TOP 5 PROBLEMS WITH GLOOMHAVEN
There’s no doubt that Gloomhaven is a fantastic game.
However, the adoration rained upon it has reached hyperbolic proportions. The fact that it achieved the top level of Board Game Geek’s vast list of games is more of a circumstance of ballot stuffing and zealotry than legitimate quality. Last year’s People’s Choice Awards named the best movie as Avenger’s Endgame, and although I love that film as much as the next person, on the metrics of writing, directing, and overall quality, I can think of five films that were clearly superior (and before you jump on to argue, remember Joker came out that same year). And to hammer the last nail on this point, the previous year voted the best drama as Fifty Shades Freed.
The point is that legitimate critical analysis will always eclipse mob worship. Rahdo placed Gloomhaven at #3. Tom Vasel had it at #4. It seems every critic can think of at least two games better. I recently declared Apocrypha more enjoyable. But there’s no doubt a massive fan following exists for this series.
Gloomhaven still resides in my top ten, but even that won’t be enough to dissuade detractors from swearing off any arguments made here because I didn’t fall prostrate at the feet of Isaac Childres. And if you think those zealot fanboys aren’t frothing at the mouth in hatred of my words, I should tell you what happens when I openly criticize the 2004 Battlestar Galactica series. Even as I typed this, the new sequel campaign, Frosthaven, launched on Kickstarter, exploding in ways one would expect. In a time of social distancing and uncertain economic futures, it raised $7 million Canadian in a day.
Gloomhaven isn’t perfect, and the more critics come forward to speak of its shortcomings, the more the creators may accept that their creation could always stand to be improved. So here is my list of the five things wrong with Gloomhaven.
SETUP & TEAR DOWN
We all must admit this is a problem. It’s not exclusive—a 30-minute playthrough of Flashpoint Fire Rescue takes twenty minutes to set up—but it is an issue. Very often, with our group, my fiancé will spend part of an afternoon setting up a game. And afterward, she’ll take another fifteen minutes to make sure everything fits inside that large-but-just-not-large-enough-box. Obviously, this is due to the game's massive scale, but it is still a chore to deal with.
This has always been a sticking issue with me as well as being a staple mechanic of Gloomhaven. To put it simply, the game is about the town of Gloomhaven, not the characters players assume. This is embodied in the core idea that players will repeatedly retire experienced characters in exchange for new, lower-level ones. When I ran Dungeons & Dragons, players would control the same characters for years, allowing them to reach the pinnacle of progression. Only a dungeon master with a death wish would force players to retire their characters arbitrarily and early.
I am still amazed this hasn’t been fixed, but loots rules in Gloomhaven are asinine. Not only must a character use an action to open a chest or pick up a coin, that same character is also prohibited from sharing. To make matters worse, when the players win a game, the instance completely collapses, meaning no matter the context of the adventure, the characters are denied the opportunity to loot a map when all the enemies have been defeated, even in situations where the narrative would allow the time to do so. There is no reason for this mechanic whatsoever; it needs to go.
Don’t fool yourself…Gloomhaven doesn’t really have a story. I had this same argument regarding World of Warcraft. It has a setting, and stuff happens in that setting, but there is no story. One would expect a massive campaign-driven fantasy adventure encompassing dozens of games and involving stickers, secret envelops, and a campaign book would have at least a decent narrative. Each battle provides the framework for the next battle. If the story gripped players in any way, they wouldn’t be suffering from what is called in the community as “Gloomhaven Burnout.” Yes, this is a thing…in truth, very few people have even managed to finish the Gloomhaven campaign. Is it because of overall length, or does it have an issue with a lack of engagement?
By far, the dumbest part in the whole of Gloomhaven is a bizarre and vague rule prohibiting player communication. Players can not go into detail what their actions are going to be on each turn, a ridiculous rule meant to “apparently” mitigate alpha-player syndrome—the issue of one or more players monopolizing a group and ordering what others should be doing. It’s a vague mechanic; in fact, checking Reddit and other community posts, there doesn’t appear a consensus what the rule ACTUALLY details, with numerous players pushing the limit of this rule while still claiming to adhere to it. It’s a band-aid on a problem the game doesn’t need to solve. To put it simply, it’s not the game’s responsibility to prevent alpha players from bullying other players—it’s the group’s. Don’t ask an inanimate object to solve an inter-group conflict. That’s your job.
I know this list will annoy many of you, and I did limit it to five, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t more. Personal quests offer zero narrative compulsion. The fact you can get exhausted by not moving and staying perfectly still is ridiculous. An invisible character still blocks enemies, which feels counterproductive. Character progression is incredibly slow. Those cool sealed envelopes…well, most don’t contain anything world-shattering. And don’t get me started on line-of-sight rules.
Gloomhaven is still a great game…but nothing is perfect. And if Gloomhaven was perfect, it wouldn’t need us to love it, because a perfect thing doesn’t require it. Nearly every person I know homebrews at least one element of the game, and anyone wanting to implement their own rules should be welcome to do so. I’m personally disappointed that the new Frosthaven is nothing more than a reskinning, refusing to address the annoying rules its predecessors implemented. But hey…when you’re on top, it’s hard to admit you did anything wrong.