- Designer: Isaac Childres
- Artists: Francesca Baerald, Cat Bock, David Bock, David Demaret, Alexandr Elichev, Jason Kingsley, and Josh McDowell
- Publisher: Cephalofair Games
- Release Date: July 2020
Luke: Gloomhaven has always been one of those gigantic, daunting games that have taunted me from afar. A game whose box size has only been usurped in size by its reputation in the gaming community. I love board games big and small, but something about this one has always proved to be overwhelming in concept alone.
Phil: I’ve played through a good portion of the initial box, and while I’ve enjoyed what I have played, there were enough issues with it that have caused my group to take an indefinite hiatus from it.
Luke: Enter Jaws of the Lion, a beginner-friendly set designed to give you a taste of the overall experience. With “only” 25 scenarios and 4 characters to try out, this promises to be a much more manageable set to dip your toes into.
Phil: And in no small part is this assisted by the scenario book. A spiral-bound series of maps, this makes set up for each scenario infinitely easier, so much so that Cephalofair Games has added similar books as add-on purchases for Gloomhaven and Frosthaven.
Luke: From what I’ve seen, I’m glad I’ve never had to wrestle with the terrain tiles, as one of my biggest obstacles to actually playing a game is the amount of time it takes for me to set up.
Phil: For those unfamiliar, a brief summary. The Gloomhaven system is essentially a collection of D&D style combat dungeons. Each player controls a character in an atypical fantasy world who is making their way through a series of enemies and traps to try and accomplish a goal. Often, players will need to kill all enemies, a certain enemy, survive a certain number of turns or make it to a specific space of the map.
Luke: Each turn, players will choose 2 cards from their hands to play. One will be used for the top ability, which will usually dictate an attack or some form of aggressive action, whereas the bottom will often allow a character to move, heal, or do a defensive action. Once those cards are played, they are discarded. Eventually, your hand is refreshed, but one card will be permanently removed, limiting your options and time.
Phil: Players can trigger traps, which can cause damage and status ailments, as well as find treasure, which includes gold and useful items that can be used in battle. Those pieces of equipment you can’t find in battle you can purchase from a shop in-between sessions.
Luke: You’ll also experience random encounters that allow players to experience some of the world outside of battles, giving you two ways to approach a given scenario. Players will get goodies or a punishment depending on their choices.
Phil: Much of what was in the original have been preserved for this release, as many of the improvements have been preserved for Frosthaven. Some stuff is new here, like debris, an element added for the sake of one of the characters and their card effects.
Luke: This can make it hard to transfer these characters to other iterations of the game, although some folks online have found ways to do just that. Each fills a particular archetype (bruiser, cleric, warrior, and ranger) and can be used in any combination, although which set you choose can be integral to your success.
Phil: While this isn’t such a big deal in 4-player games, at 2, the game becomes a bit harder, and certain types of heroes (the clerics) become less useful with fewer allies to assist.
Luke: Characters will gain XP and level up over time, getting access to new cards to add to their hands, as well as some super-secret items that are tucked away in boxes for the players to reveal. They’re cute additions that attempt to make your characters feel unique, though I didn’t find ours to be especially exciting.
Phil: That’s kind of the vibe I got from this release as a whole. The story is well written, better written than any other board game I’ve experienced, with personality and little details that can draw you in. But due to the nature and pacing of the game, the story becomes somewhat meaningless, reasons to string together the various events. Depending on the “choices” you make (open Door A or Door B), you won’t experience some of the scenarios, but these rarely have any narrative rational or purpose beyond some slight replayability.
Luke: The combat itself is neat and investing at first, with the system opening up and allowing you to discover different combos and interesting ways to play your characters. That is, until 5 or 6 games in when 2 pretty distracting things start to happen.
Phil: First, you’ll find yourself bringing the same cards to nearly every fight. Some cards may be better suited to particular obstacles or enemies, but most of the time, you’ll see the same cards over and over again.
Luke: And second, the difficulty of the game ramps up and slaps you across the face. We’ve played a scenario 3 or 4 times and not won, which just forces you to keep grinding and throwing yourself against the wall until the next door is opened. You’ll keep what XP and gold you collect that fight, but leveling up often feels like more of a boon for the baddies than it is for the heroes due to how the system works.
Phil: This leads to scenarios feeling arbitrarily more difficult while your character has 1 new card to play with that you can use a handful of times each session.
Luke: And this incessant repetition and need to revisit scenarios over and over again is what killed the game for me. Yes, you can adjust the game to be easier, but even then you’ll find yourself getting some terrible luck and needing to repeat scenarios, and when the game feels so repetitive, that can be a frustrating thing to have to do.
Phil: Yeah, this release didn’t really solve any of the issues I had with the original, and frankly, the Steam iteration seems more and more appealing every day. Having a computer arrange the maps, track the info, and just allow you to play the game quickly and easily? That feels pretty ideal.
Luke: I’d definitely be interested in checking it out, as the physical medium just feels like an awkward way of implementing this sometimes overly complicated system.
Verdict: Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion is a great way to show you whether or not this game series is for you. While the ideas, play loop, and overall design are smart and involved, the difficulty spikes and generally repetitive nature made us check out well before the campaign had concluded.