Teaching Time: 60 mins
Playing Time: 60-120 mins
Setup Time: 30 mins
Value For Money: Mid
Website: Gloomhaven - Cephalofair
I try not to just review every game that I own or play, mostly because if I did the review section of this blog would be pretty rambling and random. As such I’ve tried to keep a few rules in mind for reviewing things to create some sort of a sense of consistency, one of them is that I’m interested in and have been reviewing Legacy games. Up to now I’ve not included Gloomhaven in that because, frankly, I’m on the fence about how Legacy it is, but its certainly considered in the general area, I have played it, and it is top of the BGG rankings (and has been for a while now) so I really should give it a review.
First of all, the Legacy debate. I don’t think there are hard and fast rules here to be honest, and I’m more than willing to accept that Gloomhaven is a Legacy game, but I don’t think its part of the fullest definition of Legacy game. This is still an area that’s having its borders delimitated and possibly its a matter of art rather than science at this point. However, for me a Legacy game has to shut off certain paths from players in a way that Gloomhaven doesn’t. Anyone who has cracked the seal on a copy of Risk Legacy and seen that little warning that what is done can never be undone and felt a thrill of excitement hopefully knows what I’m talking about. There are plenty of permanent changes in Gloomhaven, but they mostly feel like story paths, its extremely tough to take a definitely poor choice that you’re forced to live with, or just a hugely significant one that becomes legend within the cycle of the game. Still, the difference for most people is going to be splitting hairs.
Gameplay wise, players take the role of one or another outsider adventurer in the titular Gloomhaven which is having a rough old time of it, being threatened as it is by a range of unpleasantness including an ancient evil called the Gloom (A man called Otto Octavius ending up with eight limbs. What are the odds?). Said adventurers exist somewhere between saving the city and looking out for themselves. They do this by going on dungeon delves to hack up beasties, picking up experience and gold to makes themselves better at going into dungeons and hacking up beasties in order to… well, you get the idea with that. The central gameplay involves characters having a hand of around 10 cards (more or less, depending on the character), from which two are played each round. Each has an ability at the top and the bottom, generally divided into movement at one end and attacking at the bottom, players must pick one from one end and one from the other in their activation, but need not name which until they activate, making planning in flexibility to choices a real boon, particularly when there are up to three other players with equally pre-planned options and a room full of active beasties. Once used cards are discarded, when a player runs out of their hand they shuffle and re-stack, losing a card for the current dungeon as they do so, which is the clever bit of the whole thing since they also lose a card if they have to cancel damage upon them to stay alive. A hero is only ever defeated when they run out of cards, meaning that burning cards to complete tasks is just the same as getting overwhelmed and stabbed liberally to death, making the central loop of activity and reward crunchy and interesting.
Now, I like Gloomhaven, I found that central loop pretty rewarding and the constant offer of more to investigate in the overall adventure fascinating. However, there were players in my usual group that pretty much hated it, and they had some perfectly good reasons to do so, so I’m going to run through a few of them. Firstly, not all adventurers are created equal, some people get to ninja wall run through a crowd of enemies, blinding them all before dropping behind them and using psychic dominance to pop their heads like melons and generally looking like a sexy boss while doing it. Meanwhile some people get to hand them a sandwich after they’ve done it and, if they’re lucky, pick up the pennies in the corpse’s pockets. If a group of players are naturally suited to their roles (the sort of people who already know about kiting with a tank and having a dps specialist in the group) that’s fine, if they’re not then its hard to miss that some people are very much holding the coats of the sexy show-offs getting all the applause and while Miss Moneypenny is a vital member of the team it takes a special kind of person not to want to be James Bond.
Secondly, the smallest loop of the game is very satisfying, the overall world of the game is deeply fascinating, but between the two on the medium level things aren’t quite what you’d wish them to be. To explain, on the micro scale the game is about managing hands and card pairs in a way that’s really clever and fascinating, on the macro scale its about delving into a clearly layered and epic story, but in between the two there is, frankly, a not very satisfying dungeon crawl. Monsters are pretty much different flavours of damage soaks which could theoretically involve a range of tactics to deal with, but in practice don’t. Players get into a room, do as much damage as they can as quickly as they can without getting too puffed out, rinse and repeat. If players fail in a dungeon they leave, reset it and go in to do exactly the same thing over again. Essentially, the dungeon delve feels like the busy work players need to go through to get to the reward text and the rather more fun process of engaging with the epic wider world. Mostly the tension in the game comes not from any existential risk to your characters but from the very real sense that you’d rather jam your face into a blender than go through certain dungeons over again, and if you do fail the idea of going back through it all over can result in something more like a groan than anything else. Since the central loop of the game is about players getting more exhausted the more they do many of the dungeons have the actual first room as the most threatening and often times a greater threat than a set of deadly opponents is just a really, really long corridor. The result is often an interesting optimization puzzle, but its not really a fun dungeon crawl and as the central loop of the game that can be quite a downer.
That said, it is top of the BGG ratings and I, for one, really like it, so why is that? I think that firstly its done something immensely smart in pretty much disguising a cold hard Euro as a theme heavy Ameritrash game. The central loop of the game isn’t a traditional dungeon delve, its actually more like a complex deck management puzzle, which is exactly what the average BGGer is all about, but it also slathers everything in a thick surface layer or story, thick enough to drown out any narrative cracks from the Euro core of the game. It’s a brilliant combination and will only disappoint a minority of player. Gloomhaven is the modern update to something like Heroquest, but only in that if you’ve played Heroquest recently as a grown up, it really doesn’t stand up to the test of time while Gloomhaven does.
There are a couple of problems with the game that are probably less major, but more universal. They pretty much come as a group complaint and that is, the game is big, expensive and a huge time sink. So, first of all, big, the game physically weighs around 22 pounds, that’s 10 kilos, and is 16”x7”x12” (41X19x30cms) so if you mostly play at a gaming club, that’s not nothing, and if your games have to justify their shelf space that’s a real barrier. It comes along with the fact that it will put you back around £100. These sorts of huge box high price games are becoming more and more usual, but that’s a heavy investment for a game, particularly one that a lot of players won’t actually dig through to the end of. Finally, there’s the time, and it’s a time eater, not just overall but session by session. Set-up and breakdown times on the game are a beast, sometimes longer than the actual play session itself, and can easily rule it out for those who need to fit their play time around other parts of life. Single session aside, there are people who will be delighted by the fact that the game has around 100-200 hours of playtime in its basic campaign, but there are people who will count it out for that very reason. It’s a harsh complaint to lay on a game, but the sheer depth of the game will mean that some people never get to the heart of the content that they’ve laid out that not inconsiderable cost on. If you’ve never played through a long campaign or full legacy game with the same group this is not the place to start, it takes commitment and you’ll probably be disappointed if you don’t check for that commitment before setting out with your party of chums.
Those are, however, minor complaints. If you have a group of two or three repeat players, or are willing to drop a fair amount of money in a lump sum for an epic solo experience, have the time and space to commit and are looking for the childhood Heroquest experience that your Brass playing adult self is hankering for, Gloomhaven nails it like a sledgehammer into a tack. Which is why it’s as popular as it is, because there are a lot of people who absolutely love exactly that.
I will try to standardize my Legacy reviews by using several categories: Legacy Presentation, how does it physically present its Legacy aspects during the game; Legacy access, what level of elements can players reasonably expect to unlock through play and what will be lost; Life length, specifically re-play value before, after and during the campaign mode; Advancement satisfaction, whether the upgrades given to players during campaign mode come at a rate that feels worthwhile; Rules Progression, whether added rules slot in naturally or come and go at such a rate that players never manage to settle into play; Group consistency, how necessary it is to keep the same gaming group from game start to end and Storyline, Legacy games generally present an overarching story which can be successful or not.
Mostly the presentation of the Legacy element comes through a campaign book system that should be familiar to players of standard dungeon crawls. Players are presented with a world map with numbered locations, they pick one to investigate and look it up in the campaign book for details of the scenario, which inevitably adds a new location the map to in turn be delved into. Certain events unlock envelopes with additional rules or effects and boxes of additional content, generally in the form of alternative heroes.
The majority of the content comes in the form of the range of scenarios, completion of which is ultimately a matter of commitment. Unlocking is based on entirely optional player activated achievements though, so it is theoretically possible that a large amount of content could remain unlocked, in practice this would probably take more player effort to avoid that achieve, certainly if the full campaign is played through. An average player group should be able to see the vast majority of the game’s content if they choose to play through all the available missions.
The initial legacy campaign runs to somewhere like 90 scenarios for somewhere like 100 – 200 hour of gameplay, most likely closer to the 200 than the 100 end of things. After which each scenario is available for repeat stand alone play, even including alternative stand alone play options. As such the game has more content in full Legacy mode than most people will ever get to and allows repeat play even after that has been exhausted.
Players will generally see some form of player agency led advancement of some kind or another every session, either through leveling up with experience, purchasing equipment with gold or unlocking campaign progress. As such advancement is continual and highly satisfying.
The game has very little rules unlocking, relatively speaking, after the initial learning period. Most of the rules unlocked have to do with either the fact that players live within an active city which grows and unlocks over time or that they are investigating a range of unusual locations with strange properties. As such new rules make good sense within context and are easily internalized into the structure of the game.
Each scenario exists as a stand-alone gameplay experience as well as a part of an overall campaign, as such players can drop out from one scenario to another. Difficulty scales generally harder with more players, meaning that losing or gaining numbers can be a mixed blessing. A range of mechanics mean that differing character advancement rates are a minor problem, so overall group consistency is not a mechanical necessity at all.
The overarching storyline is epic with multiple threads, to the degree that players may want to make sure that sessions are consistent since losing track is easy to do. With consistent commitment however the story is rich and rewarding whilst being intimately connected to player agency and the basic gameplay loop.