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Gloomhaven review: a loving adaptation that nails the ambition and detail of the tabletop original

Clear the decks

Gloomhaven’s scoundrel has a custom animation for her flintlock pistol, and I am still jazzed about it. Releasing today in full after lurking in early access for the last two years, there are 17 classes in this digital adaptation of Cephalofair’s tabletop legacy dungeon crawler, hereafter referred to as ‘Tablehaven’. Each class, from psychic rodent Mindthief to basalt shithouse Cragheart, has around 30 ability cards each. And Flaming Fowl, alongside offering Tablehaven’s entire branching campaign, map editors, and a digi-only ‘Guildmaster’ campaign, have animated this single flintlock shot. It’s almost opulent.

All right, so I probably won’t use it much. Five damage at range four is a belter, but that burn hurts for a single target ability. I’ll be smiling when I do, though. Grinning as the scoundrel whips the silver pistol from her hip and deletes a cultist just before he summons a skeleton. Just as I’ve been grinning at these detailed, cel-shaded dungeons and grimy sewers, or the spoken narration before each quest. All Gloomhaven needed to do was not get in Tablehaven’s way too much. Accuracy and usability would have been just fine. But there’s enough passion and pizzaz in this wonderful package that a part of me wishes I was new here, just so I could be surprised all over again.

The game can’t recreate all Tablehaven’s magic, but it would be silly to expect it to. Shuffling cards and shifting tactile plastic goblins. Sharing crisps with table pals. Maybe you occasionally offer crisps to plastic goblins, smiling as you crush the rim of a salt n’ vinegar Disco against tiny Mr. Shanksworth’s unshifting grimace. No judgement here, friend.

It works both ways, though. Every time I click ‘exit game’ and watch Gloomhaven deconstruct itself in seconds, I sit back and mentally mock my past self as he laboriously sorts tokens into little trays. I bought those trays, and I had to glue them together. I can’t guarantee much in these tumultuous times, but I can swear to you that digital Gloomhaven will never require glue in any capacity.

Fantasy mercenaries attack skeleton knights in Gloomhaven

Here’s how events unfold down Gloomhaven way. First, you pick your mercenaries from the six available starting classes. Not heroes, mind. Mercs. Later, you may defend the city against encroaching undead. You may just decide to pilfer everyone’s silverware while they’re distracted. So, select your average coin enjoyers. Two minimum, four maximum, solo or with up to three mates. Bring more mercs, face more monsters.

You buy some starting equipment, and pick retirement goals. Kill 20 different monster types, say. Or, complete a specific quest chain. Once a merc hits their goal, they’re off to the big table in the sky, but you’ll unlock a new class. One of them looks like a cauliflower wearing steampunk goggles.

Everything a merc does is controlled by a deck of cards, from moving and looting chests to commanding a pet bear to eat a ratman’s tiny ratshoes. Mercs play two cards per turn, selecting one action from the bottom of one card, and one from the top of the other. Each card has an initiative value from 1-99. Mercs lock in their initiative by choosing one of the two values before the turn starts, but they can still take their two actions in any order. As a broad generalisation, bottoms are usually movement or buffs, tops are attacks.

A battle scene in Gloomhaven

At the end of a turn, both cards you played are discarded. Can’t play two cards when your turn rolls around? You’re out. Ditto for running out of HP. The discard pile is not the end for these plucky information rectangles, however. Mercs can rest; burning one card to regain the rest of their discard pile. Gradually, more cards get burnt, and fewer become available. Burnt cards are, with some very rare exceptions, lost for the remainder of the dungeon. You’re effectively on a timer, so each decision feels monumental. You devise perfect moves to get the most value from each card, knowing wasted actions herald swift defeat.

Enemies are bound to similar rules. They each have their own initiative and AI patterns, which are revealed from their individual decks after you’ve chosen your cards. Happily, you're not locked into the order in which you play your cards, so there are still opportunities to react once you know what your foes are doing. These patterns repeat across enemy types - for example, all skeletons will move two hexes, then attack for that round - but they might do something different next round. And it might be proper evil, too.

There’s no dice involved throughout all this. Get back in your cage, you cuboid fiends. Shoo. Instead, Gloomhaven uses decks to modify damage. You might pull a crit (x2) or even utterly whiff it (x0), but it's mostly a bunch of +1s, -1s, and the like. Status effects like poison, stun, or immobilise always take effect, even when attacks do no damage. This pairs a handy, reliable layer of tactical certainty with the inherent drama of crits and misses.

The world map showing a range of mountains in Gloomhaven

Of course, there’s no easy way of adequately condensing 52 pages of rules in one review. So here’s a link to the one the game's designer made during the Kickstarter. Here’s a good video too. Immerse yourself in the delightfully meaty crunch of it all, like sticking your head in a big bag of Frazzles.

Between quests, you’ll return to the city of Gloomhaven and take part in city events. Now, arguing with a ratman about how much gold the hunk of metal he fished out of the toilet is worth might seem rather less thrilling than doing battle with skellies in a dungeon, but resolving these episodes still have their own unique charm. I reckon 80% of them involve something strange happening at the pub. You can also give some money from the church, who are surprisingly chill about accepting bags of blood-stained coins from big buff battle bastards, in exchange for crit-boosting blessings. You can hurt or help your reputation with the city. Eventually, you can cause the city to become more prosperous, unlocking new and exciting boots for sale, and giving a level boost to future mercs.

A menu screen in which the player must decide whether to enter a dungeon in Gloomhaven

Complex? Yes. Complicated? Not especially, particularly with all the crunch automated. And while the same legacy tricks that are incredibly novel and exciting when pulled off by cards and stickers can seem a bit rote when performed by a digi-brain, Tablehaven’s procedural combat conundrums and tailored spatial puzzle dungeon design are just as captivating and satisfying here.

Gloomhaven can be tough as old ratshoes, mind. As a ruleset designed to reward a sizable time and social commitment with meaty challenges, it doesn’t necessarily facilitate casual play. It’s consistently demanding by the same virtue as it being consistently rewarding, but it does need your full attention. And ideally, the shared attention of some mates to tell you how crap your plans are.

I should add that you might occasionally encounter a bit of tiresome fantasy faff. ‘Barbaric tribes’, and so on. I’m not especially fond of this stuff. Neither is designer Isaac Childres. Nuance leads to more interesting world-building, and it’s heartening that stuffy writing from four years ago can already be considered a relic by its own creator.

A monster lurks in a dungeon in Gloomhaven

Not everything here precisely replicates Tablehaven, either. Analogue enemy AI systems occasionally produce more than one valid move, allowing boardgamers to whiff ties in their favour, but here these are automated. Early on, you’re given a choice, with each of the three responses unlocking a different quest. Here, the game just unlocked all three quests for me. Whether this was a bug or a structural choice, I’m not sure.

Gripes aside, I love Digihaven for everything it does, and I love it even more because of how accessible and simple it makes such a magical tabletop experience. It’s not just a great tactics game in its own right, but a gateway to introduce the Monopoly-scarred to how nifty, gratifying, and ambitious the best digital board games have become over the last several years. Gloomhaven? Massive bloody grin-haven, more like.

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