Gloomhaven, the new cooperative, campaign-driven dungeon crawl board game from designer Isaac Childres, is big. Really big.
The game’s campaign, which consists of as many as 95 different dungeons, will easily take you 100 hours to complete. When I first poked through the game’s box, I couldn’t stop laughing at the absurdity premium everything. Eighteen oversized punchboards with hundreds of tokens greet you as you begin to dive through the contents; among them are thousands of cards belonging to dozens of decks, seventeen miniatures (each in their own small box), several wooden pieces, and an enticing array of sealed boxes, envelopes, and books.
But aside from the game’s massive box and mind-boggling amount of content, Gloomhaven is also a very big problem in board game land. The game’s 2015 Kickstarter raised a respectable $386,000 from nearly 4,900 backers, but benefiting from a few years of steadily growing hype and lavish praise from early reviews, the game’s second printing, now on Kickstarter, has more raised over $3.1 million from more than 32,000 donors at the time of writing. When it comes to the general buzz among hardcore board gamers, Gloomhaven is about as big as it gets.
Note: Due to the length of Gloomhaven, I didn’t play the entire campaign. I can’t comment definitively on the late-game story or balance, but I don’t foresee much change from what I’ve already experienced.
A new hope
It’s not hard to see why dungeon crawlers are so hugely popular in gaming. Perhaps second only to true tabletop RPGs, dungeon crawls are the ultimate escapist fantasy. There’s something undeniably seductive about the idea of descending into dark catacombs, knocking down doors that should probably remain closed, and introducing a spectator to the business end of your axe. If you’re not into instant role-playing, a dungeon crawl board game allows you to get an RPG solution without the “talk like an elf” overhead.
For most games in the genre over the years – from old school classics like Warhammer Quest all the way to modern genre pillars like Origin or imperial attackdungeon crawler gameplay has generally remained comfortably familiar. Your character has a set of RPG-style stats and you use movement points to jump around a grid and fight monsters. When you attack those monsters, roll some dice and see what happens.
But the world of board games is so lousy with campaign-driven dungeon crawl board games that any newcomer to the genre has to justify their existence. More and more, game publishers seem to be pushing their way into the crowded market by shoving as many plastic miniatures into their designs as possible.
But Gloomhaven is different. Gloomhaven characters have no skill scores, nor are there any dies in the game. Instead of, Gloomhaven has cards… and they work really well.
Characters start each scenario with a certain number of cards (usually around 10) dictated by their class. Everything you do in the game – move, attack, heal, loot, set traps, spawn acquaintances –everything is determined by these cards and the order and configuration in which you play them.
Each card has a top action and a bottom action. You must play two cards each turn and you must choose the top action of one card and the bottom action of the other. In general, you can attack with top actions, while bottom actions are aligned with movement skills (and you can always use a top action as a general “two damage attack” and a bottom action as a general “move two squares”).
For example, take the map to the right. If you play it for the highest action, you can attack two adjacent enemies for three damage each. The bottom action, on the other hand, would let you move three hexes (and since you jump, you can jump over obstacles and enemies).
But not all cards adhere to the ‘attack/move’ archetype. The highest action on the brute’s “Eye for an Eye” card allows you to take revenge for two points of damage each time you are hit by an enemy. The bottom action allows you to heal yourself or an adjacent ally. And those are cards from the simplest class of the game. Check out this starter map of the more complex “Mindthief” class:
The number in the middle of each card is your initiative. The lower the number, the earlier you act in the round. (You choose one of your two played cards as your ‘lead card’ and use that card’s initiative).
You can discuss tactics with your teammates, but you must speak in general terms. Instead of saying, “I’ll go on initiative 23 and hit that bandit for three damage,” say something like, “I’m going to take action early in the round and I’ll try to finish that bandit.” It sounds a bit weird on paper, but it works surprisingly well at simulating the chaos of battle, while still allowing you to work effectively with your party.
Also adding a wrinkle to battles are the game’s battle cards, which act as modifiers for your attacks. Each player has his or her own pile of 20 of these cards, and each time you make an attack, you draw a card from the pile and apply its value. They range from -2 to +2, so their variance is quite low, but they add a little more uncertainty to the procedure.