03rd Jan2022

‘Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

No Spoilers Here! Please note that Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion is a campaign-based experience that takes place over approximately 25 scenarios. This review includes photos of the first scenario and a few of the other components, but nothing beyond the first scenario. I’ve also kept my descriptions of gameplay beyond this first scenario to a minimum, except to describe some of the effects and gameplay features that are obviously referenced in the opening few hours of the game.

Even though it has been available for a few years now, I’ve personally never got as far as playing Isaac Childres’ Gloomhaven. There’s a simple reason for that; it’s just too large and involved an experience for me to commit to, and with hundreds of items, tiles, cards and other components in the box, I doubt I could even get my head around sorting it and preparing it for that first play – even if I could get over the £100 plus price tag. Clearly, I am not alone in this, and to address these very points, Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion was released earlier in 2021 – and I have finally taken the plunge.

Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion is a completely standalone adventure that centres on the titular “Jaws of the Lion” who are one of the most renowned mercenary companies in the fantasy world of Gloomhaven. Our adventure begins innocently enough, with our crew (featuring between two and four heroes from a set of unique and varied classes) returning home from an unsuccessful mission to find a missing blacksmith. Things soon go awry however, with the introductory scenario seeing us ambushed just as we are returning to the city. The scenario book hints that an attack by Vermlings this close to the city is particularly uncommon – could it be a sign of what’s to come?

The first thing about Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion which I really love is how much care has been spent to ensure that players who might have been put off by the sheer weight of Gloomhaven will feel a lot more comfortable here. Before even beginning to play, a clear and concise sheet explains what to open and punch, how to bag it and where to put it within the box. This theme continues into the “Learn to Play” booklet, which not only explains some of the fundamental rules, but also walks players through the first few scenarios should they need it. Even the first map has a number of handy tooltips on it to enable setup and play.

This makes Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion super streamlined and helps new players focus on what is important – choosing their character from the four classes available. The original Gloomhaven was known for having a huge number of characters to choose from, but in Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion the selection is just four – all of whom will be in play if you choose to play a four-player game. Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion does support solo play, but in such a situation, the lone player will need to choose two characters. On offer here are the Hatchet, Demolitionist, Voidwarden and Red Guard – with ranged, melee, support and balanced play styles to choose from.

Whoever goes into battle to represent the Jaws of the Lion, the player will have interesting choices to make. Each character has a deck of cards that expands as the game goes on (and in particular as the characters gain experience.) At the beginning of each fight, the player has access to their entire deck, and on their turn, will choose two cards to play face down (with the bottom one being used to set their initiative value for the upcoming turn.) The players will then flip their cards simultaneously, compare initiatives among themselves and against enemies, and set turn order. On their actual turn, they will then play the top half ability from one of their cards, then the bottom half ability from the other.

This is as simple and intuitive as it sounds, and whilst it is not infinitely flexible, it allows for some scope to change your plans depending on where you fall in the initiative order. When a player uses their card to attack (either ranged or melee) or when a monster attacks, a modifier card will be drawn – this may add or subtract value from the strength of the attack, or it may cancel it altogether. Some situations can create an advantage or a disadvantage, where the player will draw two cards and choose either the better (advantage) or worse (disadvantage) and this system just works so well. Rather than a completely random (dice roll) or deterministic (fixed value) attack, the players get agency from choosing their cards and then using them accordingly, with the slight variation of the modifier – and it is in their advantage to create, erm, an advantage or to avoid a disadvantage.

As the scenarios unfold, new elements like additional cards or items that apply further modifiers (such as mitigating the first damage, or adding one damage to an attack) will be revealed and whilst these add complexity, by the time a player sees them, they will be so confident with Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion that it simply will not be a problem to accommodate. Without spoiling anything, it’s not as though Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion gets the opening hours just right but then tails off – oh no, this is a game that gets stronger and stronger as it goes on, with a tale that is worthy of inclusion in any top-tier RPG.

With 25 scenarios to fight through, you might be expecting that missions might get a little repetitive – yet somehow, they don’t. Whilst continuing to avoid spoilers, I’ll just say that some of the missions introduce surprising new elements that flip your perception of what a dungeon-crawler should be like. There are also some really good, tense fights, and because the character classes in Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion are so unique, they will really surprise you. I didn’t mention this earlier, but each time you refresh your deck (after using all cards) you’ll have to leave one behind. Cards also double as health and you can discard rather than taking hits – but you won’t want to, because your cards are powerful.

This combination of unique classes, unexpected missions, tough fights and unique health/deck management combines in some cool ways. Firstly, everyone at the table will likely have abilities that only they understand – so there’s no quarterbacking here. Discussions about “taking the hit so that I can then use this card” or “risk discarding to stay in the fight and to then do this….” are frequent, and the game is tough enough that no one can expect to cruise along. You won’t have to play every card perfectly, but you will need to think about what you’re doing, communicate (within the boundaries the rules allows) and execute to an efficient standard. One thing I can say; you do not lose to bad luck in Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion.

So is there anything this game does badly? Well, I wish there were, perhaps, six classes to choose from to add a little bit of unknown variability and replay value. And some might say that even 25 scenarios is too much to commit to for the average player (and it is perhaps ten or fifteen more than most dungeon crawlers.) But other than that, it’s hard to criticise Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion and I’d hardly say that second point is criticism. There’s a lot of content in this box, and at this price point, with such a well-crafted tutorial and ongoing experience, this could easily become your prime dungeon-crawler for the next six to twelve months – if not longer. When – or if – you’ve completed it, well there’s always Gloomhaven to jump into, and next year, the sequel Frosthaven should land. If nothing else, Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion is a superb introduction to a near-flawless dungeon crawling system.

***** 5/5

Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion is available online at 365Games.co.uk, or at your local games store. Don’t know where yours is? Try this handy games store locator

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