Award-winning tabletop RPG Gloomhaven is making the leap from boardgame to digital. After two years of meticulous planning and updating all while taking community feedback into account, it will finally be leaving Steam’s Early Access program and fully launch October 20th. While I haven’t been involved in the tabletop community since the days of AD&D Second Edition, I never lost my love for the experience so I keep an eye out for games with tabletop roots such as Gloomhaven. My main criteria for these types of titles are engaging storytelling and challenging gameplay that makes you think instead of rushing in all nimbly-bimbly, swinging a pair of your favorite mythical sword-chucks while hoping to power your way through.
Tactical RPG. You hear the phrase quite often, but I would say that half the games that use that genre classification are barely worthy of the title. That isn’t the case with Gloomhaven. Turn-based tactical battles with a hexagonal-shaped movement grid and a card-based combat system featuring hundreds of unique cards are what you’ll be working with if you choose to take up the life of a mercenary in this deadly world. Only careful, strategic planning will get you past the first encounter and only the most determined strategists will make it through to the end. Before you can get to that, you need to decide whether you’re going to play the faithfully recreated campaign mode native to the board game or the new Guildmaster mode, which was masterfully tweaked over the course of the two-year Early Access period. Either way, you’re in for a long journey because between the two modes you’re looking at 200+ hours of gameplay spread across somewhere around 250 missions.
Your best bet is to start with Guildmaster mode. Campaign mode throws you right into the thick of it with very little explanation of the mechanics. On the other hand, Guildmaster mode is much friendlier to new players, starting off with excellent tutorial missions that focus on each of the starting six mercenaries, giving you a glimpse into their abilities and potential synergies. Gloomhaven features a total of 17 different mercenaries, and since each one has their own special deck of cards, it makes every one of them feel truly unique. You can have up to four mercs in your party at a time but the number of enemies scales upwards based on the number of companions, so you won’t be able to overwhelm them with sheer numbers. Your main goal is to take on jobs and open up trade routes, which also unlocks new gear and items to purchase. Money is hard to come by and gear gives you minimal advantages so the focus remains on strategic use and solid tactics.
After dozens of hours, I can say Gloomhaven’s combat is the pinnacle of tactical strategy. I’ll try to explain as simply as I can. Your actions are based on the cards in your merc’s hand (which is around 10 cards: it varies by character). At the start of every round, each mercenary MUST choose two cards to play. Turn order is determined by the initiative number on the corner of each card and the initiative value of the first card chosen is the value used. Every card is made up of two halves, and each half contains a special ability which can be anything like a simple move x amount of spaces or attack 3 damage and push 2. So in theory, your characters have four abilities to choose from each round, but there’s a catch: once you’ve chosen an action from the first card, you’re locked into using the opposite half of the second card for your other action. It’s something to take into careful consideration when selecting your two cards. It’s also worth noting that if you find yourself in a situation where your card isn’t as useful as you thought it would be, you can make a basic two damage attack or two-space move, depending on which half you’re left with. All used cards are sent to the discard pile at the end of the round.
One of your biggest (re: deadliest) concerns should be the card-burning system. When you don’t have enough cards left to draw two, your merc must take a rest to redraw the discard pile. The short and long rest options each have their own pros and cons, but regardless you’ll need to burn a card from your discard pile to do so. A burned card is unusable for the rest of the battle and if you can’t draw two cards, the merc dies. Some of the most powerful abilities are burned on use and should be used carefully and if you’re really in a pickle, you can burn a card to negate the damage from an enemy attack. This system lends a sense of urgency that helps to spur on the player since burning up your cards leads to certain death. The risk to reward ratio is something you will be considering quite a lot; is it really worth it to be greedy and pick up all the gold slain enemies drop and potentially run out of cards due to wasted movement? Or maybe you don’t want to rush into that group of undead, but can you afford to hang back and let them slowly come to you? You’re the guild leader so it’s your call.
Even choosing your party requires a bit of thoughtful planning. You can form a party of up to four mercenaries, although having a full four means that you will be contending with many more foes so it’s best to begin with a party of two because Gloomhaven makes team synergy a critical factor. Knowing how to use complementary allies to their maximum capabilities is the best course of action before taking on more mercs. Just by using the Scoundrel and the Mindthief to their full potential, I was able to use some vicious combos that involved the Mindthief possessing an enemy to walk them right into a floor trap and setting them up for the Scoundrel to dish out devastating damage by taking advantage of her backstab and invisibility specials. You may feel a bit overwhelmed at first but it is incredibly satisfying once you overcome your hang-ups and can easily clear a room. If you still find yourself having trouble, maybe try finding some experienced players to join up within the online multiplayer co-op mode. The entire game supports online co-op with up to four players, so that covers the social aspect of the tabletop version quite nicely.
In the words of Ron Popeil, BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE! Even though the combat focuses on strategic thinking and maneuvering, deck damage modifiers lend a bit of randomized chaos to your encounters. Any time a direct attack is made, a damage modifier is drawn from the deck of the assailant. Each deck is made up of a number of -2 to +2 damage modifiers, along with modifiers that can either double or negate all damage. When a merc levels up and earns a perk point, you can use it to make adjustments to your modifier deck. You can use the chance to try and get rid of some of those pesky damage reducers, or maybe play it risky by adding more double damage at the expense of also gaining extra negate damage mods. There is also a slew of choices that can add status effects to certain modifiers, such as poison or freeze. I personally like to get rid of as many negative modifiers as I can so I leave less to chance and put out consistent damage.
So the nagging question is: does the digital version of Gloomhaven live up to its famed counterpart? I would say thanks to the inclusion of the full original campaign and the shiny new Guildmaster mode; it goes above and beyond all expectations and sets a pretty high bar for tabletop-to-digital games to follow.
*Note: A copy of the game was provided for the purpose of the review.
Final Score: 9/10
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