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Gloomhaven

Gloomhaven - Early Access Impressions

After conquering the hearts and minds of tabletop gamers, Gloomhaven is stepping into the digital realm.

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Gloomhaven is, at its heart, a puzzly dungeon crawler. The board game that this is based on relies on several subsystems all working in tandem to subvert mechanical tropes, enhance player choices, and force the player to make impactful decisions. The Early Access to the electronic version of the game is heavily built on promises; the road ahead as laid out by Asmodee will have the video game slowly align with its board game inspiration. We're not there yet, though.

Gloomhaven the video game, right now, is a one-player dungeon crawl where a party of two out of four possible characters trudge through what is the most nakedly bare-bones gameplay loop you're likely to see for a game with this kind of pedigree. It currently offers only a roguelike mode, exclusive to the video game version, which has you choosing one of three directions to travel, with a location to reach. Each of the three paths has a different difficulty level and a number of unavoidable dungeons to raid, the more difficult of which you're unlikely to clear until you've undergone a sufficient amount of grinding (though even the easy routes will get tougher the more you level your characters).

Adventures earn you gold coins and equipable items, if you've picked them up before the last monster is killed (at which point the level concludes at the end of your turn). Items have durability ratings that decrease when you reach a location, with zero durability causing an item to disappear even if you've never equipped it. Gold is spent on items should your destination have a shop. Apart from events that may happen in transit to a dungeon, there is little to no flavour to the game beyond the varying abilities of enemies and characters. Levelling means picking a new ability card (more on these later) which can be switched out for an existing card, and getting an extra potion slot every few levels and a few more hit points. A tough pre-set boss scenario needs to be beaten in order to open a character slot which allows a party of three, then four.

Gloomhaven
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Gloomhaven the board game has a campaign mode, allowing several players to work together. It has hidden achievements and goals for each character, and finishing dungeons unlocks permanent changes, culminating in characters retiring, making their mark on the world and unlocking new characters to play. There is a starting roster of six possible characters, with even more unlocked over time. Levelling includes permanently enhancing your ability cards with extra effects and decreasing detrimental effects, or increasing special effects in a deck of damage modifiers unique to each character. Campaign quests allow players to choose what they will do next, and at least some flavour text contextualises one's murder-hobo adventures. Though it's arguably unfair to compare the unfinished video game to the completed board game, it's something the creators readily do, as the board game is basically their end-goal.

Everything is so finely tuned in the board game version that you are made to feel much more invested, both in your character and the world. Asmodee has promised an approach to the electronic version that will eventually try to duplicate the board game, but even then there are things a board game permits that fly in the face of traditional computer game design. Partial taking back of a turn because you didn't understand a rule or modifier is impossible, so if you step on a trap that was obscured by an urn? Tough shit, even though you would have known it was there if you'd placed it in the map on a physical board. The wealth of different, interweaving factors in a given turn may leave a player overwhelmed but the game relentlessly pushes things forward; rather than players misinterpreting the rules but still having a fun time, the computer knows the rules and applies them with merciless efficiency, and you can easily waste turns on misclicks or hitting "skip" when you meant to follow through. By divesting the player from the mechanisms, the experience is necessarily different, even if mechanically it's identical. The discovery mechanisms in the board game, too, are unlikely to feel quite the same, especially since players are often expected to know more of what they're getting into in a video game, with a character's secrets often laid bare to start with. These sorts of things are largely unavoidable with an automated board game, but they're still worth mentioning given how complicated the game can be.

Gloomhaven
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The thing that works, the thing that promises something better and makes all of the above drudgery intermittently tolerable, is the combat itself. Often in turn-based games combat can feel a bit perfunctory, a ritual to get from point to point to unlock story globs and piles of shiny refuse. In Gloomhaven it is a glorious tactical puzzle that grips you from turn to turn, forcing painful decisions that can drastically alter how the battle turns out. Each character has a unique set of individually unique cards, each with an upper ability that is often an attack, and a lower ability that is often related to movement. You select two cards each turn, and the one you select first is your turn order rank. When it is the character's turn you must pick one upper ability on one card, and the lower ability on the other, with the option to alternatively pick a standard attack or movement if you wish.

Within that framework, a myriad of different things can happen. The elemental mage burns out quickly but takes advantage of many different elemental states, and can reclaim burned cards. The cragheart specialises in damaging movement, ranged hits with splash, and healing. The scoundrel is every rogue trope rolled into one, with upgrades including a devastating one-shot pistol, poisoning, and high-damage hits. Meanwhile, the brute specialises in crowd control. Combining these abilities in a party can lead to a heap of synergies and teamwork potential.

Monsters all have their own behaviour decks too, and they have their own, sometimes accidental, synergies. When you need to replenish your hand, you burn (that is, remove from the current scenario) a card, either choosing which card to burn but being vulnerable for a turn and healing a bit, or burning a card at random to immediately select cards again, with one do-over that costs 1 health. If you're hit you have the option of burning a card from your hand or two from your discard pile instead of taking the damage. Your hand depletes one way or another until you're unable to replenish or play two cards, whereby the character is defeated for the scenario. This forces you to make every move count, to coordinate moves, and be as efficient and wise as possible every turn. With every decision a pile of crises and opportunities, it leaves so many other combat systems in the dust.

Gloomhaven

Not all is rosy even in battle, however, as gauging the actual difficulty of a scenario is fraught even when you know the difficulty level and the types of monsters before you even enter. Opening up a new room generates a surprise spread of new monsters which immediately take their turn, and despair manifests as yet another unopened door when you're almost dead. Run into a room and you find yourself surrounded by skeletons spawned by a hovel of cultists, blasted by spirits, or peppered with arrows without enough movement to close in and take a cursory swipe. At harder difficulties, the chains of rooms and monsters are generally worse, and all scenarios require you to clear all rooms. Crucially, unlike the board game campaign, defeat means you lose progress since the last location you started from. And the deck for each character that determines bonuses, penalties, critical hits, and misses means it's more predictable than dice, but you will still have moments where RNG can thwart the most well-crafted of moves.

If it wasn't for the quality and diversity of these central battle mechanisms, Gloomhaven would be instantly forgettable. As it is, right now, it is a beautiful toy wrapped in old newspaper. Being Early Access, we encountered our share of bugs that included picking an ability card that perpetually crashed the game until we started over completely, as well as what seemed to be some data retention errors. There is very little in the way of in-game tutorials. You're given a reference manual and a Youtube link and are pointed to the board game's own resources. The roguelike framework, it needs to be emphasised, is largely a flavourless excuse to get you from one dungeon to the next, and the dungeon gameplay itself, while rewarding moment to moment, builds to very little. The combat is more often fun than frustrating if you focus on it, with zero expectations for the surrounding elements, but returns may diminish the longer you grind.

As to what this game may look like down the road, it's not our place to say, since one is already charged for entry. Should all the elements of the board game fall into place, especially the co-op which is fairly essential to Gloomhaven's popularity, as well as the world-altering permanent changes and hidden goals, this could easily be a giant amongst revisionist dungeon crawlers. Now, though? At best it's a wandering dungeon-themed puzzle game waiting for its house to be built.

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