Mechanism Focus – Gloomhaven’s Levelling System

Game mechanisms fascinate me. I like the well-used, steady, and reliable ones, and just as much I like the ones that are new, interesting, and creative. Most of all, though, I like the ones that are hidden behind all the gameplay and yet play a pivotal part when it comes to making things intense and exciting – I like the ones that make me smile and go, ‘Ooh! That’s clever!’

And so today, I’m going to talk about some of the mechanisms behind Gloomhaven’s levelling system, which definitely falls into the class of, ‘Ooh! Now that is clever!’

Unlike most dungeon crawler type games that see you playing the part of some such character or the other, Gloomhaven’s heroes are very ‘stat’ light. You won’t find numbers representing their individual strength, intelligence, or dexterity here, in fact the only numbers on show are for current level and health.

So, how do we distinguish between these characters, what makes each one different from the next? Well, each character has their own pool of cards to choose from. They are allowed to make up a deck containing a set number of cards, which is variable from character to character, and at level one they must choose from the starting cards, which is three more than they can actually take.

Let’s focus on the Human Scoundrel, one of the initial characters, so no spoilers here. This character needs a deck of 9-cards to begin a scenario and at level one she has a pool of 12-cards to choose these from. These cards define the character.

The Scoundrel – The number, top-right of the card, indicates how many cards she has to have in a scenario.

In play, you choose two cards to play from your hand, which, at the start of the game, consists of all your 9-cards, and lay them face down until the other players have made their choices. Each card has an initiative number in the centre, and the card you place on the bottom of your two will be your initiative for the round – the lower the number, the earlier you get to act. When it’s your character’s turn, you can take a top action from one card and the bottom action from the other.

The Scoundrel, as most characters are at level one, is fairly good at a number of things. She has plenty of cards that enable her to move a long way, she’s good at helping out her allies, as many attacks have boons when adjacent to them, and, as a bit of a rogue, she’s good at disarming traps and generally hoovering up any loose coins. She’s also quick to act, with seven of her card’s initiative numbers coming in below 40.

At level 1 then, you get a general feel for playing the Scoundrel. Despite only having only 9-cards to start with, few get discarded to the lost pile (which cannot usually be recovered) and so she doesn’t exhaust (run out of cards to play) as quickly as you might think. (Once all your cards have been played from your hand, they’ll either be in your discard or lost pile depending on the action taken. To recover your discard, you have to rest and send one of them to the lost pile, hence, as the game progresses you find your hand being whittled down until you can no longer play two cards and are exhausted).

The game mechanisms I’ve touched on above are interesting enough in themselves, but now let’s focus on levelling up, maybe we’ll revisit some of the others at a later date.

When you level up, you get to choose 1-card to add to your pool. This card must be from the character’s class and be a level equal to or lower than their new level. For example; when the Scoundrel advances to level 4, a singe card of level 4 or lower can be added to her card pool, from which 9-cards are chosen to begin a scenario with.

Through adding these cards, you can start to tailor your character to a specific play style, making them more specialised or just making them better at what they already do. Once again, turning to the Scoundrel, as she advanced to level-4, I chose the cards Flintlock, Hidden Daggers, and Flurry of Blades, turning her into a powerful ranged attacker with options to loot a bit more dosh and turn invisible when the going gets tough (the tough get gone!).

What I like about this mechanism is that it makes your character feel unique, special, a one off. This is emphasised further by the power of enhancement, which becomes unlocked a little way into the campaign. This enables you to make individual cards more powerful by adding to them. You can increase an attacks power, the range of an attack, the number of targets, how far you can move, jump, and a whole range of other stuff. Of course, though, it all comes at a price and a pretty steep one at that. You’ll need lots of gold to buff out your cards and gold doesn’t come easy in Gloomhaven, but this makes it all the more satisfying when you do manage to get that long awaited buff you’ve had your eye on.

Another thing that comes with levelling up is a perk. Perks, which can also be gained by other means throughout the campaign, give you the chance to tinker with your attack modifier deck. This deck replaces the need for dice, drawing a card when you make an attack, and adding the result to your attack value. Initially, this deck contains the following: 6x +0, 5x +1, 5x -1, 1x +2, 1x -2, 1x miss, and 1x critical (damage x2). This is where the fun starts, as each character is able to adjust the deck in different ways, and it gives you plenty to think about. Here’s the Scoundrel’s list of perks…

And here’s a few of her attack deck modifying cards…

I like to go for removing negatives and 0’s with my early perks, as this improves my chance of doing damage. From then on, though, its thinking time, as it really depends upon how I want to develop the character and what the others are doing. I might want to go with adding the pierce 3 cards (the u-bend arrow means draw another card and add it to the result) to defeat armour, especially if none of the other characters have the ability.

This game mechanism, along with the choice of cards, really defines how your character will play and it makes them feel more powerful with every level they gain. It can be quite ‘Mathy’ if you want to let it go that way, working out how adding cards will affect the result of an attack. I mean, do I remove two -1 cards, or four +0’s? it is a tantalising choice, and of course you want to do both eventually.

In terms of levelling mechanisms, there’s one more I want to mention and it’s the best, if not the most obvious.

Part of my disgruntlement with a lot of dungeon crawlers is that, when you level up, the monsters also get more powerful and you never get to feel like you’re better than them, not so here. This mechanism is easily overlooked and, indeed, it has taken me many games to realise just how clever it is.

It starts with a bit of math: (Average Character level)/2, rounded up. This gives you the scenario level and hence the level of the monsters you will face. So, four characters all at level 2, would give a monster level of 1. When one of those characters reaches level 3, the monsters level ups to 2. At this point, some scenarios are a real challenge, but as you progress, and other characters join you at level 3, or maybe you pull ahead to level 4, then you start to feel powerful, as though all that experience has paid off, and you’re more than a match for whatever comes your way (maybe, if you’ve selected decent cards and play to your strengths, otherwise…).

This feeling lasts until the scenario and monsters level up to 3 and evens the playing field again, well, pushes it back towards the monsters a little. This moment only comes, though, when the average character level increases past 4 (characters at level 4,4,4, and 5, give an average of 4.25, divide this by 2 and you get a scenario level of 3, as it’s rounded up).

A character at level 5 is feeling pretty good about themselves, confident in their abilities and holding some damn fine cards; they should have equipped themselves pretty decently by now too. So, as your character ascends the levels you get these bursts of actually feeling better than the grunts you’re facing, and then it resets, and you go again. I love this!

The Monsters level up too, albeit at a much slower pace.

It’s a bit of a hidden mechanism, easily missed and underappreciated. Scenarios are really well balanced and often go down to the wire, even as you out-level your foes, but this is because of the way the scenarios are designed, presenting you with the challenges of being highly outnumbered, having to go against the clock (or rather, round counter), or being stretched in some other, equally demanding way. As you get more powerful you have to think about how to make it pay off in the game, as exhaustion becomes more important – many off those powerful cards you gain through levelling up go straight to your lost pile when used – and so timing those big attacks becomes more crucial and strategy becomes pivotal. Communication is the key, as you want to avoid another character scheming to take out a monster that you know you’ll wipe out before they have chance to act, and if they do nothing of value during their turn it could bit you on the bum when it comes to winning or losing!

So, that brings me to the end of my first Mechanism Focus post. In the future I’ll be taking a peek into others that I find interesting, clever, or, for a different point of view, just don’t do it for me. Until then, you’ll have to make do with a few more painting posts!

4 thoughts on “Mechanism Focus – Gloomhaven’s Levelling System

  1. Interesting game mechanic Justin, and can see how you can tailor your deck as you progress to suit what you want to achieve from your character.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting reading this, Justin! 🙂 I can relate to the character advancement, since in the Crimson Skies boardgame pilots gain experience points and get to improve their character traits.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Nice review! Maybe it’s my age, but Gloomhaven just didn’t do it for me. Still, leveling mechanics can really make or break a game and there is a fine line between making it too complicated (usually with lots of record keeping) or making it too simple. I think in that aspect, Gloomhaven does a good job.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I enjoyed reading this, mate. I haven’t played Gloomhaven but have read reviews and know what people think the strengths and weaknesses of the game are. For me, I want a more thematic and narrative based game so that is why I’ve never considered it. Having said that, I can see why people like the game from what you shared with us. The mechanics seem both innovative and really sound!

    Liked by 1 person

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