Designer: Isaac Childress
Artist: Francesca Baerald, David Demaret and Alexandr Elichev
Publisher: Cephalofair Games
Our group has always wanted to do something a little more extended and epic. Beyond the normal Euros that form our staples, we have shied away from the epic campaigns or a legacy games. Pandemic Season 1 fell short for us. I think all of us appreciate the design and marvel at the innovation, but ultimately, the game slowly faded mid way into the season. For me at least, the repetitiveness of playing the core mechanism in multiple back-to-back games started to feel bland and even though the objectives change, the differences still felt cosmetic to me because really, you are still playing pandemic. There are certainly more legacy style games right now, but none more famous than Gloomhaven.
Gloomhaven is a massive undertaking both from creating and designing the beast as well as playing it. Kudos for Issac Childress for developing such a sprawling and intense game system. But Gloomhaven would never have worked in our group as the time investment in playing the game does not suit our current schedules. Moreover, the theme itself is a drawback. Not everyone in our group is enamored with killing monsters and crawling around in claustrophobic passageways and underground caverns. Hence, I don’t think we ever considered Gloomhaven as an option. For me at least, the days of spending 8 hours pouring over maps and rolling dice are over. So, when Jaws of the Lion came along, some of us were excited about of the prospect of playing. I think this will be better than a solo experience.
Long story short, we decided to take the plunge to see if this compact version of Gloomhaven has any legs. There are quite a bit of scenarios and it will likely still take a while for us to get to the end. The idea would be to play this every other session, hopefully fortnightly, alternating with our regular game nights to see how far this goes.
As usual, my recaps and opinions will have spoilers. So, be forewarned. Do not venture beyond this point if you don’t really want to know anything more about the game
Warning, spoilers ahead
General impressions of the game after the first session (scenarios 1-2)
I consider the first two scenarios to be teaching scenarios for newbies. I think it is smart that the designer included these scenarios. In fact, I am pretty sure if the group was thrown into the deep end starting from Scenario 1, we would not have kept going to the second scenario. The gradual increase in difficulty is key to sustaining the momentum for this group. So, this is a wise choice. The first two scenarios are teaching us the main mechanics of game, with a few bells and whistles thrown in. It is certainly not “dumbed down” as the game is already pretty involved. Thus far, this is working for the group because the decision space is still limited. Unlike traditional D&D, the two-card action selection system is reminiscent of a Euro mechanism that restricts choice. Players must be able to make do with that they have and optimize their output given the limited options. This is what Gloomhaven JOTL is offering. Unlike the wide open options for D&D, this is a good feature for a board game. Right now, players have only 6 actions cards to choose from and as the scenario progresses, everyone will have even fewer choices as cards are lost. I hope the card deck does not grow too large between scenarios. Even if it does, I doubt it would grow that much given that the deck itself is a timing mechanism to limit the length of each scenario: at some point, you will lose the scenario if all your cards are lost from the deck. I admit, this built in timer mechanism is brilliant even though random card loss feels somewhat arbitrary.
Thus far in the first two scenarios, there are some interesting rules in JOTL that are probably designed to fit with the game system, but feel out of place. Looting is one of them. Having to pick up coins during the heat of the battle feels silly. Opponents picking up loot dropped by their companions also seem odd to me. Having to move around picking up loot late in the game after fighting creatures does not make much thematic sense. That said, I kind of understand why it is designed in this manner even though it feels illogical. Each scenario has a set number of coins and if all coins are won at the end of each scenario, then there won’t be any variation between sessions. Earning loot is an individual action and feels slightly against the spirit of the game. There is some internal competition to pick up coins since they are not split up at the end of each scenario. I guess you could always house rule that. Overall, I am not sure I am in love with how booty is handled in JOTL.
The opening story is ho-hum and is trying to set up the group for future exploration. It’s still early days, but I hope the story will develop into something memorable and not just a standard good v. evil trope of finding the evil dude that is kidnapping townsfolk. After all, we are playing JOTL partly for the epic narrative and hope we won’t feel disappointed. For now, we are basically killing everything that smells like a rat.
More thoughts to come in future scenarios.
The leap from scenario 2 to 3 is sizeable and the complexity is ramped up. Card are now more varied and there is a noticeable power creep as more modifiers and iconography come into play. The pace of the game is slower and it’s now a little too slow for my liking. Right now, the mission isn’t particularly varied. It’s basically, kill everything in sight. It’s early days still but I expect the mission parameters to change.
I still think the looting mechanism is an odd one. Every time you have to hang around bad guys and make them sing and dance while you walks around the room trying to loot is illogical to me. Perhaps it makes mechanistic sense but not from the context of narrative.
There are some strengths to the game. The two-card action selection mechanism is still a good way to cut down on decision making. I also enjoy how skills can be progressively introduced in the deck. I think perks are a great concept which allow you to change the composition of the modifier deck. It’s a decent change from rolling dice. Anytime someone mentions “perks” , I start thinking of Fallout. But nice touch with character specific perks.
The introduction of elements in powering special moves is good if not predictable. This feels a lot like mana for casting spells but applicable for the entire team. Which is also a good thing. But again, elements are earned collectively by the team but useable by all, including villains seem odd and thematically jarring.
Player elimination always sucks. No exception here. Some player characters can get exhausted early and exit the game, but it’s probably rare. If it happens, it’s going to be likely at end game stages. Not sure there really is a way around this. Player elimination or death in the fantasy trope is just bread and butter of the game.
The game is creeping up and up in complexity. Turns are dragging out longer and longer as more gameplay elements are thrown into the pot. Some of the tension is lost in the deliberations. The game is only good if played with some tension and pace. I almost wish for a Space Hulk style timer. That would be glorious. But I guess the card whittling mechanism for each deck is a built in timer of sorts.
Still don’t love the loot.