Session Report is a monthly series that explores the intersection of narrative and broader themes of game design by focusing on a specific tabletop game each month. This month’s game is:
Warning: To fully convey the experience of Gloomhaven, this review contains mild spoilers.
In terms of transformative potential, shaping the adult you will become, experiences you have in middle school are among the most powerful in your life. A while ago, NPR radio show This American Life aired an interview with reporter and education writer Linda Perlstein, who shared the fruits of her research into the developing middle school brain:
But your brain, your gray matter– during the middle school years, what happens in your early stages of puberty is this fast overproduction of brain cells and connections, far more than you actually need. And only some of them are going to survive puberty. … The cells just fight it out for survival. And the ones that last are the ones you exercise more.
Things you learn at that age have a profound and lasting effect on your adult psyche. They are, according to Perlstein, “embossed in your existence.”
Sometime in middle school, which I knew as junior high, I received a Sony PlayStation, the first video game console that was actually mine, not shared with my older brother. It came with a Crystal Dynamics title called Pandemonium. There’s a moment in the first level in which the camera, hitherto tethered to a spot slightly above the player character’s right temple, begins to snake around the trunk of a giant redwood, following the PC (either a cartwheeling jester or a double-jumping acrobat) as they bounce ever higher on floating, strangely elastic watermelons. I was floored. I felt freed, as if I, myself, had learned to fly. Years later, losing my virginity would pale in comparison to the ecstasy I felt in that moment.
One year later, I had another epiphany. I had purchased a game on a whim after seeing an intriguing jewel case at Fry’s Electronics. Against a stark white background, a spiky-haired hero stands before some sort of industrial structure rendered in grayscale. The hero has his back to the viewer and one hand on the hilt of a truly massive sword, prepared to do battle at any moment. What really captured my adolescent psyche, however, was the hero’s spiky blond hair. Nothing said “cool” like spiky hair, except possibly names like Zak or Max, futuristic syllables decorated with letters from the exotic end of the alphabet. I was a big fan of Mighty Max, which I knew as a line of toys shaped like monstrous faces that unfolded, Polly Pocket-style, into adventurous “Doom Zones.”
I would later discover that this character (who also had eminently cool riveted shoulder guards) was Cloud Strife, a member of an environmentalist terrorist organization called Avalanche. His mission, and the goal of the game as far as I was concerned, was to infiltrate and destroy seven Mako reactors around Midgar, a sort of dystopian city bisected by a giant plate, with technocrats and elites above and slum-dwelling proles beneath, trapped in eternal gloom.
The game was Final Fantasy VII, still considered by many to be among the best video games ever made, and it reached me at exactly the right time. Final Fantasy VII’s world, with its stoic red lions, its jive-talking, chainsaw-armed stereotypes, and its impractically proportioned weapons, drew me in. I played it several times that weekend. The first time, I died fighting the scorpion-like robot that defends Reactor 7. The next time, I made it up to Reactor 5. At school on Monday, I told my friends that I might need to buy a memory card to save my progress, but I thought I was pretty close to beating the game. They stared.
“You mean you haven’t even left Midgar yet?”
I was confused. The game was about saving Midgar by blowing up the reactors. Why would I leave it?
I’d had a few run-ins with RPGs before in the form of Dragon Warrior on the NES and Shining in the Darkness on the Sega Genesis, but nothing I’d played had prepared me for Final Fantasy’s epic brand of storytelling. About five hours in, circumstances would finally force my party of characters to flee the city. My first sight of the world map was humbling. Here was a world far bigger than I’d given it credit for. And so much green! I could feel the blight of the Shinra company in the blasted landscape around the city. In that moment, I empathized completely with the characters, most of whom were leaving the shadow of the plate for the first time. That wide world held a promise I can’t quite put into words. I knew I could see more, accomplish more, in that virtual life, than I ever would in the real world.
Everyone needs to eat.
Whatever your reason for coming to Gloomhaven, out here on the edge of the world, that simple fact is never going to change. A mercenary can’t fight on an empty stomach.
So when Jekserah, a Valrath woman wearing a red cloak and enough gold jewelry to keep you fed for a decade, approaches you in the Sleeping Lion and offers to pay you ten gold coins to track down a thief and retrieve some stolen goods…well, it seems like as good an excuse as any to sober up and start paying off your tab.
At first, there were only two. They met at the Sleeping Lion, a tavern in the frontier town of Gloomhaven. One was a Quatryl machinist, one among dozens of the diminutive race to be found in the city. His name was Quarrel Skirn, and he was a particularly skilled inventor, spending his spare hours brewing elixirs and constructing elaborate traps, mechanical weapons and clockwork golems. The other was a Savvas, cast out from his people due to his inability to master even a single element. His kind were known as craghearts, identified by the scarred, empty pit in their chests where a typical Savvas’ power core would proclaim his elemental affinity. This particular cragheart had muscles the size of boulders beneath his stony skin, which intrigued the Quatryl, a student of anatomy, but he couldn’t get the Savvas to open up about his past or to say much of anything besides “I am Splort.” The cragheart was looking for traces of a lost civilization in the area known as the Lingering Swamp, so they called themselves “Dawnseekers” and made a partnership of it. Splort could flex those fascinating muscles and knock skulls together while Quarrel Skirn set traps, shot neurotoxin darts into chakra points, and handled the negotiations with their clients. It wasn’t the perfect arrangement, but it kept them fed.
Eventually, they would pick up more strays. One was Diadem, a spellweaver of the Orchid race. Unusually aggressive for her kind, she was devoted to a forgotten god, one who measured faith in blood spilled in battle, and she loved nothing more than to fight until her vision went black. Quarrel Skirn considered her the perfect specimen, and for a while, they would go out on jobs together, leaving Splort to warm the barstool with the other new recruit, a Vermling mindthief named Chitterfang. They became embroiled in a plot involving necromancy and other ancient evils. Believing herself the scion of an ancient lineage of demon slayers, Chitterfang was thrilled when Quarrel Skirn returned to Gloomhaven with tales of rime-covered elemental demons encountered in chilly caverns and dank crypts, and she insisted on accompanying the party on their next outing. For a while, then, it was Chitterfang and Diadem, the former using her poisoned daggers and psychic assaults to take down every demon she could find, the latter absorbing the elemental energies they exuded to fuel her reality-altering magicks. They fought all the way up to the Prime Demon’s throne room.
And then, like that, they had moved on, their life goals fulfilled, leaving the founding Dawnseekers to pick up business where they’d left off. More new faces drifted in, a Savvas elementalist named Synj neatly filling the hole left by Diadem (and inspiring just a little envy in Splort) and an Inox berserker, Krom, pointedly not stepping into Chitterfang’s tiny shoes. They had their own goals–the Savvas savant, already a legend among her people, wanted to be immortalized in story and song, while the Inox just wanted to craft the perfect poison–but their time would come later. They’d picked up a few leads in the Lingering Swamp, so Splort and Quarrel Skirn packed their bags and ventured south in search of a lighthouse from another time. And maybe, one day, they would track down that necromancer.
A World in a Box
Gloomhaven is a world in a box. That’s really the only way to describe it. Well, I guess we could ask the designer:
Gloomhaven is a series of tactical combat scenarios that are strung together in a persistent, thematic campaign.
That’s Isaac Childres, Gloomhaven’s audaciously ambitious designer. He also runs Cephalofair Games, which published Gloomhaven and Isaac’s first game, Forge War. As he goes on to explain, Gloomhaven is at its core a series of short dungeon crawls in which characters, controlled by the players, face off against AI-controlled monsters on a hex-based tactical map. That’s 95% of the game, time-wise, and as I’ll describe in a minute, that alone makes Gloomhaven a great game. But the really unprecedented thing about Gloomhaven is all the stuff that goes on between scenarios.
As players interact with the town through events and move along the branching story paths of the world, they will always be working towards completing personal quests. By meeting certain objectives, a player’s character will retire, unlocking a new character class to play with, new events for parties to encounter, and additional perks for the achieving player.
Gloomhaven comes with a world map, a four-fold board that is initially nothing more than a vague sketch of the wilderness surrounding Gloomhaven. As players unlock new scenarios, they will affix stickers to numbered circles on this map, splashes of color and detail gradually blooming across the landscape. And as they gain experience and gold from scenarios, characters must periodically return to Gloomhaven to level up, unlocking new abilities and perks, and spend their coin on items from the bazaar or blessings from the Sanctuary of the Great Oak. All this gold increases the town’s prosperity, adding to the shopkeepers’ stock, which can also be expanded using designs found in crypts and dungeons. At higher levels, players can buy enhancements for their characters’ ability cards, permanently altering their attributes with special stickers. Events in town or on the road flesh out the setting and give players an opportunity to shape the world in subtle ways, while big choices are reflected in the global achievement banners that close off or open up story branches. All told, there are just shy of 100 scenarios, plus components to create randomized encounters; 17 wildly different character classes to bring to 9th level and max out with 15 perks each; 150 events to experience; 253 items to buy and equip; 34 varieties of monster to vanquish (plus 13 bosses); and, oh yeah, a decoder sheet so you can translate hidden runic messages.
None of which would matter, frankly, if the core gameplay wasn’t good. You have to be pretty confident in your design to throw all of that into one box. It has to be the second coming of Mage Knight to be worth the time investment, not to mention the $100+ price tag.
Gloomhaven is worth it. It’s the second coming of Mage Knight. Strip away the blinding promise of all that content, and you’re left with a deftly designed, luck-minimal dungeon crawl that fixes nearly all the problems of the genre. It’s that good.
Did I mention that this is Isaac’s second game? As I said, audaciously ambitious.
So yes, Gloomhaven is a world in a box. A 20-pound, 8”x12”x16” box of unadulterated discovery.
A Tale of Two Actions
So we essentially have two games here. There’s the scenario-level game, in which characters move around a map fighting monsters, and there’s the campaign-level game, in which all that other stuff happens.
One thing I like about Final Fantasy is that the combat doesn’t get in the way. It tends to be simple, quick, and relatively easy. This works because I play Final Fantasy for the story first, the exploration second, and the combat last. If I am forced to die and restart, I’m not progressing the storyline.
That same approach wouldn’t work with Gloomhaven because a board game lacks the distracting elements like environment design, music and sound that make even boring gameplay viscerally pleasing. Furthermore, the scenario-level game makes up 95% of the Gloomhaven experience, so it had better be good.
There are two problems with traditional dungeon crawl games: they’re too repetitive, and they’re too random. Both of these feed into the same larger issue, which is that the decisions players make feel insignificant. They’re insignificant because players generally have only a small list of repeatable actions to select from, and they’re insignificant because the roll of the dice plays a far greater role in your success or failure than any individual tactical choice.
Gloomhaven has no dice and no pool of repeatable actions. Instead, players have a small deck of ability cards particular to the class they have selected. Each ability card has a top action and a bottom action, and each player must choose two to play each round. This decision has numerous repercussions. For one thing, the player’s “leading card” determines their placement in initiative order, when they will get to act in a round. Monsters get their own initiative from a deck of AI cards specific to that enemy. When a player’s turn comes around, they must select one of the two cards to play for its top action, which usually involves attacking, and they must play the other card for its bottom action, which often involves movement.
Some powerful abilities are lost when played, which means (typically) they are gone for the rest of the scenario, and the others are discarded. To play that card again, players will need to return their discards to hand by performing a rest–but this always results in one of the returned cards becoming lost. In this way, characters see their options dwindle as the scenario goes on, and as more cards are lost, rests become more frequent. When a character does not have enough cards left to either play or rest, that character becomes exhausted, knocked out of the scenario. Typically, the goal is to defeat all monsters before this happens for every character.
There’s a lot more depth here than I have time to explain. Suffice it to say that the decisions in Gloomhaven are non-trivial. In fact, they can be excruciating. Abilities are varied, both between and within classes–there are no repeated cards–and choosing when to play what becomes a delicious puzzle.
That puzzle only gets better when characters level up. Some actions, particularly the lost ones, grant XP when played, and characters can also get XP from successfully completing scenarios. When a character surpasses an XP threshold, they get to level up next time they’re in Gloomhaven. This means selecting a new ability card from their class-specific deck to add to their pool of available actions. You can choose any ability at your level or lower, but most of the time, you’ll want to get the highest-level card you can. Since there are two cards for each level, this functions like a simple skill tree, with players gradually shaping the character’s playstyle based on the cards they pick. But it adds another excruciating decision to the game: because each character can only take a certain number of ability cards into a scenario, adding a powerful new card means swapping out one of the existing ones. Choosing a mix of cards that works together and fits the goal of the scenario is not easy, but it is rewarding.
Leveling up also allows players to gain perks for their character’s attack modifier deck, which is Gloomhaven‘s answer to dice. Instead of rolling to calculate damage, both players and monsters do a specific amount of damage based on the attack action chosen, which is then modified up or down by a card drawn from the attack modifier deck. Most of the cards range from -2 to +2, but there is also a powerful 2x card, which doubles the base damage, and a terrible, awful “null” card, which completely negates the damage of the attack. Perks allow a player to tweak their character’s personal deck in many ways, such as adding stronger card, removing weaker ones, or putting in attack modifiers that include status effects or elemental infusions. Again, these are all class-specific, so playing an Inox brute will deliver a significantly different experience than playing a human scoundrel.
A Lifestyle Game
A pillar of the Final Fantasy series and the JRPG genre as a whole is that the main story takes a long time to complete, generally 10x to 30x the length of a movie. A significant portion of that is non-narrative gameplay, but even wordless exploration and repetitive, turn-based battles count as time spent in the world and foster intimacy with the characters. Turning points like Final Fantasy VII’s infamous murder of the flower girl Aerith carry that much more emotional weight because she has been, by this point, the player’s companion for dozens of hours, even if a mere fraction of that was spent on traditional character development. Side-quests and mini-games stretch these experiences even longer.
I believe that Final Fantasy XII was the first video game in which I broke the 100-hour mark on a single playthrough, but I have probably devoted more of my total life to Final Fantasy VII over the course of a half-dozen plays through its story. If you ever get bored chasing Sephiroth, the game gives you plenty of options: breed chocobos to race or explore tricky areas of the map; play arcade games at the Golden Saucer, a desert casino; try to collect all of the summons and rare materia; complete sidequests to unlock all of the limit breaks and ultimate weapons for each hero; hunt down the Weapons, overpowered bosses that require a fully buffed party and a little luck; or just tootle around in your airship or submarine, seeing what there is to see. I don’t think I’ve ever completed 100% of the challenges in any Final Fantasy, but I’ve ticked off a significant portion of that list.
Gloomhaven doesn’t miss a trick when it comes to sidequesting. Each character begins play with a randomly drawn Personal Quest, which can only be completed over the course of numerous play sessions. Once the Personal Quest is done, that character is retired, unlocking new content for the game. This is the meta-goal for each player to follow, shaping the choices the party makes both in scenarios and outside of them. For instance, my spellweaver’s goal was to become exhausted in combat 12 times, while the tinkerer’s goal was to see his party members become exhausted 15 times. This made them an obvious duo, encouraging me to explore synergies between their ability decks, and it also encouraged me to approach scenarios with the spellweaver in a certain reckless, high-octane fashion. Retiring the spellweaver unlocked a berserker character who has her own personal goal. The mindthief’s goal involved killing demons, so I took her on every scenario that had demons to kill. My cragheart’s Personal Quest is a little deeper: after playing a number of scenarios in a certain part of the world, I’ve unlocked a short quest chain revealing new details of the region’s past.
You can also set your own goals. I knew I wanted to purchase an enhancement for the tinkerer’s deck, which is very expensive, so I was more careful than normal to pick up loot with him for a few sessions and avoided choices in events that seemed like they would lose me money. One particular scenario was giving me trouble due to the amount of ground I needed to cover, so I chose the two characters who would best accomplish this and played through a few other scenarios until I had saved up enough to purchase each of them a pair of Boots of Striding. Finally, there is a sort of “ultimate quest” for each class in the form of 17 class-specific solo scenarios. These truly test your mastery of a certain class and reward you with a neat, class-specific item when you succeed.
The term “lifestyle game” was coined to describe Magic: The Gathering, Warhammer miniatures, and similar time- and money-sinks. The idea was that in order to compete, you would need to remain immersed in the game, studying the metagame and theory when you weren’t busy playing or searching auction sites for the perfect card to complete your deck. And if you couldn’t compete, it wasn’t worth playing. Many active board gamers I know were once Magic players, but it’s rare to find anyone who plays Magic and still finds the time to play other games. It’s not that it’s impossible to play the game casually; Wizards of the Coast has prebuilt decks and various draft formats for this very purpose. But for Magic junkies, if you aren’t spending your waking hours agonizing over a deck of your own construction, why bother? So they put their Magic days behind them and turned to less life-dominating pursuits.
Lifestyle games tend to rely on a collectible format fed by a steady stream of new releases. I would submit that Gloomhaven is a lifestyle game of an entirely new variety. A single large purchase gets you the entire experience. But like Magic, you can’t really be a Gloomhaven player and play other games. For the 100-odd hours your campaign lasts, Gloomhaven consumes your life. Gloomhaven becomes a second life. It’s infeasible to pick it up, play a few games, and put it away for months. It demands the kind of mastery that can only come from intimate familiarity with your characters and their decks, and it constantly teases you with new scenarios on the horizon, new classes to unlock, and all of those tantalizing surprises that await. I currently have Gloomhaven set up on two tables: one for the scenario map, characters and monsters, and another for the campaign-level stuff like the world map, sticker sheets, event cards and items. There’s literally no room in my life for other games. Whenever I consider packing it away, I remember that I’m only a couple of plays away from retiring my tinkerer, or that I can purchase an enhancement if I scrounge together only 10 more gold, or I’m simply stuck on a scenario, strategizing how to tweak my deck and approach to achieve its goal. And so the cycle continues, and Gloomhaven dominates my table for another week.
Telling New Stories
The Final Fantasy “series” isn’t one in the traditional sense. Each game introduces an entirely new world with a new cast of characters facing new obstacles. Continuity exists in the form of motifs that resurface with each installment. There are the obvious ones: chocobos, chicken-like mounts that go “kweh!”; moogles, fluffy bat-winged mole creatures that go “kupo!”; airships that go up; and a pantheon of summons derived from real-world mythology, including the icy Shiva, the fiery Ifrit, and the dragon god Bahamut. Other motifs are thematic, like the conflicts of free will versus fate, industry versus the environment, and moral versus civic duty. Otherwise, though, each installment is a totally new adventure, typically lasting 50 to 80 hours. One of the draws of the series is the chance to immerse oneself in new cultures, uncover new histories, explore new landscapes, meet new races, and see new twists on the old favorites.
I’ve noticed that, while board games can be very clever in their abstraction of familiar ideas and themes, they’re not particularly good at telling new stories. There’s just not enough time. A movie can tell a story in 60 to 90 minutes, but games need to devote about 80% of their resources to non-narrative elements. That’s why there are so many board games about zombies or Hammer horror monsters and so few exploring new concepts. The theme (a gamer term for the narrative elements propping up gameplay) exists primarily as a mnemonic device to help the players absorb and comprehend the rules; having to learn a new set of rules and a new theme places too great a cognitive burden on most players. And board game storytelling is gestural; you want the story to be integrated with the game, not a massive exposition dump. You would need a lot of game, and a dedicated player-base, to attempt Final Fantasy-style worldbuilding in board game form.
Gloomhaven is a lot of game. And blow me if it doesn’t work. The world here is familiar but new. Quatryls are diminutive, good-natured folk with an affinity for free jazz and machines. More than a little gnomish, but I’ve never seen a gnome that looks like this. The Inox are your typical big, dumb beastmen, or are they simply a tribal people exploited by the conquering humans? I could go on, but part of the joy of Gloomhaven is picking up scraps of details about these races and how they function in the fantasy world Childres has created. New information is released slowly as players unlock new classes or scenarios, enhancing the feel of exploration and discovery.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Gloomhaven‘s Town Records Book. This is a sealed booklet that can only be opened once the party has retired their first character. At that point, you’re given a few pages of historical information about the town of Gloomhaven. New chapters of the book become unlocked as the town’s prosperity grows, something that can take dozens of plays to accomplish. Learning more about the setting becomes another meta-goal for the party to collectively chase.
The event cards are a stroke of genius. In function, they are not much different than those found in hundreds of other games. They all have a bit of story text and then present the players with a binary choice. After selecting Option A or B, players flip the card over and read the results. What makes these work is the deliberate pacing. Players may encounter a City Event each time they visit Gloomhaven and must encounter a Road Event on the way to the next scenario. In essence, this means that you will see, at most, one of each card every time you play the game. The vast majority of these are one-and-done affairs; regardless of the party’s choice, the card is permanently removed from the game after being resolved. 150 event cards is not much by the standards of games like Arkham Horror, but in practice, this means you will still be seeing new content, getting little tastes of the setting, for 150 plays through the game.
And then there are the stories that the players themselves tell. Final Fantasy has always let you name your party members, although the ubiquity of voice-acting has seen this tradition fall by the wayside. I don’t recall what name I chose for my first Cloud, but I was never one to name the characters for myself and my friends. Instead, I tried out new names, often random words that accrued layers of connotation as the story developed, names like Orchid, Cutlet and Sylvan. Gloomhaven, likewise, gives players a spot to name their characters, but that’s only the start of what makes each play through Gloomhaven‘s campaign unique. The intersection of Personal Quests, party composition, choices made during character development, campaign branches explored, and the random revelation of events makes each group’s experience of the game deeply personal. I said that Gloomhaven is a world in a box, and I meant it; we each have our own world to explore.