When it comes to board games, Gloomhaven has been one of the most critically-acclaimed and beloved tabletop games in the last few years. As has become the trend for many board games, we now have a digital adaptation of Gloomhaven. Launched on PC back in 2021 after spending some time as an early access title, the digital version of Gloomhaven has been seen as an excellent translation of the tabletop title’s rules and design into a video game.
Fast forward to 2023 and Gloomhaven is out now on consoles. Having spent a considerable amount of time with the PC version, and more recently, the PS5 release of the game, I can safely say that Gloomhaven is not only an excellent tabletop game, but a great video game in its own right. That doesn’t mean that the title is free of faults, however, as we’ll explore in the rest of this review.
First things first, Gloomhaven is an incredible looking game. Rather than arduously turning all of the game’s miniatures and tiny cardboard dungeons into a more realistic RPG, the developers instead opted to stick to its tabletop roots. Instead of seeing a gigantic recreation of Gloomhaven’s dungeons and cities, we instead get a zoomed-in version of what the tabletop version of the game might look like if the doors could open and close by themselves or if the game’s several playable characters had walking and attacking animations.
"Gloomhaven is an incredible looking game."
By no means are you going to get immersed into the world of Gloomhaven to the same extent as something like Skyrim; you’ll know that you’re playing a turn-based video game with your friends. But thanks to the excellent production values, great use of color and weird and interesting enemies, Gloomhaven is successfully able to recreate the feeling of playing an epic board game or tabletop RPG with your friends.
When it comes to gameplay, there are two distinct sides to Gloomhaven. One side is the general management aspect of the game where you’re taking care of logistics like buying and selling equipment, looking for new quests, and leveling up your characters. The other side—the much meatier side—is the combat. Parties of up to four characters are thrown into a dungeon as the primary way of advancing the game’s quests, and this is where Gloomhaven really manages to solidify its own identity.
Leaving aside the differences and nuances of each distinct character, the general combat revolves around playing cards. Each character has access to a number of cards, each split into two halves, and each half having its own different effects. When a round starts, each character has to pick out two cards, being able to only use the top half of one and the bottom half of the other. Generally speaking, the top half of cards typically revolve around offensive abilities, while the lower half revolve around movement. In case you don’t want to use the full effect of one of your cards, each card also lets you use a default “Attack 2” or “Move 2” option.
"Gloomhaven really manages to solidify its own identity."
As you use up your cards, your deck gets smaller and your discard pile gets larger. Characters can elect to either use a Short Rest action, which instantly restores the discard pile into the deck at the cost of losing a random card for the rest of the dungeon, or a Long Rest action, which takes up the whole turn to do largely the same thing, allows you to pick a card to “Burn”, rather than it being random. If you get careless and “Burn” too many of your cards, that character is out for the rest of the dungeon, losing their chance to get any more loot or experience.
On picking their cards, players will also be able to look at the exact turn order, as well as what all enemies are going to do. This allows for a lot of strategic planning, especially if you’re playing with friends. Manipulating the turn order by picking the right cards for the right characters can result in some incredible attack combinations.
With the broad strokes of the game out of the way, the combat gets much more interesting once you start looking at the different characters you can play. Each character is themed around a couple of different concepts, and has a set amount of health and deck size at the beginning. The deck size is an especially important thing that players have to learn to play around. For example, the Spellweaver has an incredibly small deck size, and a lot of her cards revolve around burning the card for bigger damage numbers. The character is built around this, however, and has a card that can be used a single time in a dungeon to bring back all burned cards into the deck.
"Each character is themed around a couple of different concepts"
Gloomhaven starts things off by giving players access to five characters from the base game, along with four more from the Jaws of the Lion expansion that comes bundled with the PS5 version of the game. On picking a character, you also get to pick a personal quest for that character. Completing this personal quest, which can often take quite a long time, will retire that character, while at the same time unlocking an entirely new character you can play as. These unlockable characters often tend to feature more complex mechanics and concepts, and then players can run the gamut once more with a brand new personal quest. In its entirety, Gloomhaven has 21 total classes, with 9 being available at the beginning.
When it comes to questing, not everything in Gloomhaven revolves around diving into dungeons to take on goblins and skeletons. Some dungeons will have you take on more unique objectives, that can range from being escort missions, recovering specific artifacts, killing very specific enemies without hurting anyone else, or even just surviving an onslaught. Despite its emphasis on the combat system, Gloomhaven actually ends up offering quite a bit of variety in its quest design.
Gloomhaven also happens to have a story, and there’s a lot of content there through the Campaign mode, but ultimately, the most fun long-term way to play Gloomhaven is the Guildmaster mode. While you’ll still follow a loose narrative thread in Guildmaster mode, there’s a bigger focus on getting you playing the actual game rather than spending time reading long walls of text.
"Despite its emphasis on the combat system, Gloomhaven actually ends up offering quite a bit of variety in its quest design."
The biggest downside of the PS5 release of Gloomhaven is its control scheme. While things feel largely fine most of the time, there are some inconsistencies in how you navigate its UI that eventually build up to becoming major annoyances. For example, the game flip-flops between letting you use the D-pad to go through your deck of cards and using the analogue stick. There is also an over-reliance on holding a button down to confirm simple actions that just ultimately feel unnecessary.
Gloomhaven is an incredibly fun game, and this continues to be the case for the console release. While single-player focused players might find it fun, the game really shines when you play with other people. Parties of up to four players are encouraged by the game, and the console version also allows you to just pass the controller around for when it’s the right character’s turn. Its tabletop-styled visual aesthetics go incredibly well with its incredibly nuanced card-based combat to create one of the best digital board game experiences out there.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 5.
Great combat mechanics; Each character offers an incredible amount of variety; No shortage of quests.
Story is largely inconsequential; Can feel like a slog for solo play.