I played Gloomhaven for the first time last night. This game is kind of absurd - any board game that clocks in at 2500 pieces obviously is going for it, and Gloomhaven doesn't hold back. It is a Legacy game where you mark up the board and pieces as you play, which honestly makes the game so much better. Tracking things without worrying about mucking up the game is so easy!
The theme of the game is right up my alley too. Adventurers wander into dungeons and have a tough tactical battle against a variety of monsters. I like that we are playing what feels like a dungeon crawl DnD game but it doesn't require a GM. Also because it isn't actually roleplaying I can feel free to just twink out as hard as possible.
Our first run through was rough. Not a surprise there, because a game with 2500 pieces also has a truckload of rules. Thankfully the group was prepared and composed entirely of gamers that are quick to master complex rulesets so it was smooth, though not exactly swift.
The idea behind the game is that it is tight on time. You start off with a hand of cards that represent combat moves and you must play 2 per turn. When you run out of cards you remove one from the game and reload with the rest. When you only have 1 card left in your deck, you are out of the scenario. The decisions to make with regards to managing your deck get complicated quick because you can toss cards out of the game for other reasons, like activating a really powerful move or preventing a nasty hit. There is no stopping - every round you must play 2 cards and this pushes you inevitably closer to the point where you run out of cards and lose - so you must keep pushing on recklessly each round. Standing around searching rooms or resting is not an option.
Our first run looked like it was going well at the beginning but when we opened the door to the final room things went disastrously. I was the tank and was full on health with a total pool of 12. The monsters took a turn and they knocked me down to 1 health and even then I had to pitch a card to prevent the killing blow. I had no reasonable way to heal up so I just burned all of my remaining cards for powerful attacks, killed one enemy, wounded another two, and then was shot full of arrows and died.
Through a series of lucky rolls my companions managed to defeat the remaining monsters, but the final blow was dealt on the last turn of the game before the last player was about to run out of cards and lose. It was *tight*.
That makes it seem like the game is difficult and dicey, hard to win. I don't think that is actually the case. We were wasteful at the beginning of the scenario, burning many of our best cards for power moves in the early going. That led to disaster at the end when we realized we had no time for tactics or positioning because we were all about to die from losing our decks. (Well, *I* wasn't about to die, I had lots of deck left, but my companions were all tapped out so me having a deck left wasn't much good to anyone.) If we had played better at the beginning and just used a few less effects that toss away cards we would have had an extra four rounds at the end and that would have made the final battle no problem. We played well for first timers, but practice and knowledge of each other's abilities really matters.
One strange thing about the gameplay is that treasure falls out of monsters as they die and you have to grab it as you go. When the final player dies or the final monster dies the scenario ends and any treasure still on the ground vanishes. This creates some really weird pressure where players try to go out of their way to scoop up treasure with the limited actions they have. If we had finished the game more efficiently and had a couple turns we could have left one dork alive and vacuumed up all the treasure while healing through its attacks. Instead we watched as the game ended and half the loot still sat there on the floor.
I was concerned about this treasure system when I first looked at it but it was fun. There are a huge number of competing priorities in Gloomhaven and figuring out how important each one is ends up being most of the game. How many cards do you need? How many turns do you have? Can you grab that treasure or not? Since you gain XP through card usage, do you use cards for XP or for maximum effectiveness? And in addition to this you have to manage all the normal fantasy battle considerations like positioning, hit points, healing, debuffs, line of sight, etc.
I don't know what I will think of the game after I have played it a lot. I can say though I really enjoyed it from the outset and I am looking forward to playing it many more times as our characters grow stronger and try new things. I want to figure out how all the cool new stuff works and see all the scenarios and buy all the items!
I don't know that Gloomhaven is a 'balanced' game. There were certainly some things in the game that made me cock an eyebrow and wonder aloud if anyone making the game had access to a calculator. But coop games don't have to be perfectly balanced, and since we nearly lost I can certainly say that our ability to min/max is going to be challenged.
If you are a casual gamer who likes to dabble, don't even look at Gloomhaven. It is a monster of a game in terms of cost, storage, rules, and committment. However, if you are a hardcore gamer who wants to devote 100 hours to a single board game and you like the dungeon crawl thing, Gloomhaven seems like an absolute blast so far.