And inevitably there are two camps that answer.
Pro-GH: It’s the awesomest, amazingest best game ever. There’s a reason it’s #1 on BGG!
Anti-GH: Oh God. It’s soooo over-hyped and overrated. It’s just a boring/grindy RPG wanna-be card game.
Ok, perhaps a bit of hyperbole there, but the truth, as always, lies somewhere in between. I don’t usually write about board games, but this game in particular is RPG adjacent and I find these discussions on social media do very little to help the potential buyer know whether they might like it or not, so I’m adding my (hopefully) more measured response to the discussion.
So the question I answer is really “Given my game preferences, will I like Gloomhaven?”
You probably are already passing familiar with the game if you are reading this post, so I’ll not recap everything that every other reviewer has already said.
- It’s a dungeon crawler, with a heavy story component.
- It uses cards as a combat mechanic. Each card has a top and bottom action. You pick a top and bottom action (two cards) for each turn.
- Your card hand slowly dwindles, so the hand also acts as a timer to “solve” the encounter.
- Winning or losing scenarios will unlock other scenarios / side quests in the storyline, as can “Road” or “City” encounters that occur in between dungeon scenarios.
Why You Might Like It
It drips theme. The RPG elements just ooze out from the story, like when you are eating one of those BBQ sandwiches with too much sauce, but it’s so yummy, you don’t even mind that your hands are all wet and sticky.
It’s a resource management puzzle. As noted, the card combat acts as a timer because you lose cards out of your hand as you fight. The most powerful combat powers are one-time use and become unrecoverable during the scenario. This can make the scenario really tense toward the end when you are not sure the party has enough cards left to defeat the boss monster.
The combat feels pretty dynamic. Since you are not supposed to share exactly what you are doing with your turn, the situation may be different than expected when you initiative comes up… but you can change which top and bottom powers you decide to play from the two cards you have selected. Despite somewhat limited options, you rarely feel like you have wasted a turn’s actions. Every combat turn feels important.
For a cooperative game, it minimizes alpha player control. Because you are not supposed to share your exact action and initiative, the alpha players cannot direct the group. Each player is also focused on their own character’s powers.
It has lovely components. While the miniatures aren’t terribly dynamic in their poses, the game is still beautiful. Battle map tiles, an extraordinary region map board, lovely artwork on the monster tokens... Taken together, the aesthetic is remarkable. The miniatures may actually be one of the weaker aspects, but they are still half decent.
There are one hundred scenarios that will create anywhere from 200 to 400 hours of gameplay. I’ve read accounts of people on their second or even third play through despite knowing many of the spoilers for the campaign scenarios.
Why You Might Not Like It
For some, the combat feels “too samey” from scenario to scenario. Your character has the same set of action cards, adding only one new one per level gained. Some players have complained about what they perceive as limited options. This is the make-or-break mechanic for most people.
Many like the resource management puzzle, while others feel this limits the fun powers that can be used in combat, since those are often the ones that get “lost” (discarded from play for that scenario when used). You will either like the resource management combat, or hate it. There doesn’t appear to be a middle ground for this part of the game mechanics, and that appears to be the deciding factor for most that do not like the game.
It can feel a bit like a grind to level up. Because you only get new cards when you level up, or get other minor combat benefits when you you complete Battle Goal cards, it can take a number of hours of gameplay to improve your character. If you play the loot rules as written (no sharing), cash (and therefore, equipment) can be another scarce resource. This can make progress excruciating for some players which can exacerbate the “samey” aspect of the combat.
It’s not an RPG. Despite the RPG elements, it’s still a dungeon crawling board game, with a heavy resource management aspect. Some players expect it to scratch the RPG itch. It’s a very good GM-less game simulator, and I think it does a better job than the Dragonfire or Pathfinder Adventure Card Game (both good games in their own right) in creating an RPG-adjacent experience, but it’s not going to be the same as playing a true RPG with a game master.
Analysis paralysis is a thing. If your group has a lot of AP players, you will have to put a time limit on selecting turn actions. This is both good and bad. Every decision feels super important, which is why resource management fans will like it, but this can really slow the game down if you let it.
It starts out a little slow. The first few scenarios don’t really give you the complete feel for the long game, and may fail to "hook" you in. It improves over time as you unlock more content and character abilities. This can be seen as a con, but the legacy aspects are a feature for many.
Is it over hyped? I think I can honestly say “No” because the people who like Gloomhaven appear to love it with a passion. It is not a game for everyone, but I think it would be hard to claim it’s over-rated given its wide appeal and overall popularity. It may not be to your liking, and that is perfectly acceptable... but calling it "over-rated" is a poor critique since it does not address any specific issue with the game play itself.
Unlike flops like Seafall where the experience truly fell short of the hype, Gloomhaven delivers on its promises. It jumped to #1 on Board Game Geek not just because it has a “cult of new” phenomena, but because fans are truly sold on the game play and experience. BGG ratings are not always straightforward since the rating system can be gamed (and often is). However, Gloomhaven has a broad appeal since parts of it cater to the resource manager / puzzle gamer, while other parts cater to the story and theme gamer.
Even if you don’t like it, one has to admit that Cephalofair has a massive hit on its hands. The first Kickstarter sold extraordinarily well for a new game publisher. The reprint Kickstarter sold 10 times the original Kickstarter and appears to be doing well at retail. Reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, and when people don’t like it, it’s often more a matter of personal taste rather than any significant issues with the game mechanics. Given that the game has 100 scenarios lasting at least 2 hours each, even at the $150 retail price, the dollar-per-hour entertainment ratio is amazing.
For me, it was a slow starter. I wasn’t immediately sold on the combat mechanics, and I had a bit of a challenge figuring out the best way to play my character. However, after the first few scenarios, I still wanted to play more. Each time I finish a scenario, I want to schedule a time for my group to get together for the next one. I am excited to unlock more content and place the little stickers on the map, and I want to level up my character to unlock more combat cards. While it’s not an RPG, it does give a similar sense of anticipation at how the storyline will unfurl which appeals to the role-player in me. In that sense, you could say I'm hooked, even if it isn't necessarily my all-time favorite game.