A dark fantasy setting requires heroes with the grit to match. Gloomhaven succeeds at making this pairing work but falls short in a few other areas.

Released: Steam
Type: Single-player, Online Co-op
Genre: RPG, Strategy
Developer: Flaming Fowl Studios
Publisher: Asmodee Digital
Release date: 20 October, 2021


Dark fantasy is one of my favorite genres out there. The combination of fantasy elements mixed with a hopeless and twisted setting that desperately needs heroes who will stand up to it has always pulled me in. Whether it’s Warhammer, Dragon Age, or Dominions, I’m always in for facing off against whatever terrors are in store for me.

Gloomhaven promised to be another such adventure. To a certain extent, it is, though there are several gameplay elements that limited my enjoyment of the experience. Tactical RPGs with cards could certainly work in theory, though they can be just as limiting.

Adventurers Needed

Gloomhaven is a city that’s plagued by just about every dark fantasy trope that you can imagine. Bandits and necromancers and the like breed chaos throughout the countryside and heroes are in short supply. That’s where you step in with a guild of your own handpicked adventurers. These brave souls come in a variety of fairly unique classes and you’ll be sending them out to deal with the madness surrounding the cursed city.

Story events are told through a visual novel like system. Your choices can have a serious impact on your experience.

The story is told via tactical combat quests and visual novel map events. Quests involve selecting a party of up to four of your band to head out on a perilous adventure. Missions scale so that even smaller parties are viable though it’s important to note that some classes are less efficient with fewer allies. I was a fan of this scaling aspect as it added an additional way to tailor the party and mix missions up a bit. The semi-random nature of the story results in visual novel, text-based events triggering when you’re traveling or walking the streets of Gloomhaven. These offer perks, penalties, and side quests which are often influenced by the choices that you selected within them. Some of them are great, others are surprisingly punishing. I can’t tell you how many times I entered a mission with a noticeable debuff or some missing health due to an event that fired on my journey to the quest site.

The variety of enemies will keep you on your toes. I was pleasantly surprised that the roster wasn’t packed full of classic tropes.

Party Time

Gloomhaven offers an experience that is quite different depending on your party composition. Six classes are available to you from the start, but nearly a dozen are waiting to be unlocked as you progress through the game. A variety of classes this wide is almost always a benefit and the starting options have enough differences between them that you don’t feel like you’ve been blocked off from needed content. These mercenaries can be created for free though they each have their own experience and gold pools.

Experience leads to improved talents through the leveling system but not as you might expect in a tactical RPG. Character progression clearly shows its board game origin. With each level a perk is chosen that alters your die rolls to be more reliably in your favor, adds additional effects to your dice, or grants a passive effect of some kind. Abilities themselves are based entirely around the character in question’s deck. Each mercenary begins with a standard deck determined by their class that is expanded and customized as they gain experience. Every action you take, whether you’re attacking, healing, or moving, is determined by these cards so it’s integral to your success to know what role you want a character to fill and how to build synergy between them and the rest of the party.

The die rolling system is unique, though not necessarily better than what we have seen elsewhere. Minus twos and minus ones can quickly turn an advantageous situation in a doomed one with a little RNG.

Gold is spent to purchase equipment for your party members. Gear overall will improve your rolls, grant useful boons, reduce incoming damage, and add negative status effects to your attacks, among other useful benefits. It’s just as important to factor in and budget for new equipment as it is to gain experience to level up so make sure that you spend your gold! Interestingly, Gloomhaven weaponry more often than not is temporarily discarded like any other card on use, though there are ways to reactivate during the course of a quest.

The card system was my primary issue with Gloomhaven. The art style, music, and sound effects did their part and the quest design and character building was at the very least adequate, though I continually felt restricted by the card-based abilities. If you want to move, you’ll be discarding a card that you took specifically because it had ‘move’ on it. What complicates matters even further is that each turn you pick two cards from those in your hand and activate them. On your turn, you choose one of the two effects on one of the cards and then the opposite effect on the other. This means that if you decide that you want to choose the top effect on your first card, you’re unable to use the top effect on the second card and must use the bottom one. Granted, being based on a board game often included details like these but I often felt like I was doing combat with my own deck as opposed to the enemies in the battle. It didn’t help that once you had spent the cards in your deck you were exhausted (see: dead) whether an enemy had hit you or not.

Don’t be afraid. We’re mostly monsters too!


Gloomhaven is not a bad game, but it is a niche one. It’s shaping up to be a decent enough game in the genre though I have to admit that I’m not as invested in it as much as I had hoped that I would be. The card-based mechanics feel more restricting than anything when I’m planning my strategies and being forced to play each mission from start to finish without being able to save and quit often kept me playing longer than I actually wanted to. I might recommend this game at a lower price tag or on a hefty sale, but as it is on day one, I could never see myself paying full price for it.

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