I played my second game of Gloomhaven last night. The first game I played a few weeks ago we eked out a victory over the forces of evil by the tiniest of margins - it all came down to a 10% chance of victory on the final roll. Last night was the opposite experience. We smashed the dungeon easily and wasted lots of resources at the end trying to vacuum up loot while disrespecting the last couple of enemies.
This scenario introduced us to boss mechanics and overall I quite like them. At first reading the rules seemed to suggest that the boss would attack us and use both of his special abilities every round. We couldn't see any possible way to win against that setup because one of the boss' abilities was to summon about 10 health of creatures, the other was to attack us with 20-30 health of creatures, and then he still had his attack. We can't possibly beat that much health since we only usually output about 15 damage a round.
But after looking at the cards we hadn't flipped over yet we realized that the boss does only one of those things each round. This is still a really scary enemy, but only facing one attack or ability every round made the fight seem possible instead of ludicrous.
It turned out to be far easier than that. We cleaned up the dangerous monsters quickly and then blew the boss up. Massacreing all the remaining enemies turned out to be a trivial affair and then the only trick was trying to collect every treasure in the game before somebody killed the last enemy for experience and we ended up leaving only a single treasure token in the dungeon. Much profit!
This left me wondering why this scenario was so much easier than the last one. There are a few reasons for sure, and one of the biggest is that in our first outing we cheated a lot... in favour of the monsters. When we flipped over their action cards we had them always attack and move in addition to whatever the card said, but they aren't supposed to do that. When the monsters get extra moves and attacks for no reason the scenarios suddenly seem a lot rougher!
In our defence Gloomhaven has a *lot* of rules.
We also played a lot better. We used our elemental bonuses effectively and combined our attacks in powerful ways. We also stopped wasting our cards on Lost abilities early and took it easy, which really helped us have the time we needed at the end of the game. Funnily enough I was actually playing too cautiously because I had a battle goal to only have 3 cards left in my deck by the end of the game and I nearly missed it. I had to throw away multiple cards for no benefit at all in order to get my hand size down enough on the final turn.
I wonder now how the first scenario would have gone if we went back and redid it with our newfound expertise and understanding of the rules. Would it still be hard, or would we just clean the place out easily? I suspect the second, but I don't know for sure.
One thing that I found interesting was that even when we were absolutely certain of victory there was still lots of tension in our choices. Everyone was trying to maximize their experience and gold gain so even when the only enemy left was a slow melee enemy that was ineffectually wandering towards us we still were thinking hard. I do like that about the game. It would be easy to make this sort of game work like DnD does, which is that when a fight goes well in the early going the last half of the fight is a boring slog towards inevitable victory. You know you will win, you just have to beat through all of the hitpoints the enemies have remaining.
Gloomhaven doesn't allow that, long, irrelevant grind to occur. You are going to run out of cards, and as the fight comes to a close everyone is in a mad scramble to use all of their high experience cards and grab loot, which often means that you are playing badly and risking losing it all. Having multiple dimensions of success (victory, loot, XP, battle goals) means that no matter how well the run is going you still really want to think about how you will play and the choices matter. I like that a lot. This means that Gloomhaven is still a blast whether or not you are getting your asses kicked, having a tight encounter, or just steamrolling on through.
The game is ridiculous in many ways. The amount of stuff you keep track of is hilarious. But the core mechanics are really excellent and the game is delivering on tactical fun in a way that is rare. Games with this much fluff rarely have such satisfying crunch. I approve.