From the Parallel Worlds Magazine archive.
It’s time to address the elephant in the room. All of us in the boardgaming community love what Gloomhaven represents but… it’s just too darn big. Too expensive, too much content for most to finish… it even frankly weighs too much. It’s a daunting prospect which keeps many from experiencing its charms. So, make way for a genius idea which was always going to sell out its first print run almost immediately: Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion. Or, as I like to call it, Gloomhaven For the Average Gamer.
I want to start by dispelling what Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion (JOTL) isn’t. It isn’t a small section of Gloomhaven cut out to stand alone. This is a new campaign, features four brand new characters and even features items, creatures and goals which were not in Gloomhaven.
It also isn’t a slimmed down or simplified version of Gloomhaven. At least, not in the gameplay. It features something I long to see in more games, which is a videogame-style tutorial over the first five scenarios, unveiling more rules a little at a time. By scenario five, you’re handling everything you’d find in a full Gloomhaven session and the only thing still to learn at that point is the levelling up process.
There’s nothing to dislike here.
So what is it? In short it’s a co-operative dungeon crawler, in which each character has a hand of 10 cards which represent their skills. Scenarios are completed by moving around a map, fighting enemies, completing objectives as instructed and trying not to run out of either hit points or cards. Two cards are played each turn, but each card has a top (generally attack) and bottom (generally movement) skill, and only one half of each card may be played. So, if you play the ability on the top of card A, you can only use the ability on the bottom of card B. Each card has an ‘initiative’ number, which determines the order that characters and monsters take their action. Each character and monster also has a deck of attack modifiers. Attacks have fixed values in Gloomhaven, so it’s these cards which modify every strike, and range from a wonderful +2 or 2x multiplier, to a heart-wrenching miss or -2.
What I love about this card system is the simulation of characters becoming tired. Every time you’ve played all of your cards, you lose one at random but return the rest to your hand, allowing the action to continue. Each time you rest this way, your hand gets smaller until you’ll find you no longer have enough cards to take a turn and that character is knocked out. Additionally, there are powerful abilities available at the cost of immediately losing the card, forcing you to weigh up whether the big hit is a better choice than extending your number of overall turns.
This card-based system also makes levelling up very straightforward. With each character level comes a new choice of cards to add, but in each scenario you may only use 10. So, it’s often a case of editing your deck for different circumstances. What is even more satisfying to me is that alongside new skill cards, each level-up allows you to adjust your combat modifier deck. There are a number of prescribed choices for each character, but they are generally improvements ranging from removing a set of negative modifiers, swapping one negative for a new positive, or adding new positive cards often with added effects such as stun or poison. It’s that wonderful kind of levelling up where you want to play a new scenario straight away just to see how the changes affect gameplay.
In a sense, it would be easy to stop here. If you’ve been interested in Gloomhaven, heard it’s great but were put off by the £100+ price tag, then JOTL has been created with you in mind. It’s certainly the case that with modern, complex, strategic board games, the point of entry can be difficult. It’s hard to commit to a purchase of something like Gloomhaven without having tried it first. However, due to its campaign style, the ‘legacy’ element of destroying components through play and the sheer set-up and learning required, it’s very hard to get a reasonable introduction.
Jaws of the Lion’s simple introduction and clear tutorial made it a breeze to learn.
JOTL is both that reasonable introduction and an entirely valid game in itself. Arguably, despite there being less content (95 playable scenarios and seventeen playable classes, versus 25 playable scenarios and four playable classes), JOTL is the slightly improved, more refined experience over the original. Gone is the lengthy scenario set-up in favour of a ring-bound book, each page of which has the flavour text, special rules and map for the encounter. This doesn’t mean scenarios are size-restricted, either, as a secondary book often provides additional map elements, matching up nicely with the main book.
Lessons have been learned too, for many gamers leery of destroying or defacing game content. JOTL is, essentially, completely replayable. There is a map which can be updated with stickers for scenario locations, but this is entirely optional as the campaign progression is mostly linear. For myself I simply laminated a photocopy of the map and copied the stickers onto a self-adhesive A4 sheet, and the sizes of the original components seem designed with this in mind. In that way, should I ever want to repeat the campaign — either to try the other characters or with a new group — I can reset the game without damage.
In summary, this is the perfect way into Gloomhaven’s wonderful design. Having played and enjoyed Jaws of the Lion, I am now more likely than I ever was to get Gloomhaven or the forthcoming Frosthaven. It’s much less of a commitment to try, should it turn out not to be your cup of tea.
But honestly? There’s nothing to dislike here. Jaws of the Lion’s simple introduction and clear tutorial made it a breeze to learn and the tactical gameplay which lay in wait is a joy to explore. And, much of the new content – including the four new character types – can be added to the original Gloomhaven to provide even more options.