The cooperative dungeon crawler Gloomhaven turned the board game upside down when it was released in 2017. Arriving in a box the size of a shipping container for a price tag to match, it delivered an extraordinary marriage of tactical combat and RPG-style character building. It remains a top-rated board game for those with the space, money and time to devote to its considerable charms.
Now, designer Isaac Childres has created a cut-down prequel for the rest of us. Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion (see it on Amazon) attempts to cut away the bloat of the original, leaving the core experience intact. You take the role of the titular mercenary group and guide them through 25 adventures as they investigate a series of mysterious disappearances.
Box and What's Inside
Jaws of the Lion comes in a much more manageable box than the original, but it still weighs as much as a treasure chest, packed with cardboard gold. Much of the weight is standees for the sixteen different types of monsters, as well as tokens for tracking stats and scenery. Clear instructions on how to keep it all organized and a handy storage tray are also included.
There are also four plastic player miniatures and matching boxes of their cards and character sheets. Another four small boxes contain surprises to uncover during the campaign. Despite these, this isn’t a “legacy” game, where you change components during play, as such. There is a sticker sheet and city map but these turn out to be eye candy, superfluous to play.
The one disappointment is the scenario book. In the original game, you had the annoyance of assembling the board for each adventure from cardboard tiles. Here, the maps come ready printed in a flip book, which is much more convenient. However, most games with similar books have durable, high-quality, glossy leaves. Jaws of the Lion opts instead for ordinary weight paper which seems likely to tear with use.
Rules and How to Play
Gloomhaven is not a simple game. Jaws of the Lion uses the same system, with a few clarifications and a tiny number of options taken out. If you’re familiar with the original, you can jump right into this. If not, you have a steep learning curve ahead of you, although it helps that many rules feel quite intuitive. An immobile model cannot move, for example, and a stunned one can’t do anything.
Either way, this included playbook introduces the games’ complexity piecemeal over the first few scenarios. This is an excellent idea, and makes getting to grips with the game much more manageable. The only downside is that it does involve a bit of faff in removing “basic” versions of cards in favor of their full version as you learn new rules. Be aware that even with this great aid, you’ll still have a lot to remember in the full game.
You might ask why you’d bother taking the effort: the answer is that the tactical combat engine that powers the game is quite, quite brilliant.
The tactical combat engine that powers the game is quite, quite brilliant.
Each character has its own deck that represents the actions it can take. Axe-throwing Hatchet, for example, is good at ranged attacks and looting treasure. His signature card is “the favorite” which mimics a special axe that does bonus damage but must be looted back from a dead foe to use again. Every card has an upper and lower action and an initiative value.
On your turn, you pick two to use and execute the upper effect from one, the lower effect from the other and the initiative from either. Right away, you’re in a bind, trying to juggle the most effective pairing of actions for the situation, while worrying about when you’re going to act. The monster’s initiative and actions, governed by a random card draw, won’t be clear yet. Do you dive in with an early ranged attack, risk going later and hope you’ll have the move to close for melee, or settle for a buff next turn?
This offers a fun challenge at the outset, with a boggling range of options. But as the game progresses, it turns on the thumbscrews. After each pass through the deck you lose a card permanently. Some of the more powerful cards are also one-shot. When you’re out of cards, you’re out of the game. So as you progress your options narrow, a merciless counter driving you on through each adventure. It makes every action, every choice so crucial that there’s barely time to loot the chests.
Of course, making bad choices and being killed by the monsters will also knock you out of the game. Every foe has its own stat line and deck of behavior cards. Zealots cast curses and heal themselves. Giant Vipers, meanwhile, slither quickly through difficult terrain to close in with poisonous bites. With a different monster mix in each scenario, there’s plenty of excitement and variety to keep you on your toes.
With a different monster mix in each scenario, there’s plenty of excitement and variety to keep you on your toes.
Presuming you survive, you get to upgrade your character. If you found time to stop for gold, you can spend it on items. If you gained enough experience you can level up and swap a card in your deck for a more powerful option. There are lots of choices on offer, all well balanced to make character building an interesting mini-game in its own right. The deeper you go into the dungeons, the more attached you’ll become to the plastic avatar you’ve created.
Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion
What you can’t do, though, is pool gold to get the best items. Despite its intuitive nature, Jaws of the Lion can be gamey like that. There’s no real reason why, having killed all the monsters in a scenario, you wouldn’t be able to go back and mop up the treasure, but it’s not allowed. While frustrating, this does create a fascinating tension in cooperative play. The group wants to complete the scenario, while the individual also wants to waste actions stockpiling treasure.
Moving through the campaign tells a gruesome, if linear and somewhat boilerplate, tale of dark fantasy adventure. The writing is fine and there’s a deck of random events to add flavor between scenarios. But what really keeps pushing you onward toward the conclusion isn’t the story: it’s the chance to have another tilt at that brilliant tactical combat engine.
Where to Buy
It’s a testament to Jaws of the Lion that the only serious black mark against it is that it’s too derivative of its parent game. There’s nothing new on offer here other than the story itself, which is not a particular draw. But that’s fine: what this does instead is repackage the original in a more convenient and affordable format. For most groups who can’t find the 100+ play hours required to finish Gloomhaven, the cut-down content is a positive advantage. One of the best and most innovative games of recent years is now within reach of anyone who wants to experience its thrills. Jaws of the Lion is proof that in board gaming, as everywhere, bigger isn’t always better.