First Impressions – Gloomhaven

With two fantastically successful kickstarters behind it and a #1 spot on Board Game Geek’s top 100 list, Gloomhaven is the current darling of the hobby. Designed by Isaac Childres, it is a monumental board game, largest and heaviest of boxes I own. A tactical dungeoncrawling game with persistent world and character advancement, essentially a D&D campaign in a box. I’ve played 27 scenarios so far with my brother, and while we’re nowhere near done, there probably aren’t any major surprises, mechanics-wise, hiding in the box by now. Time for a first impressions review.

There will be minor spoilers ahead.

Tactics on top

At the heart of the game are combat scenarios. There are 95 of them in the book, plus a deck of randomizing cards to make your own. Each scenario comes with a map made up of chunky terrain tiles and smaller terrain features such as fallen logs, traps, chests, etc., split by a hexagonal grid. Scenarios have decently varying win conditions: kill boss/kill all enemies/loot specific treasure/get to exit/etc. Some even have special rules, like constantly spawning enemies or locked doors you have to open by pressing a button in another room. You won’t get 95 unique experiences here, there’s rarely a need to radically rethink your tactics, but the game has enough variety not to feel stale.

The scenarios scale the number of monsters to the number of players, and their level to the party’s average level and desired difficulty. Monsters’ level doesn’t simply increase their hit points and damage, but gives them features like poisonous attacks, damage resistance, or simply increased speed – and an ooze that goes from speed 1 to speed 2 is that much harder to kite. The challenge adjusts with the levels to accomodate the increasingly powerful characters.

This shifting balance is one of the most impressive features of the game. With very rare exceptions, the difficulty felt just right to us, games often coming down to the wire even as our characters leveled up or the party composition changed.

Quick tabletop quality paint job, don’t @ me

Each character comes with their own miniature and a deck of ability cards. With levels, characters gain access to more powerful cards, but the total number of cards they can take with them into a scenario never changes. Players start the scenario with all their ability cards in hand. These cards are split in two, typically with attack on top and movement on the bottom, and an initiative number between them. Each turn, players pick two cards out of their hand and reveal them simultaneously, with the leading card deciding their initiative. When their turn comes around, the player chooses the top ability from one of the two cards, and the bottom ability from the other. There’s always an option to substitute them for the basic “fight 2” or “move 2”.

Depending on the ability, the played cards are either discarded or lost for the remainder of the scenario – unless of course another ability or item brings them back. Discarded cards, on the other hand, can be brought back by choosing to have a rest. Short rest occurs at the end of a turn and loses you a random card, whereas a long rest takes the entire turn but heals the character a bit, refreshes their used items and lets them choose which card they lose. It quickly becomes apparent that managing the ability cards to make sure you have enough to actually complete the scenario is a key tactical consideration. You could clear the room with a powerful blast, but maybe it’s better to take an extra turn, suffer a few points of extra damage, but save the card for the next go around.

Monsters get their own ability decks, one per monster type. These are suitably varied and combine with the monster stats to make sure each creature poses its own tactical challenge. Monster ability cards are drawn at the same time as player ability cards are revealed, introducing uncertainty while offering a chance to adapt to it. It’s very satisfying to avoid a monster’s attack by staying just out of reach, and frustrating to waste a turn because the enemy zigged when you prepared for a zag. That’s where the true mastery of the game lies, in having a backup plan in case the monsters decide to do something unexpected.

Attacks are resolved by drawing from an attack modifier deck which adjusts the basic attack number one way or another and can have other effects. Each player gets one, and monsters get their own. Yes, this game is full of decks. As characters gain perks from completing battle goals and leveling up, they get to modify this deck. The list of possible modifications is, again, unique to each character and ranges from removing or adding certain numbers to applying status effects with the attack. Curses (zero damage) and blessings (double damage) that are gained through other abilities or events also get mixed into these decks.

Finally, there are 6 elements that are created by certain abilities and consumed by others for extra effect. As you can’t use the element you’ve just created, and the elements fade after two turns, you have to plan ahead to set up a combo for yourself or your party members, and hope monsters don’t use these elements first. This subsystem is a bit fiddly, but satisfying when you actually pull it off on purpose. More often than not, it’s just a bonus that occurs unintentionally. Element management would probably get more involved with 4 players creating and consuming elements left and right.

Each character we’ve played with so far has been very different, from a fairly stereotypical caster and a tank to a summoner and an angry earth elemental that creates obstacles on the battlefield, then proceeds to throw them at enemies. I’m very much looking forward to seeing what other classes bring to the table.

Lots of elements and subsystems, how does it fit together? Like a dream. Once the rules click for you, this behemoth of a game soars. The scenarios are tense, full of difficult decisions and satisfying moments when plans come together. Battle goals (yet another deck) and coins dropped by enemies add an extra complication, forcing the players to weight the extra little bit of advancement that will be useful in further games against taking a risk here and now. I wouldn’t call the combat puzzle-like, as that implies there’s a correct solution to it. Rather, I’d say it’s almost chess-like, with long-term consequences to every move. A typical scenario takes about an hour to play through, but you’ll hardly notice the time pass.

Campaign on bottom

Spoiler: there are locations on this map.

All the combat scenarios occur in and around the eponymous Gloomhaven, a fantasy trade hub and a bastion of civilization. I’d be very surprised if the world of Gloomhaven wasn’t Isaac’s homebrew D&D setting. While you won’t find the common elves and dwarves here, there are not-orcs and not-gnomes as well as omnipresent humans, but also occasionally psychic ratfolk, elemental heart people, civilized tieflings and the like. It would have been nice to have some sort of primer like the one linked in the game itself, as it just throws terms at you and expects you to figure it out.

By and large, the world isn’t crazy enough for it to matter: there’s various people, undead, demons, dragons, etc., all behaving roughly how you’d expect. Not once did we feel like our growing familiarity with the setting was in any way rewarded, at least so far. Perhaps there could have been events that challenged the players to demonstrate their understanding of the world by, for instance, following the proper etiquette when meeting Inox tribal leaders. Not that the game needs this kind of challenge, but it would justify having a unique setting.

While that’s wishful thinking (there will be more of it), there’s a perfect vehicle for this kind of test in the game – city and road event decks. These start at 30 cards each, and you draw one followed by the other each time you set out on an adventure. Each card presents a situation, followed by two options. The outcomes, printed on the back of each card, can take into account your reputation (from +20 to -20), what characters you have in the party (which makes 4-player parties more likely to succeed), or simply your willingness to part with gold. In turn, you may be rewarded or penalised with status effects for the next scenario, new cards in the event decks, access to new scenarios, etc. Some cards get put on the bottom of their decks, others are permanently removed from the game. There’s a larger set of cards waiting for their turn to be added, which may happen due to scenarios being completed, characters retiring, and so on.

Characters retire once they complete their life goal, which comes from yet another deck of cards, and features goals such as “kill 20 elite monsters” and “complete x scenarios in a specific region” – something you’re meant to pursue for 10-20 games. These life goals also unlock new characters, though you’re not obligated to immediately pick them.

As you complete scenarios and random events, you will occasionally increase Gloomhaven’s prosperity, which adds new items to the city shop, unlocks yet more scenarios and a bit of plot from a separate booklet, and determines the starting level of new characters. The latter helps avoid having to advance through the lower levels over and over, and prevents a new character from being completely outclassed by the veterans in the party.

Each scenario is represented with a sticker on the foldout map, to be ticked once completed. At any given time you’re likely to have 5 or more open scenarios to choose from: side quests, plot branches, prerequisites. Every now and then, your choices lock you out of attempting a scenario – can’t help the dragon if you killed it. This leads to a silly fear of missing out on content in a game brimming with it. This great fan-made mostly spoiler-less scenario flowchart shows the branching of the main plotlines, an impressive sight.

So far, we haven’t encountered any “bugs” in the way scenarios are linked and locked, always a fear in this kind of a game. On the other hand, there are a bunch of scenarios we can’t do anymore, but are hesitant to cross off as game state might change in the future, unlocking them. It would have been helfpul for the scenario book to note when we’ve definitely locked ourselves out of a scenario.

Finally, on top of the map there is space for global achievement stickers which track the change in the state of the world and overall plot, like the current rulership of Gloomhaven, fate of an unspecified artifact, and familiarity with ancient technology (interact with it enough times and you’ll get to open a sealed envelope).

There’s a whole bunch of progression systems here: random event decks, access to scenarios, prosperity, character progression, equipment. Trouble is, players have barely any strategic control over any of it. Progression happens on its own as you play, creeping inexorably onwards. You can pursue plot lines to their completion, some of life goals care about locations, but that’s about it. There’s rarely a reason to pick an available scenario over the next one, as their payouts are unknown unless you cheat a bit and look ahead. And even if you do, it doesn’t usually matter. Whichever scenario you choose, you’ll always gain some xp and gold, and often one or more other things. This is a huge missed opportunity which undermines the entire point of a progression system.

Progression system keeps players coming back, in a way that simply having a massive book of scenarious wouldn’t. A large part of that is a sense of ownership, of making decisions, setting and reaching goals. Unfortunately, that’s missing in Gloomhaven. There’s a map, but locations don’t mean anything. There’re choices, but they only determine whether you do one scenario or another. There’re consequences, but they’re confined to a single card added to an event deck, to be drawn some time in the next 30 or so games and removed form the game forever. Even the seemingly major consequences you can get at the end of a plot line at most modify your reputation and town’s prosperity a bit, and add a sticker to the board. There’s even a scavenger hunt for a [REDACTED], yet it adds up to playing scenarios until you get all the pieces.

Putting stickers on a board does not a legacy game make. Neither does having a map a campaign make.

It’s understandable the designer didn’t want to mess too much with the tactical core of the game, but I think the campaign layer could have been much more meaningful without disrupting the tactics layer, and without making an already complex game much more complicated. Following are a few ideas, and bear in mind ideas are easy, implementation is hard, and there could well be good reasons why nothing like this was put into the final game.

Use the regions of the map: have a separate road event deck for each of them, just a few cards to make sure they come up regularly. Modify it as the state of that region changes. Tired of being ambushed by bandits? Go and deal with their hideout to remove their card. Tie a unique resource to each region that you gain whenever you do a scenario there, to be used for specific town upgrades instead of the generic prosperity. Want better weapons? Go adventure in the mountains to get that ore. Have global effects, even if they’re small, like adding a curse card to everyone’s attack modifier decks while a Bad Thing is happening. Basically, give players a reason to choose one scenario over another, to feel like they’ve accomplished something that’s not just ticking a box on the map.

Physical aspect

The elephant of a box in the room. Gloomhaven is a huge game, largest in my collection. That’s not a problem on its own (though don’t repeat my mistake of trying to bring it via public transport to a friend’s place). No, the problem is that the box is not enough. Here’s what it looks like with the hodge-podge storage and organization solution I’ve implemented:

Cat for scale

The box hides the worst of it. I went with envelopes to store monster tokens and action decks, and they just don’t fit together nicely. There was a plastic insert in the box, but it didn’t fit sleeved cards so out it went. There’s a third-party organizer, but it costs nearly as much as the game itself, and that’s before shipping to Australia.

Organizing board games can be tricky. I’ve engaged in occasional foamcore construction. I have a bagful of sealable plastic bags, a plastic organizer or two lying around, a business card holder. I’ve used all these and more, and it’s not enough. Gloomhaven is the first game I’ve had that’s all but impossible to organize on my own. And that’s not acceptable. It’s not enough for publishers to throw all the components in a box and call it a day, and they finally start to recognize it. Plastic bags are commonly included nowadays. Fancy plastic inserts are a popular stretch goal in recent kickstarters.

Board games are physical objects. They can leverage this fact to invoke a sense of magic, but there’s a flipside, to this, too. No matter how brilliantly the game is designed, it still has to be set up and put away every time it’s played. Neglect the physical aspect, and instead of a sense of magic it will invoke a sense of gloom.

Should you get it?

With a third pritning of Gloomhaven planned for July 2018, this question is likely the reason you’re reading this review. Desplite the hype, Gloomhaven is not a perfect game, and there’s plenty it could have done better. If you’re after a tactical combat game with solid character advancement, it’s the best there is and you won’t be disappointed. If, like me, you’re after a “D&D in a box”, temper your expectations a bit.

Alternatively, as a friend of mine put it after one game that didn’t sell him on Gloomhaven, “With how much time it would take to play through this, you might as well play an actual RPG.” Which is an interesting point, and if you’re after a similar heavily tactical combat experience, you may wish to consider D&D 4e. You’d probably get it at a discount in your friendly local gaming store, now that 5e is out.

Gloomhaven is a lot. I wish it was more.

The Magic of Cardboard

There’s a certain feeling one gets from a well-designed board game that video games cannot replicate: a child-like delight at the way things work. Video games can delight with worldbuilding, atmosphere, characters, plot twists; they can be well crafted – but they do not display craftsmanship the way board games do. An interactive fiction book such as Choose Your Own Adventure or Fighting Fantasy works just as well in an electronic format. In either case, one may enjoy the author’s or designer’s work, but only the actual book would make you marvel at the ingenuity of its maker. Board games are inherently a very limited medium: what you see is all there is. No calculations under the hood, no way to “cheat”. A smart board game is like a clockwork mechanism, fascinating in its own right, much more impressive than a digital analogue performing the same funciton because you see all the moving parts. It’s authentic.

Board games are physical objects, that’s what makes this not just possible but often necessary. All the information has to be present at a glance. There’s a similarity to video games here, and a critical difference. A good user interface conveys all the necessary information as well. In a board game, all the non-decorative elements are the user interface, and many of the same principles apply to their design. This UI has to be so good, though, that players are able to follow all the rules of the game based on it – the game can’t do it for them. Video games simply don’t have this restriction.

Any surprises a board game may hold have to be not just prepared before hand, but concealed within its structure. This sense of discovery, of “I didn’t know you could do that”, is one of the main draws of Legacy games. Putting stickers on your cards, drawing on the game board? That’s mindblowing. Changing the map or improving abilities in a video game? Business as usual.

Ingenuity and craftsmanship obviously goes into the making of video games as well, but it’s unseen and unimportant to the player. From memory allocation tricks to differential equations that determine the damage an ability does in an MMO, we the players don’t interact with it in any way. Instead, we get to enjoy the magic happening on the screen. With board games, we get to be magicians (this is the second post in a row I “name-drop” my nom de plume, but it still works, whatever). Cardboard and dice produce meaning before our eyes.

Eclipse player board (image taken from the Asmodee website)

Examples? Take Eclipse, a 4X space board game. As you use your influence (round tokens) to do things and populate planets (with square tokens), the administrative costs of your growing empire increase. Not an unusual concept for a 4X game. Instead of having to calculate or look them up, however, you simply look at the number revealed when you took the token off your board. There’s nothing you have to do but place the token in the first place. To borrow computer science notation, that’s O(1) time complexity.

Or 7th Continent, a CYOA-like survival board game. Once your characters learn how to use local resources to their advantage (by gaining a card like the one on the right below in their “journal”), they gain new capabilities on terrain tiles simply because these resources are drawn on them. Not as a separate resource icon, as a part of the illustration. In a similar situation in a video game, this bush would suddenly become an interactable object. From within the black box of the computer, we are presented with a new trick, fine. Here, though, the bush was always there. Nothing has changed, nothing up the game’s sleeve. Meaning out of cardboard.

7th Continent cards (image taken from Board Game Geek)

And a last example, One Deck Dungeon, a dungeoncrawling board game. As the title suggest, there’s one deck of cards that represents not just monsters and traps but also items and skills you may gain along the way. Once defeated, a player takes the card and tucks it under their character card. Want stats? Tuck it so only the symbols on the left side (blue magic sigil in this case) are visible – that’s where characters’ stats are. Want a new skill? Tuck it so the bottom scroll sticks out (the one saying ‘armor crush’), that’s where the skills go. And if you gain more stats or skills later on, they’ll just sit neatly next to one another. Or just take it for xp, the lantern symbols up top. That’s some information density.

Tzolk’in gets an honorary mention here for including actual cogwheels in its gameplay. Unfortunately, I haven’t played it myself, so a mention is all it gets.

Not every board game bothers. It’s easy to make another deck of cards, slap another scoring track on the side of the board, include a look-up table. And that’s fine, that works. Not everything can amaze. But that’s the point – board games can amaze.

Roleplaying games potentially can do so as well, but they rarely aspire. RPGs share some of the constraints of board games – everything also needs to be easy to calculate, look up, determine. Unlike board games, the focus is typically not on the dice and figures but on the fantasy they facilitate. There’s even various stigmas associated with overemphasizing mechanics in RPGs.

The fantasy of taking over the world in a board game is a nice bonus while you’re busy deciding on the best way to maximize your points. The maximization of whatever passes for points at a given time in a roleplaying game is a means to the end of, well, roleplaying. Sometimes. Many RPGs have an essentially board game-like mode – rules for combat resolution. In these games, combat is its own purpose, a source of fun. But even in them, the crafstmanship a good board game displays is rarely expected or demonstrated. This is largely due to the expectation of pencils and paper being already in use. Hit points? Write the numbers somewhere. Conditions? Scribble them in the margins. Initiative? Uhh, just figure out what works for you. There’s a certain abdication of responsibility, relying on the players to find their own way of following the complex rules. RPGs also, by their very nature, involve creative interpretation of circumstances, utilizing rulings when rules fall short.

Some RPGs do try to go the extra mile. Don’t Rest Your Head barely has any notekeeping, relying on dice pool manipulation to convey the escalating tension. Mythender essentially has the game about handfuls of dice, and a roleplaying part you are encouraged to perform at the same time. The most common criticism of D&D 4e was it being “too much like an MMO”. Which is utter nonsense, 4e’s crime was impementing the traditionally board game-like combat aspect of the rules with the rigour of a board game.

13th Age is the standout to me, as it is brimming with mechanical ideas that make me reevaluate what I thought was possible or “allowed” – from flexible attacks that pack meaning into simple d20 rolls to undead librarians in the Eyes of the Stone Thief campaign book that do psychic damage when players speak louder than a whisper. In my own design work for the system, I’ve tried to pursue this feeling of amazement, from rust monsters that eat your Icon dice (normally a purely narrative element) to intellect devourers that literally live inside your head, meaning you’re the only one who can fight them.

And then there are mobile or desktop adpatations of board games. They tend to be clunky, as the way we interact with physical objects is unsurprisingly different from the way we use a mouse or even a touch screen. What’s worse, they miss the point enitrely. Board games are designed from the ground up to function with all their limitations in mind. They are magic because they have to be. A video game version meticulously replicating their rules is not unlike a virtual clock that simulates every spring and cogwheel of a real watch, or a movie that runs the text of the original book on the screen. Every medium has its strengths, I’d rather play a video game if I’m going to play on my computer, Steam knows I have too many.

The sense of magic board games instill fades after a while. There’s only so many times one can be amazed by the same thing. Soon, it’s just the way the game works, and we spare it no second thought. Perhaps this is why I keep getting new board games. Not just mindless consumerism, not an endless pursuit of the new hotness. While playing a game is nice, discovering its fleeting magic is what I’m truly after. And that means I’ll never be satisfied. What a strange self-realization at the end of an essay that started out as “aren’t board games neat”.