A 2-Dimensional Rubix Cube - Founders of Gloomhaven

How to print money in the easiest way? Put the word Gloomhaven in the title. That's the way it's gone down with Founders since its entrance. The hype was already started from the fact it was being released from the same designer/publisher as the #1 game on BoardGameGeek - not that I pay any attention to BGG rankings as Gloomhaven does not feature in my personal collection. But I can't argue with the business using a tried and true marketing tactic to good effect.

I definitely had to sink my teeth into this one, a big meaty Euro game that really doesn't sell itself from the box cover or the aesthetics or even the theme to be honest unless you're a die hard Gloomhaven addict. But reports were coming in of mixed reviews highlighting the issue of fiddly and confusing rules, never a good sign, but as such it took me a while before I could get this to the table and even then I needed friends of mine and the odd YouTube video to help me with that. Was it worth the effort?



Designer: Isaac Childres
Publisher: Cephalofair Games
Players: 1-4
Age: 12+
Length: 90-180 minutes


From the rulebook:

“In the age after the Demon War, the continent enjoys a period of prosperity. Humans have made peace with the Valrath and Inox. Quatryls and Orchids arrive from across the Misty Sea looking to trade. It is decided that a new city will be built on the eastern shores—a hub of trade and a symbol of many races working in harmony. Each race brings their own speciality to the city, and each race holds a desire for influence over the city by contributing the most to its construction.”


FOUNDERS OF THE HYPE TRAIN


The opening paragraph of Founders of Gloomhaven’s scarily dense rulebook as above. Did you understand the first thing about it? Recognise any of the races mentioned? If you did, then you've obviously played the much loved (but in my opinion overrated) Gloomhaven that Founders borrows from. However if you didn't you're going to be confused as all-get-out and get used to that, because there's plenty more where that came from.

Many will be drawn to Founders of Gloomhaven because of the tie-in, but I warn you now, do not let that be your purchasing decision. It is clear from the mechanics within that the theme is tacked on at best, mainly there to facilitate initial hype. All these weird races and locations will be lost on anyone who knows nothing of Gloomhaven and when you delve into it, there's very little differentiation between them all anyway. Each race has a unique minor power that can be used maybe 4-5 times max in the whole game and a different starting resource, all of which are 100% generic and identical in nature and function. And all the prestige buildings, though named after actual Gloomhaven locations, are essentially dumping grounds for cubes with a minor ability for your worker that doesn't even have any correlation with the building itself.

I actually cared so little about the theme, that I didn't even notice the back of the player boards had flavour text on them. That's how irrelevant it is. And even if you read it, again you're not going to understand it without having played the other game. You could replace this theme with architects building Rome and nothing mechanically would change whatsoever.

Though I wouldn't say no to the art palette being replaced. Much like its older brother, the colours on the board and everything else are muted, dull and full of really bland reds, browns and greys. Even the coastal terrain which is meant to look like sand seems like it's situated in Hull - not a beach I want to take my bucket and spade to. All the buildings look generic and are basically Tetris pieces, the artwork on the cards fares a little better, but overall, it really doesn't pop on the table at all, but then again, nor did the other one.

And some of the graphic design choices are baffling. Why is every road tile an 8-lane crossroad? Because everything connects on every corner, the map once built up looks like a really bad toy set from a small child. I've heard of "All Roads Lead To Rome", but this is ridiculous. Some resources look like what they are, for example an anvil represents metal. But some of the other resources I swear are so abstract that you'll forget what they are instantly. The last game I played we constantly got Books mixed up because it doesn't look like it! The whole feel is that you're just pushing around icons to make better icons and the whole theme of the game is detracted from how it appears.


WE NEED MORE CUBES!


The mechanics in Founders of Gloomhaven have clearly being influenced by other games. Turns are based on playing action cards, which can be supplemented with other character cards that have slightly beefier abilities. You don't get them back until you play a "vote" card. It reminds me of Concordia, which if you know me is not a good start, but unlike Concordia, the cards here actually have unique and abilities among the characters for hire, though they are only simply upgraded versions of the previous actions so nothing to get excited about. Each other player gets to follow the action being played, which is directly lifted from Peurto Rico and San Juan, this I've always been a fan of.

The goals of the game can be summed up as a smorgasbord of supply chain logistics (great, something to remind me of Food Chain Magnate. . . .) You start with some basic commodities but can gain access to other players and combine these resources to build buildings that have more advanced resources. Suffice to say other than "X resource leads to Y building", there is absolutely no distinction between any of the resources whatsoever. Later in the game, prestige buildings appear which require a collection of resources which can be supplied by multiple players. You score based on what you supply, but if you acquired a resource from another player, they get some points as well. It's based on a "trickle-down" system, which I swear to god is one of the most fiddly and confusing methods of scoring ever put to print. You can just about understand it from a rules video, god help you if you're using the book.

Despite the card abilities being fairly unimpressive, the card play itself is definitely the best thing in the game. Managing your hand and trying not to call votes too often is an interesting balancing act. There's also a surprising amount of forward planning required for the board itself that encourages you to pay attention to what the other players are doing and seize opportunities to grab another resource or build that structure before they do. It's very thinky and engaging, but it's difficult to tell what ramifications your actions will have in the long run making Founders of Gloomhaven very un-friendly to new players.


EURO BLOAT - MY NEW TERM


So far, some hits and misses, but here's a big kick in the teeth. The real puzzle in Founders of Gloomhaven has nothing to do with the logistics or card play. It's figuring out whether or not you're playing the game correctly in the first place. This is one of the most unintuitive games I've ever partaken in. Tile placement (has to be by a road, but not other buildings), diagonal connections, two different types of voting influence (one of which is worth two and "permanent" except it's consumed when used), confusing resource icons, roads belong to everyone but bridges/gates don't, advisers needing resources to acquire (no sense from a thematic perspective and easily forgotten) ugh, it creates a whole new level of stress and not of the fun kind.

Founders is not a bad game overall despite the issues, but it suffers considerably from Euro Bloat (a phrase I've now devised that was previously known as the Alexander Pfister effect). So many mechanics and restrictions are stuffed into this game that it becomes fiddly as all-get-out and they seem to be in there purely for the sake of saying "look at my complex Euro game". I mean why is there a worker placement aspect here? It's a pointless addition and isn't even that advantageous! Your racial ability will vary on usefulness for a worker to go and the prestige building spots lack any thematic connection or flavour and aren't even that useful in themselves. If it was cut from the game, you wouldn't even notice.

Other examples include restrictions that really aren't required. Advisers for example require you to have access to a specific resource before you can buy them. Ok, first of all, why? What thematic requirement is there for that? Secondly all that does is introduces a heavy dose of luck of the draw on which advisers come out as you only see 4 at a time. Frequently I'll see a player get lucky in that all his resource advisers come out early, yet another will be unable to acquire any other cards without spending a ton of money on expensive Trade actions, which is a massive tempo hit.

It is evident that Founders of Gloomhaven badly requires an editor for the rulebook and could use a healthy dose of streamlining. 



WHY SO MEAN?


You can play Founders of Gloomhaven solo or with 2 - 4 players. The solo mode is a fairly interesting puzzle, but I can think of better solo games I'd rather play rather than deal with the fiddliness again. With 2 - 3 players you suffer from a board that doesn't scale in terms of space and having neutral resources, to which the rules for their use are just as confusing as the rest of them.

So when all said and done, the best way to play Gloomhaven is with the full complement of 4 players. However this brings in its own list of potential issues. Firstly you are going to stuck at the table for a good 3 hours plus and I've seen games surpass even 4 hours with new players on observation. It’s designed to take two hours or less (only slightly longer than it takes to set up and tear down the first game), but in 4 players that is never achieved. You're engaged however for a reasonable chunk of that time given the level of forward planning and hand management required, but really a game of supply chain logistics like this shouldn't be more than a 90 minute game. Sadly because the game grinds to a halt every time a player paralyses on prestige building placement and that "trickle-down" scoring takes forever to follow down the chain, it drags and drags. 

On top of that the cutthroat nature of Founders of Gloomhaven is turned up to 12. Yeah forget 11, we're going past that. Space on the board quickly becomes sparse with all the fiddly restrictions on placement and it is really easy for a player to completely screw over another player to the point of potential pseudo-knockout. Block a player with a building tile, nick their adviser they badly need or grab ownership of an upgraded resource first, this game is just downright mean. I can take a bit of confrontation in games, but not for 3 hours! And if a blockade literally ruins your chance to utilise your resources effectively, you're likely to be out of the running early in the game.




VERDICT ON FOUNDERS OF GLOOMHAVEN


My first impressions were a 6/10, good, but not great. Subsequent plays have been less forgiving as the niggling issues become a source of constant frustration. There's some cool aspects to Founders of Gloomhaven, don't get me wrong, but they are spoiled by an array of grinding gears and fiddliness. The package is stuffed with too many nit picky rulings and lacking any thematic flavour even for those who can understand the first thing about it. As fun as the card play, hand management and voting aspects are, they can only carry it so far when you're basically putting cubes on icons.

The rules are practically begging for an editor to come along and rip them apart, with a book that is a nightmare to get through, requiring the use of online video overviews as a mandatory obligation. Teaching Founders becomes a chore and constantly getting rules wrong with regards to building placement and connections is rage inducing.

Founders of Gloomhaven is a decent supply chain logistics Euro game that is sadly buried under a pile of little problems. A 2nd Edition treatment could work wonders here - heavily streamline the rules, shorten the length, improve the player scaling and improve the aesthetics and this could be a great game. As it stands, I'll play it in a pinch, but there are plenty of lengthy, meaty Euro games that are more thematic, more enjoyable and silky chocolate smooth in comparison for gameplay flow.




PERSONAL RATING - 5




YOU WILL LIKE FOUNDERS OF GLOOMHAVEN IF:


You are a fan of supply chain logistic Euro's - think Food Chain Magnate or similar.


You are heavily immersed in the Gloomhaven lore and aren't fussed that the theme is pasted here.


You enjoy unique card abilities with clever hand management.



YOU WILL NOT LIKE FOUNDERS OF GLOOMHAVEN IF:


You hate direct screwing of players and confrontation in long games.


You're likely to get frustrated with the fiddly rules and difficulty in teaching the game.


You aren't keen on the bland aesthetics.

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