Quick Look: Gloomhaven

Designer:  Isaac Childres
Artists: Alexandr Elichev, Josh T. McDowell, Alvaro Nebot
Publisher: Cephalofair Games 
Year Published: 2017

No. of Players: 1-4    
Playing Time: 60-120 minutes

Find more info on BoardGameGeek.com  

From the Publisher:

Gloomhaven is a game of Euro-inspired tactical combat in a persistent world of shifting motives. Players will take on the role of a wandering adventurer with their own special set of skills and their own reasons for traveling to this dark corner of the world. Players must work together out of necessity to clear out menacing dungeons and forgotten ruins. In the process, they will enhance their abilities with experience and loot, discover new locations to explore and plunder, and expand an ever-branching story fueled by the decisions they make.

This is a game with a persistent and changing world that is ideally played over many game sessions. After a scenario, players will make decisions on what to do, which will determine how the story continues, kind of like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book. Playing through a scenario is a cooperative affair where players will fight against automated monsters using an innovative card system to determine the order of play and what a player does on their turn.

Each turn, a player chooses two cards to play out of their hand. The number on the top card determines their initiative for the round. Each card also has a top and bottom power, and when it is a player’s turn in the initiative order, they determine whether to use the top power of one card and the bottom power of the other, or vice-versa. Players must be careful, though, because over time they will permanently lose cards from their hands. If they take too long to clear a dungeon, they may end up exhausted and be forced to retreat.


The dungeon-crawl genre has always been my main go-to when it comes to tabletop gaming. While I undoubtedly prefer a real pen-and-paper style RPG, the reality is that parenting has diminished my ability to meet up and play a long multi-session game with a group of friends. So when Gloomhaven came out, I kept it on my radar and watched the hype train for it grow until it achieved a rapid ascension to the number one spot on the BGG charts. I eventually caved and went out to buy it, but not without a fair amount of skepticism and trepidation ; the concept of a fully-fledged Dungeon Crawler in a box seemed like an impossible accomplishment at the time. 

Now that we had purchased the game, it was time to see if it could pass my muster. 

As noted, Gloomhaven is a cooperative dungeon-crawler game for 2-4 players. It promises story, adventure, companionship and more on a series of adventures that span a continent rich with environments to explore.

Visit towns. Buy and sell goods. Hunt for treasure. Destroy the evil denizens of a multi-level tomb. All this and more, in a box that weighs in at almost 20 pounds.

I need to make it clear that the point of this review will not be to cover every aspect of gameplay in the fullest. Since the game has been out for a while now and the gameplay is complex enough to require a description that would be biblical in proportions, I will do my best to summarize the gameplay in as succinct a manner as possible in order to better focus on a summary of our overall impressions of the Gloomhaven experience. 

Commencing your quest in the city of Gloomhaven will involve choosing one of six basic starting classes ; the Brute, the Mindthief, the Cragheart, the Spellweaver, the Scoundrel, and the Tinkerer. While I have heard it said that these characters are “unique”, I would add that they are all pretty much the standard fill-ins for classic dungeon crawls with just a different skin. For example, the Scoundrel would most closely parallel the classic rogue class, and the Spellweaver could be substituted for just about any wizard or sorcerer class ; the Tinker would correlate with gnomish inventors and Brute would be the fighter/barbarian of the bunch. You get the idea.

In the Dungeon :

Each character class has a distinct set of cards, and each class truly does feel like its own beast to master, with none of them feeling the same as the others. Moreover, even though each class has a roughly similar amount of cards available to them in total throughout their character development, each character will be limited to a differing and class-based number of cards while in a dungeon ; a Spellweaver might be able to bring a comparatively paltry handful of cards into a dungeon in direct comparison to the Brute, who has substantially more. But circumstantially speaking, this can be offset by the fact that Spellweaver’s cards pack a heftier punch while the Brute may focus on distributing (and taking) damage over a longer period of time.

Each turn is played within a round of combat. The layout of the each dungeon is determined by a 140 page setup guide that will set the foundations for  the story, dungeon and victory conditions for your sessions. Throughout a round, monsters and players will take respective turns based on their initiative ; lower numbers on the initiative value for players or monsters take their turns first.

On a players’ turn, they may choose two of their cards to play. Each card has a top and bottom half, and they must use the top ability of one card and then the bottom ability on the other card. The initiative values are in the middle of each card, and prior to monsters/players taking action, this is the number that is used for determining player/monster activation order. This provides some flexibility allowing you to chose a higher number if you want to go later in the round, or a lower number if you want to act early in each round.

Abilities on cards can include movement, damage, special effects and more. 

But choose your cards wisely, because you will eventually extinguish your supply through using these cards. When this happens, you are exhausted and no longer able to participate in the dungeon you are in. If all players are exhausted, it is game over, but you can jump right back into the same dungeon if you so desire.

Each monster type has a deck of cards that determine what it does each round ; movement and attack are pretty typical cards that comprise this deck, but be wary of special abilities that also infuse each monster type with powers that hit hard!

Additionally, both players and monsters must have their damage output modified with each attack by drawing from a randomized modifier deck. Some cards may give you more damage, some will give you less damage (potentially negating damage altogether), and other cards will either double damage or make the attack a complete miss!

Completing a dungeon may unlock more story and dungeons, reward you with items, treasure, or experience. Interestingly, even if you die, you still, retain any accumulated experience.

In between adventures, you can also go to town. This lets you buy weapons, armors, and other trinkets.  

In addition, while in the city or traversing to a dungeon, you may trigger one of several hundred city / road events from a respective deck of encounters designed for such scenarios. These present choices to you that may be helpful or detrimental to your journey.

Character and Story advancement :

Contrary to the norm, killing monsters does not give you experience ; rather, performing specific actions on your dungeon ability cards is what gives you experience to level up , which will grant you access to higher level dungeon cards and abilities. 

Experience and hit points are tracked via a set of cardboard dials that each player receives.

You can even upgrade your dungeon cards to hit more enemies, grant more movement or even flying, do more damage, and more!

Eventually, your character can turn into a true powerhouse, however they will not be with you forever ; completion of the main game story requires you to eventually retire characters to unlock subsequent dungeons and characters that unravel the narrative. 

Critical Analysis: 

The preceding description of gameplay is just a synopsis ; as mentioned earlier, there are plenty of online examples depicting the gameplay in more precise nature, but given the rule set for Gloomhaven is actually complex, from a reviewers’ standpoint, I wanted to focus more specifically on what works for this game and what does not rather than breaking down each specific rule.

I want to start by stating that even though my overall assessment of the game is positive, much of what I have to say is going to sound negative. Because while Gloomhaven is essentially aiming to be a DM-less RPG experience and largely succeeds in this endeavor, it sometimes falls flat on its face as a result of the sheer excess of what it tried to accomplish.

This review is also going to be adversely impacted by the fact that since Gloomhaven made its debut, several other huge epic fantasy games have been released, and appear to have learned from Gloomhaven’s pitfalls. Some of these newer games ended up doing certain things better in our opinion. What this means for my critique is that while I may have initially ended up rating Gloomhaven higher 2 years ago, the fact that the gaming world has evolved  would most likely end up diminishing the accomplishment of Gloomhaven when it comes to my final thoughts. 

Now for the dirty nitty-gritty…

This game takes up way too much space. And I realize that Tainted Grail is just as guilty for taking up a huge amount of shelf space for the box that contains it. But for Gloomhaven, the problem ends up being that if you want to be efficient with time, the game simply cannot be contained in just the one box that it comes in, requiring the spending of more real-life money potentially. Tainted Grail did not have such a requisite for us. Please see the attached screenshot to see what our “optimal” solution ended up being!

Note that the game contains so many tokens, cards, characters to unlock, tiles, icons, and goods that you really need to spend more money to effectively make the game organized enough to play on a whim. This ends up meaning laying out cash for an expensive Broken Token insert or another self-made storage solution, but I seriously doubt that even though the Broken Token insert can technically (perhaps) store everything the game has to offer (unsleeved, at least), it probably is not going to be effective for locating exactly what you need when you need it. Hence the need for many boxes of various sizes and shapes, medication holders, accordion files, Plano boxes, and whatever else your mind can concoct to make your life easier.  At one point in time, we found that we were even buying boxes of gourmet chocolates to eat and then using for storage since each type of chocolate usually had its own dedicated space that could be used for storing enemy standees. This is a ridiculous amount of content that can potentially kill a dedicated area of your home and make it inaccessible for years to come unless you have a separate storage closet or garage for it when it is not in use.

We ended up buying a dedicated board game table just to leave this game set up.

Along the lines of too many components is the fact that I feel that many of the components are redundant and unnecessary. Rather than 8 different looking sets of obstacle or trap tiles that functionally do the exact same thing, it would have been better to have just one generic tile type from a standpoint of efficiency.  

The huge fold up board game map, in our opinion, just takes up space, and would be better substituted with a simple paper map with check marks that can denote what quests and statuses you have already completed. Several fan made files of such nature are available on BGG, and these are much more functional, and best of all, it means you do not have to potentially ruin your game board with legacy stickers that may never come off once placed (unless you spend yet more money on a set of peelable, reusable stickers that is sold separately.)

And speaking of things that are sold separately, you may note that enemy Hit Points are tracked with dice. The pictures of gameplay that I am posting here may show a fancy set of standees that contain a special dice tray that easily denote each enemies’ hit points and status, but I had to buy these from a separate, third party vendor, and this added yet more cost to my base game, which was already at $100 dollars when I had purchased it. Using the more ordinary method of putting dice onto each enemy sheet make the task of tracking enemy HP and status much more arduous, infuriating and frustrating.

The story itself is a bit of a letdown. While it does progress from a natural beginning to end, it is nowhere near the complexity of Tainted Grail in terms of branching paths. In essence, it feels like each dungeon only has text preceding it just to string you on from one dungeon to the next, and as a result, it can end up feeling like just a pack of 100+ one-off adventures. 

In terms of gameplay, one thing I find laughably ironic is the fact that the game creator opted to use a card-based random modifier deck instead of dice because of his personal disdain for the swingy and unpredictable nature of dice that can lead adventuring parties to their doom. The irony lies in the fact that the card-based randomness ends up being just as swingy and wild, if not more so than a traditional dungeons-and-dice game, as often times you will find that enemies can through good (mis)fortune draw their special abilities so often that you may be forced to repeat a dungeon 5 or more times only because of luck. As much as Isaac may have wanted to eliminate luck through his design choice, it is nevertheless in full effect and can lay waste to your dungeon session that lasts 3+ hours.

We could not stand the fact that you cannot share items and gold with fellow party members. 

Compared to an experience like Tainted Grail (that expects you to play the game with the seriousness that seeks to make you play the game without dying a single time), Gloomhaven ends up being too much like a video game in the sense that if you die in a dungeon, you just need to do it over and over again until you complete it, diminishing the sense of urgency and the need to take the game seriously, which from a narrative standpoint ends up making the story feel a bit more inconsequential. 

As you unlock more and more of the 20 or so odd characters in the game, while they may each feel different, some of them feel outright useless and unplayable within a party. 

Component quality is mediocre. The minis for player characters feel rough and undetailed, and were harder to paint for me as a result. The standees for enemies eventually tear if inserted into their bases too much.

The massive story/dungeon book becomes unbound way too easily, and it can be hard to fix when it comes unraveled.

There really is no role playing, or anything of that nature. You are pretty much going to be resigned to reading text for a sense of the game world, which is fine for if you only care about the fighting portion of the gaming experience.

Replay ability takes a hit because you really will not need to play this for a loooooong time once you finish the campaign, as nothing you do will dramatically alter the ending or storyline. 


With so many negatives, is there anything positive to say about the game?

In a nutshell, if you like dungeon crawls, for the time being this is the best board game implementation of the classic square/hex based tactical strategy role playing that I have yet encountered in a box. The negatives that I have mentioned will in fact drag the score down a bit  because they are notable, and I do not think these issues can realistically be ignored. 

While there may be some gameplay aspects present that are commonly used in traditional role playing games, such as items, gear, town visits, these features are not at all prevalent ; At its heart, Gloomhaven is all about tactical combat. 

From this standpoint, it is marvelous, and it excels in that it requires constant planning, assessment, and reactive ability (adjustment) to pull off a victory — do not expect to win by simply exchanging blows with the monster that is directly in front of you, winning will always require strategy and planning. If I were to rate Gloomhaven for combat and strategy alone, it would certainly be well-deserving of a score of at least 9/10. It creates thrills and very tense moments where your chance of success teeters and keeps you at the edge of your seat. I can think of several examples that will forever stay burned into my memory, but perhaps the best I can think of are the boss battles, which are truly epic.

My favorite encounter was one in which the boss battle (all of which feel like a traditional epic video game boss battle, which works in its favor this time around) involved a setup where we knew that the entire party would have to run through the dungeon and several rooms flooded with monsters to get to an inner chamber where the boss resided. If we did not reach the sanctum in time, the entire area would essentially become a living death trap that engulfed us in flames that would surely mean our demise if we dallied too much, and worse, if one of us reached the sanctum too far in advance, the door would seal itself shut leaving some of the party to deal with the boss while everyone else essentially was doomed to die outside of the now locked door. The boss himself looked deadly and would be summoning hordes when we entered. 

And as frustrating as the luck aspect can be, when your decide to push your luck, it can be amazing when it works in your favor. I will never forget the thrill of having my Scoundrel run to this boss as fast as he could with his invisibility cloak past the swarms of minions into the bosses chamber and unleashing a vicious stealth attack that ordinarily would have dealt a good enough chunk of damage on its own, but never would have finished the boss up. But Lady Luck shined through, and after drawing several great modifier cards, I ended up drawing a card that essentially enabled me to quadruple my damage, making it a one-shot, insta-kill against the boss, and ended the scenario in a flash of sheer, spectacular awesomeness. So as much as luck can work against you in this game, such a thrilling boss fight only could have happened as a result of having fortune in a game.

It is also fantastic that I do not have to be a DM , as no one else ever wants to do that for my RPG games, and I always feel like I miss out on taking part in great tactical battles against dungeon denizens, so in this respect, Gloomhaven scores big points for me, as the AI is tough and terrific, even though it takes a while to get used to all the many nuances that impact the way enemies move and react.

And the sheer amount of content for the game can mean years of playing. I had the good fortune of being able to play almost every night since we bought the dedicated board game table for it, and we were able to resolve the game in 3 to 4 months, but if your game group can only play once a week, and one game per sitting, we calculated it would take at least two years to complete the game. That is just insane!

But I do have to put everything into a holistic context, and I do have to consider all elements outside of the otherwise outstanding combat. 

We love the enemy charts with slide in stats that make it so it is easy to determine what level enemies function at and what innate abilities they have.

Enemies scale in difficulty as you level up, and can really beef up the challenge if you decide to level up your character at the wrong time. Again, I love challenges, so this can make make the strategic element to this game shine even more.

The negatives do weigh it down a bit in the end, and unfortunately are detrimental. I know that the newer Jaws of the Lion game set for to simplify the setup a bit, but this does have the drawback of not having tiles that can be used in a multitude of ways. 
In the grand scheme of things, once we were finished with the campaign, we did not feel like we would benefit from Frosthaven or Jaws of the Lion, the latest entries in the Gloomhaven world. Gloomhaven itself ended up being satisfying enough that we do not feel like we would benefit from another incarnation of it. We would rather see that some new world would be created that would take the lessons learned from Gloomhaven and build upon them rather than making what seems to us to be Gloomhaven 1.5 or 2.0 for the newest sequels. And do not get me wrong, I have seen the previews to Frosthaven and Jaws of the Lion, but as of now, even with the “improvements” that I see being developed, overall it seems like it will be more of the same. And in our honest opinion Gloomhaven was good enough to stand on its own two feet and end in a grand manner without a successor. We are satisfied, but nevertheless looking for the next revolution of RPG’s in a box, and I think good things are around the corner. Only time will tell.

I know we will keep this game and play it again. But for now it will remain on our shelf for the next ten  years or so while we wait for our kids to grow old enough to enjoy the experience with us.

Art : 7
Story : 5
Component Quality: 5
Gameplay : 9.5
Setup : 3
Fun : 8
Replay ability: 3 
Bang for buck : 9.5

Overall score 6.8 (not an average)
Adjusted score of 9.0 if just assessing combat/gameplay 

Need more Gloomhaven? Enter to win a copy of Cephalofair Games Gloomhaven: Jaws of The Lion Strategy Boxed Board Game for ages 12 & Up (that appears to be #13 on BGG’s Hotness at the time of this posting) by commenting to let us know what you thought of Gloomhaven if you’ve tried it & if you haven’t if you’ll be trying it after reading Jazz’s review of it.

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Jazz Paladin- Reviewer

Jazz Paladin is an eccentric at heart — When he is not learning to make exotic new foods at home, such as Queso Fresco cheese and Oaxacan molé, he is busy collecting vintage saxophones, harps, and other music-related paraphernalia. An avid music enthusiast, when he is not pining over the latest board games that are yet-to-be-released, his is probably hard at work making jazzy renditions of classic/retro video game music tunes as Jazz Paladin on Spotify and other digital music services. 

See Jazz Paladin’s reviews HERE.

Originally posted at Everything Board Games