Gloomhaven started its existence as a board game, and a damn good one at that - receiving multiple game of the year awards back in 2017 and 2018. When the work began to translate that success to the video screen, great care was taken to faithfully represent the rules and interactions from the table top into the new medium. It shows. Between house rules, the card system, and other details I very much feel like I am sitting around a table top playing turns of a board game. The problem is: board games never are much fun when you're playing by yourself.
I think that cuts right to the chase of the Gloomhaven experience for me: I get that I'm playing a board game, I just don't like it all that much. The rules and interactions make perfect sense when trying to balance out a card based system with physical playing pieces, but I don't need to be bound by the restraints of the physical world while playing in a digital medium. This is the exact same problem I had years back with Magic: The Gathering Arena when searching desperately for a CCG to fill a void in my life. Rules that makes sense when you're dealing with immutable objects like playing cards or game pieces just feel overly restrictive when used in the same manner in a video game.
For example: why do I have to use a card to move? Why can't I just have a movement stat. Every other dungeon crawler will just make movement a part of the character or enemy profile but not here, why? It's because in the board game all actions are tied to cards and that facet is faithfully recreated here. And I get that this does add a layer of depth in strategy, but this ends up feeling more tedious than intellectual. It's true, sometimes you need to think two or more moves ahead to balance your turn with future actions given the scarcity of playable actions in your deck; but it feels forced and artificial. It feels more resource management than a chess match.
I want to collect some gold from slain foes but need to burn through movement cards just to get to the position and pick up the loot lest the encounter ends and anything I'm not standing on is left behind uncollected. There might be "strategy" and "resource management" in that, but where is the "fun" or even "suspension of disbelief." Like a bunch of dungeon raiders are going to just leave loot behind because "couldn't fit it in the available turns, mate." It's made worse by the imbalance in the card makeup. Each card contains two actions. Every round you pick two cards but can only use one of the two actions on each. Yet each card does not contain a balance of a move and attack. They somewhat follow that pattern, but don't stick to it which can lead to turns and actions wasted because you're all out of moves when your inventory of steps were already discarded by earlier necessity.
I don't need to go into detail about how to play the game because 1) it's a board game and detailing it would be exhausting but more importantly 2.) there is a decent tutorial to walk you through the paces. The tutorial even makes up the opening levels of the campaign mode so it's hard to miss. It is an excellent tutorial... well until it isn't anymore. It starts strong but I had to ditch it when it seemed to bug out on me with an impossible win condition scenario. Basically, it instructs me to pick these two card actions (cast a spell and jump to safety) and I do so, but then picking those two cards gives the initiative to the enemies and they kill me before I can actually execute my winning actions. Initially I couldn't solve the riddle of "do what I tell you but if you do you will die" and was running out of steam so I just moved on to free play.
I did go back and realized I can cast the spell with another action to gain initiative and the spell will immobilize the enemies, but then I failed the step anyway because I didn't know how to enchant the spell with an ice element and couldn't find any instructions on screen or otherwise with how to do that. So it did a great job to that point of introducing elements and leading me into the gameplay before shoving my face against the brick wall repeatedly: do what I say but not how I say it, and don't forget to do this thing; I'm not going to tell you how to do it. And that's where the real rub of the turn based tutorial comes in: if you make a mistake, you have to play through the entire rest of the round before reloading the scenario. There's no backspace, or undo button. You have to see through all the rest of the actions and animations for your character and the opponents before finally getting to the failure of the win condition and resetting.
There were other very noticeable quality issues (clipping assets, terrible sound quality, constant load errors that appeared to actually be false positives) in the pre-release build I started on, however I did not recognize any of those bugs after the release day patch. So the game that is available for public consumption seems much more stable than my initial review copy and I didn't notice any issues in playing after launch. They also do a very good job of treating console players as first class citizens. Rather than a lazy port of mouse and keyboard as many other games often fall flat with, every action in Gloomhaven is carefully mapped to a button and the indications of those buttons are clearly presented in the UI. It might be a questionable call to map X to both the select action (short press) and end turn (long press), which more often than not made the short press selections inconsistent, but otherwise a commendable effort was made here. They faithfully recreate the board game on the console and take care to make the console experience natural. I did notice one tutorial message reference the "Tab key", but hey, otherwise a great execution.
If I had to boil Gloomhaven down to a word it would be: tedious. There actually is a pretty good dungeon crawler hidden in here even if the character models are not my cup of tea. Seriously, with the Tinkerer class?! Ugliest looking c-rate DC villain wannabe... There is depth in the game through the characters, card/action play, environments, initiative, and more. It is a decent video game; and makes clear that the board game must be simply incredible. What gets lost in the translation is that the point of a board game is often not what's even happening on the board but the interactions with family and friends around it. Board games don't suffer nearly as much when bogged down in turns and slow play. Players find themselves engaged and even loving it because they are in constant interaction with each other or deep in thought prepping strategy for when their next turn comes into rotation. But when you're one dude going through the same motions alone with a TV screen, it is so far from that communal or even strategic experience.
I'm sure sitting around a table top for Gloomhaven is awesome. This game makes that clear. But committing to doing the same campaign alone on a video screen makes me want to reach for some other game in the genre with less restrictive rules that embrace the freedom of programming and mutability. Gloomhaven ends up an overall experience that is less than the sum of its parts. If you're really into dungeon crawlers or really into Gloomhaven, there might be something really special here for you. Especially if the latter as the Guildmaster mode adds a ton of new challenges. But if you're not a die-hard for either, it just seems like there are better alternatives out there for you.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
First picked up a game controller when my mother bought an Atari 2600 for my brother and I one fateful Christmas.
Now I'm a Software Developer in my day job who is happy to be a part of the Gaming Nexus team so I can have at least a flimsy excuse for my wife as to why I need to get those 15 more minutes of game time in...