Gloomhaven Early Access Impressions: Bringing the Big Box to Your Desktop
If you've wanted to try "the best board game in the world" according to Board Game Geek's rankings, but you aren't sure if you're ready to drop over $100 on a giant box filled with plastic bits, then you might want to take a look at Steam's version of Gloomhaven.
The board game's developers have teamed up with Flaming Fowl Studios to bring Gloomhaven to digital life, adapting the board game as faithfully as possible. It actually works really well, as so much of the tabletop game is inspired directly by video game mechanics anyway.
Gloomhaven is still extremely early in its development, with many features, game modes, and characters currently locked away, to be released later in its timeline. As it stands right now, the digital version of Gloomhaven is a faithful and pretty recreation of the tabletop sensation, although it's currently missing a massive amount of content.
Scoundrels and Thieves
Gloomhaven is a dungeon-crawling light-RPG where you take control of a variety of mercenary characters in their quest for glory. You explore ruins, kill monsters, collect treasure, and buy better equipment. Then you head into tougher dungeons to do it all again.
The board game version's major selling points are its intricate campaign, glut of content, and AI-controlled enemies. Unlike many games that task you with questing through a monster-infested dungeon, Gloomhaven does not require a player to control the baddies.
The big issue with translating that into a video game is that those things don't really stand out here. A sprawling campaign, a large variety of enemies and environments, and a set of enemies that don't need a player controlling them, that's all commonplace in a game-based setting. In that case, we need to know whether Gloomhaven has the gameplay chops to stand in this marketplace as well.
For the most part, it does — but it's complicated.
Welcome Back, Commander
Here's how a round of Gloomhaven plays out. You are given a mission objective — it's usually "kill all the monsters" — and your party of two, three, or four characters are plopped on a map. Each character has a unique deck of cards that represent their attacks and abilities. On each turn, you choose two of those cards as your actions for that round.
Your enemies also have unique decks, although they are generally a bit less complicated than yours. After initiative order is determined (each card has a number tied to it, and the lowest initiative goes first), each character will get to perform the two abilities that were picked. This means you need to be adaptable and think ahead; sometimes enemies have moved around before your character has moved, which can help or hinder your plan of attack.
The system actually translates very well to the digital world, combining some of the best aspects of deckbuilding games (as your character increases in level, you can manipulate their deck to utilize stronger abilities) with the tactical, turn-based combat of XCOM.
Hold Your Cards
That said, Gloomhaven is still in Early Access, with an emphasis on "early."
There is an extremely limited amount of content in the game right now. The campaign mode is in development (there is a randomized dungeon crawl where you can still progress characters, but it's definitely a placeholder). There are only four characters available currently (Brute, Cragheart, Scoundrel, and Spellweaver), as well. Compare that to 17 in the physical Gloomhaven box, and there's still some room to grow.
Multiplayer is in development. The tutorial is in development.
That means there are really only two ways to learn how to play Gloomhaven at the moment: you've already played the tabletop version and understand the mechanics, or you sit down and read page after page of rule explanations.
Lots of Gloomhaven's rules are fairly intuitive when you are figuring it out on a table with friends but not so in the digital version. For example, random numbers pop up and change with no explanation. It's easy to see newcomers start asking questions like, "Why did I do no damage? Why did I hurt my teammate there?"
Because of this, it's tough to recommend Gloomhaven in its current state unless you are one very specific subset of player: a person who loves the tabletop game and wants to get an occasional fix without needing your regular gaming group. Either that or someone who doesn't always want to set up and tear down the game itself.
As it's right now, Gloomhaven is perfect for that (very specific) type of gamer.
The bones of Gloomhaven are all here. It's a strong game, and it's only going to improve as development continues. It's neat to see all the tabletop components come to life on the screen, with pretty attack animations and fully realized environments. Provided the development continues as planned, Gloomhaven is going to be a joy for those who already appreciate the tabletop version and total newcomers alike.
If you are one of those types we mentioned earlier, however, Gloomhaven is a little too bare-bones at the moment. You'll still get some fun out of it, but we've seen too many Early Access games fall by the wayside, so we'd like to see a bit more how the game develops before we make a true call. It shows promise, but Gloomhaven is more likely one to keep on your radar at the moment than a slam-dunk purchase.
That said, I am one of those specific type of gamers, so I'm going to load it back up and kill some more baddies.
[Note: A Early Access build of Gloomhaven was provided by Asmodee Digital for the purpose of this review.]