Up until recently, the Gloomhaven board game topped the BoardGameGeek charts, holding the spot for about five years. So it would make sense that its beginner-friendly version, Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion would also be well-received! But what makes Jaws of the Lion stand apart from the shadow cast by its massive predecessor?
In Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion, players start out as mercenaries searching for a missing blacksmith. But, as you can imagine, the story quickly takes a turn into a much broader campaign that would make any tabletop RPG Gamemaster blush.
Designed by Isaac Childres, the Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion board game takes your hand and guides you through the game instead of throwing you right into the deep end. It feels like a GM-less fantasy RPG, with the same kinds of character progression, battle, and treasure-hunting that comes with those sorts of games. And it’s even playable solo!
So sharpen your blade and prepare your potions because it’s time to dive into Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion!
Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion Gameplay
Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion is a game that you invest in, because the entire experience encompasses an exciting fantasy campaign. Most of the time, people will play it with the same group of people, treating it like a legacy game.
The game is presented as a series of scenarios, all linking up to a broader story. You’ll flip to the Scenario in the booklet, set up the enemies, traps, and treasure, place your characters on the map, and you’re off to the races. Each character has a unique deck of cards, which drives the core gameplay loop.
On your turn, you’ll take two cards in your hand, choosing the top-row action on one and the bottom-row action on another. The initiative score of those cards determines the order of play for that round, with the lowest score going first.
After you run through all of your cards, one will be removed from the scenario, and when you’re out of cards your characters is officially removed as well. This creates an organic clock within the game that puts pressure on the players to accomplish the objective(s) as soon as possible.
Just like your other favorite dungeon crawlers and TTRPGs, enemies will drop loot and you can open treasure chests, further enticing you to stray from the objective in the hopes of wealth and glory.
With unique characters that specialize in different areas, having a full complement of four-players will allow each to shine in their own way. But fear not – the game scales for any number of players by removing combatants or weakening them to keep everything balanced.
Staking Our C.L.A.I.M. on Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion!
Even though Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion doesn’t have the same 35lb box as its predecessor, there are still a ton of components that you’ll need to organize and prepare before you start playing your first scenario. In fact, there’s a nice little guide that you’re hit with right away that describes this process. If you don’t follow this sheet, you’ll find that your set-up and tear-down times may increase substantially.
The little things that make Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion shine are the color-coded pawn stands, which indicate the relative power level of the enemy pawn. I was also very pleased with the life counters, with their dual wheel system that’s reminiscent of Marvel Champions. With a game of this size and scale, it’s not economically feasible to have miniatures for every enemy. Instead, getting a wonderful mini for the playable characters and really good, quality pawns for the enemies is really all I could ask for.
The quality of everything is exceptional. From the spiral-ringed booklets to the in-depth rules, Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion gets top marks for component presentation that serves both form and function.
What’s really nice about board games like Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion is that there are multiple strategies to any given scenario. A lot of times when I’m writing out this section of my reviews I tend to say ‘this game allows for many different paths to victory’, which sometimes feels disingenuous when compared to games like this one.
After from the opening hand in which players have access to all of their cards, players will need to adjust their strategies to complement what the other characters are doing. If the enemies get lucky and smash a character with a big hit, suddenly the group needs to weigh that character’s survival versus the running clock that continues to tick against completing the objective.
Some of the best moments in the game came from seemingly come-from-behind moments created by these situations. In one particular scenario, we really needed a monster to whiff on their damage if we wanted to beat the scenario and get the final treasure chest. When it happened, a cheer rose up from the table. Every action matters, but some actions matter more depending on context of the situation.
Cephalofair Games knows the precise recipe for success when it comes to aesthetics. Sometimes when you look at games with a zillion tokens and pieces, there’s some level of incontinuity to the design. It might be from using different artists or something similar, but there everything gels perfectly with Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion.
Right away the box invokes memories of meeting at a tavern with your tabletop gaming party, planning out your next move on a map. The whole game revolves around a map, and having a gorgeous world map accompany the scenario maps really helps give those feels of progress and purpose. Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion has stickers that you’ll add to the world map as you unlock scenarios, further making the map a chronicle of your journeys.
The maps are amazing, and if you’re playing in any other hex-based tabletop games, you could definitely repurpose the scenario book as a random encounter book without much trouble at all. Everywhere you look, Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion oozes with the gritty realities of the dangers of fantasy adventuring life.
Obviously I’ve already heralded Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion as the premier accompaniment to the shelves of tabletop roleplayers everywhere. There is a ton of opportunity for you to stretch your roleplaying wings if that’s something that you’re going for, using the justification of the scenarios to narrate your turns. Since there’s no Gamemaster equivalent, it might take the entire table to collectively enhance the roleplaying aspect of the game.
However, at its core Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion is really all about those combat scenarios, so if roleplaying isn’t your jam then you don’t have to worry about a thing. The game is crunchy, crispy, and just begging for you to figure out how to use your limited resources to solve the puzzle that’s presented to you.
As I mentioned above, it also really benefits from having the same group play it over an extended period of time to get the entire effect. If people have already played, allowing them to jump in with existing characters will work out just fine, but there’s something to be said about taking a fresh, clean character sheet and scribbling on it over the course of a multi-month campaign. It’s a feeling that you really can’t get anywhere else besides tabletop games, and provides a deeper connection between the player and the game.
Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion can be brutal and difficult and easy and thrilling. Scenarios that you go into with unbridled confidence can turn at the drop of a hat, leaving you scrambling to salvage the pieces. Or you might think all hope is lost before a few exceptional turns put you right back in control.
This ebb and flow is what makes Jaws of the Lion such an amazing game. Things aren’t always going to go your way, and those are the things that are going to make your stories so memorable. And, speaking of the story, I haven’t played through the entire thing but it certainly veers in directions that I didn’t see coming. I wanted to play the next scenario if for no other reason than to find out what happens next!
This board game is an experience; I can try and describe it in words to you but I’m afraid that I can’t do it the justice I feel it is afforded. Plus, it has one of the best introductory rulebooks in the business. You get to play five scenarios, each introducing new concepts and building upon what you already know. Before long, the entire breadth of the game is at your fingertips.
Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion: An Intro to Gloomhaven and Beyond
The original Gloomhaven may have been the one standing fast at the top of the BoardGameGeek charts, but I firmly believe that Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion deserves its current place in the top 10. It’s the best of meaty, tactile, fantasy combat that bridges an intriguing narrative. You could say that it’s Gloomhaven-lite, but that’s certainly not a bad thing. Considering it’s so easy to find out in the wild, it’s expanding the hobby board gaming purview in a big and impactful way.
If there’s ever been a game more worthy of the Nerds on Earth Seal of Awesomeness, I haven’t found one. We are happy to award Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion with this prestigious digital moniker for its streamlined approach, and for standing out atop a what sometimes seems to be a tapped-out genre in traditional epic fantasy.
You can pick up a copy of Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion from Cephalofair Games directly, or look for it at your FLGS!
[Disclaimer: Nerds on Earth was provided a copy of Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion from Cephalofair Games in exchange for an honest review.]