Gloomhaven is a game with a big box. That box is filled with a load of cardboard cards, maps, and a dozen plastic figurines. Yep, it’s a board game. And one that’s currently at the top of the boardgame geek ranks. And my friends and I are playing it.

Cooperative games

I’ve spoken about my preference for cooperative board games before. I’m not a big fan of competitive board games, but I do like cooperative board games. Basically, I’m not a competitive person and I don’t like competing with friends much.

I do like good storytelling and tactical gameplay, which is why I’m an avid Dungeons & Dragons player (and Pathfinder, Demon: the Fallen, Seven Seas, Dark Heresy, etc.).

Gloomhaven also has tactical gameplay and some storytelling. It’s still a board game, though, and not a roleplaying game. Although, like a game such as Kingdom Death, it comes closer than your run-of-the-mill Monopoly or Chess.

The Basics

In Gloomhaven you play a mercenary, and you and up to three others go on missions (called scenarios). Those scenarios take place in and around the town of Gloomhaven.

It’s a fantasy setting, and there are different races around, and magic. The dead may rise to fight you, elementals may come bother you, and evil wizards may ask you to help overthrow the city guard.

The scenarios take place in dungeons of all sorts. There are a hundred or so, I think. Each mission uses three or four pre-defined cardboard tiles with a hexagonal grid. The grid is filled with enemies and your characters.

Each turn, each character gets to choose two cards that contain actions, usually a move and and attack. Then you start handling the cards in initiative order, as determined by the initiative on one of the cards you chose. You and the enemies act. Rinse and repeat.

You start with a fixed hand of cards and when you run out you can recycle them, minus one. This means that over time you run out of cards completely. If that happens before the end of the mission, your character is ‘exhausted’. This also happens if you run out of hit points. If all characters are exhausted, you fail the mission.

In between scenarios you get to level up, buy equipment, and do other character related stuff.

The Good and the Bad

Gloomhaven is a really good game. At least, if you like to think tactically. You have to enjoy puzzling a bit, and you have to be able to handle that sometimes things don’t go according to plan.

The options are limitless, and the gameplay is fun. You don’t usually end up being useless, and tension rises as you progress through the mission. The scenarios have been designed so that you usually manage to complete them without failing, but you do get close to the fail line.

The downside of the game is that it has a lot of stuff in it. You can level up, buy equipment, upgrade cards, buy blessings, do road events, do city events, find chests, and so forth. It’s just too much. You can only scratch the surface of things to do, because there is just so much of it. That’s a bit of a shame.

Another problem is that a scenario can take a long time. I mean, two or three hours and up. With around a hundred scenarios, this adds up to two to three-hundred hours, not counting the time you spend buying equipment and doing road and city events. Oh, and the setup time. All in all, this game can keep you busy for hundreds of hours. That’s a pretty big investment.

Another personal problem I have, is that it’s close enough to D&D that I get the urge to play it as a D&D game. Which of course it isn’t. Maybe there will be a roleplaying variant some day. We’ll see.

My verdict

I like Gloomhaven a lot. It will take our group a couple of years to finish it, I think, but that’s part of the fun.

Martin Stellinga Written by:

I'm a science fiction and fantasy author/blogger from the Netherlands