Full Disclosure: Cephalofair Games has provided me with a review copy of Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion

Introduction

I have a somewhat complicated relationship with Gloomhaven. Back in 2017 when I was only a year or two into playing board games, and didn’t have a regular friend group. I was attending a weekly open gaming event when I was asked if I was interested in joining a Gloomhaven campaign. A fellow who I’ll call Sloth had just received his Kickstarter copy of Gloomhaven, but had no one to play it with. Two others, Polar Bear and Owl, were also invited to join.

Cut to a week later, we gathered at Polar Bear’s house, and Sloth dropped the massive box of Gloomhaven on the table. Sloth had half-watched a rules video, and Polar Bear had partially read the rulebook, but none of us had a good gasp on how to play this behemoth. I poured over the rulebook and slowly cobbled everything together.

How to Play

For those who haven’t played Gloomhaven, here’s the rundown. Contained in the box is 21 pounds of cardboard. No joke. To start the game, each player will choose one of the 6 asymmetric starting classes. Gloomhaven is a campaign game with over 90 missions to explore. As you make choices in the narrative, you’ll unlock new locations and missions to undertake, all guided by a thick storybook. Each mission will tell you how to set the map up, generally combining a series of tiles to form the play area, and which enemies you’ll need for this mission. After a brief interlude for the story, the actual gameplay begins.

On each turn, players secretly choose two of the cards from their hand of cards to play during the round. Every card has a number in the centre that dictates your initiative value, which will dictate the order in which you’ll be able to take your turn. Gloomhaven is a cooperative game, and as such, you’re encouraged to collaborate with your teammates on achieving your goals. You can’t talk specifics, but you can say things like “I’m going to move kind of fast, and I can take out these two guys over here.” or “I’ll be sluggish, but I’m beelining for the treasure in the corner.”

Image Credit: Daniel Mizieliński, @Hipopotam via BGG

Once all players have selected two cards, they reveal their cards and determine the player order. Each monster has a deck of tactics cards that will dictate and modify that monster’s skills and attacks for the round, one of those cards gets flipped up, and the monster’s initiative gets added into the mix. Then, in player order, everyone takes their turns.

Every player card in Gloomhaven has two halves to it, a top side and a bottom side. From the two cards you chose, you can use the top of one of the cards, and the bottom of the other card. You are not allowed to use two top side actions, nor can you use two bottom side actions. The top side of the cards generally have to do with attacking, while the bottom side generally deals with moving, but there are certainly exceptions to that rule.

One of the mechanics of the game is called ‘burning’ your cards. As you play cards, you place them into your discard pile. At the start of the round you can choose to either do a short rest, or a long rest. The short rest has you pick up all your discarded cards, randomly select one to be ‘burned’, then adding the rest of the cards back into your hand. When a card is burned, it’s placed off to the side, removed for the rest of the scenario. A long rest has you skip the entire action round, but allows you to heal 2 health, and you get to manually select a card to burn. If you run out of cards or health, you become exhausted and are out of the scenario. Many of your most powerful actions also force you to burn the card instead of placing it in the discard pile. Such is the price of power.

Image Credit: Daniel Mizieliński, @Hipopotam via BGG

So what are you really trying to do here? Gloomhaven is a combat focused game, generally your goal will either be to route the enemy, or, reach a certain location on the map. Another wrinkle to the combat is that every attack gets modified by flipping a card from the attacking characters’ modification deck. This can do nothing, add or subtract one or two points of damage, or excitingly, double the damage, or disappointingly, null the damage entirely. But that’s the bare basics of the game, play cards 2 at a time, and try and achieve the objective set out in the start of each scenario.

Now don’t get me wrong, Gloomhaven is a complex game, with 14 conditions and status effects that can be inflicted, 6 elements that wax and wane, 28 different icons and 12 different types of cards available, the cognitive load that Gloomhaven presents can be absolutely brutal. Remembering every detail and how all the mechanics mesh together is no small feat. It’s very likely that you’ll get some amount of rules wrong, and I highly recommend you have someone who is very familiar with the game to lead you through your first couple missions.

My Experience

By the time Polar Bear, Owl, Sloth, and I chose to stop playing Gloomhaven, we had met weekly for 3 months. 12 seperate plays of Gloomhaven at 4 players each time, and I was fairly bitter about my overall experience. I was the one ‘running’ the game, administering all the enemies and their focuses, reminding everyone what each of the status effects do, updating the element board, adding and removing status chits from enemies, everything. The only part that I wasn’t involved with was setting up the game, as the others would have the scenario mostly set up before I arrived.

In addition to the mental load of running the game, I found myself frustrated with the other players. Owl had terrible analysis paralysis, with long stretches of time when they would just be staring at their hand of cards, Sloth was willing to burn their cards without discrimination then complain when they were exhausted out of the scenario, and Polar Bear would run by a mass of enemies to loot a chest, leaving the others to suffer their fate of getting pummled by the monsters. At the end of the 2 months, we had failed every first attempt at a mission, but succeeded in each subsequent attempt. Each play was in excess of 3 hours, and I just wasn’t having fun with Gloomhaven.

I felt frustrated in that as the brute, I wasn’t gaining experience when slaying enemies. I’d cleave down the monsters, only to have the Mindthief zip in and loot all the gold. Furthermore, I was jealous in that my friends were scooping up the gold and gaining experience at the same time, while I felt like I was taking all the hits and killing multiple enemies only to get a single exp point. I didn’t like that all my best cards also burned them, punishing me for doing the big cool action. Honestly, a big part of my frustrations came from my friends not supporting each other and choosing gold and exp the moment they felt we might not win a scenario. Maybe it was too much game for us and where we were in our gaming lives. I can’t speak for them, but I suspect they, too, were frustrated, and choosing to chase gold and exp at least gave them a short term goal that they could achieve. I left the group, and looking at the gameplay records for my friends, they did not continue their adventure after I left.

Late last year, Bigfoot invited me to revisit Gloomhaven. It was one of his favourite games, and he felt my incoherent ramblings weren’t giving the game a fair shake. So I bought the game on Steam, and we set off on another adventure. We played for 90 minutes, failing the first scenario to some ludicrously bad luck, but succeeded in the next missions. I slept on my feelings, but chose to refund the game the next day. Having a computer manage everything did help me enjoy the game more, but it highlighted one aspect that I didn’t like so much, and that’s the ‘burning cards’ mechanic. I was really annoyed that all my best and coolest abilities also meant burning the card out of my hand. It felt like I was being punished for doing the cool action, and that’s not what I want in a dungeon crawler.

Tied to that burning card mechanism, the missions didn’t give players much time to explore. There’s a treasure chest in the corner of the room, you need to make a concerted effort to do so. I felt punished for exploring, and considering how much I love discovery, choosing to move past the chest to win the scenario was utterly painful.

Epic Games gave Gloomhaven away for free in November 2021, and I picked it up there, but left it unplayed. Cephlophair Games recently sent me a copy of Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion to review, and following a very successful first 2 missions, I couldn’t get Gloomhaven out of my head! I recently started the digital game up, and started playing two characters on my own, the Craigheart and the Brute. I was turned off at first, with the first mission feeling pretty hard, but overcoming the challenge felt good. I liked controlling two characters, having a unified strategy helped me cover my weaknesses, and I didn’t really have to worry of someone doing something that I didn’t want them to do. Considering I had lambasted Gloomhaven for years, I had to swallow my pride and admit that Gloomhaven was a pretty good game.

Perhaps part of my problem has to do with framing. I saw Gloomhaven as a dungeon crawling game, a genre of game that generally has you be a big damn hero, popping off cool abilities and scooping up treasure. In reality, it’s much closer to something like XCOM or Final Fantasy Tactics. A resource management battler, a risk assessment adventure. Each choice you make has the chance to go horribly awry, so you better have some backup plans. With that framing in mind, I begin to appreciate Gloomhaven more. It’s a tight, tough game, the joy and elation that comes from overcoming a seemingly impossible challenge. How each character synergies with themselves and with the other characters is immensely satisfying.

I’ve played a further 8 hours of Gloomhaven, and I’m starting to feel like I’m in an abusive relationship. When times are tough, they’re brutal. I had to replay a single mission 4 times because I kept running into an enemy that would shield for 2, then heal themselves for 4. I couldn’t generate enough damage to penetrate their shield and drain their 8 health, and when I had a narrow moment of opportunity to kill them, I’d pull a null. One mission in particular saw me pull 4 nulls between my two characters, leaving me to wallow in despair. But when I finally completed it, I was elated. When the times are good, they’re great.

I’m going to continue to play Gloomhaven. I’m excited to return and explore the character combos. I’ve spun up a 3rd character, a Spellweaver to help with some of the ranged damage that I needed assistance with. I’ve joined the Gloomhaven subreddit and have spent more time thinking about Gloomhaven in the past three weeks than I have in the past three years. It’s a brilliant game, a carefully crafted puzzle, and an immense challenge and achievement. It might not be for you, and that’s okay! Gloomhaven absolutely isn’t for everyone, but if you can find the joy in the 21 pounds of cardboard that comes in this massive red box, There’s enough game there to last you for years.