Gloomhaven: Jaws of The Lion Review

You can find a video version of this review here

Overview

To my great shame, I slept on Gloomhaven for the longest time. I had seen people call it D&D or Pathfinder without a GM, and that meant I had no interest in it. I already play Pathfinder, I don’t need a cut-down board game version. After playing Jaws of The Lion, I would like to find all these people and club them with a 600-page core rulebook for being wrong and leading me astray.

Outside of being fantasy games where you fight monsters, they aren’t even in the same league of being similar. That’s actually a good thing. You can’t truly simulate the open-ended nature of a TTRPG in board-game form. Any attempt to do so will end up diluted. Gloomhaven is its own beast with separate design goals.

Jaws of the Lion is billed as a stand-alone expansion to the mega-sized base game. But I wouldn’t say it’s an expansion at all, very little material is cross-compatible. I would say that Jaws of the Lion is a cheaper, smaller entry point into the world of Gloomhaven instead.

It aims to win you over gently, rather than dropping the 22-pound base game on your face that will demand to know your safe word. The good news is, you might be ready for that commitment after a few dates with Jaws of the Lion…mines pickles.

Components

While Jaws of the Lion is a great deal smaller than the base game, you’re still going to be buried in an absolute ton of game pieces. Heck, the first thing you see when you open the box is a giant paper basically telling you not to panic. That the game doesn’t bite, and it’s going to walk you through taming the monster before it devours the living room table in clutter.

It does a great job at it too. The innards of the box come with a bunch of baggies and specific places for you to organize and store all the pieces, tokens, and cards. The initial setup takes a while, but it’s mostly painless after that.

In these reviews, I normally walk through all the components. But given the nature of the game, doing that would be spoiling a lot of surprises. So I’m just going to do a vague overview.

You get a map of Gloomhaven, four books, two of which are rules and how to play, and two that are centered around the game’s 25 scenarios. In addition, there are a bunch of monster standees, and cards for them. Finally there are a dozen or so types of tokens, an element board, and a crap ton of different card types.

You get four playable classes and everything that they need including character sheets, decks of cards, minis and nice cardboard portraits of them.

For the price, Jaws of the Lion is packed with stuff. When I see a game with big ambition that is under that 70 to 80$ range, I almost always find that it’s missing something that was cut for a later expansion. That’s not the case with Jaws of the Lion. I was completely shocked at how big the game is for the price. You get great value for your money in terms of content.

Unless…you compare it to the base game. At the time this review was written I have not played the base version of Gloomhaven. However, you do roughly get four times as much stuff for roughly double to triple the price, give or take depending on where you pick it up. It’s just something to keep in mind.

The components are all great quality too, with beautiful artwork. A few standees or tokens didn’t punch out cleanly, but for the most part, I was impressed with how nice everything in the box looks and feels. There is a lot of card shuffling, so I’d still advise sleeving them if possible.

A Troubled Legacy

Jaws of the Lion is a legacy game. Basically, this means that every session is just one ongoing adventure that you play over-time. Actions from the last session impact the next, and your characters level up and grow with each game. It’s a concept that I have a love-hate relationship with. I’m sure what I’m about to say is going to piss some people off.

Please do not take this as an attack on you. Here’s a secret, I still love Jaws of the Lion, so put the pitchfork away. The concept of legacy games is fantastic, and I love going on long-spanning adventures. But legacy games also adopted the asinine barbaric concept of making permanent changes to the board game so it can only be playable once.

A large part of me feels like its marketing, wanna play again? Buy another box. Ignoring the distasteful waste of resources that no environmentally conscientious person should scoff at. It just goes against one of the strengths of a board game.

If I buy a board game, it’s mine forever. As long as I take care of it, I can play it twenty years from now. Legacy games are made to be thrown away, and that rubs me the wrong way. Jaws of the Lion has some of these legacy features but on a smaller scale. You place permanent stickers on a really nice-looking map that basically tells you which scenarios are available.

There are about three hundred other ways the game could have had you do this without that kind of permanency. If you share my feelings, this is easy enough to keep track of with a pen and paper, so you won’t need to bother with the stickers.

Event cards have players make choices, and some of the outcomes are basically, choice A good, Choice B bad. That can cause issues on a second playthrough. But beyond that everything else can be reset pretty easily, so don’t let my bitterness frighten you away. I’ll be starting a second playthrough myself soon with friends that haven’t played yet, and my enthusiasm isn’t dampened at all.

Going On An Adventure

I’ve always felt that complex games are the best games and Jaws of the Lion reinforces that stance. The issue is, complex games are daunting. But have no fear, Jaws of the Lion has the best new player onboarding system that I have ever seen.

It teaches you while you play through five early scenarios. Cutting out most mechanics early on and coaching you step by step about each new one that’s introduced. After the fifth scenario, it takes the training wheels off, and you will be ready to roll.

The way the game manages to distill its complexity into small chunks while allowing you to actually play and enjoy the game is by far the best tutorial I have ever seen. It is for this reason, I would always recommend anyone interested in Gloomhaven to pick up Jaws of the Lion first. Any attempt I make to explain the game is going to be woefully inadequate by comparison. So I’m not going to try, I’ll focus on the gameplay instead.

Each player controls one of four very distinct classes. If you have any preconceived notions of fantasy archetype tropes, leave them at the door. They might have some similarities to fighters, or wizards, but none of them played in the way I expected them to.

The Voidwarden can place curses in monster decks, heal allies and even force enemies to attack each other. The Demolitionist is an expert at wrecking obstacles and has a mix of melee, ranged, and area of effect attacks, and could hurt enemies more if they were adjacent to walls.

The Redguard could shield themselves, pull enemies around with a chain sickle and invoke healing magic of the sands, while Hatchet would dance around the field throwing axes, and looting money.

The actual combat is a mix of hex-based tactics and card play. The environment themselves are played on a scenario book. The hex grids are laid out on the pages for each scenario. It was really nifty and easy to set up.

All of your actions are dictated by your character’s cards, including movement. You basically get two actions a turn, one granted by the top half of one card and the bottom of another. Each card has a top and bottom action.

Every card also has a number that dictates your initiative, and every player picks one in secret. After that, the cards are revealed. This includes cards specific to each enemy type, and that determines the turn order for the round. This means that not only is the turn order different each round, but you are never truly certain what your allies or enemies are doing, and it forces you to adapt.

Players can communicate, but only in general statements. You can’t, for example, say, “my initiative is going to be 19”. You would have to say, “I plan on going early.”

This makes teamwork essential but cuts off the concept of quarterbacking at the knees since information isn’t open. Never knowing exactly what an enemy is doing or what the game state will look like when it’s your turn keeps the action fresh, even on scenarios you have played before.

It also puts a huge focus on tactical thinking. When you act in a round is just as important as what you do on your turn. If you go late, maybe an enemy you couldn’t reach before is now in range, or maybe your buddy set you up for a great combo. If you go before a monster, you might be able to move out of its range so it can’t hit you at all.

Monsters follow a pattern of who they target based on the card they draw. You can use that knowledge to your advantage. There is also the matter that the scenarios themselves can have various objectives. They might even have a treasure that you only receive if you manage to loot it during the game.

Some of your actions even earn you XP beyond the reward of winning a scenario. There is a big risk versus reward factor between winning, collecting gold that you can spend on gear, earning XP, and even completing secret battle goals that can further your character’s power.

Lost cards can’t be reused in the same battle, and you lose a card every few rounds. You can also intentionally lose cards to negate damage, but if you are ever unable to play two cards in a turn, you’re out. Some of the most powerful cards require you to lose them in order to play them.

So there is an aspect of stamina management since you also have to keep in mind that your characters are on a timer, with your variety of actions thinning out the longer the battle rages on.

I’m not the biggest fan of artificial time limits. But in this case, it definitely adds another layer of depth and strategy that works really well with the game’s core design of card management.

The combat system is fantastic, with a million variables that feel different based on player count, character classes, playstyle, and random chance. It’s a seriously tactical game that’s simple to digest thanks to the game’s onboarding learn-to-play setup.

The smaller scope of Jaws of the Lion compared to Gloomhaven does mean there is less to do between scenarios, aside from spending some gold and leveling up. Side scenarios can crop up via event cards, and I loved that. Even the main quest had branching paths. You certainly won’t see everything on a single playthrough.

There are few small things that bug me. Gaining new cards, perks, and power as you play is incredibly satisfying. But it can feel like a bit of a slog to play through the whole box as the same character. You don’t really have a good option to switch, especially if you are playing with four players.

There does come a point where you can very clearly see that while Jaws of the Lion is a full product worthy of its price, it’s also very much a demo of the real deal. A taste of Gloomhaven that makes you hungry for more. You can “feel” the things that are missing if that makes sense. Not missing because Jaws of The Lion is incomplete, but missing simply because they exist in Gloomhaven, whether you know about them, or not.

It also feels like the game has no real idea what to do if you fail a scenario. It’s pretty much just like…uh…keep all your things and try again I guess? You can raise and lower the difficulty though. I enjoy tougher challenges, so I appreciate that.

The game also works great at any player count between 1 and 4. That is a massive point in my favor. Now, more than ever, games that can hit the table solo or with another player you live with are super important. The game simply scales with the player count without losing anything that makes it great.

Verdict

Jaws of the Lion hooked me into the world of Gloomhaven pretty hard and definitely made me regret not paying attention sooner. At the same time, I’m glad my first experience with it came from Jaws of the Lion. Simply, because of how easy, and fun it made the experience of learning the game.

With most complex games, I’m pouring over a giant rulebook twice and still manage to get things wrong. Or I need to stop and look over the rulebook again. Sure that happened every now and then with Jaws of the Lion. But I got to learn the game while playing it, while the book clearly directed me in what concepts were active and what I needed to do.

Each of the first five scenarios added some new feature to look forward to until it was time to leave the nest and fly on my own. And it’s not like the scenarios were lesser compared to the rest of the book. They were the same quality, just guided and with the mechanics split between them.

I despise the concept of making permanent changes or the idea that it’s meant to only be played once. But for the most part, I could work around that. Rejecting it’s reality and substituting my own. That’s the great thing about physical games. You buy them, you do what you want with them.

The combat system is fantastic. The ongoing adventure with branching paths and character growth is satisfying, and I’ve spent all my time not playing it wishing I was. Beware, look too far into the void, and it looks back. You might find that your table crumbled under the weight of the base game shortly after.

You might also enjoy my review of Spirit Island

Pros

  • The best onboarding tutorial system that I have ever seen
  • Excellent and tactical combat that combines hex grids and cards
  • Four distinct classes
  • The ongoing campaign of branching paths is a ton of fun with some awesome surprises
  • Tons of content for the price
  • Growing your character over several sessions is satisfying
  • Plays great at player counts 1 to 4
  • Difficulty settings present
  • The game helps you organize it’s pieces really well

Cons

  • The concept of permanently marring the game is awful even if you can avoid it
  • Some event cards have a good choice and a bad choice, that’s boring
  • Playing one character through the whole box can be a bit of a drag
  • The game doesn’t handle losing a scenario very well