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.

Progression Done Right – Gumballs & Dungeons

Having spent the better part of the last month railing against exploitative progression systems in games, I thought I’d take a moment to talk about a game that does progression well. A mobile collectathon. Please don’t run. A mobile collectathon with energy, timers, and premium currency. No, seriously, hear me out.

Gumballs & Dungeons kept being recommmended in my Play Store, and the cutesy name and graphic style kept scaring me off. Too Candy Crush. Having finally tried it a few months ago, I’m glad I did, as I still play it daily. First and foremost, G&D is a competent roguelite dungeoncrawler. Each maze (as the game calls them) level is a 6×5 grid hiding monsters, loot, and the way down. As you progress further, monsters get tougher and bosses appear. There’s equipment, spell scrolls, and xp, which is spent on a branching skill tree. It’s all comfortably familiar.

For each run, you pick a character, one of the titular gumballs. Each gumball has a unique talent, and belongs to one of three types which determine its starting stats and the skill tree it uses: melee, magic, or venture. As you progress through the, essentially, extended tutorial stages of the game, you unlock the ability to “soul-link” a second and then a third gumball, letting you use their talents and skill trees. Except you can only soul-link with gumballs of the same faction, of which there are four. With almost 200 gumballs to choose from, and new ones added frequently, there’s plenty of combinations to try.

Mazes have not just their own monsters and bosses, but sets of achievements and unique mechanics as well. There’s a gumball associated with each maze that you get for beating its “story mode” – several short runs you do at the start; and a second hidden gumball you have to somehow earn inside the maze.

That’s the basics. G&D passes the first test that so many mobile games fail – it is actually a game. Picking a combination of gumballs you haven’t tried yet and seeing how far you can go or what achivements you can get is fun. What about the second test, how exploitative is its progression system?

It’ll take years to Get All The Things – and that’s the one and only objective in this game. And yes, it’s possible to instead pay a silly amount of money to, essentially, avoid playing the game, the paradox of microtransactions is fully applicable. The game, however, claims you don’t have to spend money to enjoy it, and it’s mostly true. The “buy-in”, which unocks what I’d consider the intended experience, is 10 USD. That’s the somewhat standardised value of a package awarding premium currency (gems) every day for a month. Even here, G&D has a twist. You can save up and pay gems to upgrade the item producing gems twice, slightly increasing the gems it gives, and prolonging its lifespan for up to a year. Quirky? That’s G&D in a nutshell. And $10 for a year of gaming is not too bad. This “buy-in” approximately doubles the amount of gems you get daily, and there’s plenty of things to spend gems on.

 

Another very important factor: whatever you pay for, you won’t have wasted your precious gems. All upgrades are permanent. Even the random gumball fragments you get from pots are not worthless. Unlike in many similar games, upgrading gumballs is not destructive – you don’t have to sacrifice a bunch of lower-tier gumballs to advance the chosen gumball to a higher tier, or any such nonsense. Neither are your rewards ever held hostage by limited inventory space or some other threat of missing out if you don’t pay up. Everything you get is yours to keep, and there’s a finite, quite reachable point where a given gumball is maxed out. And once it’s maxed out, there’s a way to prevent its fragments from appearing in pots again.

The game provides an actual reason to want to collect and max out every gumball that goes beyond the exploitative Gotta Catch Them All. It’s an approach I haven’t seen before: each gumball has not just a unique combat talent, but a passive buff as well. These differ significantly: some increase the stats of some or all other gumballs, others buff spells and items, or improve the functionality of the game itself.

Take alliance missions, for instance (of course there are alliances). They refresh every 12 hours, with each mission taking 5 minutes to complete – a simple timer. These grant varying amounts of alliance coins (of course there’s a separate currency), from 120 to 30. Meaning it’s good to do the few best-paying missions, and the rest are a less significant bonus. Still, sounds a bit tedious, doesn’t it? However! One of the first things you should spend these alliance coins on are fragments for the Nelson gumball, whose passive decreases the mission timer. When fully maxed out, and that does take a while, missions are completed instantaneously with a press of a button. Yes, the game created an obstacle and then made me work to gradually remove it. But I’ll be damned if it doesn’t feel good to press that button. That’s progression systems for you.

Sky combat, yet another subsystem (are you noticing a pattern yet?), provides another reason to collect the gumballs: you put a bunch of them on an airship, which gains stats depending on their star level, and bonuses for combinations of different gumballs present. There’re, naturally, a bunch of different airships you can gather fragments for, which improve their passive bonuses and guns that can be mounted on any airship. Sky exploration is its own minigame, with elements of Choose Your Own Adventure, that mostly grants its own set of resources which are used to progress further in it. Which isn’t that different from the core game, really. Unfortunately, sky exploration is the weakest part of the game, with very little interesting decisions you get to make, and I would love to see an overhaul. Still, you do get severall gumballs from it, and in a few mazes you can even call your airship to assist you.

As a result, you always feel like you’re progressing, even if it slows down to a crawl after a while. You’re never waiting for a lucky drop that may come tomorrow or next year – slow and steady accumulation of gumball fragments and other resources is inevitable. You will get every thing, if you’re patient enough. And meanwhile, with each gumball you acquire the rest grow a bit stronger. Next time you’ll get further in sky exploration, delve deeper in a maze.

Gradually, the game becomes more of a management sim than a dungeoncrawler. You “raid” mazes to spend the energy, and even automatically complete the daily quests in the maxed out mazes you raid. Check the shops when they refresh, explore the sky when the sky energy is full, do the alliance missions. It’s busywork, but it’s busywork that’s earned its right to exist. The game isn’t a new hotness for me anymore, and I’m glad I have a way to progress in it without engaging with the main, time-consuming component that frequently. And I’m equally glad the game gives me reasons to actually play by having regular mini-maze events and occasionally releasing new mazes.

G&D is full of gradually unveiling subsystems, some seemingly there just so that you’d have more things to master. It is full of not-at-all subtle cultural references – Zerg Queen gumball comes to mind. Its interface is a mess, and the game could use a bunch of quality-of-life polish. It is brimming with charm and easter eggs. Most importantly, Gumballs & Dungeons is an example of a progression system done right: it takes many of the established addictive progression techinques of free-to-play mobile quasi-games, but uses an actual game as a foundation. The progression system is used to enhance and prolong the experience of playing the game, not to hide its absence.

DramaSystem – more drama than system

“Huh? Isn’t this blog dead?” No, merely hibernating. As it turns out, running a weekly game and writing posts inspired by that game occupy the same mindspace, and game preparation trumps blog. But having supported the kickstarter for Robin D. Laws’ Hillfolk/DramaSystem and consumed the preview rules in a day, I wanted to excise my impressions from my head and onto the (web)page. What did I think? Great theory, unconvincing practical application.

Update: oops, I’ve forgotten to actually say what Hillfolk is. It is an indie roleplaying game about Iron Age tribes in fictional 10th century BCE.  Its main focus is not heroic adventures, but rather dramatic interactions between characters. Hence, DramaSystem.

First things first. I haven’t yet played the game, merely read the preview rules. From my understanding, they’re unlikely to significantly change. I’ve also been left disappointed by almost all “narrative” roleplaying games I’ve tried, though I maintain it’s their fault. But I liked Robin’s Gumshoe, and so decided to give Hillfolk a try.

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