And then? It is a very quick stop near the guild, as Ben visits the only place that could help him with his Tory problem. No, not the firing squad… but the hospital! (39:29), where we talk about the factors that determine the size of your collection.
And then? Nick Mariner has things to say. Unscripted. It is 37,8% less insipid than what we have said about Barcelona – The Rose of Fire. (01:03:06)
And then? We don’t review a game. We do something else. We talk. Or rather Ben does. With somebody else. It is really as mindblowing and revolutionary as it sounds. Hold on to your seats so as to not get sucked through a PORTAL of gaming INSIDER knowledge! (Get it? Get it? Get it? No… well, then just listen… at 01:14:43)
And then? It is time for the outro. Wherein we speak about how you can reach out to us. (01:40:46)
Did you know that there is website where gamers like you can pledge money to a board game before it gets made, so it can collect the funds necessary to kickstart its production? I believe it’s called “Pledge-Monies-For-Gamies”.com
One of those games there is called The City of Kings and Ben took it upon himself to hunt down poor, beleaguered designer Frank West to bombard him with questions about his soon-to-come-into-existence game.
Get the inside info on this cooperative fantasy adventure right here.
EDIT (April 15, 6pm): There have been quite a few comments and reactions to this piece, that have convinced me that I’ve once again done a bang up job of communicating my ideas. It was truly remarkable. There were absolutely no misunderstandings. At all. None. It was like people directly looking into my mind because I made my point so very, very clearly. Nonetheless, I’ve decided to include some clarifying sentences just in case some future reader might stumble over my phrasing here and there. Because I obviously did not write anything that could be misread. Obviously. OBVIOUSLY.
This is a rather long review of Gloomhaven, so to keep you from having to scroll all the way down, let me put my conclusion right at the top:
If you are a board gamer, Gloomhaven is not for you. It is too big, too much of a long-term time investment, too unwieldy to handle easily and designed to evoke a very specific game experience, that board games do not dabble in a lot. Gloomhaven presents a promise that players of Dungeons & Dragons (if not in name, then at least in spirit) will recognise, and most likely long to return to since their regular roleplaying group has either drifted apart or been taken over by the pressures of adult life. EDIT: This isn’t a judgement on the game’s quality, but its purpose. What Gloomhaven offers and demands from its players is decidedly different from what board games generally go for.
Don’t let the trappings fool you: this isn’t a board game. Gloomhaven is at its core the next evolutionary step to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. As Chainmail became Dungeons & Dragons; Gloomhaven looks at AD&D and distills it into a doll house-sized box of gameplay. EDIT: As much as it takes inspiration from the focused rules designs of modern board games, its heart lies in roaming the fantasy lands and adventurescapes of Dungeons & Dragons.
The design of roleplaying games (the so-called traditional ones at least) has always had a blaring omission at its core. Borne out of an almost fetishistic belief that roleplaying games must adhere to freedom above all else, no roleplaying game really spent much time defining just what its goal was. What was the endpoint that would resolve play? What were players supposed to drive towards, what objective were their actions supposed to achieve? What was the whole point of play even? This vacancy has led to groups, individuals and sometimes entire movements pursuing different paths. Some turned the act of play into its own goal elevating immersion and experience into the golden calf of roleplaying games; others pursued a more holistic approach seeing the sum of play as a gestalt called narrative; yet others sensed that there was something missing and sought out objectives to pursue and fulfil as they knew them from other forms of play. In the years that followed the roleplaying genre developed in all kinds of directions, yet never fully tackling its own hollow design with its flagship title. Some indie designes forged a path of their own, bringing forth many delightful, unique and fascinating oddities. Feel like swallowing an ancient sumerian bug for tenure? How about dying as a Polish teen in World War II? Better yet be a religious lawmen keeping the peace in parish after parish, infested with moral corruption! These games got you covered. And as unique and quirky as they were, none of them managed to actually succeed AD&D as the dominant roleplaying design template.
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was re-vamped, modernized and cleaned up… about four times now. As much as third edition revitalized the hobby with its open game licence (and at least partly responsible for somebody like Kevin Wilson eventually entering the field of board game design, for which I at least am very thankful), at its core it was still only a reduction of AD&D. It didn’t fill the conceptional gap with anything. It was still up to game masters themselves to turn their D&D campaign into being about something. Killing orcs and levelling up? Sure, fine. The long and inspiring tale of Trogdor the Burninator? Have at it! Truly inhabiting the role of the pick-pocketing Black Leaf? Sure, but it’s your funeral, pal.
The following editions didn’t really dare to stray away too much from the path AD&D had laid out: more than enough scaffolding to build whatever you could imagine, but refraining from telling you what it took to actually make it work. (Cue the millions upon millions of hours wasted with arguments and social dysfunction that has plagued roleplaying groups, as they fought over the shape and core of the game they played without really knowing why, yet alone how to solve this.)
I say all this in the knowledge that this failure in game design was also its greatest allure. AD&D (and the roleplaying games that followed) was a game design kit that came in form of a game itself. It was up to the game master to put the rules in place, to apply them as needed and to codify what was necessary to make the roleplaying game you were playing into an actual game: with objectives, robust structures and layers to expand as the group progressed.
This is what Gloomhaven does. This is the box you are buying. You get a game of D&D, a campaign box set – even though I prefer the term doll house for boxes this size – where all this design work has been done for you. The purpose of play is defined; the characters objectives are tangible and resolvable; the world of Gloomhaven exists for you to explore through play. It can be as intricate and involved in character interplay as you want it to be – nobody is keeping you from play acting your character except your own complacency about roleplaying. (Obligatory shout out to Dave Arneson!)
Fun awaits you whenever your adventures reward you with enough experience points or new character perks to improve, evolve and expand your character. This is ultimately the turning point where Gloomhaven self-assuredly, but decisively leaves the genre of board games and posits itself as a roleplaying game. Or as I am trying to put it: the next evolution of roleplaying games.
Please note, that the use of the word evolution is deliberate. Evolution is not about improvement, but adaptation. Gloomhaven does not improve on roleplaying games, but has adapted to the demands and abilities of adult roleplayers. It gives you a product that takes the heavy lifting off of you and your gaming group, and puts it into rules and components.
And, by Clapton, there’s a lot of components. In fact, while I argued, that Gloomhaven isn’t for board gamers because of the type of experience it delivers; it is also an uneasy fit for board gamers because of the sheer amount of book keeping, component handling and organisation that is required to play a scenario, let alone a campaign. And to be clear: it is not possible to only play scenarios. Where board games have individual rounds, Gloomhaven has scenarios. A full game of Gloomhaven is not a single scenario, but at least half a dozen. It is only when characters advance, improve, grow and eventually retire that the game delivers what it sets out to do. Playing only scenarios is like only playing a few select turns of Carcassone or Pandemic. It just makes no sense.
That said, the rules are pretty decent in general. The basics of the now familiar dungeoncrawler are all here: characters move and attack on a map of hexes, deal with terrain effects, and face an enemy AI that keeps you on your toes, etc. Instead of a die, an individual deck of cards allows for some randomness when attacking. This opens up nice ways of improving and customizing your character’s abilities later on. The card play and hand management when on a mission, takes some getting used to, but in turn adds a level of tactical play, that goes beyond mere positioning. Elements such as wind, air, fire, darkness, etc. are triggered by some actions and provide temporary resources for characters to draw upon, further expanding on ways of tactical group play. There are a lot of fine points spread throughout the rules that are clever or at least sensible design choices. But all this of course comes at a price: accessability. If the size of the box didn’t make you stumble, the number of components didn’t make you swallow hard, and the length of play didn’t raise your eyebrows… rest assured this game makes Vast: The Crystal Caverns look like Lost Cities in comparison. By which I mean there is a lot to wrap your head around, and it takes a few scenarios to avoid making stupid mistakes.
But Georgios, you’re saying and probably pronouncing my name wrong, I can only make up my mind about Gloomhaven, if I know whether you will buy it! The short answer is: no, I won’t. The long answer is: this is simply not a game that fits into my gaming habits, schedule or group. For quite literally the same reasons, that I don’t play roleplaying games any more. I have neither the time, nor the inclination to regularly make my way through a game of this magnitude and bulkiness. The experience it provides lacks both the flexibility and the effortlessness that I get from a regular board game night. EDIT: To reiterate this doesn’t make it a bad game, but an play experience distinctly different from board games, be they Ticket to Ride, Pandemic, The Others or Inis. Gloomhaven isn’t a game you play, but a roleplaying campaign you embark on.
Gloomhaven is a fascinating achievement of game design. It is the idealistic promise of Kickstarter made manifest. An unproven and radical vision lifted into existence by the faith of its target audience and somehow it all actually works. Wizards of the Coast / Hasbro should be paying very close attention to what Isaac Childres has done here and out of sheer courtesy offer him the development lead on the next edition of D&D.
The time of roleplaying games coming in three seperate core rulebooks, five supplements and oodles of accessory packs is over. You want to play a modern roleplaying game: it has to be Gloomhaven.
In this week’s episode we are going to talk about things that actually matter to gamers. Firstly size! How big is your gaming collection? How big should it be? What is the right way to determine sizes?
T.C. Petty III returns to talk about that other thing that matters in board games: fairness. How does it matter? Why? And what should we do about it? (38:21)
At 52:52 we talk about some more things that matter, namely our sponsor: spielpro.com
We then turn our gaze towards the urgent matters of the guild, some unfotunate infections and of course your urgent responses to the question of what keeps people out of the hobby? (53:40)
Our sponsor vengeful-games.dk reminds us not only that games can be bought, but we also give recommendations on what to spend your hard-earned Euros or Kronen on. (01:13:20)
And finally we wonder, what is the matter with Roll Player (01:15:20)? Is it good? Is it bad? Do you really want to know? Do we even know where we stand? What are all these questions doing here? Am I getting paid by word count?
There are two unassailable truths about existence: first: there is an unbridgable gap between knowing the self and knowing others; and second: I definitely left my keys right here and now they’re gone.
While we can never fully grasp the implications of the latter, the first is reasonably easy to deal with. In our case we are going to look at board games (this being a board game podcast it seemed somewhat appropriate) and talk about the discrepancy between perception and reality. In other words, what do non-gamers see in this hobby as opposed to us.
Our stay at the guild is short, yet fruitful as we talk about unsalvagable rules and mechanics according to the most discerning listenership in all of boardgaming, and the one that is far too clever to be taken in by cheap flattery. (41:20)
The board game professor (commonly known as Nick Mariner) has come to bury Mombasa, not to praise it. Or at the very least talk about the good and the bad of it. (01:08:40)
This episode’s review (01:22:18) looks at a game that sets out to tackle questions of ethics, morality and metaphysics… by way of killing a bunch of things for fun and profit. We talk about one of the many recently released Eric Lang games: The Others.
It’s not always easy to review a game. Sometimes it’s because you’re too dense to figure it out, even after reading the rulebook twenty times. Sometimes it’s because putting the undeniable strengths and the blatantly apparent weaknesses of a game into words seems to cause more confusion than clarity. Or sometimes it’s even because your opinion runs so hilariously counter to everybody else’s, that the task of carefully and clearly laying out the reasons why a game fails, and gearing up to defend and argue your position just isn’t really worth the bother.
Hein? (or Huh?) fits none of these categories. This is a game that is hard to review, because its design seems so minimalistic that it is barely perceptible. Hein? is basically spoken Charades using a Dixit-like scoring method.
There. That’s it. Review over. If you know Charades and Dixit, you should know whether this game is for you. Or not.
No seriously, there’s little to say here. It’s like reviewing a re-themed version of Monopoly. Although, admittedly that comparison is a little off, since Monopoly is actually awful. (And I don’t care if people have fun with it or not. Arguing that Monopoly is in fact a good game, is like arguing that McDonald’s food is in fact healthy for you. It just isn’t. Stop deluding yourself. It really doesn’t matter how much you love any of their burgers.)
Admittedly, if there is one thing that can be said about Hein?… it is that it may not be ambitious enough in putting a new twist on an established idea. Yes, the scoring mechanism works very well. It gives players a challenge – vaguely reminiscent of Codenames – to tackle: reduce your hint to the absolute minimum and do it as subtly and cleverly as you can to make sure that as few people as possible actually catch on.
By doing so, your attention is drawn to the game portion of Charades as opposed to the activity of prancing about urging your team to say “fish” instead of regurgitating the same three ways of calling Prince by name. You are trying to get into people’s heads, your mining your shared knowledge of pop culture (as this edition of Hein? deals exclusively with movies, celebrities and TV) and choose your words very, very carefully.
Of course, it goes without saying, that this only works if you care about scoring points at all. Something that a great many games of Charades quickly dispense with as the evening drags on, because yelling at each other is just so much gosh-darn fun.
But fun is something that Hein? actually does fairly competently. It’s not a game to revolutionise the outer fringes of board gaming, where aunts, uncles and grand-parents converge to indulge their “playful” side. Yet it is a decidedly non-painful way of playing a game with people who feel intimidated or uneasy in the presence of more than one die, actual artwork on a board or cards with more than one game-function to them.
Still, Hein? lacks the one special ingredient to make people sit up and take notice. The je-ne-sais-quoi of game design. Like suggesting to play Twister in mixed company. (Or if I were still in puberty: non-mixed company.)
As it is, Hein? is a perfectly servicable, arguably superiour alternative to a basic parlor or trivia game. It’s not a ground-breaking, must-have addition to people’s collection. It’s a great gift to bring to your in-laws, even if it won’t get them excited or interested in some of the more unique pleasures of board gaming. And maybe that’s ok. Not every game that is good, needs to be ground-breaking and redefine its genre. Sometimes good is good enough.
In our little, local, gaming group Boffo is an intractable coot, Jobbers is painfully-prone to AP, Byll witters when he should be taking his moves and Smudge (frustratingly) doesn’t like PvP combat in games; none of this is of any consequence, however, because I love them all dearly…and, besides, I’m a volatile prima donna myself. Mind you, I don’t pretend that they are the bosomest of bosom buddies – we barely meet outside of a gaming context (if at all, in some cases) – but my life is most-definitely richer for having them in it.
In a wider world context, I have enjoyed the most excellent company of gamers since getting in to Magic: The Gathering in the late 90s: ‘Friday Night Magic’, Nationals, GP and PTQs; indeed, from 1999 through to 2001, halls up-and-down the UK would be filled with the same 128 faces. Since Surprised Stare Games, and my own evolution in game designing, have developed through the 2000s, the circle of acquaintances has exponentially – and Internationally – increased and its utterly brilliant: heart-swellingly, trouser-stiffeningly wonderful. If anything could be said to illustrate this best then it would be my experience at Essen 2016 (you can read a daily summary on my BGG blog) with every evening spent talking, laughing and breaking bread with friends old and new…no games in sight!
The downside is, of course, that real life likes to chip it’s oar in now and again; the cosy, colourful bubble that my hobby inhabits is pierced by the knitting needle of a cold and indifferent Universe – sometimes we lose people. Be these losses for personal, professional, criminal and/or mortal reasons, our gaming groups are ever-evolving; some, like mine, change tectonically-slowly while others are like one of those frenetic, time-lapsed clips of a busy railway station. So, I cherish my group – and its petty foibles – because the alternative is playing with oneself or (even worse) elitism; thus, I say:
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you a starting hand (and set of wooden pieces in your colour). Take a Turn Reference card and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find I won’t crush you in your first game. For my jokes are cheesy and my boardgame is light.
(This article is dedicated to the memory of my dear gamer pal Peter ‘Greblord’ Armstrong – R.I.P)
Something’s rotten in the state of Denmark… allegedly… we can’t find any evidence for it really, except for some dusty old folios in Ye Olde English Library… but what Ben did find during his northern adventures were 30 minutes with Danish designer Asger Granerud.