harness a wild amount of potency in a system that typically features rather slow dungeon progression. While you can typically card count and get a feel for what remains in your deck, these two choppy outcomes cause you to reshuffle so they always maintain their threat.
Upon completing the hard-fought encounter, you jot down experience and gold and return to the iconic city. Maybe you’ve saved enough money to purchase that enormous new hammer you unlocked on a recent jaunt, perhaps you’ve leveled up and can swap in new powerful action cards to your deck. You also resolve a random event which may have an immediate or more lasting effect. These usually posit two choices concerning a moral or physical dilemma and you must come to a consensus. Outcomes can be wildly unpredictable but they’re always interesting.
After some bookkeeping and growth, you assess the separate world map and decide where to head next. Perhaps you really want to continue the main story line, or maybe Jen was particularly intrigued by that new side-quest and is steering the group that way. You push forward, you explore, and you never stop. With 90 quests, the game is not lengthy, it’s virtually interminable.
Have you played Gloomhaven? What are your thoughts on Legacy games? Let us know in the comments below!
Image Credits: Cephalofair Games/kotnonekot.deviantart.com