Gloomhaven on Steam isn’t a full adaptation of the stellar board game, but it's a strong start


(Image credit: Flaming Fowl Studios)

My Cragheart was out of cards and needed to rest, but the room was empty and the Scoundrel was itching to stab someone. I opted to open the next room and pop her Smoke Bomb for invisibility, just to be safe. The door revealed a large room with over half a dozen foes, including Bone Rangers and Living Spirits, who were all too happy to shoot me from afar when my invisibility ended. By the time the slow Cragheart ran up to help, I'd taken too much damage. It was a slow, painful loss, and a lesson in being better prepared.

Despite its occasional difficulty spikes, I adore Gloomhaven, the tabletop game. It's a tactical RPG in board and card form, and has been the best board game on BoardGameGeek since 2017. Gloomhaven captures the turn-based combat and progression of Dungeons & Dragons along with unlockable hidden classes, a huge campaign of nearly 100 scenarios, over three dozen monsters and bosses, and a Choose Your Own Adventure story with multiple avenues and choices. I've completed dozens of scenarios and sunk well over a hundred hours, and now I'm starting over with the new digital version on Steam.

Adapting such a behemoth was never going to be easy. Flaming Fowl Studios, born from the ashes of Lionhead, is taking an interesting approach by directly tapping the passionate Gloomhaven community and launching via Steam Early Access. The bad news: It's definitely not the full Gloomhaven campaign. Right now it has limited enemies, classes, and tilesets, and only supports single player. But the pieces are in place to eventually create a worthy adaptation.

The full Gloomhaven campaign features 17 classes, each with their own decks of cards, character sheet, and playstyle. Only six are available when you start a campaign. Right now, digital Gloomhaven features only four classes: Brute, Cragheart, Scoundrel, and Spellweaver. The only available mode is Adventure, which creative director Mike West describes as "a replayable, infinitely varied roguelike mode."

The lack of multiplayer is maybe the community's biggest complaint in Early Access.

"The Gloomhaven campaign is a HUGE undertaking, and it has to be released in one drop," says West. "Therefore, the best way of getting the game to players early is to add a completely new mode where players can take on fun adventures with the currently implemented characters and enemies. All the content and mechanics in Adventure mode have been vetted by [Gloomhaven designer] Isaac Childres to ensure consistency with the quality standards of the board game experience."

Normally in Gloomhaven you progress through a story campaign, unlocking specific scenarios and gaining rewards while building up the town of Gloomhaven and leveling up, retiring, and creating new adventurers. In Adventure mode I can select any combination of party with the four available classes—with the major caveat that I first have to beat it with a party of two to unlock bigger party combinations. 

The goal of Adventure mode is to defeat three bosses, including the Bandit Commander, an early boss from the tabletop game. To get there I choose from multiple paths on the new map, with each path featuring different randomly generated scenarios and difficulty ratings. The roguelike portion is a bit of a hybrid, as losing any one scenario in a path causes me to reset and fall back to where I was. Given my experience level with the board game I was playing on 'Insane' difficulty, and failing a scenario was a devastating loss of progress. One of the hallmarks of playing the board game is that even if we fail, we still keep any earned experience and gold, but that's not the case in Adventure mode.

Adventure mode puts a unique twist on loot. I still gather coins during battle and spend them on items like Boots of Striding (+2 movement) and Eagle-Eye Goggles (Advantage on ranged attacks). But in Adventure mode each item has a limited durability that counts down for every scenario I have them equipped, whether I use them or not. It's annoying, but the amount of gold I earn and frequent items for sale balances it out.

(Image credit: Flaming Fowl Studios)

Singleplayer Gloomhaven is still a blast, but the lack of multiplayer is maybe the community's biggest complaint in Early Access. "The Gloomhaven board game community REALLY wanted multiplayer earlier than we initially planned, so we adjusted our roadmap in order to have co-op multiplayer released during Early Access," says West. Even then, multiplayer support, along with the full 95-scenario campaign mode, won't be coming until 2020.

One major advantage of the digital version is that it performs all the monster actions for you, which is a huge time-saver. The animations are a lot of fun to watch, like the Scoundrel hurling a poison flask with the bottom half of Special Mixture, and Cragheart leaping into the air to perform a Hulk smash with Rumbling Advance. A lot of work has been put into how each adventurer and enemy attacks and animates, making the tabletop game come to life.

It's not all that nice: Environments suffer from excessive bloom, gold, chests, and traps are a bit small and hard to spot, and my framerate bottoms out whenever I select multiple targets for attacks. 

More egregious are the limited enemies and tilesets. After several hours of Adventure mode, I've fought nothing but an endless horde of Cultists, Living Bones, and Living Corpses in a series of green-glowing crypts—though the Bone Ranger is an example of an  enemy new to the digital version. It's a testament to how much I love the tactical design that I still enjoy these repetitive dungeon crawls, but playing with only a tiny fraction of the game box makes me desperately yearn for the rest of it, as well as future modding support.

(Image credit: Flaming Fowl Studios)

"We have a backlog of features we want to add, and from watching streams and listening to our community on Discord, we can better understand what people are passionate about," says West. "Previously the community shared some insights regarding the Brute aesthetics, and we improved its design. Currently there is a lot of feedback asking for tweaks to the UI, or the need for better onboarding as the game is quite complex. Later during Early Access I think new features and content will become more requested once the initial feedback has been implemented. If something new comes up that people want then the release dates and order may change; it's very agile development."

With such limited content and no real tutorial, the current Early Access version will probably only be of interest to Gloomhaven veterans looking for a singleplayer option divorced from the campaign. The UI definitely needs a less cumbersome way to end movement or skip actions (and please, for the love of Gloom, give us an Undo button). But even a limited, somewhat clunky digital version of Gloomhaven is still one of the best board game experiences around.