This review was originally posted on the website of the Perfect Information podcast. It has been reposted here for archival purposes. Slight re-edits were made for readability.
This is a rather long review of Gloomhaven, so to keep you from having to scroll all the way down, let me put my conclusion right at the top:
If you are a board gamer, Gloomhaven is not for you. It is too big, too much of a long-term time investment, too unwieldy to handle easily and designed to evoke a very specific game experience, that board games do not dabble in a lot. Gloomhaven presents a promise that players of Dungeons & Dragons (if not in name, then at least in spirit) will recognise, and most likely long to return to since their regular roleplaying group has either drifted apart or been taken over by the pressures of adult life. This isn’t a judgement on the game’s quality, but its purpose. What Gloomhaven offers and demands from its players is decidedly different from what board games generally go for.
Don’t let the trappings fool you: this isn’t a board game. Gloomhaven is at its core the next evolutionary step to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. As Chainmail became Dungeons & Dragons; Gloomhaven looks at AD&D and distills it into a doll house-sized box of gameplay. As much as it takes inspiration from the focused rules designs of modern board games, its heart lies in roaming the fantasy lands and adventurescapes of Dungeons & Dragons.
The design of roleplaying games (the so-called traditional ones at least) has always had a blaring omission at its core. Borne out of an almost fetishistic belief that roleplaying games must adhere to freedom above all else, no roleplaying game really spent much time defining just what its goal was. What was the endpoint that would resolve play? What were players supposed to drive towards, what objective were their actions supposed to achieve? What was the whole point of play even? This vacancy has led to groups, individuals and sometimes entire movements pursuing different paths. Some turned the act of play into its own goal elevating immersion and experience into the golden calf of roleplaying games; others pursued a more holistic approach seeing the sum of play as a gestalt called narrative; yet others sensed that there was something missing and sought out objectives to pursue and fulfil as they knew them from other forms of play. In the years that followed the roleplaying genre developed in all kinds of directions, yet never fully tackling its own hollow design with its flagship title. Some indie designes forged a path of their own, bringing forth many delightful, unique and fascinating oddities. Feel like swallowing an ancient sumerian bug for tenure? How about dying as a Polish teen in World War II? Better yet be a religious lawmen keeping the peace in parish after parish, infested with moral corruption! These games got you covered. And as unique and quirky as they were, none of them managed to actually succeed AD&D as the dominant roleplaying design template.
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was re-vamped, modernized and cleaned up… about four times now. As much as third edition revitalized the hobby with its open game licence (and at least partly responsible for somebody like Kevin Wilson eventually entering the field of board game design, for which I at least am very thankful), at its core it was still only a reduction of AD&D. It didn’t fill the conceptional gap with anything. It was still up to game masters themselves to turn their D&D campaign into being about something. Killing orcs and levelling up? Sure, fine. The long and inspiring tale of Trogdor the Burninator? Have at it! Truly inhabiting the role of the pick-pocketing Black Leaf? Sure, but it’s your funeral, pal.
The following editions didn’t really dare to stray away too much from the path AD&D had laid out: more than enough scaffolding to build whatever you could imagine, but refraining from telling you what it took to actually make it work. (Cue the millions upon millions of hours wasted with arguments and social dysfunction that has plagued roleplaying groups, as they fought over the shape and core of the game they played without really knowing why, yet alone how to solve this.)
I say all this in the knowledge that this failure in game design was also its greatest allure. AD&D (and the roleplaying games that followed) was a game design kit that came in form of a game itself. It was up to the game master to put the rules in place, to apply them as needed and to codify what was necessary to make the roleplaying game you were playing into an actual game: with objectives, robust structures and layers to expand as the group progressed.
This is what Gloomhaven does. This is the box you are buying. You get a game of D&D, a campaign box set – even though I prefer the term doll house for boxes this size – where all this design work has been done for you. The purpose of play is defined; the characters objectives are tangible and resolvable; the world of Gloomhaven exists for you to explore through play. It can be as intricate and involved in character interplay as you want it to be – nobody is keeping you from play acting your character except your own complacency about roleplaying. (Obligatory shout out to Dave Arneson!)
Fun awaits you whenever your adventures reward you with enough experience points or new character perks to improve, evolve and expand your character. This is ultimately the turning point where Gloomhaven self-assuredly, but decisively leaves the genre of board games and posits itself as a roleplaying game. Or as I am trying to put it: the next evolution of roleplaying games.
Please note, that the use of the word evolution is deliberate. Evolution is not about improvement, but adaptation. Gloomhaven does not improve on roleplaying games, but has adapted to the demands and abilities of adult roleplayers. It gives you a product that takes the heavy lifting off of you and your gaming group, and puts it into rules and components.
And, by Clapton, there’s a lot of components. In fact, while I argued, that Gloomhaven isn’t for board gamers because of the type of experience it delivers; it is also an uneasy fit for board gamers because of the sheer amount of book keeping, component handling and organisation that is required to play a scenario, let alone a campaign. And to be clear: it is not possible to only play scenarios. Where board games have individual rounds, Gloomhaven has scenarios. A full game of Gloomhaven is not a single scenario, but at least half a dozen. It is only when characters advance, improve, grow and eventually retire that the game delivers what it sets out to do. Playing only scenarios is like only playing a few select turns of Carcassone or Pandemic. It just makes no sense.
That said, the rules are pretty decent in general. The basics of the now familiar dungeoncrawler are all here: characters move and attack on a map of hexes, deal with terrain effects, and face an enemy AI that keeps you on your toes, etc. Instead of a die, an individual deck of cards allows for some randomness when attacking. This opens up nice ways of improving and customizing your character’s abilities later on. The card play and hand management when on a mission, takes some getting used to, but in turn adds a level of tactical play, that goes beyond mere positioning. Elements such as wind, air, fire, darkness, etc. are triggered by some actions and provide temporary resources for characters to draw upon, further expanding on ways of tactical group play. There are a lot of fine points spread throughout the rules that are clever or at least sensible design choices. But all this of course comes at a price: accessibility. If the size of the box didn’t make you stumble, the number of components didn’t make you swallow hard, and the length of play didn’t raise your eyebrows… rest assured this game makes Vast: The Crystal Caverns look like Lost Cities in comparison. By which I mean there is a lot to wrap your head around, and it takes a few scenarios to avoid making stupid mistakes.
But Georgios, you’re saying and probably pronouncing my name wrong, I can only make up my mind about Gloomhaven, if I know whether you will buy it! The short answer is: no, I won’t. The long answer is: this is simply not a game that fits into my gaming habits, schedule or group. For quite literally the same reasons, that I don’t play roleplaying games any more. I have neither the time, nor the inclination to regularly make my way through a game of this magnitude and bulkiness. The experience it provides lacks both the flexibility and the effortlessness that I get from a regular board game night. To reiterate this doesn’t make it a bad game, but a play experience distinctly different from board games, be they Ticket to Ride, Pandemic, The Others or Inis. Gloomhaven isn’t a game you play, but a roleplaying campaign you embark on.
Gloomhaven is a fascinating achievement of game design. It is the idealistic promise of Kickstarter made manifest. An unproven and radical vision lifted into existence by the faith of its target audience and somehow it all actually works. Wizards of the Coast / Hasbro should be paying very close attention to what Isaac Childres has done here and out of sheer courtesy offer him the development lead on the next edition of D&D.
The time of roleplaying games coming in three seperate core rulebooks, five supplements and oodles of accessory packs is over. You want to play a modern roleplaying game: it has to be Gloomhaven.