gloomy sunday

I don’t really know what to do now that I’ve watched more-or-less every movie Hugh Grant has ever been in.

Guess it’s time for another board games post!

The game I’m intending to talk about is Gloomhaven. Gloomhaven is a bit different from other games that I’ve reviewed because it’s a kickstarter project, and kickstarted boardgames are often a bit … next level. The armchair economist in me is always interested in the ways that different monetisation strategies and sources of funding can make similar-seeming products wildly different because any product needs to angle itself towards the people who are going to be paying for it. For mass-market products, this tends to lead towards a kind of middle ground—enough of everything to appeal to lots of people, not so much of anything as to put off anybody who doesn’t like that thing. Kickstarter products go pretty much the other way—they’re aiming to appeal to a small number of people all of whom have very specific desires and are willing to drop largeish sums of money on having those desires fulfilled, so kickstarter projects, especially in board gaming, tend to be packed to the gills with stuff.

Case in point: Gloomhaven. This game is so huge that getting it home from the shop I ordered it to was a non-trivial logistical challenge. Which is ironic in a way, because “a non-trivial logistical challenge” is also a pretty good way to describe its core gameplay.

Gloomhaven falls within two distinct popular subgenres and, unlike 93% of the other games I’ve reviewed on this blog, neither of those subgenres is “Lovecraftian”. Rather they are “dungeon crawler” and “legacy game”. Long time readers of this blog might remember the idea of a “legacy game” from my review of Pandemic back in 2016, but for those who are new or who haven’t memorised every single thing I’ve burbled about a nerdy topic in the last two years, a legacy game is a game that is specifically designed to be played once (although often over an extended period of time) and to evolve as it is played into a form unique to the play group. I said in my 2016 post that they looked like being the next big thing in board gaming, and I was sort of right. “Legacy elements” has certainly settled in alongside “RPG elements” and “worker placement” as one of the common features a game might include, and enough games have them now that they feel less like a gimmick and more like a legitimate direction that game design can take. Pandemic: Legacy did well enough to get a second season, and the subgenre has developed now to the point that legacy elements are being built into new games from the ground up, rather than being retrofitted into something called “Existing Board Game: Legacy”.

I haven’t talked about dungeoncrawlers on this blog before. I’ve always vaguely meant to, because I’ve spent a lot of time with games like Descent over the years. In case it’s not obvious from the name, a “dungeoncrawler” is a game in which the players take on the roles of adventurers who go out into Dungeons-and-Dragons style dungeons to fight monsters and get loot. These games range in style from quick card games you can play in under an hour to sprawling, dining-table-swamping, weekend-swallowing campaignable epics like Descent: Road to Legend. Generally, when board games people talk about a dungeoncrawler they’re talking about games in the latter category.

The dungoncrawler in that sense has a fairly long pedigree. Even if we ignore actual D&D (which was itself an evolution of fantasy wargaming), they go back at least to MB Games’ 1989 HeroQuest, which very much established the pattern of up to four adventurers with a mix of martial and magical skills going through a series of linked dungeon crawls, gathering gold that they spend between adventures to upgrade their stuff. There have been variations since—the original Descent packed all of the looting and levelling up into a single dungeon, so you would walk through the front door with rusty daggers and tattered chainmail, and walk out the other side in Adamant Armour of Indestructibility carrying the Axe of Slaying Everything; Star Wars: Imperial Assault does the same core gameplay but in the Star Wars universe, and so on—but the core principles remain the same. Some adventurers. Some monsters. Some loot.

My peak level of interest in dungeon-crawling games was in the late 2000s—I had pretty much all of the expansions for original Descent, and it was something of a favourite amongst my friends at the time, but eventually it got to the point that the game was so large and complex that we realised that if we wanted to play a long, involved game in which a party of characters go on a series of linked adventures with an overarching storyline in a consistent world, we might as well just play D&D. Since then, I’ve never really found a tabletop dungeoncrawler that solved that problem. At least not until Gloomhaven. Like a lot of kickstarter developers, the designer of Gloomhaven documented his thought process in borderline excruciating detail, and he seems to have put an impressive amount of thought into what he’s doing and, perhaps more importantly, what he isn’t. Gloomhaven is very specifically designed to feel like Isaac Childres (the, as far as I can tell, sole designer) is GMing you through a highly detailed RPG campaign. And I think this, broadly, is why it doesn’t give me the “why don’t I just play D&D” feeling I usually get from this sort of game—it essentially feels like I already am playing D&D, it’s just that I’m playing a heavily houseruled version run by some guy from Indiana.

 I started this post by saying that Gloomhaven was a dungeoncrawler with legacy elements, and that’s basically true. But you could make a reasonable case that, deep down, it’s actually a card game.

Like in a lot of dungeon crawlers (and, for that matter, a lot of RPGs) you start out your adventure in Gloomhaven by selecting a character. Except that rather than the traditional breakdown of “Fighter/Thief/Magic User/Cleric” (or in proper HeroQuest style “Barbarian/Dwarf/Elf/Wizard”) your options are things like “Vermling Mindthief” or “Savas Cragheart”. Each of these characters is either quite different from classic fantasy staples (like the Inox Brute—basically a big fighter type, but also a sort of weird horned ox dude) or extremely different from classic fantasy staples (like the Tinkerer, who is kind of a healer, but also carries an actual literal flamethrower). Each character has a totally unique set of abilities, all represented by a (slightly) customisable deck of cards, and these cards are the key to basically everything.

And I mean everything. Specifically:

  • Each card has a top half, a bottom half, and an initiative number.
  • The bottom half of the card (usually) contains a movement type action and the top half (usually) contains an attack style action.
  • You must play exactly two cards on your turn, combining the bottom half of one with the top half of the other, with one of the initiative numbers determining how fast you act.
  • You get the cards back when you rest (resting is a thing you can do), but you lose one card for the rest of the dungeon.
  • If you run out of cards completely (by resting too often, or other methods), you are out of the game.

This last part—the part where running out of cards totally shafts you—becomes surprisingly pressing. You have about ten cards in your hand to start with (it varies slightly from class to class). After five turns, you’ll have to rest, and then you’ll get nine back (or less—some very powerful cards are automatically lost when you use them), which means you have to rest again in four turns. Then you get another four, then three, then three, then two, then another two, then one, and that’s it. Which means you have an absolute hard maximum of twenty-four turns to do whatever it is in the dungeon that needs doing. This strict time limit makes the whole game a logistical challenge in the way that most dungeoncrawlers aren’t. Rather than knowing, broadly, that every turn you will move your movement, attack with your best attack, and maybe drink a potion, you need to think about how to optimally deploy your limited cards to eliminate enemies, move yourself towards your goals, and potentially pick up loot. It means that a long corridor can eat your resources just as surely as a pack of rabid wolves or an angry demon.

It also means that the “dungeons” you “crawl” aren’t actually very much like traditional dungeons at all. They’re usually no bigger than three rooms, sometimes even two, with perhaps a half-dozen to a dozen enemies in each. There is absolutely no emphasis on exploration in Gloomhaven’s dungeons. Since the game is GMless, there’s no real way to keep secrets from the players (at least on the micro level) while also keeping the game running smoothly, and so the adventuring party is basically expected to know the full layout of the map from the beginning. There’s no wandering up blind alleys or deciding which way to go at T-junctions, because within the constraints of the game’s core mechanics, an unnecessary detour could prove more likely to stymie your adventuring ambitions than a room full of armed skeletons.

Rather than extensive dungeon maps with hidden rooms full of surprising encounters, Gloomhaven gets its sense of exploration mostly from its legacy elements. At the start of the game, your characters have a large map with one dungeon marked on it, a secret long-term quest which will say something like “explore three crypt dungeons” or “kill one of each type of demon”, two encounter decks marked “city” and “road”, and a small deck of purchasable items. As you adventure, you will unlock more things—complete that first dungeon and you will unlock two more, complete your quest and you will retire your existing character and unlock a new one, have an encounter on the road and you might unlock a new encounter in the city, or a map to a new dungeon, and in that dungeon you might find a new item for the shop.

Gradually your map fills up with stickers representing places you have either been or have yet to explore. Your character sheet fills up with notes and details and achievements and it all builds up into something that feels inarguably like playing a real fantasy RPG campaign. In fact specifically, it feels like playing a 2nd edition Dungeons and Dragons campaign or, even more specifically, like Baldur’s Gate. Or at least, a slightly weird playthrough of Baldur’s Gate where you mostly ignore the whole Bhaalspawn thing and run around robbing people.

This is very much my personal reaction, grounded in my personal gaming background, and so I don’t suspect that it will be terribly applicable to other people, but the thing that I like the most about Gloomhaven is how it evokes a style of fantasy gaming that has very much fallen out of fashion. The map you get with the game shows the world that the game will take place in and it’s like the map from a D&D module from the 1980s (or perhaps even more specifically, from a Fighting Fantasy novel). All of the action of the game takes place in one smallish town (the “Gloomhaven” of the title) at the end of two roads, between a couple of mountain ranges and with nearby landmarks called things like “Dagger Forest” and “Lingering Swamp”. Despite the strangeness of the setting (of the six possible starting characters, exactly one is human, and none of the others are any kind of traditional fantasy race) I know exactly what kind of fantasy it is going for.

Bear with me, I’m going to go off on one.

People talk a lot about the influence of Tolkien on D&D-esque fantasy, but you can argue (and people who know a lot more about it than me have argued, at some length) that the Tolkienesque influences are actually quite superficial, and that the game’s original designers (Gygax and Arneson for those who are counting) were far more inspired by the weird fiction of the early 20th century—your Howards, your Moorcocks, your Leibers and your Vances—stories that were mostly about self-interested rogues inhabiting amoral universes in which they looked out only for their own advantage. These are small-scale stories about thieves and vagabonds and who are as interested in robbing temples as in saving the world.

Gloomhaven has the default assumption that the player characters are self-interested jerks. You don’t have to be complete assholes, but it probably says something about the themes of the game that a fairly typical random encounter presents you with the choice “do you steal a man’s thing’s while he is taking a dump by the side of the road?” I mean you don’t have to do it, but the fact that it’s even an option says a lot. The tone of Gloomhaven is very specific, and strangely nostalgic. It’s not the boobs and neckstabbing of modern grimdark (for that you probably want Kingdom Death) or the shiny teeth and shiny swords of what people often think of as “traditional” fantasy (for that you want, well, most fantasy games, even the “gritty” ones, which generally assume you’re basically heroes fighting evil). It’s a grubby, localist fantasy about people dealing with what’s in front of them in a world where nicking a couple of gold pieces from a man who is taking a poo can be as big a triumph as battling the evil wizard in the lost temple.

And perhaps, looping back to the start of this post, it’s that specificity of tone that saves Gloomhaven from the “why don’t I just play D&D” problem that I usually get with these sorts of game. The answer winds up being “because it’s actually doing something specific and different.” Whereas playing Descent made me want to play D&D, playing Gloomhaven just makes me want to play more Gloomhaven. It has that virtuous cycle thing you get in a lot of video games that mix combat missions with base management where during the combat missions you’re excited to get back to the base and start spending all the loot you’re picking up, while back at the base you’re excited to get back out onto the missions to try out all the cool new gear that you’ve just bought.

I usually end these reviews by saying whether I recommend this game and, if I do, who I recommend it for. But that’s really hard to do with Gloomhaven. I don’t know anybody who has so much as looked at this game who isn’t at the very least impressed by its scope and ambition, but at the same time I feel like this game is very uncompromisingly pitched at its target market, and that target market is, well, people who want to play a game exactly like Gloomhaven. And you probably already know if you want to play a game exactly like Gloomhaven. You don’t even really need to read reviews, you just need to ask yourself “do I like the idea of spending about a year playing a tactical dungeon crawling game of ever-increasing depth and complexity?” Or perhaps more simply “do I want to play a board game that comes in a box so big that I could take the pieces out and use it as a travel bed for a large housecat?” Or even more simply “is dropping $150 on a single board game a total deal breaker.”

Because, oh yes, this game also clocks in at $150. And the fact that pretty much everybody who has bought a copy agrees that it is probably worth it says something about how well constructed the whole thing is.

I normally also say something about how well I think this game would play with a hypothetical ten year old and while my first instinct was to say something along the lines of “oh sweet Jesus, no a thousand times no what could you possibly be thinking” I actually suspect it kind of depends on the ten-year-old. I remember reading something years ago, either in the original novel of Jurassic Park or on some blog somewhere (or hell, maybe it was Churchill or Shakespeare, that’s the usual go-to for quotes whose origin you can’t quite remember) which pontificated that the reason children love dinosaurs so much is that as a child you are essentially powerless and that, for a certain type of child, learning about something is a way of exerting power over it. Accumulating knowledge about these vast terrifying lizards is a way of experiencing a sense of freedom and self-determination that you don’t normally get until you’re a grownup with a job. And I suspect that for a lot of slightly older young children, complex board games can do the same thing. Warhammer is as complicated as all getout, and it’s crazy popular with that demographic. Yes, the rules of those sorts of miniatures/card/whatever games are byzantine and arbitrary, but to a child all rules are byzantine and arbitrary, and at least with a game you know that the adults don’t get to just change the rules without telling you why.

I mean, I should stress that I’m not in any way actually recommending this game for ten-year-olds, I mean as well as the vulgar-but-arguably-harmless encounter where you steal from a pooping man, there’s encounters in the deck where you’re invited to kill innocent travellers for their money, so it’s something you’d want to make a very informed decision about sharing with your tweenage kids. I’m just pointing out that the actual complexities of it aren’t necessarily as child-unfriendly as they might seem on the surface.

The final axis along which I tend to recommend board games is two-player compatibility. We’re currently playing with a full loadout of four players, and this has its advantages and disadvantages. My cursory peripheral reading suggests that the game is easier with more players, but also that because of the complex interactions between player abilities, that each extra player slows the game down more than the last. Because the game is very focused on tactical combat, a two-player party will need to be really certain that the characters complement each other—if you both wind up playing squishy ranged characters, there’s a good chance that you’ll just get swatted and if you both wind up playing beefy meatshields there’s a good chance that you’ll struggle for damage and utility effects. Still I’ve heard pretty positive things about the game at all player counts, so if you and your partner have $150 and every weekend between now and Easter 2019 burning holes in your pockets and calenders, you might want to give Gloomhaven some serious thought.

And for some reason I also feel compelled to point out that Hugh Grant doesn’t feature in this game anywhere.

playing

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