GOF 2017 Report: Gloomhaven Is Mostly Gloomhype

GOF 2017 Report: Gloomhaven Is Mostly Gloomhype

Editor’s Note: Still getting around to my posts from Gathering of Friends 2017 last month. They’ll come out as soon as I can get a moment to write and edit them. Bless you for your patience with this busy blogger. Gloomhaven here also got a little long.

Editor’s Other Note: If you are a Gloomhaven Groupie and want your opinion validated, Ars Technica has a good article for you. Ye will find no validation here.

Having a limited time at the Gathering of Friends this year, I had not really made a proper list of must-play games. Yet, Gloomhaven was high on my mental list to try because of all the hype that has been spread online about this game for some time, culminating in their highly successful Kickstarter campaign, which just closed. People I respected had been pushing it hard, talking about how amazing the whole thing was and putting a whole lot of money into the admittedly giant box offered by the publisher. The hype, not shied away from by the publisher, was massive and growing. My expectations were high.

So, I was quite appreciative when my friend Jeff gave me his slot in a planned Gloomhaven session on Thursday morning. As it happens, a big fan of the game had been running daily games for novices, teaching them the game and then running them through his campaign with prescribed characters he had been developing. I turned up early to my designated time all ready to be dazzled. While my recent investment in Descent 2.0 to play with my son and friends is substantial, maybe Gloomhaven will give me the eurogame-powered alternative that will be worth the switch. I recall how in the late 80’s, I switched to GURPS from AD&D 1st edition for similar reasons. More control, less randomness, a more serious design. Deja vu, game edition.

Expectations are a tough thing. Having been raised in the business world by the Pixie Dusters at Disney, where one of the key concepts is to exceed expectations, I’m keenly in tune with how important it is to go into a situation with them set properly. For the most part, the Gloomhyping had worked on me. I was considering supporting the Kickstarter even as I had sworn to not buy unplayed games this year (probably not an unfamiliar refrain to you, dear reader). The one bright (dark?) spot here was that the night before, a highly-respected game designer had run through his list of games played and offered his quick opinions. When he got to Gloomhaven, his review was two words:

“Hated it.”

Still Gloomhotin

On Thursday morning, I sat down with his words in mind, hoping they would lower my expectations sufficiently that I would love Gloomhaven. As the box was opened, the components were an inauspicious start. There’s a lot of stuff inside that big chest but I was immediately underwhelmed by the boring game boards and cardboard standees for monsters. Hey, Descent 2.0 has made me love detailed boards and cool miniatures while this felt like a throwback to the sad days when Steve Jackson Games tried to get us excited about Cardboard Heroes! Didn’t work on me then, not impressed now (I had similar misgivings about Dead of Winter, which hasn’t been to the table in a long while). The mix of figures for the heroes and cardboard for the monsters just felt wrong.

When we got to the rules, things seemed better. Gloomhaven has some interesting mechanisms, at least starting with the personal deck play options that let you come up with interesting card combos unique to your character. Players have a custom deck that can be upgraded with stickers and they’re double-purposed like what you find in Card Driven Wargames, with two ways to use them. You play two per turn, using the top combat-oriented option on one card, and the bottom movement-focused option at the bottom. I liked the idea of how they worked and interacted with power-ups that you could inspire and then people could use. Kind of like magic that hasn’t faded in the air, these elemental and such type of conditions can give players extended powers, which seems cool. I was intrigued but also felt like the options often limited what you could do for the turn.

Gloomhaven

The game has also worked hard to make the characters and classes unique in a way that shows these folks have been playing RPGs in the last nearly thirty years when I wasn’t. They’re exploding stereotypes and limitations. Clerics can have knives, dwarf-types can cast spells. This ain’t your father’s RPG class system! Er, I guess I’m the dad. This ain’t my old RPG class system! I mock because I’m given to do it, but this is actually a good thing. The characters have no attributes either, so you’re really using the card decks to do most of the work in combat and hand management. Some cards go away after a single use, others can go away if used in a certain way. Managing how you use these options is interesting but, a few hours in, you might grow weary of the work going into it. I did.

Like most dungeon crawlers, you have equipment to help you on your way and they add to what they should (armor helps with defense, weapons with killing stuff). Sounds good, so far – the description of those rules include lots of eurogame touches that look like they will make the game more balanced and interesting. As we get through an hour of rules, I’m excited but maybe a little concerned about how much there is to track and that I won’t be able to do what I want sometimes. Maybe kind of a lot of the time.

We hear a brief description of where we are in the world, being that this is eight scenarios in, and then we start. Much like Descent and other dungeon crawlers, we’re in conflict with some kind of monsters pretty quickly. Unfortunately, with the way the initiative mechanisms work, my rock-guy Tank runs up to the front but the dungeon jerks we are fighting sidestep me and go after our mage-thing run by our rules teacher. They promptly kill him.

I say ‘promptly’ but that’s just in Gloomhaven time, which moves like a snail crawling through barely-wet cement while covered in molasses and dragging an anvil. Did I mention the snail is really old?

More on that point later. We reboot.

We go in again and spread out a little differently. Now, the same rule plagues us and the creepy crawlies grab our rogue-thing. He’s killed and reboot two happens.

We’re over two hours in and we have yet to fight anyone but it’s noisy, we have three new players and while I’m getting it, there is a fair amount to think about on an individual turn so the other two guys are doing their best. Also, I have a work emergency going on and I’m Slacking between turns. This actually helps because the downtime in Gloomhangin is powerful.

As we play, some of the mechanisms that I found interesting start to feel unsatisfying. The ‘elemental effect’ or whatever mechanism only appears to have a single turn of impact, meaning it takes a lot of coordination to get an often minor impact on your turn. I hope the rules master had this one wrong because it turns something really cool into something lukewarm.

The standard equipment also appears to have a lot less utility than in any adventure game I’ve played. While my armor and shield help me every single turn in Descent or the D&D board games, Gloomhaltin limits equipment to seemingly minimal uses and then they need repair or untapping (sorry, ‘straightening’ or something – I don’t want to owe Hasbro a license fee). Man, why didn’t I buy armor that works every time? The rules master explains that this is for balance, which was the explanation for a fair number of my questions. Wow, I wish balance and fun could get equal time here. He did acknowledge that point sometime later.

I can do a lot of cool things with my cards…but they are fairly limited, hard to orchestrate, and often what I want to do is unavailable when I really need it. In fact, timing your actions to work well with the tactical situation on the board is hard enough to lack of a spark of pleasure that we get from easily getting into conflicts on the board in Descent, figuring out how our powers can help us beat the baddies. I keep making that comparison because it feels like Fantasy Flight are making a conscious effort to loosen things up with their combat games. Imperial Assault (essentially, Star Wars Descent) even has skirmish mode, acknowledging that sometimes you just want to throw down for 30-45 minutes and not plan a long day of dungeon delving. Gloomhaven seems to only allow the latter.

Four hours in, we have barely survived battle number 1 (on the third try) and just edged into a second room. There are three reasons I haven’t left the table yet, making some kind of excuse about a gaming emergency.

  1. The work emergency is still in the process of getting resolved and the otherwise-painful downtime is helping a lot. I’m making good progress and when it becomes my turn, I quickly move and then I’m off Slacking with my team back in L.A. and S.F.
  2. I appreciate the time the rules guy has put into it and don’t want to screw up his campaign by walking away. The other two players are also having some amount of fun, although it’s often hard to ascertain how much. They do eventually seem to get the game more. They’re all swell folks and I don’t want to ruin the game.
  3. I want to see this through so I can write this rather gonzo session review of Gloomhaven because, of course, I love you all.

Return on Attention

In the end, we spend six hours, finish room two and rush to get to room three. Mind you, these rooms are bare-bones chambers that lack of the character, obstacles, and theming of Descent boards. By this time, I could have played nearly three scenarios of Descent and been in dozens of rooms that would give us a sense of accomplishment. The app helps this immensely, as it helps you feel the experience and travel and exploration. Gloomholdin just feels like we’re running in place, and a nondescript one at that.

In the end, I could see how that designer could have ‘hated’ Gloomhazin. While the eurogame stylings have sawed off the Ameritrash edges in many ways, they make the game feel stilted and labored to me. You have to do so much to get so little, which violates a big rule for me. When I design software, one of my focuses is on “Return on Attention”. We are far too busy to do anything these days. We have only so many mental cycles in the day. I believe games need to deliver on fun and positive experiences for the time put in. If the game starts to feel like a lot of work or if it doesn’t deliver enough regularly to keep you engaged, it isn’t worth my time.

That’s just me, of course. I know many people love to play games that give them the feeling of running a big business, country, or other operation, and that experience and putting a lot of time into it to optimize or otherwise deliver better stuff is exciting. More power to them. If they are loving that experience, I’m glad they are getting what they want out of games. Gloomhaven feels like that to me. If you want to micromanage a dungeon crawl and feel the euro mechanisms slip together like artisanal puzzle pieces, this is your game. You will drown in joy at the 100 hours of play you will get out of the giant box, which will be an excellent deal and money well-spent. I still think replacing all those standees with miniatures and such would be more fun but that would make the box Ogre Designer’s Edition sized. Eeek.

If you want things a little looser, more consistently thrilling, and perhaps a little more in line with the old-school feel of RPGs dungeon-delving, I think you’ll be happier with Descent 2.0 (particularly with the excellent app) or maybe the D&D board games.

I’ll end with my caveats that longtime BGB readers and listeners know well enough: I’m a eurogamer by nature, but I played RPGs back in the 80’s. Ameritrash isn’t normally my thing but we have gotten deeply into Mice & Mystics and also Descent 2.0 primarily because my son wanted to play RPGs and I figured this was a good compromise. We also acquired and played the D&D board games but I think they aren’t as good as the other two RPG-in-a-box titles we have enjoyed regularly for the last couple of years. We’re playing fairly regularly now and, while I would love more variation in games, I’m thrilled that this oldschool play is delighting my son and the close friends with whom I spent a lot of time adventuring back in high school.

One more point: If you coughed up more than $100 for this game because you were Gloomhopin it was going to be a Descent-killer, the Second Coming, or just a really good game that you and your friends love, I hope it gets you to Gloomheaven. The play time situation for my experience wasn’t ideal and while I’d probably give it a second try with a friend who knew the rules really well and pimped it out with real miniatures, I won’t be seeking that situation out. Not all games work for all people so if the hype got you on the bandwagon, I do hope you enjoy the ride…and remember there’s always the secondary market if you also think Gloomhaven is indeed a haven for gaming misery.

Boardgame Babylon Rating for Gloomhaven

BIN (Buy It Now)

PIN (P)lay It Now

TIF (Try It First)

NMT (Not My Thing)

GOF 2017 Report: Bärenpark and Phil Walker-Harding

GOF 2017 Report: Bärenpark and Phil Walker-Harding

The Gathering of Friends, Alan Moon’s invitational, is always a highlight of the gaming year. One of my favorite things about the show is the opportunity to game with designers who have become friends. It is a Gathering of them, after all. Playing games with designers is a bit like going to dinner with a chef or having wine with a vintner – the perspective they provide can help deepen your appreciation of a game immensely. Some of my favorite moments from the years I’ve spent at GOF are the post-game discussions about something we have played, metering out the specific mechanisms and how they worked, recalling where we’d seen them in the past and judging their reimplementation, and talking about how the title fits into something like Bruno Faidutti’s Ideal Game Library concept – only the games you need for all moods, situations, player types and numbers. Those convos are sublime for the engaged tabletop gamer.

The other major delight is meeting designers whose work I love and this year, a key meeting was Phil Walker-Harding. I’d call myself an OF (Original Fan) of Phil’s work, way back to his first game with Z-Man,

Bärenpark and Phil Walker-Harding.
Playing Bärenpark with Phil Walker-Harding. Playing with the designer helps one get the rules right the first time…

Archaeology: The Card Game. This light but clever design found its way to me when I was running demos for Z-Man Games (Yes, I was a Z-Forcer) at Strategicon conventions. I taught it to so many people, but never lost interest. It played wonderfully with families and gamers could admire the pleasantly clean design. NOTE: The game is out of print, but an expanded title based on it called “Archaeology: The New Expedition” is available here.

Years later, I was unsurprised that modern family game winner Sushi Go was from Phil – it’s such an immediate delight and imminently playable. Gamewright was lucky to pick it up. Sushi Go Party is even better, as I’ve previously noted in this space. Everyone on my team at work owns it now because they love it so much. His SDJ-nominated Imhotep was another story. I wasn’t sure the first time out, but as I have chronicled, I found its brilliance a few plays in. It’s a standard gateway for us now. His other well-known title, Cacao, is another winner that I want to play a bit more before commenting, but it warranted an SDJ recommendation in 2015. Phil has the goods, folks.

Over the years, my enthusiasm for his titles hasn’t gone unnoticed in this era of social media. I’ve tweeted back and forth with Phil a number of times, but it was still a distinct pleasure to actually shake his hand at Gathering of Friends 2017. Having missed last year’s GOF due to a new job, this was my first chance to sample his new games prior to publication. When we met, he first brandished his just-released Bärenpark, which is now available in Europe from Lookout and will be hitting the US via Mayfair this summer. Amusingly, he brought it out to play with Matt Leacock and myself after I’d been asked what I was interested in playing. I’d expressed an interest in Cottage Garden based on my wife’s deep love of Patchwork. Phil offered up Bärenpark as being designed to scratch a similar itch.

“I designed Bärenpark after hundreds of plays of Patchwork with my wife,” Phil noted. Sounds familiar to me, and many tabletop gamers, I expect. Uwe’s delightful two-player game is firmly planted on the “Couples’ Game” list now. Cottage Garden, which I’ll talk about in my full GOF report, is the big brother of Patchwork and plays up to four. Bärenpark has the same pentominoes you find in those games but the goal here is to build out your bear (that’s what ‘baren’ means, folks) zoo park with various attractions. I wondered about the similarities to my own Theme Park game, which also uses pentominoes but they were limited to just that construction bit (see Princes of Florence for the original idea, I expect).

Barenpark
Mosaix is a wonderful little game.

Phil also noted the influence of the wonderful little game Mosaix from designer (and game illustrator) Christof Tisch. That roll-and-assign winner from 2009 is due to come to my table again soon after Phil referencing it in regard to Bärenpark.

How Does Play Bärenpark?

Bärenpark turns are simple enough – just build a piece from your supply and gain new pieces based on what you play. You play the pieces to a swatches of parks (you start with one) as 4×4 grids, each with symbols that let you acquire new pieces of varying types (and values) that decrease as they are acquired (Thurn und Taxis-style). You need to then fit those pieces onto your board so there is no overlap or overhang. Since this is a euro-style game, you collect new piece(s) at the end of the turn and have time to consider how to use them while the other players take their turns. You may get more than one per turn, but you only place a single one each turn.

While the big pieces delivered by building over dump truck spots are a lot of points, they’re also unwieldy at times and you will often need to go back to the small park pieces to fill in the empty spots. There’s a reason to do so – the game clock is completion of park grids with an also-decreasing value in bonus delivered. These are manhole cover tokens that are automatically placed over the single pit on each grid after all other spaces are filled. These values start with the biggest points in the game and recognizing that helped Matt win our game (I was caught up in accelerating to the high point park pieces).

Of course, you don’t just fill one 4×4 grid. Additional boards can be had by building over worker spaces, up to maximum of four, and they’re a chance to gain more bonus points from placement plus that completion bonus. Matt astutely noticed this was a strategy for maximizing points because you didn’t just score from just your placement, but from the completion. Did I mention there’s a downside to playing games with great designers? Yeah, they win a lot.

Bärenpark has an elegance I associate with Phil’s games, yet there are things to explore and enjoy through repeat plays. Much like the subtle choices of Imhotep or the realization that Sushi Go has enough information to make choices better if you want to play it more than casually, Bärenpark will surely reveal more as the game gets more play – and it will certainly do that. I think this is an early runner for SDJ consideration and it would be a welcome addition to gamer and family collections. To that end, it plays in about 40 minutes and you can teach it in two. Watch for it.

Prototypes

I also played a hush-hush prototype of Phil’s that had his signature simplicity that often reminds me of Michael Schacht. From me, that a high compliment, indeed, as I believe Schacht to be one of the top 10 of all time. Again, I was unsurprised that the prototype was snapped up by a publisher promptly and was in much demand from the players, too. The title will be well-liked when it arrives on the scene and was much discussed at GOF. I missed two other protos Phil had but I look forward to their publication with interest as I heard many other positive reviews of them.

Thanks to Phil for the introduction to his games and the great convos. Bärenpark is due out from Mayfair in June 2017, just in time for the summer convention season.

 

Boardgame Babylon Rating for Bärenpark

BIN (Buy It Now) PIN (P)lay It Now TIF (Try It First) NMT (Not My Thing)

Disclosure: Not sure if I need it but Phil’s a good guy with whom I’ve tweeted for years. This was our first meeting.