The Mother Of All Hype Trains - Gloomhaven Review

Which gamer hasn't heard of Gloomhaven? Now if you're new to gaming or more casual then perhaps the name doesn't ring a bell, but right now you cannot walk past an award ceremony or Top 10 list or Facebook forum without seeing a mention of Gloomhaven. Whether you want it to or not, it will never leave your mind, it's a bit like the Ducktales theme song in that respect. The designer is now more popular than Jesus and despite only receiving a small number of ratings, it's shot up to #1 on BGG quicker than even the likes of Pandemic Legacy. I could go into detail into how broken the ranking system on BGG is, but I digress, that's a whole essay in itself.

I had to get in on this - you know me, I leap on to every hype train where possible and see what's what. Sometimes I'm transported to a world of wonder and amazement, other times the train derails and I'm mangled in a pile of scrap metal at the bottom of a cliff. Hype is one of the biggest enemies in gaming after all. Now of course Gloomhaven has been out long enough for hype to become "buzz" but they're both as high as each other. I gave the game a full can of beans plus a long demo a while ago, but never did a review for it as I was swarmed under and didn't have my lair defense systems in place yet - because any rating other than 10/10 for this game is regarded as heresy I've noticed so some preparation was required. . .




Designer: Isaac Childres
Publisher: Cephalofair Games
Age: 12+
Players: 1-4
Time: 120 - 180 Minutes
RRP: £134.99


From Board Game Geek

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.



NOT A D&D COPYCAT


I won't be going into spoilers don't worry, after all I've played 10 full scenarios so it's not like I'd have loads of plot points to reveal, but that's around 30 hours of time digging into Gloomhaven which is plenty long enough (and yes if a game can't entice you after 10 plays, playing another 10 isn't going to suddenly change the fabric of space, time and reality). But there's definitely a deep story with many branching paths here depending on your choices made between scenarios and your upgrades chosen.

The theme is not your run of the mill D&D copycat or "generic fantasy" tropes, thankfully, it's got a unique universe of its own borrowing ideas from other systems, but creating its own world to explore. Granted you can equate every class in the game to something you've seen before, but still, it's certainly a refreshing change from the norm, though don't go into it thinking it's the most compelling story every told. A lot of the time (so far anyway) you're fighting humans/bandits etc and the odd undead which is nothing new or interesting (I want to fight monsters, not Robin Hood and his Merry Men) and the story, while ever changing, isn't one that I'm going to walk away from the game going "ooh I wander what's going to happen next"? It does the job fine of carrying the players through the game, but isn't a gripping tale. If this were a movie, it would be your adequate Fantasy epic with some good visuals, but nothing Oscar worthy.

The classes themselves play very differently to what you'd expect. Every character has their own set of cards and limits tailored to their expected role and these can also be upgraded as the campaign progresses allowing for a high level of differentiation among players - not to mention you will also unlock brand new classes as the campaign moves on, which is really cool, you don't see that in other RPG's. I kept trying to do the classic trope of stating who was the tank, who was the healer, etc, but it's not quite so clean cut as that and you have the opportunity to do your own thing without being type-casted. Very nice.



WE'RE ALL SPOILED FOR COMPONENTS


So you get this giant box that you could kidnap someone in which certainly adds to your shelf presence (assuming you can physically store the thing, it is huge), but what's in it? Well a  ton of boxes and tiles and boards and cards, enough to make your mouth . . . .droop slightly? Yeah for a game costing over £100 and raising a large fortune on Kickstarter, it was a little underwhelming to see that the game boards and cardboard standees were pretty generic and unappealing especially when players use miniatures so you get that odd combination that should not mix in games. We've been spoilt in this category I'll admit, but then that's only the more reason for people to really step up their game in components. Descent 2.0 is 6 years old and yet I'd much rather stare at everything in that game over this - it really does not pop on the table at all, lots of the same colours repeated over and over - seriously does the designer have his house painted in nothing but reds and browns? But wait it has hexagons instead of squares, whooo waaa you've just changed everything! They're not horrible by any means, I've seen far, far worse, but expectations were high and it just turned out to be "adequate".

Rules wise, the book is decent enough though you can expect to be doing a ton of rules checking as you play your first few scenarios. It's not that the game is that complex, it's actually probably medium weight at best, but there's a lot to keep track of around the table and it's a pretty big book that doesn't make it entirely intuitive where you should be looking for specific rules queries. You want proof of this, head over to the BGG Gloomhaven page and look at the number of question posts in the rules section, it's ridiculous. Don't put this near a brand new gamer that's for sure - but then it's probably the long-term gamers that are playing Gloomhaven anyway evidenced by the lower number of ratings it has in proportion to other more mainstream accessible titles.



ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE?


But how does it play? Well you know how other dungeon crawls work? Yeah? That. But with cards. You don't get dice in this scenario, instead you're managing a hand of dual purpose cards that not only give you specific tailored actions, but also represent your fatigue or life as it were. I like multi-use cards, but wish they used something else to handle your life points. And instead of a die, you get a small deck of modifier cards that you can adjust between scenarios....so a custom die then. Beats a generic D6 any day, but it's not a revolutionary new concept!

What these cards do however is put a different slant to what most expect from a dungeon crawl. You know in advance what the enemy is going to do and then it's done in initiative order so you essentially plan out the whole turn by way of utilising these action cards and being aware of what your teammates are going to do. It's an interesting puzzle......which is both good and bad. When I think of a dungeon crawl, I'm thinking cinematic and tense fights with die rolling and speedy resolution where possible. Like an actual Star Wars trooper fight if you're playing Imperial Assault. Running up to the big dragon dodging attacks from multiple minions by the skin of your teeth and planting your sword in its head in a climatic stand-up moment. Gloomhaven is nothing like that.

As interesting as the puzzle is, it basically makes Gloomhaven a Euro game with a dungeon theme attached to it. Remember Legends of Andor? Looked the business, fantasy theme, but yet had the most theme-destroying puzzly nature to it where killing monsters actually made you lose? I don't want my dungeon crawl to be a giant puzzle and that's what Gloomhaven is. You'll spend an eternity with your friends planning out the entire round piece by piece (more on that later) before watching it all resolve - like if you were playing X-Com on the PC or resolving that V.A.T.S targeting system in Fallout.


It's also weird and a little infuritating how the enemies do the same thing all at once via a card based system. 10 skeletons and their actions are all the same like one big synchronised swimming team (what a weird thought). AI like this on a video game would get panned for being overly simplistic or practically brain-dead, but yet again, this gets a free pass it seems. Nearly 50 different enemy types and yet this simplistic mechanic stops them from feeling very special. If each type had their own deck to represent aggressive types, cautious types, ranged types etc that would be a bit better.

So the game lurches to a halt as you discuss the plan, and then it speeds on again as you actually perform the moves, then rinse and repeat until the game ends. We'll get on to the length issue this causes in a moment, but know going in that this game is going to feel more "Euro" than any other dungeon crawl you've played and if that's your style then you're going to be right at home here. The decision making with the cards is very engaging.


THIS ROOM HAS BEEN CHECKED, MOVING ON!!


Now one of the biggest issues with nearly all dungeon crawls is the time it takes to set up, play and take down the game. Most will comfortably go beyond 2 hours sometimes passing into the 3 hour mark and that's just too long for what should be a "drop down and beat up monsters" experience. A lot of this comes down to group discussion and the sheer number of components to sort out. Unfortuately that trope is repeated here. There is so much stuff in this box that even if you have the best organisation possible (before pimping out for an insert) it's still a lengthy affair before you're commencing Turn 1 and it's only worse when you're trying to pack everything away so that it all fits again.

On top of that, the scenarios aren't short. I kid you not, the first game took over 4 hours to finish after setup/teaching. Yes you're still learning the game, but that's insane when you consider the first scenario has three rooms.......THREE. Over an hour per room. And it's not like you explore very much as they were just corridors basically. Nothing of interest to find, just enemies. And this is a common theme during the campaign for at least the short term.
Many scenarios boil down to the same old "waltz in and either steal from or kill J Tolkien" objective and that got old in other dungeon crawls, it certainly gets sterile here. Don't quote me on this but I heard that the designer said he hasn't played other dungeon crawls. I don't know if that's 100% true or not, but if it is, it would explain a lot. By the time I felt like quitting the campaign it had already got samey.



Now subsequent games you speed up a bit, but a 3-4 player game can still easily suck up over 3-4 hours per scenario including setup and takedown. And you will experience downtime because even though you may only take a short time to decide on your cards, doesn't mean the others do and so you'll be waiting around. The gameplay doesn't really change much during a scenario either. Each round is a rinse-repeat affair and eventually becomes repetitive when you just want the scenario to hurry up and end while you try taking out those 1-2 last minions.

My regular game nights don't last more than 4 hours tops, I want to do more than just 3-4 rooms of light exploration and heavy combat before I go back home. "Long" is subjective among people, but we have jobs, families, lives, I don't have time to get through this campaign if every session requires an entire evening to "possibly" complete. I just want a dungeon crawl that gives me 60-90 minutes tops per scenario every time and even solo you're struggling to meet that here.


NEVER ENDING STORY


I'd be lying out of my black goblin teeth if I claimed there wasn't value in Gloomhaven. The amount of content that lies in this nuclear bomb crate is staggering and you'll certainly get your money's worth assuming you enjoy the game. However there are a couple caveats with that. Firstly for this value you are spending typically over £125 (varies by supplier) on the outset and that's before you inevitably need to spend some money pimping it out for easier setup/takedown (an insert is HIGHLY recommended because bizarrely depite being a giant box, everything doesn't fit in it easily.....HOW?!). In terms of content you're getting over £125 worth of game, but I would like to have seen better component quality and even then it's a lot of money to ask someone to cough up on a single game. We go ape at other publishers on Kickstarter for expensive campaigns, but yet this gets a free pass?

The second issue is more . . . unique. I love variety in games, it's nice to have lots of different things within so that the games feel different each time. But you can go too far with these things. Take an example of some great variety games currently. Sentinels of the Multiverse has a ton of heros/locations/villains now. I won't play every combo, but I'll at least be able to use them all and experience them. Spirit Island has a ton of variable ways to customize each game, but again, I will get to experience them all. Gloomhaven it seems has a campaign that will take forever to end, longer than most people have in terms of time available in their lives and yet you won't scratch the surface. If I was continuing with this game, I would never see all the content I've paid for, I'm a busy man. I doubt I'd even finish a campaign. It's one thing to have a ton of variety, it's another to pay a high cost for content I'll never see that is essentially wasted.

In terms of difficulty, you can tailor the experience to suit, but oh my word, make sure you play the first scenario on the easiest mode. For whatever bizarre reason the difficulty spikes considerably in the first one or two scenarios and this can put off a lot of players.
Don't let it, stick with it for a while longer before making up your mind.



VERDICT ON GLOOMHAVEN


Gloomhaven is going to one of those games that for many has defined the future of board games. I'm not one of those many. There is stuff to like here, don't get me wrong though - I've played bad games, Gloomhaven is not bad,but I also don't see the buzz factor here. I gave it a solid chance to impress me even since the first demo experience and yet all I see is "another dungeon crawl" game, but using cards rather than dice. Other than that it still carries many of the same tropes and issues that plague dungeon crawl games such as high price, select appeal, lengthy scenarios and the like - except now you have the fact it's now a giant puzzle rather than a cinematic experience.

You've got a unique universe that's different from the normal generic fantasy, even if it's not the most compelling story ever, the production is adequate enough if not stellar and it's got a lot of value in the box despite the high price tag. Some aspects of character progression are welcomed and the puzzle as mentioned is still engaging and fun to do. . . until it starts getting a little repetitive. There's some aspects of Gloomhaven that feel modern and forward thinking, but they are overshadowed by the more numerous aspects that feel dated.

After we've had so many of these games released over the years it's time to see something different and more innovative. I didn't hate my experience of Gloomhaven, if anything I was more disappointed given the high buzz despite enjoying some aspects of it. It's definitely going to appeal to some gamers though, but I'd still argue that it's a small group of die-hard fans and not a expanded consensus on a global scale. A game like Ticket To Ride has been an evergreen since 2004 - I don't see Gloomhaven having the same life cycle.

At best I can only call the #1 game on BoardGameGeek......average and for a game that is buzzed so much and has earned the designer a popularity level greater than Jesus, average isn't going to cut it for me. It hit my Top 10 Overrated Games last year and if I did the list again, it would remain, probably even climb it. And as a result I've now switched on the new security lasers on my secret lair.


 
Personal BGG Rating - 5 




YOU WILL LIKE GLOOMHAVEN IF:



You're a big fan of dungeon crawls and want more of the same.


You want a different universe to the typical D & D style that's usually prominent.


You want plenty of lifetime in the game, even if you will most likely never reach the end or experience it all.




YOU WILL NOT LIKE GLOOMHAVEN  IF:



You hate repetition in your quests / scenarios.


You don't like your RPG experience essentially feeling like a puzzle game.


You want a game that's easily approachable or easy to store.

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