Gloomhaven Steam Early Access Preview – Won’t Leave You Board

Nowadays, more and more board games are becoming available for people to play online, and in a quarantined world, this is more than welcome news. However, from my experience, many board games that get converted to official video games tend to come out half baked and fail to lean into the digital medium to improve the overall game experience.

There are many board games out there that could benefit greatly from the automation of rules and play setup. The addition of animations could drastically increase the immersion of some titles. One such board game that I always thought could benefit from a video game version was Gloomhaven. Much to my surprise and enjoyment, a digital version became available for Early Access on Steam.

For those that are unfamiliar, Gloomhaven is a massive board game that takes familiar dungeon crawling and exploration elements of tabletop RPGs such as D&D. It adds a strategic card game mechanic in place of rolling dice. You and your friends pick characters that come with a unique deck of cards.

Each card has separate actions printed on the top and bottom that give your character the ability to attack, move, heal, and more. Every turn, players select two cards and choose to take the top action of one card and the bottom action of the other, with the number at the corner of the cards dictating the characters’ initiative order. Using these action cards alongside a smaller deck of cards that act as a D20, players will loot, explore, and level up while unlocking more goodies as the game goes on.

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Gloomhaven is what is known as a legacy type game, which means that the game permanently changes based on the choices players make, and the complete experience is broken down into smaller sessions where you play a few encounters at a time. Players explore a plethora of locations across a sprawling world map. New items, cards, locations, and playable characters become available as you go through, depending on the choices and accomplishments along the way.

It is a fairly dense game that requires a fair amount of setup and bookkeeping, but the gameplay has a lot of depth and strategy, making it engaging. Due to the board game’s hefty nature, it can often be a pain to set up, and gameplay can be lengthier than it needs to be. However, the video game version keeps all of the things that makes the board game great and enhances the experience with beautiful visuals, clean mechanics, and the automation of the board game’s more tedious elements.

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The visuals are gorgeous, with pops of color and detailed character models. The developers did a great job bringing the game to life while still staying true to the hexcrawl board game aesthetic. The sound effects and the ability animations are nice, but after some time, there is a bit of repetition that gets annoying. This is something I hope gets expanded upon more upon the final release.

For the most part, the user interface is very clean and allows players to easily jump right into the game if they are already familiar with the structure. The experience can become a bit clunky and buggy with it being an early access build, but nothing that glaringly ruined the enjoyment. One minor gripe I have is that the hover color for targeting enemies is similar to when an enemy is selected, which messed me up a couple of times when trying to line up abilities. It would be neat to see some colorblind feature implemented to the game or, at the very least, make the colors more distinctive.

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In its early access state, Gloomhaven is not an exact one-to-one replica of the physical version. The board game’s actual campaign has yet to make its way to the build, and there are many playable characters not yet available for use. Instead, the early access build offers a Guild Master mode that allows you to play a lite version of the full game. While trimmed down, the build I played still offered the core Gloomhaven experience. There is also a hefty amount of content already in the build. You still have many character classes to choose from, and each of them uses the same cards available to them on the boardgame. You also get to pick locations on a map, but the mechanic for this is different from the actual game. Additionally, multiplayer, a crucial part of the experience, is available in Early Access and works in Guild Master Mode much like it would in the board game.

Overall, even as an early access build, Gloomhaven the video game offers a solid experience and stays true to the source material. I am pleased with where it is now and am very enthusiastic about what is potentially in store upon full release. I will be keeping an eye on this one, and I think you all should too.

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Brian Lee

Production Editor and Co-host of the Noisy Pixel Podcast - Professional goof and overall video game junkie. Brian [at] noisypixel [dot] net