Gloomhaven is the digital adaptation of the top rated board game of all times. In 2017, the hit board game entered history by raising 4 million dollars on Kickstarter. It has since been comfortably sitting at number 1 on the list of best games ever made on boardgamegeek.com.
Given the accolades and deserved success of the game it is no surprise the design was ported to digital. The adaptation is currently being developed by Flaming Fowl Studios, which developers were involved in the original Fable trilogy. Published by Asmodee Digital, Gloomhaven has been gathering very positive reviews since its release in Early Access in July 2019.
Gloomhaven is available for purchase in Early Access on Steam for $24.99/€24.99/£19.49.
Story – Mercenary Life
In Gloomhaven, you take the role of mercenaries trying to make their fortunes in and around the homonymous city.
The game features 17 unique playable mercenaries, covering a number of different playstyles and fantasy races that feel highly innovative. Boasting 95 missions weaving a branching storyline, a tabletop campaign of Gloomhaven can take months to complete.
Despite currently being in Early Access, Flaming Fowl Studios steadily released content over the course of the past two years. As of the latest release, you can play with 16 different mercenaries. The final updates containing the missing mercenary and implementing the original campaign should be released later in the year.
While waiting, players can enjoy the specially designed Guildmaster Mode. This serves as a playground to showcase the characters, items, scenarios and the core strategic gameplay that is at the heart of Gloomhaven‘s success. Featuring a new map that will be unlocked via procedurally generated missions, Guildmaster Mode is a roguelike flavoured experience ideal for new players dipping their toes in the Gloom as well as veterans eager to embark in yet another campaign.
Gameplay – Strategic Bliss
In the available Guildmaster Mode you are the leader of the rag-tag band of mercenary. You lead them on a series of missions, some shedding light on the backstory of each member, many unlocking new locations or mercenaries, some focused on looting fantastic treasures.
These missions generally involve clearing all rooms of a dungeon from enemies, though some have alternate win conditions, such as surviving for a number of game rounds or looting certain chests. Before embarking in any mission you can see the enemies you will be facing as well as the win condition, so to prepare efficiently.
Basic Combat Training
While Gloomhaven might sound generic to you so far, it is the combat gameplay that truly makes it shine. Taking place on a familiar hex grid, each round players choose and reveal two cards having a top and a bottom ability. After the players choose, each enemy also draws the top ability from their unique 8 cards deck.
Monsters and characters then act from lowest to highest initiative, specified on the first card selected, then perform the top ability of one and the bottom ability of the other, in any order.
Under this apparent simplicity lays an incredible strategic depth that will delight and sometimes infuriate even the hardened 4X player.
The lack of perfect information about the intention and initiative of monsters and, when playing cooperatively, other mercenaries, is the perfect recipe for disappointment. It is not uncommon for that big ranged attack you selected to not be feasible anymore because the monster acted before you and moved a single hex away. This may seem too random to some but it really adds to that feeling that “every move counts” that strategy games need to really click.
Cards not only represent the abilities of a mercenary but also their stamina. After each character acts, players discard the used cards whether they were useful or not, and if at the start of any round a mercenary can not play 2 cards they are out of the mission. Players can usually recover their discarded cards only be recovered by either long or short resting. In either case one of the discarded cards is lost and cannot be used again or recovered for the whole scenario.
Advanced Combat Training
Working alongside this basic ruleset there are many additional mechanics. Some cards are very powerful but you lose them immediately after using them. Is it worth trying to quickly kill a skeleton-spawning cultist?
Other cards can create and consume elements, boosting specific abilities or granting them entirely new modes.
In addition to having a complete different set of ability cards, each mercenary has its own modifier deck. This is a deck mimicking a d20 that adds or subtracts points of damage from each attack performed. Moreover, mercenaries can buy and equip more than 100 unique items to grant them temporary bonuses. Every single mechanic interlinks together to create an experience that anybody who enjoys strategic choices will find exhilarating.
Better with friends
As the original game is a tabletop cooperative experience, a big part of Gloomhaven is playing it with others. Under official rules, players should never be too specific about what their plans for the round are. This means sticking to general statements and never revealing any numbers or names on their chosen cards.
Don’t get me wrong. It is perfectly possible to play solo, coordinating the effort of multiple mercenaries to unleash power synergies, such as creating a trap with one and pushing an enemy over it with another. Indeed in my opinion the digital adaptation of Gloomhaven might be the best way to play this because of the AI takes much of the micromanaging out of the equation.
However, it is equally fun and perhaps even more satisfying to have your plans foiled by another mercenary, then try to make the best out of the situation, and perhaps, emerge victorious.
Unfortunately, the online functionality of Gloomhaven is currently still not perfect, with bugs and crashes causing disconnections and crashes. In roughly 30 hours of online gameplay I only experienced three or four problems, which is acceptable for an Early Access title. However, having another mercenary mess up your plans is fun, having software lock up as you slice your way through the last couple of enemies never is.
Graphic & Audio – Anything But Gloomy
As far as Early access titles go, Gloomhaven delivers a solid performance in the technical department. The visual style matches that of the game beautifully. From dreary crypts, to mystical caverns, each environment is well designed and gives this version of Gloomhaven an additional edge. The artists at Flaming Fowl Studio, working alongside Gloomhaven‘s creator Isaac Childres, managed to create such immediately recognisable art from a collection of flat cardboard tiles.
The characters too are faithfully recreated and the Mindthief’s lipless grin is just as pretty as I had always imagined. Mercenaries come alive with great looking and varied enough animations. While the soundtrack might not win any awards, it does its job perfectly. The tense atmosphere it creates goes well with those tough strategic decisions. Finally, the sound design and effects are mostly great, with the odd comedic squeal after suffering damage (looking at you, Spellweaver).
The game is by no means perfect yet and does have some graphical bugs. They are minor and hopefully fixed in future updates, ahead of full launch. Above all, they never impacted my gameplay and did not spoil the experience.
Gloomhaven was previewed on PC.