Gloomhaven 1

Gloomhaven review

Tactical and clever

There’s nothing quite like the admittedly verbose description of card-based tactical dungeon crawler RPG to pique my interest in a game. That’s what Gloomhaven—a videogame adaption of the popular board game of the same name—promises, and it certainly delivers, particularly on the tactical front, even as it frequently beats an unprepared player into the ground until they learn its intricate ways. But once all the pieces click into place, it makes you feel like a strategy savant.

It starts in a fairly straightforward manner, with a plodding tutorial that introduces six of the playable characters. It might be too slow for veterans of the board game. But for the uninitiated, it’s a wonderfully crafted way to teach players not only the playstyles of each character, but the importance of making good decisions. Each tutorial is designed with one solution, and failure means you’ll have to start over again, letting you know how important it is to carefully consider each move.

The moves are turn-based and carried out by playing cards. Each class possesses its own deck that’s home to a variety of distinctive abilities. The classes are the standard fantasy fare found in RPGs like tanks, healers, buffers and such, but the way the cards are used feels fresh. Every turn, or round, in a given scenario asks you to choose two cards from your characters’ deck, with each having two abilities that occupy the top and bottom half. The catch is, if you use the top ability on one card, you must use the bottom on the other, or vice versa.

Beyond that, each card has a number that determines when that character will move, with a lower digit letting them move sooner. That means you will need to carefully consider the order you want to move alongside which abilities are appropriate to use in that situation. But, much like a game of chess, you’ll want to think further than your next turn. You see, once you’ve used a card, it will be discarded or, if it boasts a powerful move, burned and become unavailable for the rest of the scenario. Discarded cards can be returned to the hand by resting, but this comes at the cost of burning another.

Always stay three steps ahead

Ultimately, you need to plan several moves ahead, considering what cards might be useful for later and which you can afford to lose. It all serves to provide a ludicrous amount of depth in each scenario, and truthfully, that’s barely scratching the surface. On top of that, you can buy gear for your characters to improve their stats, mitigate damage or deal a bit more in combat. And then there’s the RNG angle to consider.

But even when you have decided your perfect move for the next turn, it could still go horribly wrong. The enemies may draw cards that allow them to move before you, meaning your powerful bombardment no longer works because they’re no longer in the right place. Alternatively, once you’ve attacked, the modifiers that come into play could yield a x0 roll, eliminating all of your damage. By levelling up each character, you can unlock perks that lessen the danger of a low roll, but they’re always a threat.

The more you play Gloomhaven, the more layers of strategy it seems to reveal. Throw in the myriad classes, enemy types, mission variants and the potential number of tactics increases further still. You might find yourself spending just as much time selecting classes before the mission as you do in the dungeon, deciding the best combination of characters to battle against the undead or an army of overgrown vermin.

It’s a thinking person’s game that provides an unrivalled dopamine hit whenever you successfully clear a dungeon with a meticulously planned strategy. If you’ve not played the board game before, it might take a little while to master, but it’s absolutely worth the investment.

Adjustable difficulty

Mercifully, though, developer Flaming Fowl Studios has included numerous ways to tinker with the difficulty settings. Aside from the standard Easy, Normal, Hard setup, the number of characters you take into each dungeon affects the strength of the enemies. While you’re getting to grips with the game, taking in two makes everything a little less overwhelming. Then, once you’ve become accustomed with the game, you can take in a few more to explore deeper strategies and synergies between classes. It’s always great to have options that allow more players to ease into the swing of things.

Gloomhaven certainly has a few issues though. There are some missions where you have to protect or escort an AI character and they are utterly useless. They make their moves at a glacial pace and still do nothing helpful when they finally decide to act. Fortunately, they don’t appear too frequently.

Another concern relates to the exhaustion mechanic. This occurs when you’ve burned too many cards to be able to play two more. At this point, the game would ideally detect that you can no longer play any cards and simply kill your character. However, it doesn’t. Instead, it still makes you go through the rigmarole of selecting to rest and choosing something to discard first. Similarly, there are times when a simple end turn button would be helpful, but the game forces you to click through everything regardless. It’s far from a deal-breaker, but it’s a little irritating nonetheless.

At its core, Gloomhaven is a deep tactical experience that’s immensely satisfying once you get to grips with its layers upon layers of systems. It also includes multiple options to vary the difficulty, so newer players don’t feel overly punished by making mistakes, whilst strategy aficionados can dial up the challenge to match their ability.