Fire Emblem, Dungeons and Dragons, and Magic: The Gathering walk into a tavern… that was one wild party. UPDATED with score September 23.
Author’s note; The review was originally in progress as a key portion of the game - the cross-platform multiplayer - was not available due to the Steam client not being updated during the review period to support it. It has been marked as final following the necessary update.
Launching this week on Switch, Gloomhaven was known to me for two reasons; it’s my roommate’s second tabletop game when Dungeons and Dragons isn’t an option, and it’s got an absolutely massive box which holds more cards than the Las Vegas Strip. Needless to say, it’s definitely preferable to have the game in a digital format, and now that it’s been brought to Switch it might be the most convenient way to spend a hundred hours. Though there are still some things that show this as perhaps too straight of a copy of the existing PC version.
The core of Gloomhaven is a strategy RPG set in the titular town, where your character starts out in one of six different classes based on the standard RPG characters; the fighter is called a Brute, the mage a Spellweaver, and the thief a Scoundrel. The “Guildmaster” mode is required first, as the player has to at least see the classes in action before a “Campaign” can be started. Campaign is where I spent most of my time, since this is the portion of the physical board game I had the most experience with. In the campaign, a built character is assigned a personal mission based on the class, such as killing a large number of enemies in a single class (there are normal, “elite”, and boss monsters), and completes maps in the world while building up toward the completion of the personal goal. Once the personal goal is completed, the character can “retire”, which unlocks additional classes and allows the character to be rerolled. This rerolled character will start out more powerful than the first, so it’s important to snowball through characters quickly.
Once an event is started either in Guildmaster or Campaign mode, the characters are sent into a hex-based dungeon with objectives that were familiar to me from Fire Emblem games. There were rout maps labeled “kill all foes”, boss-killing objectives, and a form of seize map where instead of a throne, it required obtaining a specific item. The combat is based on cards, as each character enters battle with ten battle cards that are used to determine the character actions. Two actions are available on each card, and two cards are played at a time; if the top action of a card is chosen the bottom of the other card must also be chosen (though elements can be skipped, and “basic” actions such as moving two spaces or attacking with a base stat of 2 are also offered). The cards have an initiative number rated 1 to 99, with the first card chosen setting the turn order for the players and enemies in numerical order; ties appear to go in alphabetic order of the involved character’s names. Once played, the cards are discarded unless the chosen action requires “burning” the card which removes it from play permanently. Cards can be recovered via the “short rest” or “long rest” commands, which on a short rest requires burning a random card to recover the discard pile (rerolling can be done once, with a health penalty). A long rest is a 99 initiative command that prevents the player from moving or attacking for the turn, but recovers 2 hit points when the character will likely never exceed 20 and allows the player to determine which card to burn while they recover the rest of the discard pile. If all cards are burned, or the character’s health reaches 0, they are considered “exhausted” and are removed from the map: all characters being removed is considered a loss.
Each of the battle commands on the cards has a prescribed attack damage and range, though the damage can be modified by buffs and debuffs on either side. Generally, the more powerful an attack is, the more likely it will require burning the card. Every player on the map also has a deck of attack modifiers that are also applied at random, ranging from x0 (which nullifies all damage though additional effects still apply) to x2. This deck can be modified by a perk system that can remove some of the negative modifiers, though the x0 and a few -1s will still be present even on the highest leveled characters. A perk is granted each time the character levels up, and side missions can be completed on each map that can provide one or two points toward the three necessary to purchase a perk. Perks can also be taken which can potentially add statuses such as poisoning, stunning, or “muddle,” which forces the attacker to draw two modifiers and take the effect of the worst one.
Campaign is the main multiplayer mode of the game, which sets up one player as the host with “client” users entering a ten digit alphanumeric code to locate the game. Curiously, the code has “Copy” beside it, presumably a function on the PC where you’d copy and paste the code into a Discord chat but the Switch doesn’t really have a need for copy and paste, so why is it here now? There doesn’t appear to be a dedicated local multiplayer option; the code still required internet access even with my roommate on the same couch with a Switch copy. Additionally, the setting for crossplay must be identical for all copies of the game connecting. Once connected, the client player can be assigned to a character in the party or can roll their own. It’s a solid system that works well, though the Switch version is targeting 30 frames per second even in docked mode which I found it hit consistently. In testing crossplay, the other system - we used a PC copy - would hold back for about 3-5 seconds after an action completed so the Switch could catch up. It might be more noticeable in a situation where “the other system” is in the next room like I had, but it’s still worth keeping in mind if you’re looking to grind with a friend on another platform.
Some of the controls in the Switch version took some getting used to, and there are functions I’m still not 100% able to hit even after playing for most of a week. It’s not immediately obvious how to access the in-game item shop, and I found myself switching out of the character I was running in multiplayer to the other one far too frequently. Even some of the in-game commands took getting used to; my first character was in the “Mindthief” class, who has an attack option to make one enemy attack another. When using it, I would have to press A on the enemy to start it, confirm that I wanted them to be the one controlled by holding A, then repeat the process on the intended victim of the attack before it would actually fire. That’s two presses and two holds for one attack. I could see it if there were multiple potential targets in range, but when I’m staring down two skeletons right next to each other I should be able to select one and have it know to automatically go for the other. It switches between “press” commands and “press + hold” a lot, when it bothers to recognize them at all. (Which on the first night was about 70% of the time, though this issue was resolved in further testing.) One final issue - which apparently happens on PC as well - came when for some reason I could just not walk on a particular open tile in order to get at an enemy. This really threw off the map, though we did end up winning in the end.
The common Gloomhaven community standard is to keep things secret - particularly the per-map side quests, which the game only reveals at the end of the map - so the Switch is fundamentally a great platform to play the digital version on. It can kill a lot of time; each map takes about 45 minutes to an hour, even with or perhaps because I was playing with someone who knew how to manipulate the AI. But I never felt the game dragged at all, and would vastly prefer this digital copy to having to schlep around something bigger than every game console I’ve ever owned.