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:
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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)