I’ve been wanting to write this review for a couple of years now, since The Solo Meeple started up in fact, but the sheer size of it and knowing that I tend to cut a short story long, has always stayed my hand.
But, it is my all-time favourite game, it’s also numero uno in the BGG rankings and has been for some time now, and so I think it deserves at least some words from me… okay, many words from me, you know how I go on!
So, here it is. As a break from my normal review template I’m missing out the box contents (Lots!) and the bit where I try and describe how it plays (there are plenty of videos on BGG that explain things far better than I could, see link at the end for rules overview), otherwise this post would make War and Peace look like a Japanese Haiku! However, I will try to explain how certain things work when I cover the gameplay.
- Designer: Isaac Childres
- Publisher: Cephalofair Games
- Year Released: 2017
- Players: 1-4
- Playing Time: 60-120minutes (per scenario)
- Ages: 14+
- Recommended Retail Price: £139.99
Gloomhaven, a legacy style, tactical dungeon crawler with a difference… or two.
Is it more than just a massive box?
Does it deserve the number one BGG rating it’s held for so long?
Well, I’ve only ever played it solo but let’s take a peek and see if we can find out, but be prepared, it’s going to be lengthy!
So, what do I think?
Everything contained in the box is of decent quality, I certainly haven’t experienced any issues, apart from one very, very minor one, which I will come to shortly.
There’s no way I’m going to cover everything, I’ll be here all day otherwise, so I’m just going to focus on some of the more interesting things.
Let’s start with that box. Apart from the fact that it’s huge, it’s also adorned with lovely artwork. The biggest draw is that it’s different; these are no generic creatures walking through a typical fantasy town, and they draw you in as they create a spark of interest – what or who are they, where are they, I want to know more. Look closer and you’ll find all the starting characters are represented there; it’s a lovely piece of art.
There are plenty of stickers contained in here, many are locations that go to enhance the map, or keep a record of achievements, others go on the ability cards, enhancing their powers. These stickers are part of the ‘legacy’ aspect of the game and are permanent, though there is a set of non-permanent ones that can be purchased separately.
I’m quite happy sticking these on, they give a sense of belonging to the game, which I’ll cover briefly in the next section. For those who don’t, then there are other ways to track the available locations and achievements ranging from simply writing them down to specialised apps. The enhancements, though, will need to go on the cards, so if you don’t like the permanence then the extra sticker set is the way forward.
The dungeon tiles are very nice, with thematic artwork adorning both sides and they fit together no problem. There are a variety of over-lay tiles, doors, traps, chests, etc. and they all do the job.
The monster stat sheets and sleeves are a great idea. Each monster has their own stat sheet, which, as you rotate it around, reveals their stats for different levels. Once inside the stat sheet you can only see the level you require. The sleeve itself is broken down into segments with each one numbered so as to be identifiable with a standee. All the damage and modifier tokens go on here so you can see at a glance which monster has what.
So, you can have ten Living Bones walking around and a half-dozen Oozes and only need two cards on the table to keep track of them. Things can get a little tight for room on there, but I thought it was a great system and it’s easy to use.
The standees themselves are good quality, but they suffer from the same thing every card standee suffers from at some point, and that’s where they’re constantly being pushed into their stand they eventually begin to wear and delaminate. This is no big issue if your careful and of course using standees offsets the cost dramatically against using miniatures. Monster tokens could have been used but where’s the fun in that?
There are a lot of cards, well over a thousand, and all are nice quality; no linen finish, but again this would have ramped the cost even higher. Sleeve the character ability cards, as these see a lot of handling, but there’s no real need to sleeve anything else.
There are six wooden element discs, which are used to show those elements that are currently infusing the battlefield. Why they are wooden I have no idea, all the other tokens are card, but I like wood so, hey, who cares!
Something thing I really did like, though they’re not a new idea, were the Hp/Xp dials. They make recording so much easier than writing things down or collecting damage tokens, and I use these for other games I play. They’re a nice size and you can see at a glance what state the character is in – a bonus when playing solo, as it’s easy to lose track sometimes, and I didn’t have to keep counting tokens, just glance at each character to see where things were at.
The last thing worth mentioning are the miniatures. To be honest they’re not half bad for a game like this, and the level of detail is surprisingly good. What stands them apart is the fact they’re different, you don’t know what to expect. I mean, everyone has an idea what an Orc or an Ogre looks like, but a Cragheart or a Vermling? This makes them interesting to look at, unusual, even the humans are different to what you’d expect, mainly because they have weird classes attached to them.
If you intend to paint them then some have a fair amount of prep required, as mould lines are quite prevalent, but they do paint up quite nicely and the detailing is well defined, at least on the ones I’ve done so far. The hardest thing I found was trying to get the base to reflect the floor tiles!
Well, I’ve probably missed a few things worthy of a mention, but I think it’s time to move on…
Dungeon crawlers are very good at carrying their theme throughout the game, but then it’s usually a simple affair of here’s your character, here’s your goal, now go and fight the baddies, all squeezed into a universal plot. Gloomhaven, though, has theme oozing from the very pores of its box.
There are no generic races and classes here, everything is new, different, and intriguing. The Inox, the Orchids, the Quatryls, for example, start you on the journey of exploration into both the understanding of your character and the far corners of the Gloomhaven world.
As you level up and earn more cards you discover a little bit more about what your character can do – these ability cards are your character, and they help build a story around them, one which you can push to meet your own ends. There are always options with each character, so you can tailor them, to a degree at least, to your own approach – take the Mindthief for example: you could concentrate on augmentations or, if you prefer, you could force enemies to do your bidding, whichever you choose it creates a personality for your character, almost like playing an RPG!
It isn’t just the characters that carry the theme but the monsters too. The monsters you encounter all feel like they belong in the environment you find them, they also behave in a manner that fits their nature, though many of the monsters, like the characters, are unique to the Gloomhaven world.
Though it isn’t a major part of the game, the bit between scenarios, where you visit the town and have the chance to purchase items, is also done in such a way as to immerse you in the world. The shops gain new items as Gloomhaven’s prosperity increases, usually from your deeds in the scenarios. The price of these items also changes with the party’s reputation (both for the good and bad) and all of this makes you feel part of a living and evolving world.
There are also the city and road event cards, which present a random event similar to something out of an RPG, and these offer up choices that often bring the player’s morals into question.
The map plays no real part in the game other than adding to its thematic feel, and it works. At the end of a scenario there’s nothing better than spending ten minutes adding newly revealed locations and pondering over where to go next – it’s like the party getting together at the inn to figure out what they’ve achieved and discuss their next moves over a good pint of beer. Couple this with the requirement system for the scenarios (many scenarios requirement that have to be met in order to unlock them) and discussions will once again replicate that RPG feeling as each character has their own personal agenda.
Personal agenda! That’s right, when a player creates a new character, they draw two personal quest cards, of which they have to keep one. Playing solo I use these to form a voting system on where to go next, with each character placing a tally mark next to locations they favour – for example: the Inox Brute may have a quest card requiring scenarios in a certain location to be completed, so he would put marks against these scenarios, he would also support scenarios that involve a good fight, but steer clear of going against his own kind. The available scenario with the most tally marks is next to be visited. This makes the story pull in directions I may not have explored if left to just my own choice and gives it a more realistic feel.
Once you’re actually into the scenarios, though, the main story gets shoved into the background as the characters take centre stage. Now it’s time to concentrate on what they can do, up close and personal. I found it amazingly easy to visualise the characters playing out their moves – the Cragheart creating obstacles one minute and then destroying them the next, the Tinkerer taking out a Cultist at range, and, of course, the Mindthief complaining that they’ve been left behind!
I used four characters at a time and each turn I decided who’s move would be the most vital. I would then prep their cards for the that turn, then the next character, and so on. Once cards are ‘locked’ in I never looked at them again until the initiative phase and, as I have the memory of a goldfish, this worked quite well.
The way each character acts is different and compelling. Some are obviously quick and deadly in specific ways, whilst others are more thoughtful and require a deft hand at getting the best from them, but no matter which character you are playing there is no doubt that they’re unique, and each one brings their own story with them.
Finally, there’s the overriding story line itself. This really is an RPG without a DM, or at least as close as you’ll get. The story twists and turns depending upon your choices made by the characters. Going down certain avenues closes the door to others and so your decisions count – there’s no going back.
The narrative isn’t lengthy, it isn’t overly descriptive, and at times it isn’t always fully cohesive, but surprisingly, all this just makes it feel right. Decisions you make are often instinctive rather than based on what you’ve just read – you don’t always end up doing the right thing (morally) but it feels right for your characters at that time… and then they retire! This can change the dynamic of the team, as a newbie takes their place – maybe they’re only interested in gold, maybe they dislike Vermlings; roleplaying the characters, even when playing solo, is a big part of the fun of this game, and I love it!
52 pages including the rear cover!
Yep, that’s a fair-sized rulebook. It isn’t quite as bad as it may at first appear. Generally, I found the rules well written, easy to follow, and with plenty of examples and pictures, at least when you first read through.
The problems start when you’re into your third or fourth game and you’re unsure of something. Whilst the contents list is fairly comprehensive, I still found myself trawling through looking for a specific rule that I knew I’d seen in there somewhere. This was often because I was unsure of what section of the book it would be in. For example traps or hazardous terrain: I knew they were in there, I’d seen them, but it wan’t obvious in the contents list and I couldn’t find them under moving – all the info on them is right at the start under overlay tiles – A proper index would have made things so much quicker and user friendly.
The main bugbear, though, and one that you’ll find threads galore for in the forums, is monster focus and movement. It’s all there, page 29 to 31, but it’s getting your head around what it all means. For some, it will be a walk in the park, what’s the issue? But for others, it’s just a complicated mess. It really depends upon how you learn and remember things. I can read through it and think I have it nailed, only to go and do it all wrong on the very next turn. I didn’t find it particularly intuitive, probably because it works differently to all other dungeon crawlers I’ve played before.
There are lots of advice and examples and stuff that I could read on the internet, and I dare say this would enable me to get it pat, but I haven’t bothered. I know I’m doing it mostly right, especially now I’ve racked up god knows how many hours playing the game, but I’m consistent, and I think that’s all I need to be. The scenarios are tight, exciting, real edge of the seat stuff, so if I am doing something wrong then I don’t care, I’m having a whale of a time!
The scenario book is solid. If it introduces specific scenario driven rules then they are obvious, simple, and easy to understand. The scenarios are all laid out in the same manner, so you know what to expect and setting things up sped up as I knew what to expect.
Okay, there’s no way I’m going to cover every aspect of the game, so I’m going to pick out the things that I really like and the few things I’m not so keen on.
Let’s start with the characters.
It’s a great feeling opening that little wallet containing a character, you can never be quite sure what to expect, and for anyone who enjoys RPG games this is an exciting experience. Because the races and classes are unique to this world you don’t know what to expect; there are no preconceived ideas. So, reading the description and looking through the ability cards is all you initially have to go on to form an opinion of what makes these character tick.
I’ll revisit the ability cards shortly, but first there’s something else that helps define the character, and that’s the personal quest cards. This is the character’s aim in life, it’s their dream or their drive – maybe to hoard a pile of goal, maybe to kill lots of differing monsters – and as a solo player I use this to keep the characters on rails.
For example: One of my characters had the goal to gather a large amount of money. During one scenario there came a moment when they could loot quite a lot of dosh in one go, but it meant leaving another character vulnerable at a critical time. Needless to say, greed took over, the other character became exhausted, but by luck the party completed the scenario. This led to a falling out between these two characters, and the injured party refused to ever go on a scenario with the money grabber again!
These quest cards are a great addition to personalising the characters and helps to keep the game from following a straight pathway through the campaign – characters can pull away from the main objectives because their life’s ambitions don’t coincide with them.
Perks also enable you to tailor the character to your liking, but in a way that keeps to the characters racial and class traits. Perks can be gained in a number of ways – levelling up, gaining three checkmarks – and they allow you to alter the characters attack modifier deck.
This makes for some tough decision making, as ideally you want to choose perks that reflect how you play that character, but sometimes it just comes down to pure maths. For example: certain perks will adjust the chances of turning up a positive modifier, either by reducing the number of negative cards or increasing the positive – you have to weigh up these options before taking a perk, as there’s no going back.
Once again, this really builds an attachment to the characters, as you’re trying to build an engine that works efficiently as a whole, both the ability cards and the modifier deck. It gives the player plenty to think about between scenarios, especially when levelling up.
Levelling up, as well as presenting you with a perk, also allows you to choose one, yes just one, extra card to add to your supply. This card can be chosen from any that meets your level or below for that character class, and it can be an agonising choice. Occasionally, though, it’s a no brainer and you have a card available that really fits your character’s style. The great thing is that, despite more powerful cards becoming available as you level up, sometimes it can pay to go with a lesser one because it fits with the way you play – choices, choices!
At the beginning of a scenario each character receives two battle goal cards and chooses one to keep. This may be something along the lines of ‘reveal a room on your turn’ or ‘overkill a monster by 4 damage’. If you succeed in this goal, you’ll earn checkmarks, once you have three you gain a perk.
The goals give the player a secondary aim for the scenario and they can make for some dramatic moments that wouldn’t normally happen – for instance, having a support character dash forward to open a door so they can make their goal, only to find themselves stuck in the doorway with nobody else to back them up; it’s often a good way to a quick end!
I like them; playing solo, it helps give a character a bit of personality and as I try to role-play them the goals give me a way to play their temperament for that scenario, though I usually err on the side of caution – I have dashed forward and opened that door, and yes, it ended very quickly indeed!
The number of checkmarks you gain from these depends on the goal, either one or two. They are very situational, and it can really come down to the luck of the draw. One character may find the choice of goal easy, as they suit both their play style and the scenario, whilst another may draw two cards that just don’t mesh with either. Having a difficult goal and thinking on it too much can lead to bad play for the scenario, as you try to refrain from combat for example, which can be a detriment to the party.
So, you can gain checkmarks, but you can also have them taken away, and what an annoyance that is! This usually happens due to the result of event cards and you’ll only ever usually lose a couple at most (I’m not sure if it’s possible to lose more than two, but don’t quote me on that!). It’s an annoyance, yes, but not in a particularly bad way. For starters it’s usually driven by a thematic reason and secondly it serves to stop you completing all the checkmarks too quickly, though it still does happen.
Event cards. These add yet another RPG aspect to the game, in the vein of a ‘choose your own path’ adventure. You may be presented with an occurrence, a moral dilemma, or some other such thing, and then presented with a couple of choices on how you resolve it. Occasionally, choices will have restrictions, such as a certain race must be in your party.
The City events are often beneficial, gaining the group money or reputation, or even opening up a random side scenario. On the other hand, the road events can be bad, very bad! These are drawn on the way to your scenario, just before you start, and can be a major hinderance; maybe they put a curse on you or cause you to take damage!
Either way, the effects are always thematic and though you’ll feel aggrieved it does add some spice to travelling the world – some cards get put back in the deck, others get ‘torn up’ (or placed in a removed pack if you’re not into that sort of legacy game). Both city and road decks get cards added as you progress, and again, this is another integral part of the way Gloomhaven progressively reacts to your party’s advancement; it makes it feel like your decisions count to the prosperity and advancement of the world you’re adventuring in.
Of course, no adventurer is going to step into the big bad world without a bit of equipment to help them out, and here’s one of the few areas in the game that I feel didn’t deliver quite as well as the rest.
Things like potions are fine, one hit wonders that do things like healing, but armour and weapons don’t behave as one would expect. Thematically, I just didn’t get it.
For example: Armour. Some armour gives disadvantage to the attacker, but then becomes spent until refreshed, whilst other armour and shields may grant you a shield 1, sometimes for just the next attack other times for the next two or three, and then becomes spent – a long rest is needed to recover spent items. Some types of armour, such as Chainmail, also give you negative modifiers to add to your attack deck, thus penalising you – I suppose one could say that it hinders movement and so makes you less deadly; try telling that to the knights of old!
I didn’t like the fact that armour worked that way, I would prefer it if it gave a constant protection bonus, after all, many monsters have a permanent bonus to shield, so why can’t the characters? As I say, thematically this didn’t sit well with me.
It’s most likely that this is for game mechanism reasons, balancing the characters, preventing them from becoming all too powerful and requiring a boost to the monsters’ strengths to combat it. Personally, I would rather items were more expensive, make them harder to afford, and that they worked more thematically.
It’s a similar thing with some of the other items, like the piercing bow, which is a one shot only for the scenario. These items are the more ‘magical’ in nature and can prove quite powerful if used correctly. This introduces an interesting dilemma into the game, as you decide the best time to use your ‘special’ items. Things like the piercing bow give a bonus to the whole attack and so using it when you dish out a lot of attacks in one go can be devastating… depending on the modifier draw.
Each character has their own attack modifier deck, which, as previously mentioned, can be altered by perks. This deck contains a range of modifiers from -2 to +2 and includes a critical hit and a total miss. With no alterations you know you have around a 1 in 3 chance of doing less damage than stated on the ability card. As you start to tinker with these decks you can alter the chances even further in your favour – throw out those -1’s or add in a few extra +2’s. If you’re canny and keep track of what you’ve already played, you can then decide whether it’s worth the risk of throwing in one of your best attacks now, or saving it for later – you don’t want to lose a card for an attack where the odds of a miss are pretty good, do you?
Through perks you can also add in rolling modifiers, such as push or pierce, these can dramatically affect how your character works in play and should complement their play style.
The monsters all operate using the same modifier deck, which contains the same cards as a character starting deck, though it too can be altered on occasion.
The attack modifier decks are one of my favourite mechanisms of the game. Unlike dice, where every roll offers the same possibilities, drawing a card effects the probabilities for the next cards drawn. This gives a different mathematical approach to playing, as knowing what has already gone indicates what’s left in the deck and keeping this in mind helps to decide on when to release the big guns!
This really suits the game and just adds to the strategic complexity of the scenarios; it really starts to get interesting when the decks get clogged with curse cards or you manage to get Blessed several times. Likewise, as your character gains levels and your deck becomes a refined engine, then it’s possible to string some telling blows together, which really makes you feel like you’ve progressed and become powerful.
Following on from the attack modifier decks I reckon now is a good time to talk the character’s ability cards, starting with selection.
So many choices! Selecting the cards to start the scenario usually comes down to play style and how you envision the character functioning. Some have a greater depth in how they can be used whilst others are more straightforward, but the synergy of cards is critical to getting the best from them.
It can be tempting to go for all those hard hitters or other uniquely powerful cards, but these tend to be one shot cards, and too many in your hand can restrict your staying power.
As you level up and more cards become available, then card selection becomes a deck building exercise. You’ll put a hand together, try it in a scenario, then toss the odd card out to be replaced by something you hope will mesh better with how you play. It’s all very satisfying when it all comes together and your character runs efficiently, especially when playing one of the more complex characters.
Having selected your cards for the scenario you then have to put things into practice, and here you’ll find many clever and well-oiled mechanisms. Firstly, I have to say that using the ability cards as what could be described as a stamina statistic, is superb. Not only do the cards count you down to exhaustion (unable to play cards or take a rest means you’re exhausted and out of the game), but they can also be used as a damage reflector – you have the choice to lose a card from the hand (or two from the discard) to negate damage taken. This can prove vital if you find yourself on the receiving end of a whole load of damage, but even then, the decision to lose a card is a very tough one to make.
The fact that every character has their own hand size also comes into play. Needing to take a rest to recover discarded cards will come at varying times for different characters, which means that timing is crucial, especially when revealing new rooms. This brings in some interesting decisions and can often mean a character taking a rest with cards remaining in hand – better to be fully prepared than need to rest mid-battle. As the scenario progresses to the end game then this becomes even more critical, as characters need to rest more often with only a few cards remaining.
Team work really comes to the fore then, and characters that have the ability to return cards from the discard can make all the difference. Even playing solo you feel like you’re part of a team, I can only imagine just how good this aspect of the game is when playing multi-player.
A quick note on resting – resting allows a character to take their discard pile back in hand and there are two types of rest – short and long. A short rest is taken immediately after your turn whilst a long rest is your turn. You have to lose a card whichever you take, but with a short rest it’s a random decision as opposed to one of your choice. A long rest also recovers a little health.
For those not in the know, here’s a quick rundown of how the ability cards work…
Each card has a top action and a bottom action. Some examples are attack 3 (does 3 damage modified by the draw of an attack modifier card), move 4, jump, attack multiple hexes, ranged attack, summons, there’s lots of different variables and many actions have multiples of these. Each card can be used for a standard attack 2 (top action), move 2 (bottom action), which is especially useful if you suddenly find yourself unable to do what you intended, especially if the alternative is to lose a card.
The cards also have an initiative number in their centre, lower numbers act before higher. At the start of a round each character selects two cards to play, placing them face down by their board. The leading card denotes the initiative for that character.
When deciding which cards to choose, communication between players is limited, and they are not allowed to give specific information about what they can do, such as the initiative number or the actual value of their attack, but something like, “I can do a lot of damage but I’m a bit slow,” is allowed.
I’m afraid I can’t comment on how this works having only played solo, but as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I have my own method for trying to replicate this to a degree and it works for me. It would be quite easy to chop and change what cards I’ve selected as I go through the characters, so I’m quite strict with myself and once cards are ‘locked in’ they don’t get looked at again until initiative is revealed.
Choosing the cards to play is the real meat of the game; it’s tactical, innovative, exciting, dramatic, and addictive, need I say more?
Well, yes… The decisions to make here are delicious, especially at the start of the scenario when you have everything available at your fingertips. You may start off at a tip-toe, trying to get by without losing cards because you think they’ll be better employed later, and you chip away at the monsters like a sculptor working on a master piece. But, sooner or later, things become a desperate flurry as you find yourselves in a bit of a pickle and now you don’t want to lose cards because you’re nearing exhaustion but you really need to use those special ones you’ve been holding on to all this time! knowing when to use those cards that become lost is always a tricky decision, and one that can bring glory or shame… or more often than not, an early case of exhaustion!
So, once all characters have their cards selected, they all get revealed. At the same time, the top card of each type of monster’s ability deck is drawn, indicating their own initiative. This is the time when groans can be heard, as the monsters get to move first or all the characters are acting in a total discord – it’s another great moment in the game, and it happens over and over again!
From here, if things haven’t gone your way, it can be a case of trying to make the best of things, which sometimes means doing the total opposite of what you originally planned. There are always options, you just have to find them; there’s never a dull moment!
The ability cards offer a combination of useful actions but there’s also the elements to think of too, which adds yet another aspect to think about. Some actions create elemental infusions (Fire, Ice, Air, Earth, Light, or dark) into the arena, and these gradually wane away if not used. Other actions can absorb these elements to make their effects stronger or add an extra aspect to the action.
Mastering the use of elements is a tricky thing to do and takes practice, with lots of card swapping between scenarios. When you get it right, however, then you’ll create a synergy between the whole party – one character creates an element for another to then use – it brings a great sense of teamwork to the game and is a great feeling when it all comes together.
It took me a while to figure this out, as I initially kept trying to create elements that would then be used by the same character in the next turn and it just wasn’t working. When the penny dropped, though, it felt as if the party’s powers had grown and it was like they were a tag team, setting each other up for the kill – this is where good use of perks comes in too, adding cards that create elements to the attack modifier cards.
My one issue, and it’s really a failing on my behalf, is that I keep forgetting to decrease the strength of the infusions every turn!
Of the abilities characters can use, summons is my least favourite mechanism, maybe because I’ve struggled to get to grips with it. I keep thinking that it should work really well, but every time I use it, it just never achieves its potential.
Summoned creatures move immediately before the character that summoned it, though the player has no control on how it behaves. The summoned creature moves and attacks using the same rules as for monsters, so it will gain a focus and try to move towards it and then attack if able. It should work, and for those who’ve figured it out it probably does, but for me alas, I always end up with the summoned creature doing very little other than being left behind in some empty room!
The automated monster rules, once you’ve got your head around how they work, do a marvellous job, and give the monsters a real sense of being ‘alive’. There’s a definite sense of unease when you encounter a new monster because you just don’t know how they’ll behave, not until you’ve revealed all their ability cards – do they have low initiative cards? Will they race across the board or remain stationary for some time? Do they favour ranged attacks or deadly melee clashes? Misjudge the enemy and you could find yourself in very deep water indeed!
First encounters can often be cautious affairs as you suss the opposition out, but with experience comes familiarity, so when you encounter the same monster again you know what to expect and will, hopefully, have some trick up your sleeve to deal with them.
Unlike many dungeon crawlers, where you can leisurely collect up all the loot as you go, Gloomhaven has a very tight control on being able to get rich quick. To pick up loot, for example from a chest or that dropped by slain monsters, you have to finish your move standing on it, or have played a card allowing you to pick it up in another manner.
At first, I wasn’t keen on this, but with time it grew on me, and it brings to the game a nice sense of ethics. Some characters will chase the loot no matter what, it’s all about the money (reflecting their personal goal or maybe their current battle goal?), whilst others will turn away from a very tempting chest in order to do what’s best for the group. Many a scenario ends with loot scattered across the room tiles – I guess the characters just forget where it was dropped or are too exhausted to go back and pick it up at the end!
Balance and scaling
Though I have only played solo I have used a varying amount of characters and I was pleasantly surprised to find things scaled really well. This is mostly due to the varied set-up number of monsters, as laid out in the scenario book. This also tells the players how many monsters are elite as opposed to standard.
I played several of the scenarios a couple of times, each time with a different amount of characters and all the games were tight finishes. Some scenarios seemed to be harder with just two characters, whilst others were the reverse, but on the whole I felt there wasn’t much in it and it came down to differences caused by the draw of monster ability cards and attack cards.
As for balance, there is a difficulty level – average character level/2 rounded up, that can be used for each scenario. I personally found that this was about right for me, though, It is recommended in the rules that solo players adjust the difficulty up a level to account for shared knowledge, but the way I play, combined with my poor short-term memory, offsets the need to do this.
It could be said that some characters are weaker than others, or that certain combinations of characters work better together than others. Whilst I would say that the latter is true, I would debate the former. Some characters are definitely harder to play than others, but I have always found that with experience they’re just as good – I have not unlocked all the characters so I can’t speak for all.
In terms of difficulty, the challenge rises as you progress through the story. New monsters are revealed, each bringing their own set of challenges, Bosses appear, and the scenario goals throw up more than just kill everything.
I’m quite amazed I haven’t completed Gloomhaven yet because I just can’t get enough of it. Every time it comes to the table, I play at least two scenarios, one after the other, and would probably play more if I could just leave it set out all the time.
Wanting to know what happens in the story and the compelling need to see what the next scenario is going to throw at me, are a big draw on their own, but there are also the characters to factor in. It’s easy to become attached, just like an RPG, and you want your characters to grow, to see how any new cards are going to work out, and to progress them to a life of retired bliss.
Strange how you look forward to them retiring, as I say, you become attached, but it does mean you get to open one of those little boxes, which brings with it the excitement of figuring out how what’s in side will work, how they’ll fit in with the team.
There’s only one thing that holds back repeated play and that’s having to set it up. Okay, there are ways you can get the set-up time down, maybe to 15-20 minutes, if like me you separate out all the things that are common to most scenarios and keep them in a separate box, but you’ll still have to sort out monster cards and standees and anything specific to the one you’re playing.
Obviously, more hands make light work, but solo, especially if it hasn’t been out of the box in a while, you can find that it takes 20 minutes just reorienting yourself with the contents of the box.
Then there’s the time required to prep your characters. I use four characters, but I don’t stick to the same ones for every scenario, which means attack modifier and ability decks need prepping, all of which takes time – probably add another 20 minutes.
keeping the game out and moving straight into the next scenario cuts things down drastically, and is the way to go, but it does take up a fair amount of space, and not just on the tabletop – keeping the box nearby presents an obstacle in itself!
Even if I you do complete the campaign things don’t end there. You can do it all again, this time making different choices, using different characters in the scenarios. On top of that there’s the random dungeon generator, something I haven’t felt the need to try yet, but the possibilities are endless. If I could only play one game for the rest of my life, this would be it!
Can I play it… with others?
Gloomhaven is just as good with others, or so I’ve heard – I’ve only ever played solo!
The problem with playing solo, though, is that when someone shows an interest in the game one gets a wee bit over protective – ‘I’ve invested a lot of time and effort in my campaign and there’s no way you’re going to join in and spoil it!’
It’s my baby and I’m not sharing… Having experienced so much of the game I want to continue discovering its secrets on my own, savouring every new moment. For me, sharing that with someone else would rupture the experience, ruin my vision of the characters and story – I feel like a two-year-old who’s just been asked to share his new toy!
Yes, yes, yes, yes… but!
Gloomhaven is going to appeal to a wide range of people. Like dungeon crawlers, like tactical combat games, like RPG’s, like story driven games, like any of these and there’s a good chance you’ll fall under this game’s spell.
The game provides so many moments of sheer pleasure, satisfaction at a card well played, delight at wiping a monster out with one well timed attack, and when things don’t go the way you planned, it becomes a desperate battle to extract the party from a sticky situation, often of their own making.
There are so many of these ‘ups’ that they make the tiny amount of ‘downs’ fade to insignificance, and I love it. I’ve always had a soft spot for dungeon crawlers, RPGs too, and this just meets all my needs, elevated by the fact that it isn’t all about rolling a few dice to decide combat.
As a solo game it supplies me with everything I need: a good story, evolving and often complex characters, deep tactical combat, a challenge that I always feel can be overcome with good play, and hours and hours of fun – it keeps me entertained and wanting more.
However, it isn’t a simple game. The monster’s AI is a little more involving than many dungeon crawlers. Deciding which ability cards to play can lead to overthinking, especially with the restrictive communication between players. There’s a lot going on and if you like fast, progressive crawlers, where you move along room to room quickly with combat resolution is a mere roll of a few dice, then this may take a little getting used to.
So, Gloomhaven may not be the easiest of games to jump right into but there is a solution to this – Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion.
The newly released Jaws of the Lion features a tutorial system spread across the first five scenarios. You also play the game on the layouts contained within the scenario book, so there’s no hunting around for map tiles and the set-up time is much reduced. It also comes in a lot less expensive; you can pick it up for under £50!
Read my thoughts One Year On Here
Players: Brilliant solo game but is just as good (apparently) all the way up to 4.
Playing Time: Solo – I’ve had scenarios range from 45 minutes to around 3 hours!
Ages: Can be complex at times but if they understand the principles then 12+.
Expect to pay: Under £110 – £105.95 on www.chaoschards.co.uk
Official site – Cephalofair
Game’s rules overview – http://www.cephalofair.com/gaming-rules-overview
Recommended video review – Shut up and sit down
BoardGameGeek page – HERE
9 thoughts on “Gloomhaven… Solo Review”
Definitely sounds like you’re enjoying playing this! 🙂
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Definitely – ticks all the boxes, best game ever… at least for me.
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I really must get you to have another try at my Dragon Horde game that you played in, what 1997?
It has grown and developed a huge amount since you saw it, as my brother and I have been adding to and refining it for the last 35 years. I’d be interested to see how it fared against the scrutiny of your review!
If you like variety, the example I usually give is of an encounter in the wilderness with a talking parrot, that casts assertions on your bravery due to all of your armour’s damage being in the back. We have added so many variables, that the chance of getting this sarcastic comment a second time is 75,000 to 1.
We must get a game organised one day!
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Hey, does that parrot know me?
Would love to, but I don’t know about one day, we’d need at least a week to catch up – let me know when you have a free one, lol!
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I bought Gloomhaven over the summer and I’m about to finally try the first scenario after watching several rules/playthrough videos. I’ll be playing through it solo so your review was great to read and has me excited for my future adventures through Gloomhaven’s campaign – thanks for writing it!
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Hope you enjoy the game, it really is great solo.
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This is one of those games I’d be very interested in trying if it turns out that someone I know has it. I’ll have to ask around and see. 🙂
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It’s a great blend of ‘Choose your own adventure’ and tactical dungeon crawling, and is well worth the effort to get to the table. Jaws of the Lion is along the same lines but with a few minor simplifications, such as using a book in place of dungeon tiles. It also has a good tutorial to introduce you to the game.
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Sounds like fun. I do enjoy the dungeon crawls, such as the cooperative D&D board games.
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