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Dungeon Masters are hard to find, that’s why there’s Gloomhaven

This critically acclaimed role-playing board game might be just what your group needs

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Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Earlier this year I was invited to join a Dungeons & Dragons group. They were looking for a regular fifth player, and I was looking for an opportunity to be a character rather than a Dungeon Master. It was a natural fit, and a ton of fun ... until our DM had to move on.

I think next time we get together I’ll recommend tearing into Gloomhaven, an epic role-playing board game with thoughtful, tactical combat and a massive narrative campaign.

Best of all, it doesn’t require a game master to make it go.

What’s a Gloomhaven?

Gloomhaven is back on Kickstarter for a second printing. If you haven’t heard about it previously, you’re not alone. The first edition was the product of a modestly successful campaign back in 2015. But when the final copies landed with backers earlier this year, my Twitter feed lit up like a Christmas tree. Everyone was simply raving about it.

Since then, Gloomhaven has quickly worked its way up the ranks at Board Game Geek to become number seven on the list of the best tabletop games of all time. That puts it in alongside Pandemic: Legacy, Twilight Struggle, Star Wars: Rebellion and Scythe.

Here’s how it works.

Gloomhaven is a diceless tactical skirmish game. Think D&D, but with cards. Each character has a set of powers that they shuffle into a deck, and as combat plays out they draw cards and perform the maneuvers listed on those cards. Instead of rolling dice, success is determined by drawing from another pile of cards. Enemies work in roughly the same way.

To drive the story forward, the game comes with nearly 100 combat-focused scenarios. It’s like a choose your own adventure book, with new plotlines unfolding based on player choice and a party’s prowess in battle. There’s even a world map that players build out with a sticker sheet.

What makes the system interesting is that encounters scale automatically to the number of players at the table. Each encounter is color-coded and easily read to establish balance. That means if someone doesn’t show up for game night, you can still move the story forward and read them in on what went down the following week.

For adults with families and busy schedules who aren’t able to game like clockwork Gloomhaven feels like a gift.

The weight of history

To me, what truly makes Gloomhaven special is that it builds history at a speed and a scale that simply isn’t possible with your average tabletop RPG.

Over the course of your adventures, individual player characters will retire. Everyone at the table has a secret goal, and once that goal is achieved they ride off into the sunset. But when that happens, whole new classes open up, each with unique powers and unique miniatures. To progress the story forward players are required to pick up the reins of these new player characters and help to tell their story.

The retirement mechanic gives the game world a scope and a scale that could only be achieved after years spent playing a dedicated Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder or similar campaign.

Moving as quickly as it does, Gloomhaven covers a lot of ground. It comes with interlocking cardboard terrain to portray four different environments, including furniture and other features. It has nearly 50 unique monster types, each with multiple cardboard standees. It also includes more than 1,500 cards and 17 sealed cardboard boxes containing each of the character classes players will open up over time.

The game box itself weighs, I kid you not, about 20 pounds.

Developer and publisher Cephalofair Games is running a Kickstarter right now for the second edition of the game. There are six days left for backers to purchase this improved edition, which features revised rules and a more robust hit-point tracker.

Before the day is out, the Gloomhaven campaign will likely reach $2.7 million. There is so much included in the box that, in my opinion, it’s an absolute steal at $99. Copies are going on eBay right now for as high as $350.

There’s one big caveat: I haven’t actually had the time to play Gloomhaven outside of a few simulated solo games. I only know enough to say that the combat system works, and that the pace of play lives up to the promise of 30-minutes per player.

Don’t take my word for it. The campaign page itself features a great collection of video reviews, and if you’ve had time with the game let readers know your thoughts in the comments below.

The Kickstarter campaign promises a delivery date just a few months away in August 2017, so with luck you’ll be able to enjoy the game along with me and my group all throughout the fall.


  • $106
  • $140
  • 25% off

Prices taken at time of publishing.

• 1-4 players, age 14+

• Playtime: 60-120 minutes

• Game type: Dungeon crawler, campaign, Legacy-style persistence

• Category: Adult board game, cooperative, solo

• Similar games: Descent: Legends of the Dark

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