Date: October 27, 2021
If you are a board game fan, you probably know about Gloomhaven: a video-game-inspired RPG experience packed in a heavy box full of dungeon tiles, cards, stickers, and battle tracking mechanisms, featuring multiple campaigns and hundreds of automated battles.
Aside from getting featured as the #1 board game of all time on BoardGameGeek, this title has won many “Game of the Year” and “Best Board Game” awards since its launch in 2017, following its successful Kickstarter campaign. The allure of digitizing such an iconic game is understandable, so it’s no surprise that a well-known name in the genre of board game digitization, Asmodee, took the project on.
Wait a moment… A board game inspired by video games made into a video game…?
Yes, indeed. It can be argued that the original Gloomhaven board game has taken more design notes from video games than traditional board games. Its complex and interlocking systems mimic CRPG progression and enemy AI, and it’s easy to see the familiar emphasis on randomness and modularity.
In principle, this should mean that a video game version for this title would be like a homecoming — it would allow the design elements originally lifted from video games to fully flourish.
In practice, something was lost in translation — the complex systems have not been made any easier to parse. On the contrary, some areas of the game have been made even more byzantine.
The excellent core of Gloomhaven is practically unaltered, so the core of the game is still good. But, the small things that were lost add up to an overall less-than-satisfying experience, with essentially no additions to make up for what has been removed.
A special thank you to my good friend and an avid board game enthusiast, Dylan Graves, for helping me put this review together!
First Impressions: Some Warning Flags, but a Great Tutorial
The tutorial doesn’t prepare you for the unbalanced single player experience, but does an excellent job introducing new players to the basics.
When you start a game, you are prompted to make at least 2, and up to 4, different characters. This will be your party of mercenaries, going from job to job, motivated mostly by payment. If you are wondering “that’s it?”, then you already understand why this premise might lead to a static world with significant narrative limitations. Good.
If, like me, you are wondering, “If I am playing by myself, should I go with 2 or 4 characters?”… well, the game does not do a good job of explaining that.
Yet, despite that, the tutorial remains one of the handful of features in the digital adaptation that streamlines Gloomhaven for new players. This (unexpectedly) brief and excellent tutorial walks you through about a half of the game, going piece-by-piece through the economy, world map, encounter system, and quests. If you were to choose between a 50-page rulebook for the board game and a guided demonstration with a scenario, you’d probably agree that the second one sounds a bit more fun to sit through.
Quest System: Spiraling into Complexity
Well, even the tutorial didn’t want to deal with this mess, leaving players to figure out quests for themselves. Quests are the most complex part of the game, and this is where things quickly start to fall apart.
The majority of a player’s time with Gloomhaven will be spent completing quests. Honestly, I prefer to call them “scenarios,” because there are already too many things called “quests” in this game.
These scenarios are primarily battles in which your 2-4 mercenaries will take on a dungeon full of enemies and try to snag some loot along the way. This process is extremely complex in the board game version, and is made even more complex in the video game.
Here’s what you have to worry about for each of your characters:
- A deck of Attack Cards that modify your attacks, and can cause you to deal anywhere from zero to double damage. (Those zero damage cards may or may not cause you to rage quit. Not speaking from personal experience.)
- The individual Battle Quest cards each character draws at the beginning. These ones give each character a small goal to complete before the end of the scenario.
- The mercenary Item Cards — both equipment and consumables — where each card might have entirely different effects.
- The mercenary’s health and discard piles. What are you discarding?
- Finally, the insanely complex “Ability Cards.” These are entirely unique to each mercenary, meant to be used inside the dungeon. Every card features an initiative score, a top ability and bottom ability, and these cards are your only method of movement, attack, or action. The utter complexity of these cards is baffling in board game form, and I predict is the #1 cause for new players to drop off the game to begin with.
Note on Ability Cards:
If you wanted some examples of how the ability cards work: Each turn, you’ll select two of these cards per character. Then, you choose which of the two will count as your initiative. Once it becomes a character’s turn to go, you’ll select the top effect of one of the cards and the bottom effect of the other.
If you need to, you can replace the top effect with a weak attack and the bottom with a slow move. These cards are modifiable. Some of the cards can generate a magic aura, and others can expend that magical aura to increase one of the effects. After use, these cards are either discarded or burned, with a potential to rest and regain a select few.
Notice that I didn’t go into how the effects actually work; wanted to spare you some time reading a novella.
Now, take each of those components, and multiply it by at least two or up to four, as the game encourages you to do.
Issues with Playing Gloomhaven Solo
There is a reason the overwhelming majority of players I know (who own the original Gloomhaven) have never played its single-player version, even if they are people who like single-player board games.
Here’s why: the tabletop’s single-player version requires you to control two mercenaries, which already makes for a monumental task unless you have dozens of hours worth of experience in the game. The digital version asks you to control up to four of these characters by yourself, taking on a long list of tasks and decisions originally designed to be divided among four people.
I lost the original dungeon in the video game probably a dozen times, likely because of this. Synergizing abilities is of vital importance and, when I was the only one in charge of all the complexity, I found this ludicrously hard to do.
Choosing to Power Through
Okay, I have to stress here that the core system is still fun. Major “but”: it’s fun only if you can get through the initial wave of losses. The feeling of hitting an enemy squadron with a perfectly-constructed barrage of attacks that clears the room before they damage anyone but your tanky brute, is unparalleled. You’ll feel like a genius when you get it.
To me, it was something akin to playing a really good game of chess. Even though you won’t know what you are doing for a while, once you finally “get it,” it’ll feel awesome. I only wish the introductory difficulty curve wasn’t a stone wall that occasionally made my learning experience with the Dark Souls series feel relaxed by comparison.
Where it Goes from Here: Story and Mechanics
Some high points and fun systems. Well-designed narrative elements that still feel a bit lacking. Then, some potential issues with the retirement mechanic.
So, you’ve defeated the scenario, each of your characters has completed their battle quests in order to earn additional “perk points,” and their pockets are flush with gold. Congratulations, you’ve made it further than I think most players will! So, what’s next?
Spending your gold feels great, because the economy system in this version is great. Item descriptions are clear, gold amounts feel balanced, and each mercenary having their own stash of gold makes them feel more like their own fleshed-out characters.
Similarly, the Perk Point-based upgrade system feels well-designed. You can upgrade your battle cards to draw better attacks, or upgrade your ability cards to make their effects substantially better. It’s simple, and it adapts the video game language wonderfully (and it doesn’t require you to use real stickers to mar physical cards, if I may add.)
You are mercenaries. The digital version doesn’t develop much on that, so, that’s really all there is to the story. If you resonated with my train of thoughts from the first section, you can probably understand my feelings when I say that there was a missed opportunity here. (And not the only one — we’ll talk about the Retirement system next). It is worth noting that there are a few small things that do change in the world as you complete some specific quests, but nothing particularly impactful or interesting.
For a pseudo-RPG game that is likely to be played single-player, thus lacking the roleplaying dynamic of a gaming group, the narrative content feels bare-bones. Yet, I can’t deny that what is there works remarkably well and is undeniably well-written: the text, as well as the narration for quests and encounters is just excellent. Sure, it’s a bit schlocky at times, but it is brilliantly voice-acted.
Then there is the dreadful, frustrating, infuriating retirement mechanic. In the digital version, it comes without a way to bypass it, undercutting countless hours of progress and making any degree of attachment to your party feel meaningless.
When you create a character, you select from two personal quests for them. These are long-term goals (for example, “slay a bunch of a certain type of creature”, or “make tons of gold”), and are essentially what your mercenary is mercenary’ing for. The problem? Once you complete that personal goal, your character retires. Yep. They are pulled from play, happily going into retirement and never returning to mercenary life ever again.
Keep in mind that it can take 10 to 15 hours per character to get to this point, so one of the only things emotionally tying you to the game — your impressive characters you guided from level 1 — will just stop existing because you succeeded. It would be like playing X-COM and having your favorite soldier be removed from play because you won too much. And what do you get out of it? You unlock a new class to play for the next character you create… Whoopee?
Note: Theoretically, in an effort to bypass Retirement, you could carefully choose your personal quests and then avoid completing them.
With enough strategic planning, this should be possible.
On the other hand, this would also be a unique challenge of its own: handicapping yourself to avoid progression in this manner might end up making the experience even more difficult. For example, consider the random chance involved in getting the right cards and how they would then factor into your progression through the game.
Maybe I’ve been a bit too harsh, so let’s go over what does work in Gloomhaven. Despite the insane complexity, bjorked retirement system, and lack of narrative weight, the actual core of the game is just too good to not be fun.
Character abilities, while at first impenetrable, are very satisfying to use once you get the hang of it. The unique mechanics of this game are probably unlike anything you’ve ever played. The fantasy world infused with unique races and complemented by excellent art will make you want to play just one more game.
If you are anything like me, you will want to see your characters grow more and more powerful and, even after they are frustratingly forced to retire, you will want to play the characters that replace them. The game is good.
However, here is the thing: Gloomhaven plays even better as a board game. Controlling one character while your buddies controlled up to three others allowed both the mental capacity to keep track of your abilities and the space to get into your single character and actually roleplay them. Playing physically also slows the game down, giving you time to think and justifying all the complicated, interlocking cards, which, honestly, could’ve been replaced with something more befitting of a video game for the port.
The way I see it, the way to get the best experience out of the digital version is to play with a few friends. Then, this becomes a nearly-equivalent experience to the board game anyway, one level above what you could otherwise get from the Tabletop Simulator.
If you really like how well the GM-less AI was designed in the original, you might still find the experience of moving all of the cards and pieces at the table yourself somewhat enjoyable, playing roles of friends that aren’t there with you. But… why?