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Board Game Review – Gloomhaven

Now I know I’m late to the party, as it’s been about a year or so now since this leviathan board game entered circulation, but as I do not own a copy, and it has taken us a while to get a few games in with the copy in my gaming circles, only now do I think I’ve played enough to offer an opinion.

This has been one of the biggest titles of 2017, a roleplay mashed with a strategy game with the difficulty level turned up to Dark Souls. Wildly differing characters, varied scenarios, depth of environment enough to fool you into believing that you’re role-playing into something almost Pathfinder-like, but the entire game runs itself, kind of… but let’s get to that later.

Overview

Published by Cephalofair Games
Release
2017
Genre Role-play, strategy

How To Play

Now this could get big fast, but here’s the abridged version.

World – An enormous world map with slowly revealed details that put stickers on a near-blank slate, as narratives and sidequests add landmarks in between the forests, rivers, and mountains. In between scenarios you have the opportunity to take events in the city that are almost always positive, as well as shop for useful/magical items. On the way to and from scenarios, you have road encounters that almost always leave you on the back foot going into combat.

Scenarios – You take your character into adventure, a series of intense dungeon crawls (with some gorgeous minis) built with modular boards where your biggest concern is often management of your supply of moves and abilities as well as your health. Your enemies act automatically from predesignated behaviours, most of which involve attacking you, but they may adopt defensive strategies as you weaken yourself, or might shift into advantageous positions, or worse, some have abilities that make combat so much more confusing or arduous.

Character – Combat is managed by choosing two cards from your supply, taking the top ability of one, and the bottom of the other, slowly cycling and recycling your deck until it diminishes, and each character has wildly differing card decks. They also have varying health depending on their role in the party. Attacks deal fixed values of damage, modified by a randomising deck that can double damage, negate damage, or modify it slightly. As you unlock abilities through completing scenarios and achieving personal goals you can advance your randomising deck to perform other unique abilities that make your character more and more unique.

My Character (For Example)

Ukta, a vermling mindthief. Think psychic rogue goblin with the power to summon rats and get into your head. The mindthief is fragile, but has abilities that turn enemies on one another, drives your friends forward and strike hard, and augment every attack with more power, confusing toxins, or the power to steal life. So far I’ve done my best to play Ukta as a greedy little sod, sneaking people’s gold from under their noses, always going for the loot as far as possible. Despite my natural ability to turn invisible, I took a cloak to make that ability a little more dependable.

So far myself and my gaming groups have followed two story missions, and taken a sidequest for the sake of some bonus loot. That sidequest gave us some seriously intimidating opponents, powerful crustaceans, ice elementals that forced me into avoiding some of my more powerful moves for fear that I only make them stronger, and ghosts that cursed us instead of attacking, which was so much worse.

And this is barely the tip of the iceberg. Enough to know I want to play on, and enough to make an informed opinion on the gameplay (he segued, cunningly).

Complexity and Apps

Fantasy Flight can only dream of the kind of over-the-top board game design complexity achieved here. Counters by the hundred, so much to monitor and maintain, with each creature obtaining new status effects practically every round, magic of various energies filling the room, depleting or being exhausted by certain powers (fascinating magic system as well), and monster numbers capable of growing to overwhelming odds.

The owner of our resident copy graciously operated the game for us for the first game, doing so entirely using the token management system provided, while we were learning how to play at the same time. That first game was tough for us all, but interesting enough to keep us engaged. So next time we used the apps for game management, and the whole game became a much smoother operation. Poor Vinni still did/does all of the overseeing and watching, which – while it’s a full time job – is less engaging than being a DM for an actual roleplay group, although I can imagine every bit as fun as running a game of werewolf without playing.

Even with all of the electronic assistance we still miss bits, need to take the occasional rules-discussion break, and of course there’s the long set-up and take-down time for each and every scenario.

If you’re really into it, you can build this with moulds from Hirst Arts, click the image to see

But with all that said, once you’ve got a solid grasp of what your character is capable of, once your well equipped to communicate with your party and get a solid notion of what they are capable of doing to help you and vice-versa, Gloomhaven can become a fast paced and intense game that offers new and interesting challenges each time you play, and it doesn’t have to take half a day to play, and with enough time you might even be able to squeeze in two scenarios in a long afternoon.

Size

Gloomhaven hits somewhere around the £130 to £140 mark depending on where you get it, and it is a monster of a game for the money. Gorgeous miniatures, masses of cardboard in tiles and tokens, character sheets, decks of cards, rulebooks, map, and then some, much of which we still haven’t touched or delved into. All of it is building a fascinating story, a world rich in lore, and may even be worth investing in expansions for.

Storage solutions are a must, and box inserts are available from third parties, and there are cheaper options in various craft and stationary shops, but they’re less neat, and may require parts to be stored outside the original box, which is massive in the first place.

I won’t lie, I am glad I do not own this game for one very simple reason: I simply don’t have the space for it. Hells, I’d even be willing to invest that money, even get some expansions (that may never get played) if I had the kind of shelf/cupboard space that the game demands. It does feel a little weird, to review a game that I don’t own, and huge thanks to Vinni for his willingness to let us all get our grubby mitts on his copy. I’ll be buying mine on Steam some time shortly after release to PC in 2019.

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