Gloomhaven promises a lot. This game comes in a gigantic box, weighs twenty pounds, and costs $140 retail. The designer’s intent was to convert a tabletop role playing game (like Dungeons and Dragons) into a board game that doesn’t require a player to be a “dungeon master” controlling all the action.
You and a few friends play as a band of adventurers in a fairly standard D&D-flavored fantasy world. You start out with six basic classes to choose from–my party consists of a spellweaver, a scoundrel, a tinker, and a mindthief–but eventually you retire these characters and unlock new ones.
Which leads to my biggest complaint with this game so far: there is so much content here, but it’s doled out so slowly. We are fourteen games into our campaign, and we are just about to unlock our first new character (out of 17 total). Each game is roughly two and a half hours long, so we are looking at about 35 hours into the game. It’s a long time to wait for new stuff!
The advantage of the painfully slow release of content is that when you do get new stuff it’s usually pretty exciting.
The game is also well balanced. You come into each game with a set number of cards to play for that mission. When you level up a character, you get to pick a new card as a new option to bring to battle, but you still only get to bring the same total number of cards. If you want to play with your fancy new attack, you have to give up something else, and after the first couple of levels you run out of easy choices.
Gloomhaven also supports a variable number of players well–if you have to drop out for a session or two, your friends can play without you. When you come back, you might be a level or two behind, but then the difficulty level will be set accordingly. Lower level players still contribute a lot towards victory, while higher level players get to enjoy the new options they’ve unlocked. Eventually, higher level characters are retired and replaced with lower level ones too, so you are not permanently behind.
And the difficulty of the missions themselves are also well balanced: I never felt like we were breezing through a dungeon, but also never felt like victory was impossible.
Overall, I find the game to pretty enjoyable, provided you can muster a group that will meet regularly. Even if you do, you probably won’t see everything the game has to offer unless you and your friends are the most die-hard fans–which is great, considering that the game is not cheap!
Does it accomplish the goal of converting a tabletop role playing game to a board game? Sort of. It depends on what you come to role playing games for. It is not a story-focused game: It is very much like a computerized roleplaying game. You pick a mission, you get a little cutscene, there are some tactical decisions to make, and if you win the numbers go up. If that’s what you’re after, you’ll find it here.
One final note: The Gloomhaven Helper app is absolutely essential. Trying to keep track of enemy stats with cardboard counters is way more trouble than its worth. My group would not still be playing without this.