The Gloomhaven Report

'Apologize to my fucking dice.'
-Joe Abercrombie, 'Best Served Cold'

[note: Ordinarily I'd have written a play-by-play because I like to read them and I think that is the best format for giving someone a solid understanding of how a game unfolds. But Sula and I are playing this co-operatively and that would take ages because I'd have to make a note about every little thing that happens. I might do a solo run down of a random dungeon if I can find the time.]

Gloomhaven is currently the 800lbs gorilla of table top gaming. It had a successful Kickstarter campaign, and then good word of mouth and strong critical response led to the 2nd Kickstarter collecting millions of dollars. It recently had a third printing, it reigns as the number 1 rated game on Board Game Geek and anyone with even a passing interest in RPGs or Dungeon Crawlers has heard of it. I can't remember where I heard about it. Probably from the message boards on BGG. When I started reading about the game it was between printings and copies were fetching up to $400. 

The first thing you notice about the game is the box. The box is huge. The box has 1500 cards in it. The box has tuck boxes filled with hero attack decks and boxes of hero miniatures and dozens and dozens of monster chits. The box has a map and a sheaf of stickers that you apply to the map when you unlock a new area. The box has mysterious, sealed envelopes marked with an A, and a B, and an X. Someday you may be directed to open one of them. Or you may not.The box weighs 22lbs.

The third printing was sent out last month and Sula lugged a copy home from the University bookstore like a panther dragging an antelope up a tree. We popped the lid to gawp at all the bits but got scared, pressed the lid back down and slid the box onto the shelf. 

10 days ago our curiosity got the better of us and we sat down to pop all the chits and learn the game. The manual is badly organized but the game is surprisingly simple to learn. Informally, the game is know as a Euro-inspired dungeon crawler and the designer, Isaac Childres, has stripped away all of the cruft that gets bolted onto Ameri-style dungeon crawlers. There are no dice in this game. The rules for line of sight (LOS) are clear and easy to grasp. You're never comparing your characters strength value against the enemies defence value and calculating the result. Instead, you have a deck of cards and each card has an upper action and a lower action, and every round you choose to perform the upper from one card and the lower from another. Basically, that's it.

The monsters also have a deck of cards which are revealed one at a time and dictate what the monster will do on that turn: move, attack, heal other monsters, buff themselves. We even saw an archer lay down a trap in front of herself so we couldn't get to her. It's a very elegant and engaging system.

The cards, yours and the monsters, also have an initiative number on them which dictates the order in which  participants act during the round. Some rounds you night go first. Some rounds the monsters might go first. It's a very smart system and leads to monsters acting in fairly unpredictable but believable ways. It also means you and your fellow players aren't just doing the same thing over and over and it lends quite a lot of tension to the rounds. Tension perhaps because the monsters went first and now they're not all bunched up perfectly for your spell to hit them all. But also because your hand of cards is a ticking clock.

After you play a card, sometimes it goes into your discard pile and sometimes it goes into your lost pile. Cards in the discard pile can be recovered by taking a short rest at the cost of randomly losing one card for the rest of the scenario. Cards that go to your lost pile are lost for the rest of the scenario, unless you have a card which allows you to retrieve them. If you ever get to a point where you cannot play two cards on your turn then you are exhausted and the scenario is over for you.  Which means that often, you make it to the last room in the dungeon, ready to fight the big boss and loot their treasure only have four cards; two rounds of play in which to kill them. It models beautifully your characters exhaustion.

I said there were no dice, and that's true, but there is some... Let's not say luck; let's say variation. There are decks of attack modifiers, containing 20 cards. The players each have a deck and the monsters have a deck. Every time an attack is made a card is drawn from the attack modifier deck and the result alters the attack. It might result in +1 being added to your attack. Or -2. Or no change. We all have a 1-20 chance of missing completely. And a 1-20 chance of doing double damage. It adds just enough variation to fights. Just enough of a chance for something amazing to happen, or something deflating. Mostly, it doesn't have too much of an effect. It definitely does not make the combat feel 'swingy' like some games. (I once played a game of Xia: Legends of a Drift System - a game I love - in which I lost every single attempt at diplomacy. I lost a die roll every single time. Which makes a great and funny story for the others I was playing with, but can be frustrating in the moment. I pushed ahead with my strategy, partly because at heart I am a roleplayer, and partly because I thought "My luck has to change eventually" but it never did. I was the worst diplomat in the galaxy.)

You hand size is fixed. My Spellweaver will never be able to carry into battle more than 8 cards. However, as we level up we can add other, more powerful cards to our decks. Sula and I just finished our third scenario and we both levelled up and that made us feel special and good. We're excited to choose our next hand of cards.

So, your characters level up, and the town of Gloomhaven levels up, which adjusts the prices you pay for gear; armour and weapons and potions, etc. Your party has a reputation that can rise of fall depending on decisions you make as you encounter other factions in the game world. When you start, the big map is empty and as you discover new locations you add a sticker to the map, placing that dungeon or temple you just heard about right there for you to go visit. There's something very compelling about adding stickers to the map. We found a location inside a treasure chest (must have been a map on rolled up parchment) and that was interesting. We learned about another location from a group of Sun Demons we met on the road, and that was interesting. 

This feature, this element of hidden information being revealed to the player is something Gloomhaven is built around. When you start the game there are 6 classes to choose from but they're inside tuck boxes with just a symbol drawn on them: a musical note, a sun burst, a mechanical gear. What do they mean? What's inside? You won't know until you open them. And there are 11 other classes, each identified by an equally opaque symbol, which begin the game sealed.

When you choose your first character you also choose a life goal from a deck of cards (get two, choose one) and that life goal might be as simple as, gather 200g or as complicated as, take part in four scenarios in crypts. And when your life goal is completed that character retires and you're told which character box to open next. You don't know who you'll be playing as. It's all very mysterious and tantalizing and delicious.

You also choose a battle goal (in secret) for the scenario you're playing and if you achieve it you get a tick mark. Get three tick marks and you can choose a perk which alters your attack modifier deck, making it stronger. Eventually you'll be able to add stickers to your cards, changing the way your powers and skills work. Gloomhaven gives the player an enormous amount of control over the destiny of their character. After our first scenario, Sula and I commented that we felt like our characters were very different from each other, and that we had full control over what they did. And, in fact, the only other game which had made us feel the same way was a real game of Dungeons and Dragons, run by a good DM.  And that's really what Gloomhaven is: an enormous D&D campaign, in a giant box.

Sure, you're collaborating with the other players, you're all travelling together and going down to attack this Inox Bandit camp, but your ultimate motivation is to fulfill your life goal. If it makes more sense for you to run around the dungeon sucking up gold instead of helping with the boss fight, then you'll go do that. And the game doesn't want you to collaborate too much. Table talk, in the D&D sense, is forbidden. You can say something vague like, "I'm gonna try and kill these two spiders over here", but you can't say what your initiative will be or exactly what attack or spell you'll be using. This also helps to feel like you're in charge of your own business, and it stops any Alpha Gamers who might be at the table, from taking over and directing what everyone does. 

The chatter around the water cooler says that there's 100 hours of gaming in this box. And you can buy removable stickers (like we did) if you're averse to permanently altering the game, or if you think that one day you might like to reset it and start over from scratch. Gloomhaven is incredibly generous. If you fail a scenario you get to keep all the gold and XP you earned. If some friends come over and want to play you can give them characters and choose a random scenario from the random scenario deck, so it has no bearing on your campaign game, except your character will have levelled up a little. (It's a bit like playing World of Warcraft, taking a break from trying to kill the Lich King and instead running Shadowfang Keep for the afternoon with your other friends.) The game also has a built-in difficulty scale. You can choose where to set the monsters for any scenario, which makes it incredibly easy for people to just drop in and play with your main characters. Setting aside for a moment how good the combat is, how much of a brain burner it is, from a quality of life perspective there is lots and lots to love here.

What's to hate? 

Well I don't hate anything. But there are a few niggles.

-The bases for the monster standees are too tight. And because it's very humid here right now, the cardboard standees are quite soft and it's led to some damage. I recommend ordering some better ones. []
-It can be hard not have some story elements spoiled for you as you go digging through things looking for the monster stat cards you need. (Not much to be done about this.)
-Whoever is running the game needs to find a way to not have perfect knowledge of the scenario. If you know which room the treasure is in, what's stopping you from just heading there? Or more accurately, the game is hard enough, of course you're going to want the group to succeed and get all the loot. This can be worked around by using an app which only reveals the contents of a room once you click on it. This way you can populate rooms as you discover them along with your players.
-You need an insert, which is a bit of a kick in the teeth for a game which already set you back at least $130 +tax. There is a ton of stuff in this game and a good insert will help with setup and tear down times. My thing is I don't want to take too long to set a new room so before the insert arrived I would look at the entire scenario, find everything I needed, and set it all aside, but that lead to me knowing where the treasure chest was. With a good insert (and a scenario app) I can learn what is in a room the moment the door is opened and then quickly find the monsters and treasure and the room features I need. 
-Max 4 players. You can play the game solo and the hivemind thinks that one person controlling two characters is the way to go. But the player limit is 4 which struck me because Sula and I are two and then we have room for...two more, and we are way more popular than that. I can't think of many games we play regularly that don't accommodate more than four players. A Feast For Odin might be the only one, and that's just because it's too good not to play. I suppose the mitigating factor is time. It's already a pretty lengthy affair and adding more players adds to that.

We own the second edition of Descent, a big, sprawling dungeon crawler from Fantasy Flight Games. We have a couple of the expansions and a big fishing tackle box that we store monsters in. We like Descent. But why would we play Descent when we have Gloomhaven? Maybe for the flavour? Descent does a very good job of making me feel like my character is standing in a muddy field, or on a stone walkway, or in a dank ossuary. For all it's interesting mechanics, Gloomhaven's map tiles are pretty dull and bland and I'm never very convinced by the poorly rendered locations drawn on them. However, Gloomhaven does a good job of presenting fresh and interesting races and classes. There isn't an elven archer or dwarven warrior in sight.

Would I choose Descent for the tactical combat? Nah. In Descent, we're all basically using the same skills over and over and over again. Now, I know I only have a deck of 8 cards in Gloomhaven, but every turn I'm trying to decide which to use of the top actions and which bottom action to pair it with and how early do I go in the round? Every round I've got interesting decisions to make and and I have to react to the enemies doing something I hadn't anticipated. You can always predict what the monsters in Descent are going to do. [I suppose, on a long enough timeline, that would be true in Gloomhaven, but you shuffle the decks which govern monster actions, so their behaviour is more granular than the monsters in Descent. You might know which suite of actions the Archer Bandits can perform, but you won't be able to tell the order in which they're going to do them.]

Descent does have a large variety of interesting scenarios and in Gloomhaven it feels a lot like every scenario will begin with us being asked to kill everyone in X location. But it's too early to tell for sure how samey the scenarios might become and Gloomhaven does have this large story arc that you and your group are caught up in. Your party has a reputation that affects the outcome of Events and the town of Gloomhaven changes over time as story beats happen. So in Descent there is variety in the scenarios and in Gloomhaven it's in the interstitial bits between scenarios. 

The other thing about combat in Descent is you're rolling dice. Lots and lots of dice. Now, I love specialty dice. Dice with interesting symbols on them instead of numbers, and Descent has lots of them. There are brown dice and red dice and yellow dice and white dice and black dice. Dice with shields and dice with Xs and dice with hearts and dice with lightning bolts. It's all very thrilling and tactile and when you pick them up they feel like a handful of potential: "What's gonna happen this time?" I like dice rolling in games. Roll for the Galaxy and Black Orchestra are two of my favourite games, but dice rolling results in a different kind of tension. In Descent, the tension is "Will I get the die rolls I need to kill this Ettin?", which sort of leaves the whole affair in the hands of Fortuna, spinning you downwards, if she feels like it. In Gloomhaven, the tension is "Will we make it to the end of the scenario without becoming exhausted? How well can we manage our decks? How do we deal with the threats in the room?" Which I find to be a much more engaging kind of tension. When things go pear shaped in Gloomhaven it's not because the Die Gods hate us.  

At their most abstract, games are engines that run on decisions and predictions: I have to make a decision, I expect this will happen. The best games, or my favourite games, are the ones that mess with your predictions just enough that you're challenged but still allow you to feel that you can make good decisions. I want variation that I can absorb, I need to be able to make mistakes and be able to recover from them; I want an A.I. that provokes interesting decisions and doesn't feel like it's just cheating. Gloomhaven does all that for me. I don't think it's the most heavily thematic game I've played. Descent makes me feel more like I'm navigating an actual dungeon. Mansions of Madness does a great job of making me feel like I'm exploring a spooky old house. But those games decision spaces are fixed points. There is very little variation in the things I'm doing and the actions I'm taking. The variation comes from loopy die rolls. In Gloomhaven, every round is giving me an interesting decision to make, inside the larger tension of wondering which cards can I risk going to the lost pile? How do I manage my exhaustion to make it all the way through this scenario. It all comes back to agency. In Gloomhaven it feels like our fate is in our hands. No matter the size.