Gloomhaven: Board Game Vs. Digital Breakdown

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Even though it only released in 2017, Gloomhaven has already proven itself a fantasy classic in the midst of a board game renaissance. The physical game, developed by designer Isaac Childers, blurs the line between the depth of traditional tabletop RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons and the more structured and streamlined mechanics of modern board games. The game's mammoth box contains hundreds of components, including thick rule and scenario books, modular terrain for battle maps, a staggering number of decks, and a world map that players must gradually fill in with stickers via exploration.

Gloomhaven's most distinctive feature is its seventeen classes whose unique components are contained in their own miniature boxes, which players can only open by fulfilling certain criteria with the game's available starting classes. Despite these nesting boxes and modifiable components, the game is not considered a Legacy title in the strict sense (the game is designed to be replayed, and no content is ever discarded), though it is unquestionably a campaign game designed for play over the course of dozens of sessions.

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And the Gloomhaven train is still gaining steam. An expansion, Forgotten Circles, and a spin-off game, Settlers of Gloomhaven, have done well in their own right. But early last year, the game's chilly, standalone sequel, Frosthaven, shattered Kickstarter records for the most successful board game campaign ever by earning nearly $13 million. A video game adaptation was a no-brainer, and in 2019, Asmodee Digital and Flaming Fowl Studios released their take on Gloomhaven on Steam's digital storefront. But how does it stack up against the original?

Gloomhaven: The Fundamentals

The core of Gloomhaven features intricate tactical combat on modular hex grid maps. Each unique character class has their own deck of cards that determines everything from turn-order to available abilities, and there is a minor RNG component in the form of smaller decks that behave almost like dice rolls, determining the total damage dealt to foes. Other RPG staples, like customizable equipment and an elemental reaction system that modifies certain abilities, are also in play. Battles play out over the course of 95 different missions, and encounters are carefully structured so they play more like improvisational puzzles than traditional tabletop slugfests.

The board game also has character sheets for tracking character XP and perks, as well as numerous milestones that will gradually improve the eponymous city. In many respects, these features feel like they were influenced by video game stat tracking and achievement unlocks as much as D&D character sheets and perks. It's a fitting development though, especially considering how many video game properties have recently jumped on to tabletops.

Why Play the Tabletop Game?

The tabletop game will appeal to anyone who is looking for a combat-driven board game experience with more depth than usual, as well as D&D players who are looking for a change of pace. Gloomhaven is also an ideal roleplaying gateway drug. Even though the scenarios and character backstories are pre-determined, players choose which missions to take on and how to react to random encounters that happen in transit from one adventure to another, and there is no rule against getting in character during play. And the tactility of playing with physical components, and the wizard-like experience of consulting various rulebooks in combat has a unique appeal.

Gloomhaven: Board Game Vs. Digital Breakdown

The game carries a hefty price tag, ranging from $110 to $150, but given the average prices of complex board games and the sheer breadth of the components in the box, it's a fair asking price. The components are high quality, featuring professional fantasy art, and the cards feature intuitive, crisp visual design.

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That said, Gloomhaven is not a good starter title for gamers whose tabletop experience is limited to Catan, Monopoly, and other classic titles. Even practiced board gamers should expect to flub a few rules on their first outing. And as one would imagine given the wide variety of components, set-up can be daunting and time-consuming, especially for the initial session. The biggest argument in favor of the tabletop version of Gloomhaven, however, is that it is a complete, thoroughly tested and balanced title. Hundreds of hours of content are available right out of the box, and the only bugs that can hamper the experience stem from human error. Regrettably, the same cannot be said for Asmodee Digital and Flaming Fowl Studios' adaptation in its current state.

Why Play the Video Game?

If nothing else, the digital game is the best introduction to Gloomhaven gamers could ask for, teaching mechanics with a robust tutorial and a series of puzzle encounters, while automatically handling the nitty-gritty of combat modifiers. And at $25, it is also an excellent budget option for assessing the game before taking the plunge on a physical copy. Other perks include immediate set-up, and no physical footprint. As board game and miniature collectors know all too well, storage space is finite, and obtaining a new, large title can mean storing or even selling off other old favorites.

The digital edition is also a great solution for board gaming in the COVID-19 era—a pastime that has been hit nearly as hard as beleaguered movie box offices. Outside of single-household gatherings, there isn't currently a safe way to play the tabletop version of Gloomhaven.

The catch, of course, is that the game is still in early access, and its stability compares unfavorably to many other digital adaptations of board games in its current state. Even though it has received substantial updates since launch, game-breaking bugs still abound. Currently, the game's greatest deficiency lies with its less-than-reliable multiplayer. Dropped connections can transform the simplest starting encounters into arduous slogs. Fortunately, the game features an aggressive, round-by-round autosave feature which helps alleviate the frustrations of a dropped host, or other progress-blocking bugs. And it must be said, multiplayer is a fairly new addition to the game.

The other major drawback to the digital edition of the game is that it has a fraction of the content from the physical game. Players who decide to take the plunge on Gloomhaven's video game adaptation should be aware of these issues, and think of the title as a long-term investment. The good news is, that investment is almost guaranteed to pay dividends, as Asmodee Digital and Flaming Fowl have pledged to add all seventeen classes and ninety-five missions to the game, while providing players with frequent developer updates.

Gloomhaven is available now in cardboard form and on Steam.

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About The AuthorHank Whitson(276 Articles Published)

Hank Whitson is a pop culture omnivore, avid reader, gaming geek, escapism nerd, and unrepentant anime addict. He will play and write about literally anything, but has a special place in his heart for compelling stories, creative combat, and clever worldbuilding.

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