The Tao of Gaming

Boardgames and lesser pursuits


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Legacy games have not — to date — enticed me. I’m a fan of repeated plays, less so of commitment.

Playing the same game with the same group a dozen (plus) times doesn’t appeal. I can’t commit. No group I have is that solid, willing to dedicate the time. And unless I’m on an obsessive new-game tear (which happens) I prefer to play a game at decent intervals. But I do have one group where it’s convenient to leave a game setup (or approximately). And If I was going to play any legacy game with the TaoLing, Gloomhaven would be the one. BGG rankings are not the be-all-end-all, but earning a number #1 slot can’t be a bad sign.

So I bought it when it showed up at my local FLGS.

A long-weekend seemed time to break it out, so a review. I’m late to the game, so I suspect anyone interested has already played and formed an opinion, but here goes.

The TaoLing and I have started a campaign — we’ve nearly a dozen got a half-dozen scenarios in but (as of yet) have not retired a character, so we’re just using four of the starting six characters. (We’re each playing two, although the game works with two characters. It feels right to have a party of four).

Components — It’s a good thing I save empty game boxes for expansions….Because despite Gloomhaven‘s huge box I’m not going to try to pack it back up. So hello, Mare Nostrum Mythology box, you hold terrain. Sentinels Tactics expansion Box? You hold bagged monsters. CCG 9 count card sleeves to order the monster order cards, small bit trays for effects bits, a 50-count CCG card to hold an individual character’s deck (for the 4 active characters). Even with all this stuff I made a trip to the container store (which I haven’t done in years) to get more stuff.

I paid full retail, but frankly even at $140 I have zero complaints. That box is full.

Rules — I’d heard a little about Gloomhaven, but forgotten that the rules are surprisingly good. Each character starts with 8-12 (ish) ability cards. On your turn you pick two. Each card has an initiative number, typically an attack ability in the top half and a move ability in the bottom half (although some reverse this and some cards have special abilities). You ‘lead’ with one of your cards (to get initiative) but when its your turn to go you can pick which card is used for move and which is for attack (and in which order). If the ability you had planned to use is no longer possible (or desirable) you can always fall back on move 2 / attack 2.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a big fan of combinatorics. 8 cards give you 28 options, and each of them has 8 options on how you play them (not to mention ordering, so, 16). Each character is shockingly different in a handful of cards. Many of the cards are simple stuff, move, fit, but with a large but manageable amount of chrome rules (typical D&D stuff, shields, armor piercing, ranged attacks).

On your turn you can also rest and take back all your cards except one that you choose to lose. (You also get to heal a bit and reset items). You can do a fast rest and not waste a turn, but you don’t get any healing or resetting and the card lost is random (if you don’t like it, lose a health and pick a different one).

So this naturally places a timer and urgency. Each turn you have to play two cards or rest. If you full rest you are a sitting duck. Fast rest and you may lose a card you like or wound. Your deck dwindles (slowly at first) but with greater speed. If you don’t have two cards (and can’t rest, which requires 2+ cards in the discard) you are exhausted and out of the scenario (hopefully your party can win without you).

Tension galore.

For attacks you draw a card from your deck which mostly ranges from -2 to +2 (bell curve) but also with a “miss” and “double” (which trigger a reshuffle). The monsters have their own deck (defender never draws). Being a player character, you can also choose to ignore the loss of hit points from any attack by losing a card from your hand (or two from your discards).

The monsters have a card that tells you their base stats, bonuses, and a small deck of cards you draw from (after the players have set their hands) that tells the monster’s AI. We’ve been playing with the ethos of secrecy and discovery that RPGs (and legacy games) have, so we don’t look carefully at the monsters (or layout of the unrevealed rooms) until they show and one effect of this is that you may fight some creature for many turns and then draw their AI card and have it do something surprising. “Wait, the fish have harpoon guns! Aiie! Charge!” (A made up example). Each ‘monster’ has a deck of 8 cards with 1-2 triggering a reshuffle, so you may not see all the tactics a monster can do in one combat. And even some of the basic typical monsters have pulled some rule-surprising but thematically-appropriate cards. Again, the system is great. The Boss monster card just has a few “Special 1” and “Special 2” cards, and they just refer you to the scenario. It does feel like anything can happen.

Impressive for a game with 20-30 pages of easy to read rules.

The game does have some ambiguous (and easy to miss) rules, and typically we just handwave and look it up later.  Gloomhaven doesn’t appear to suffer for it, but there are something like 4 thousand rules threads on BGG.

Leveling up provides a few additional cards, and you can choose one to be available. But before each scenario you still have to decide which 8-12 to use. You don’t actually increase the number of ability cards you can play with! The monster and traps get harder as you level up (and the # of enemies scales with number of players, so it could play with 2 or 3 well, I imagine. (It would be faster, but for legacy games is that a bonus?) Much like Magic Realm you can actually improve quite a bit more by just getting items. The starting ones are solid, but better things will unlock (I hope).

Theme — A fantasy D&D-esque adventure game in a box. Gloomhaven spends most of its time in D&D combat time, but the campaign is by no means a throw away. Before your scenario you have a random encounter with an A/B choice. It’s fast, takes almost no time to resolve, and adds greatly to the feel. You may save a puppy, or insult a merchant. Each result may give you a small perk or penalty in the next scenario (or possibly further down the line, because some decisions add other card(s) to the deck). Your parties may have reputation go up or go down, and in the campaign you can find scenarios closed off by your choices you make in the scenario order and the achievements you’ve made. Even after just a few games we’ve already had a choice to attack either scenario A or B, and the other choice is closed forever. (Unless we run another campaign or go back to just try it later).

While the scenarios have been pretty much “Kill and loot” we’ve had variety and a grab and run has shown up.

Gloomhaven is a cooperative game, but it captures the semi-antagonistic feel of some parties. Before each battle each character picks from one of two random “objective” cards. Fulfill it, and you get 1 or 2 checkmarks. Every three is a perk, which lets you improve your combat deck a little bit. (You also gain perks by leveling up).  These perks remind my of my Shadows over Camelot variant, and you may have people doing anti-party actions to try and get some checkmarks. You get experience based on your cards, not for killing stuff, so players may also do stuff to try and squeak out a few more XP. And loot and gold cannot be traded, so there’s a race for that. So, it’s sometimes “quote cooperative unquote.”

Also, each character has a secret objective until they retire. Retiring lets you start a new character (potentially of a new unlocked class) and you get a bonus perk for having retired somebody. Frankly that feels more like how RPGs should be played than they are.

So while the theme is a formula, I think the rules do it justice. And I must admit there’s something pleasant about slowly building up the map (which has zero effect in the game that can’t just be tracked on a sheet of paper).

Balance feels good — I’ve seen comments that it wasn’t tense, but while we’ve won most of the scenarios we’ve played (not all!) they haven’t all been cakewalks. Our 3rd scenario saw three of the four characters exhausted and the last make his final possible combat draw for the win. Maybe we aren’t squeezing every advantage out of our characters (quite possible, as part of the discovery process), but if you do you can always increase the difficult (Add one to the scenario level) or lower it if you choose.

Overall Impressions –I wasn’t afraid (buying this) that the TaoLing would hate it. My big fear is that he’d love it and I would be instantly ‘meh’ on it and staring down the gun of another 20 sessions. (As parental responsibilities go, gaming isn’t onerous, but I may as well play games I like). And maybe I should have lobbied harder for one character each (the game box lists 30 min/player and while the number may vary that’s basically right). But I’m happy with it. I’m not playing it over and over to study its depths (like I often do), and it doesn’t have the quality where I think about it in my spare moments, trying to discover secrets. Gloomhaven has oodles to discover, but it can’t be really thought about ahead of time. (Until I open the box, I just can’t know what’s in Envelope A).

I can think about how to best play the Wizard, which 8 cards to pick and which combos to rely on. Which potions to buy. But I don’t think about that when I’m not playing. I’m not going to write about its strategy.

But Gloomhaven is good enough that I’m looking forward to finishing the campaign with my son (and not dreading it). It may be good enough that I’d play it as a single session game to just discover one of the scenarios we got locked out of in our campaign. I don’t know. But for the near future it will be sitting on our dining room table (and in several boxes and containers scattered around). And depending on just how long it takes us to win (or for the TaoLing to decide he’s bored of it), it might even hit fifty plays. I’ve been waiting for the day when my son stops suggesting that we play a game (like my daughter did a while ago, although she still pulls out Can’t Stop from time to time).

I’m not going to turn down a game with the TaoLing. The fact that I enjoy it? Bonus.

This is not my favorite game by a long shot, but enjoying something outside my wheelhouse as much as I do means I grok its ranking.


Update — Often, If I play an older game that takes two hours a half-dozen times in a month, that puts me in the top few (if not the top) for the leaderboard for “plays for this month.” If I doubled my plays I wouldn’t crack the top ten for Feb! I had not realized just how popular this is. Also, I bookmarked the Gloomhaven FAQ.

Further Update — The ability to leave the game set out is valuable. Just mechanically laying out a scenario with most from the prior one takes 10-20 minutes. We’ve organized enough things that it’s 10, but that includes literally putting the monster action cards in a notebook (sorted alphabetically), and practically everything except maps sorted (and I want to sort them). Tear down is 10 minutes. If I had to box/unbox each time, double everything. After that you have some fun ‘setup’ time, as you do your random events, decide what cards to play and then how to spend gold, level up, etc.  My rating is at least a point higher because it just will live on the spare table until we have guests over. Also added a missing paragraph (detailing the rest mechanism and tennsion) and some mild edits.


Written by taogaming

February 17, 2019 at 7:48 pm

Posted in Reviews

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1889: History of Shikoku Railways

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1889 is pretty much a straight 1830 (assuming I got the rules right), but made for 2-5 players and shorter. We played for 2.5 hours before we called it. (I had relatively new opponents, which slowed the game down a bit).

Rating — Pretty much whatever you rate 1830 (with maybe a small kick for novelty). For me that’s suggest.

Written by taogaming

February 14, 2019 at 9:55 pm

Posted in Session Reports

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Another game fallen to our robotic masters — Jenga

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February 7, 2019 at 6:17 pm

But you know that I know…

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The Rueful Rabbit — for all of his flaws — does quite well at bridge. Mostly due to his amazing luck, but also because he knows an important fact: what is good for declarer must be bad for the defender.

If you throw in R.R. to let him cash his winners (for a suicide squeeze), he declines to cash them. “After all,” he’ll later say, “Papa seemed quite keen for me to win my tricks, and he’s quite a good player you know. So while I couldn’t quite work out exactly why, it seemed right to not do it.”

And then the Hog will chortle about Greek Gifts.

To imagine that I never heard the story about why the Soviet Union built a space shuttle (tip of the hat to S.S.C.). (Actually I had no idea they built one at all).

The short answer — the Soviets figured that NASA was grossly wrong about the cost-benefit analysis and assumed that there must be a really cool (military) use that they couldn’t figure out. So — in order to not be caught flat footed —  they figured they’d build a copy just to be ready.

(Of course the actual answer was that NASA was just engaged in routine overbidding).

Vhojha Moi!

Also of interest (albeit technical), a model of how increasing competition can lead to reduced merit of outcomes (but also on how pool sizes matter). One of the more meta-game-theory things I’ve read recently. This also had a link to the Blotto game, which I have played (in some forms) but never knew had a name. And — bonus! — the author is a boardgamer (who sadly rarely writes about such things).

But I did read his (spoiler-ific) review of The Three Body Problem trilogy, which I read last year, and which contains the following worthwhile advice, which brings us back full circle to his Ruefulness.

If your opponent is doing something that makes no sense, whose purpose you can’t understand, which you have no explanation for why they might do it, assume it is highly dangerous. They are the enemy. They have a reasons they chose to take this action. That might be ‘they are an idiot who is flailing around and doesn’t know anything better to do.’ Maybe. Be skeptical.


Written by taogaming

February 2, 2019 at 9:13 pm

Posted in Linky Love, Non-Gaming

Shards of Infinity — Relics of Future Past

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I’m not in the pure “Expansions are usually bad” camp, but this expansion appears to be bad.

  1. Many new cards are cantrips that may do nothing or have a decent effect. As cantrips, they are usually OK to purchase, But the sheer number of them (30 odd) dilutes the great cards and now a player getting an early banisher (etc) just wins. (A cantrip to play is not a cantrip to buy, after all). Purchase fear (“What if I buy an OK card and a great card appears for my opponent to buy”) goes way up.
  2. There are new cards that key off which hero you have. (“X, but Super-X if you are <some guy>.”) Which just benefits that guy. Again, totally random. Ooh, I got two of my cards out and the opponent got none. Even if he bought my two cards, he likely did that as denial.
  3. The really good idea is that each player has two champions. When you get to 10 mastery (or any time after that) you can recruit one of them into your discard pile, and the other is gone forever. Fun, not-random, gives the race to 10 more meaning. And the champions are powerful.

Overall this expansion is an (anti-)testament to Tom Lehmann’s concerns about variability and deck dilution in card games. I’m giving it a few more plays before I pull the new cards and just try with the champions.

Initial Rating — Bleargh.

Written by taogaming

February 2, 2019 at 8:21 pm

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More DeepMind — This time Starcraft

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I’ve never played SC (etc), so watching these replays isn’t very informative. But still interesting. If you want to skip to the first replay, its at about minute 44 (after 30 minutes of count down and 14 of discussion). The second match starts at around 1:32. If you watch one match, G4 of the second match at around 2h mark.

Here’s the main article

A few thoughts (mentioned in the video):

  • The AI (‘AlphaStar’) actually “clicked” less than the PROs (200-300 “Actions per minute” vs 500-600 for the human). That being said the commentators kept praising AlphaStar’s micro-management (“micro”) in terms of ability to maneuver in battles (for example —  retreat a single almost dead unit from a battle while having the rest press) was praised and may have actually been one of those precision benefits that humans just can’t match.
  • In the 5 game match, they actually fielded five different agents (with order randomized). They used a semi-guided genetic strategy then tried to minimize ‘exploit-ability’. The human was not aware of this (until after the fact), which may have affected strategy. After a game the human “adjusted” but was then facing a totally new strategy.
  • This wasn’t Lee Sedol where they were playing the undisputed, but Starcraft is a much more complex (and real time) game, so impressive.



Written by taogaming

January 25, 2019 at 5:17 pm

We are somewhat amused

As the person who coined “JASE,” I’m amused.

Speaking of, I was invited into a game of Newton last night and after 10 minutes of point salady rules I bailed.

Open Thread — Newton: JASE or not?

Also — if any of my more mathematical readers has an explination as to how this works (note — I am assuming it does), that would be lovely.

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January 15, 2019 at 5:30 pm

Posted in Linky Love

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