Putting together a team of roguish heroes, slaying terrible monsters, and saving the day is the name of the game. Originally published as a gargantuan board game in 2017, Gloomhaven is an epic fantasy quest using unique card mechanics to defeat evil and progress through a sprawling story. The board game, weighing in at nearly 22lbs, is quite an achievement to overcome. Translating such a monumental tabletop experience into a video game is not an easy feat. How successful has Saber Interactive been in bringing Gloomhaven to a digital format?
Releasing on PC and Mac in 2021, Gloomhaven is a turn-based adaptation of the hit game which topped gaming charts for years. The game utilizes a unique card system in which each card has an upper and lower action. Players select two cards to use and may choose one upper and one lower action on opposite cards. This same feature carries over into Gloomhaven’s video game counterpart as an integral part of gameplay.
Gloomhaven Is More Puzzle Than RPG
On the surface, Gloomhaven is a straightforward turn-based RPG. After playing through the game, however, it isn’t as simple as it seems. Once cards are used they go into the discard pile. As an action, players can take a short or long rest to regain cards at the cost of “burning” one. This permanently removes the card for the rest of the session. When a character can no longer draw two cards they will be automatically exhausted and faint. Given that each character can only have nine cards, this creates a finite number of actions a character can take per session.
Strategy becomes absolutely integral to survival. Each action taken needs to be impactful and tactical. You are not only engaged in combat but also racing against the clock to complete the mission in time. This makes for an intriguing card system. The combinations players can make are exhilarating, and pulling off a well-executed plan feels so good. The downfall of this system, however, is that cards are also used for movement.
With Gloomhaven’s movement tied to this mechanic, it becomes less of a TTRPG and veers more harshly into a tactical, puzzle experience. One wrong decision early in a mission can spell doom down the road. The RNG selection of which card gets burned should you choose a short rest can be devastating, only mitigated at the cost of sacrificing HP. Once I discovered this, I found myself approaching Gloomhaven more as a puzzle than a fantasy RPG. It lost a bit of its charm in that the aesthetic no longer felt like it mattered, only trying to pick the “right” options over having fun with it.
A Unique Card System
Gloomhaven offers tutorial missions to familiarize yourself with the various classes and core mechanics. For the most part, they do a good job of introducing the game, but even these tutorials felt lacking in proper guidance. Commands in how to rotate an AoE were just wrong, forcing me to try every button. Requests to perform a task didn’t actually explain how to do it. One tutorial in particular guided me through a class’s abilities. Despite how many times I tried, I continued to run out of cards before I could win the encounter, leaving me more confused than anything.
Having originally launched on PC and Mac, I can understand the UI being better suited to a mouse and keyboard. Many games designed for PC can struggle to operate as efficiently on a console. I found navigating the combat of Gloomhaven to be a chore. Button commands and interactions are often unclear, save for letting you know which card you’ve selected. There is far more trial and error involved than there ought to be. Winning an encounter in Gloomhaven doesn’t feel as satisfying as it should. The RNG destruction of a card to replenish your hand means potentially losing a key ability that renders the rest of the fight pointless.
This card mechanic is featured in the original tabletop version of Gloomhaven and it works in that physical medium because it’s a cooperative experience. You are face to face with friends, planning and strategizing together to be an effective unit. The video game does offer co-op play, but so much of Gloomhaven’s success in both mission victory and its greatness as an experience comes from the human interaction.
It’s a generally appealing game with decent graphics. Gloomhaven appears to be a fun turn-based adventure but requires a significantly higher amount of strategy than expected. Assigning unique quests to heroes, and having an ever-changing party when they finish their tasks, those are the ideas that make Gloomhaven stand out in a fun and engaging way. The actual mechanical experience feels like being asked to solve a Rubik’s cube every five minutes rather than immerse yourself in a fantasy world. For some, this might be exactly the tactical experience you want. For most, it’s more of an exercise in exasperation than imagination.
**PS5 Code provided by the publisher**
- Unique Card System
- Hero-Specific Quests
- Lush Environments
- More Puzzle Than Fun
- Unresponsive UI Bugs
- Poor UI Interactions
- RNG-Related Trial and Error