Gloomhaven’s digital adaptation is a marvelous turn-based dungeon crawler
Gloomhaven is no longer just a popular board game. It’s a franchise. Designed and published by Isaac Childres, this cooperative dungeon crawler attained massive success across three separate Kickstarters, including the $13 million sequel Frosthaven. Now, after several years in early access, the full digital game is ready for its final release on PC. The end result is marvelous.
As a tabletop game, Gloomhaven is novel for several reasons. The first is a rich, diceless combat system. Players select from several classes, each possessing a discrete deck of action cards. These include the typical options of moving around the dungeon and attacking a foe, but also special abilities such as the Cragheart’s talent for obliterating terrain, or the Tinkerer’s arsenal of traps.
The depth and quality of that card-based combat system is extricated wonderfully in the digital version. This is most apparent when tackling the game as a solitaire experience. While you can also play the board game all by yourself, it’s a burdensome process of managing multiple characters and enemies. The PC port, however, reduces the process of organizing decks, tokens, and tiles to a quiet moment of loading. The digital adaptation does away with all of the work while still retaining the essential assets.
Image: Asmodee Digital
No time is wasted once the journey has actually begun. Controlling multiple characters is greatly streamlined — you can flip between party members and examine their many action cards with ease. Time is also saved as players no longer need to assess enemy priorities or adjudicate some of the more sticky situations where targeting isn’t clear. Antagonist activations are entirely handled by the game in the background. All of this saves an enormous amount of time and energy, maintaining the momentum as you push through the tidal wave of content on offer.
Another notable feature of the tabletop game is its scope. Physically, it’s a beast, chock-full of sealed content for a group of friends to discover over its roughly 40-hour campaign. While the popularity of campaign-based board games has certainly grown over the past few years, Gloomhaven was a bit of a pathfinder within its genre. It synthesized influences from both Pandemic Legacy and Dungeons & Dragons to create a new, unified vision. As it embraced “legacy” elements, such as permanently modifying cards by applying stickers, it opened up a new wealth of possibilities in supporting long-term progression. All of that original material is now included in this digital version, and it’s astonishingly effective.
There is a surprising amount of mental anxiety in tearing up an event card or stickering an ability card, permanently altering and in some sense damaging this expensive board game. While this anguish cannot be captured in the PC version, nearly everything else can. You can still modify cards through enhancement, unlock all of the various classes, and accomplish achievements which virtually sticker the digital board.
Image: Asmodee Digital
The ongoing story itself is given new life in the PC version. The soundtrack is tense and surprisingly vibrant with entrancing rhythms. I’m particularly fond of the voice acting that narrates introductions to all of the scenarios. The organization of quests on the world map also proves efficient, even allowing you to assess what enemies you are likely to encounter in each outing. One of the more inconvenient qualities of the board game is that it can be difficult to keep track of the various narrative strands when assessing side quests alongside the main storyline. This is particularly a problem when meeting with your real-world gaming group infrequently. But again, in the digital version, this is all trivial; each dungeon has a useful descriptor, allowing you to dive back in even if it’s been days since you’ve played.
Speaking of which: The dungeons themselves are splendid. Their visuals aren’t particularly striking, but they do create an oppressive atmosphere. This mood pairs wonderfully with an enhanced focus on exploration. New rooms and enemies are slowly revealed as you encounter them, unlike the board game, which requires you to uncomfortably ignore unexplored areas on the dungeon setup map. This is a fundamental shift in how we interact with the environment and it injects a heightened sense of tension. It doesn’t hurt that these dungeons, with their atmosphere and excellent design, are all the more enjoyable because the digital version removes so much of the busy work of the tabletop game. It’s so much easier to be enveloped by it all.
One of Asmodee Digital’s greatest accomplishments with Gloomhaven’s digital version is its clear and streamlined user interface. Occasionally you will find yourself searching for an element which feels buried — such as the character-specific battle goals for each dungeon — but the search is never tedious or lengthy. Gloomhaven is, after all, an extremely dense game. But it feels as though the digital developers fundamentally understand the tabletop game, and have taken pains to make it as easy to parse as possible.
Image: Asmodee Digital
Gloomhaven digital is impressive for how it facilitates solo play, however, it’s also capable of providing a satisfying experience for a group of friends. It’s an enticing counter to the physical version, as it’s much easier to schedule an hour for everyone to hop on the PC, particularly with COVID still causing concern. You can tackle the entire campaign or investigate the roguelike Guildmaster mode. The latter offers escalating encounters devoid of any strong narrative link, but it does allow you to experience character growth and the trademark card-based combat. When measured against the campaign, however, this mode lacks the long-term payoff and strength of story.
In its full-release state, I’m highly impressed with Gloomhaven digital. Despite being extremely dense and demanding, the original title is a remarkable board game experience. That experience has been masterfully translated to the PC by cutting out all of the obstacles and focusing on the central mechanisms. The end product is one of the most satisfying turn-based dungeon crawlers of 2021.
Gloomhaven’s digital version will be released on Oct. 20 on Windows PC, with a Mac release at a TBD date. The game was reviewed on PC using a pre-release download code provided by Asmodee Digital. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.
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