Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion

This is a review of Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion by someone who didn’t care for the original Gloomhaven.

Let’s step back a bit.

Gloomhaven was published in 2017. It created a bit of a stir. At $140, it was among the most expensive board games published (though that price point has been exceeded since then). It came in a big box with hundreds of components. The basic idea was “dungeon crawl in a box”: a co-op game in which you sent characters on adventures to gain loot and skills.

At a gaming party, an acquaintance brought a copy and I played a sample game. I didn’t like it:

  • The game had lots of aspects that I found hard to grasp all at once: elements, multiple decks of cards, character goals, scenario goals (the last two were not the same), blessings and curses that didn’t affect you but one of your decks.
  • In particular, the way the owner of the game explained it, it seemed like attacking anything was risky because of the combat deck. I didn’t know what to do with my character.
  • By the time I grasped that a character’s activity deck was the “clock” of the game, it was already 2/3rds over. The party succeeded in the scenario, but it wasn’t because I contributed anything.
  • It seemed like a substitute for a “real” D&D game. With all the overhead, why not just play an actual tabletop RPG instead of carrying around a massive $140 box?

Fast-forward to 2020. I find myself with a lot of pandemic-induced free time on my hands. In July Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion was published. It got extremely positive reviews. When I learned it could be played solo, and could be purchased for less than $50, I thought I’d give it a try.

The chief virtue of Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion for someone like me is that the first five scenarios are structured to teach the game. The first game teaches the basics of the activity and combat decks, the second introduces the idea of “rests”, and so on. By the end of the fifth scenario, I felt comfortable with the general flow of the game.

The game comes with four characters, and so can be played with up to four people. For a solo game, the rules suggest that you control two characters. I chose the Voidwalker (healing, curses, blessings, control) and the Red Guard (defense and healing); in standard fantasy-gaming terms, a healer and a tank. I chose those two because the reviewers I saw always demonstrated the Demolitionist (remove annoying fingerprints from walls; remove annoying walls from fingerprints!) and the Hatchet (ranged DPS). Given the difficulty I had with some of the later scenarios, I may have made a mistake approaching the game with the two lowest-damage characters.

After the first five scenarios, the game became the Gloomhaven I remembered, only this time I understood what was going on. The purpose of the activity deck was let you know actions you could perform, and to force you to go through the scenario at a constant pace; resting caused your activity deck to decrease in size, and once it’s gone, your character is exhausted and out of the game. The combat deck varies the result of an attack; it’s not much different from rolling a D20 when attacking in D&D. (To make it clear: there are no dice in Gloomhaven; the randomness all comes from card draws.) The elements help you create combos between your activity cards.

Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion comes with twenty-five scenarios (compared to Gloomhaven‘s hundred or so), but you don’t play all of them to get through the campaign’s story. You make decisions about which adventures you wish to pursue, which locks out other areas of the game’s map. I played fourteen scenarios (including the initial five training ones) to get to the end. I uncovered three more optional scenarios that I decided not to play.

Now that I understand Gloomhaven, the question remains: Did I enjoy it? Sort of:

  • I played the game in “easy mode.” As your characters gain level, the game recommends you also increase the level of enemies. I chose to accept lower rewards and played with the monsters at level 1 even as my characters went up to level 5. Even so, there were a couple of scenarios that I barely got through. I knew the rules, but there was some strategy that I never grasped.
  • The setup for Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion is easier than that of Gloomhaven; the game maps are in the scenario book itself. Even so, set-up and break-down time was considerable. There were many decks to shuffle, lots of monster cardboard figures to put into (and remove from) plastic bases; tokens to be sorted, and so on.
  • Even excluding the set-up/break-down overhead, my solo games took a long time. I learned to allow a minimum of 3-4 hours for each game. I just completed my shortest game before writing this review (the final campaign scenario) and that took only two-and-a-half hours. If I had played with other people, I think each game would have taken even longer; players can do some things simultaneously (e.g., selecting their actions for the next round) but adjudicating the results of those actions would scale with the number of players.
  • The story was OK, but it’s no Tainted Grail. The last third of the game I felt more like “let’s get through this” as opposed to “I want to see what happens next!”

My verdict: If I were with a group of friends and they wanted to play Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion or the original Gloomhaven, I would join them. I know the game now, and I think I could contribute something. But given a choice, there are other “D&D-without-a-DM substitutes” out there that I’d rather play; Mage Knight for example. I feel no incentive to rush out and purchase Gloomhaven at its currently discounted price of $100. Given the game’s reputation, I hoped to enjoy Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion more than I did.

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