This is how much I wanted a copy of Gloomhaven: I drove 40 minutes to Bathurst and Elgin Mills and back to pay through the nose for a pristine retail copy.
Why oh why did I not back it when I had plenty of opportunity on Kickstarter? The fact is, when I looked it over it seemed to me yet another version of Descent (which I already own) mixed with more than a dash of Myth (which I had backed and ended up feeling burned by a half-baked set of rules and a much-too-sandbox-y campaign system). So I passed.
And then it started to arrive on people’s doorsteps. And I started to read their session reports. And it started to rocket up the BGG ranks (as of today it has already cracked the Top Twenty). And I thought, “Shit, this is the Skyrim boardgame I’ve been waiting for.” I have wasted spent more time than I care to admit in the world of The Elder Scrolls (including the online version, don’t judge me).
But only 2000 copies had been printed for retail, and demand was apparently ten times that amount. So I resigned myself to waiting for the Kickstarter reprint starting next month. And then someone offered up a copy in a local Math Trade. And I thought to myself, “What the heck? If you don’t ask, you don’t get.” So I geekmailed the guy and after a tiny bit of haggling it was mine—and a good thing I did, because he got several more (and better) offers after mine. But let’s hear it for good old-fashioned integrity, because he kept his word to me. (Shout-out to Andrei!)
After 90 minutes of driving and an undisclosed amount I had my own copy, in the largest box for a boardgame I had ever seen. Why is the box so big and heavy? Because none of this FFG-we’ll-release-a-base-game-and-then-string-you-along-for-months-of-releases. Everything you need is in the box for a campaign of over one hundred scenarios. That’s right.
And the references to Skyrim or The Witcher 3 are apt, because like them (and unlike, say, Myth) Gloomhaven has a cohesive over-arching storyline as well as substantial side-quests. Locations are unlocked and are literally stickered onto the world map as scenarios are beaten. Each character begins life with a random but unique Personal Quest which, when completed, forces you to retire her. This would seem to suck on the surface, except by the time characters have levelled up sufficiently to achieve their life’s purpose they are practically OP anyway, so forcing you to start anew is actually a shrewd design choice. Other character classes also unlock as the campaign progresses, so by the time someone retires you get to try out some spiffy new class you’ve been aching to try anyway. The game starts with only six basic choices unlocked (your standard fighter/wizard/rogue/cleric, plus a tinker-mage and a Thing-like elemental), and there are eleven more sealed away in little tuckboxes I’m just aching to open…no! Must…use…willpower.
The core game system itself is at once simple, elegant, and achingly tough. Characters each have a “hand” of unique cards you play to move and attack, all of which are available at scenario’s start. As things progress, cards get used up, and if you run out of cards your character is too pooped to continue and naps for the rest of the scenario. Fortunately, cards can be returned to hand by “resting” and “recovering”.
Bad-guy behaviour is managed by pulls from creature-specific action decks (like in Galaxy Defenders), so you never know if and when they will move, attack, or pull some stunt like poisoning your ass. Combat also uses cards—each character starts with a standard deck which gets customized as they level up, and monsters all draw from a common deck. This lets the game fine-tune combat in ways that wouldn’t work easily with dice, but does involve a lot of shuffling, which can break up the action a bit. Still, for people who hate dice, it’s a bonus.
Make no mistake, this is no hack’n’slash Ameritrash game, this is a Euro, baby, you gotta math this mofo, plan ahead, work together, and pray for good luck. And even then, things can go south quickly.
Luckily, losing a scenario is no biggie (unless you play with the insane “Permadeath” variant—don’t do it!); you get to keep any accumulated gold and XP (which helps grow your character) and you can try, try again.
I set up the first scenario thinking, “Feh, first scenario, cakewalk baby.” And promptly exhausted both my characters before they finished the second room. Tried again, different tactics, went down again. Third time, same. Finally, I dialled down the monster difficulty (which is super-easy to do and totally not cheating I swear, everyone does it) and managed to eke out a win.
In the second scenario I got extremely lucky with my monster action and combat card draws and was able to win without breaking much of a sweat. So the beauty of the system is that I can go right back in and fight it again with higher-level critters just for XPs and giggles without having to worry about winning, and if I’m lucky by the end of it my guys will be able to go back to Gloomhaven to level up before taking the first big fork in the campaign road.
Choices in Gloomhaven have meaningful in-game consequences—for your party’s reputation, Gloomhaven’s prosperity, and your party’s development. For the first time in ages I feel like I’m playing with more than just generic placeholders. I’ll update you on my party’s progress somewhere down the line.
So, is Gloomhaven all that? Yes, I believe I can say it is. With every stitch, seam, and buckle you can see the thought that went into making the game a comprehensive tabletop experience. I already got rid of my Myth stuff and am going to trade or sell my Descent collection. Gloomhaven is my new home and I think I’m going to be spending a lot of time there.