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The Best In Tabletop 2017 – Gloomhaven

The Best In Tabletop 2017 – Gloomhaven

We’ve been lucky in 2017, with amazing games hitting store shelves and our tables. We saw some of our favorite developers hit the shelves yet again with a couple of fresh faces thrown into the mix. It was hard to choose just 10 games to spotlight on the list, and here is one of them.  Stay tuned to see the other games on this list and for the full list.

Gloomhaven is quirky, fresh, and as cool as the new kid on the block tends to be. It’s a game that’s basically seized 2017 early in the calendar year and has not let go. The momentum’s been maintained through two Kickstarters and a wave of unrelenting buzz. While it’s not for everyone, the universal praise has hit decibel levels we’re more accustomed to when Metallica takes the stage.

That praise has not let up because this game is something else. It’s a massive tomb of a box that overshadows everything else in your collection. It’s loaded to the brim with dungeon tiles, world maps, sealed boxes, and an amount of cards that outnumbers the U.S. deficit. The only thing you’ll find lacking? Dice.

Yes, the core system of Gloomhaven is card-driven hand management that’s vaguely similar to the Mage Knight board game. You have intense decision points and have to consistently weigh outcomes phrased against a deck of result cards that add uncertainty. It’s cognitively engaging while still maintaining a sense of drama, straddling the line between Euro-style games and thematic Ameritrash titles.

Each of the many different characters possess asymmetrical decks of abilities that allow you to move and attack in interesting ways. Some effects buff allies and some hinder enemies. On your turn, you activate by choosing a card from your hand and applying its top effect, as well as performing the bottom effect on another card. This multi-faceted way to evaluate your ability cards provides the oomph to that decision process.

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As you run through your hand of cards, you’ll eventually need to take all of your discards back. This causes you to lose a card permanently, effectively acting as an exhaustion timer for the scenario. In this way, you’re partially fighting the system as well as the enemies, pacing yourself to make it through the scenario before you.

While Gloomhaven doesn’t quite replace a typical fantasy RPG campaign, it’s pretty darn close, at least for a board game. There’s no legit roleplaying, but you increase in power and modify your deck over time while gaining delicious loot. The story moves forward and player choice has lasting impact thanks to the legacy mechanisms. The board will change as you place down permanent stickers and Jim, the OCD member of the group, will die a little inside as he can’t keep everything pristine or unmarked.

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What’s most remarkable is Gloomhaven’s position from a cultural perspective. Those permanent modifications can feel like scars of lasting import. They not only affect the cardboard but they dig into your skin and have an internal impact on the participants in a way you can’t glean from a typical dungeon crawler.

While the majority of the board game industry is paring down and providing experiences for those with less free time and competing interests, designer Isaac Childres delivered on the motto “go big or go home”. As we’ve already established, this game is big; not only in physical acumen, but also from the angle of commitment.

Before you start your campaign you may be a single college student living the dorm life. By the time you finish? You’ll be driving your kids to soccer practice in your minivan and mentally occupied with diverting funds toward a family vacation as opposed to investing into your 401k. Don’t worry, good ol’ Gloomhaven will be sitting and waiting for you to return. It’s like a dog that will never die or chew up our shoe when you’ve left the room.

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What keeps the passion burning and your interest high is the built-in handling of turnover. As your characters progress and accomplish goals, they eventually succeed and retire. This would-be sad day is alleviated by the fact that you get to open a new character box and experience something altogether fresh. When a game continually doles out presents like a drunk St. Nick, you can’t help but give it a wink and keep your foot on the gas.

But, as I said, Gloomhaven’s not for everyone. It’s a demanding game with a huge footprint. You will fiddle with many components — including a metric ton of monster standees — and whittle away the hours conquering a dungeon spanning four rooms and trading coins for odd trinkets with a merchant that smells foul. In that way, it sucks you in and takes a part of you with it, for better or for worse.

Gloomhaven may just be the best game to be released in 2017 and that statement will come as no surprise if you’ve experienced the darn thing. The word “gimmick” does not apply as this is the real deal and it’s here to make a statement. Buy it, play it, turn the box into a cat house–whatever you do, don’t ignore this one.

Have you played Gloomhaven? Let us know in the comments!

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Cover Image: Cephalofair Games

Image Credits:  Charlie Theel

Editor’s note: A copy of the game was provided by the publisher.

In addition to Geek & Sundry, Charlie Theel writes for Ars Technica, Miniature Market’s The Review Corner, and co-hosts the gaming podcast Ding & Dent. You can find him on Twitter @CharlieTheel

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