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Playing Games - Gloomhaven

I've been playing Gloomhaven with my core gaming friends for over half a year, almost exclusively. It's pretty much only when one of us four cannot make it that we play something else. I'm quite enamored with I. I think we all are.

We've been playing campaign-based games for a couple years now, starting with Imperial Assault, and chasing that with Pandemic: Legacy Seasons 1 and 2 and Time Stories, with some dabbling in Arkham Horror: The Card Game (I'll be examining campaign-based games from a development standpoint coming up). While I've liked all these campaigns to varying degrees, and even more I appreciate the variety in how they present themselves as campaigns, something about Gloomhaven has really stuck with us as a group.

My gaming group I met first as role players, of which I am not. I don't dislike role playing overall but I get frustrated with the rules of RPG engines, the games masters that enforce the rules, and the personality politics that can seep into RPGin. These things tend to stifle my creativity as a storyteller and I'd much rather go off and tell my own story by myself then be frustrated trying to collaborate on one.

When the RPG group started dabbling into boardgaming this became more my thing, as I learned I like games that have hard-line rules much more than the soft and nebulous rules that govern most RPG systems. The introduction of campaign-based games has offered storytelling and discovery, and sometimes character growth like an RPG, but with more structure and less demands.

Gloomhaven feeds the pleasure receptors of the brain very, very nicely. It's keyed into some fundamental things that attract people to RPGs. You pick a class and you receive your boxes which includes your figurine, your records sheet, and your decks of cards. You give your character a name, you build your character's action deck, and you can buy items to help your character in their adventures. And then you get a personal quest card, unique to you, that gives your character something to focus on while going on adventures, and once you accomplish your quest, you retire that character and get a new one. Along the way you will have gained XP which levels you up, giving you access to more action cards, you get achievements which allow you to tweak your modifier deck (plus/inuses to your combat) and you get gold, you know, to buy more stuff. Rewards make you smile. Leveling up feels good.

But you're not just in it for yourself. You're part of a team, and as part of the team you get a reputation in the town of Gloomhaven and surrounding region. The story path you follow gives you party objectives and bonuses or drawbacks. You discover new locations on the map and you have choices where you get to go. All the while you're engaging with a story, you're investing in a character, and you're bonding with your team. You learn each other's strengths and weaknesses and you don't just play tactfully by yourself, but as a unit.

My first character was a Vermling names Rattok. His quest was to gain 200 gold in order to retire. There's some descriptive text on the class placards that tells you about typical character traits of your race, and Vermlings are unpleasant and anti-social. I would play Rattok this way, being dismissive about the paths we take or the encounters we have, unless there was gold involved. I had no great love for my fellow mercenaries (at first) and in-mission I would go out of my way to loot treasure, at times at the expense of the team or mission. I was into my character and I would play him true to the character I developed.

Eventually Rattok got his 200 gold (never spending a dime) and retired (in about 10 missions or so), but by the end he had learned to be part of the team, to cooperate, not be so greedy, and to be much braver than he was at the start. (When retiring a character, you get to reveal a new character class which you can take, or choose another of the base classes not selected, thus a new character joins the team). While it was sad to let Rattok go, he had reached the end of his natural journey. But the way I played him has had an impact on how we view Vermlings within the game as a whole. That goes the same for how the others play their character types. They build a mythos unique for our group that's full of our own memes and in jokes, all based on the foundation of what the game provides.

The stories are just enough to provide that foundation without overwhelming or overruling the players abilities to role play a fair bit. We get very excited when storylines start to dovetail into personal mythologies we've built. The whole world of Gloomhaven is a treat. Creator Isaac Childres and his team put as much love and care into designing the character races and the world we interact with as he did with balancing the scenarios and enemy races and character cards and leveling and modular tiles... there's a reason this game is so popular. It's incredibly well designed from the foundation up.

Gloomhaven is more than just a kill-'em-all board game, it's a legitimate investment. While player creativity isn't as high as an RPG, it gives you more than enough room to invest in a role. It has the sense of a video game come to life, but it allows you to socialize and strategize and even fudge things in a way that a video game would never let you do.

It's not going to be every table-topper's cup of tea but what it does in the realm of campaign-based games is incredibly unique. I can't even imagine the amount of test-playing that would have gone into all of this.

I will be devoting a few blog entries to picking Gloomhaven apart in the coming months, breaking down the many impressive elements about this game, with an eye to, well, not backwards-engineering per se, but learning how a game like this comes together. As well, I have a few more thoughts on the brand building and user engagement of Gloomhaven. It never ceases to impress.

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