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Quarantine Gaming Review – Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion

In April, designer Isaac Childres Kickstarted his follow-up to the hugely successful Gloomhaven. Frosthaven is a major expansion to the Gloomhaven world, with new mechanics, chararacter classes, and adventures to play, and I am among the 83,193 backers who made it the #1 funded board game Kickstarter so far.

Gloomhaven is also, however, a 3.84 out of 5 on the Board Game Geek weight scale, which puts it on the high side for my collection, so I knew going in that there would be a learning curve for my gaming group to climb. That’s what excited me when I heard about Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion.

For the last few years, Target has been partnering with hobby board game companies to produce Target-exclusive simplified versions for wider audiences. Jaws of the Lion is exactly that – a starter set for Gloomhaven that takes you into the mechanics of the game step by step, ending at a point simpler than, but close to, the full-on Gloomhaven mechanics.

The heroes square off with Chaos Demons.

The Basics

Gloomhaven is a cooperative game for 1-4 players. Each scenario takes an hour or so, and, based on the scenario book, there are more than 20 scenarios to play through. The basic concept of the game is Dungeons and Dragons in a box. Each player chooses one of four adventurers and then the players work together to defeat monsters, find treasures, and foil nefarious plots. All of this takes place in the fantastical city of Gloomhaven, and each adventure allows your character to build strength for the next in classic role-playing game fashion.

Gameplay itself consists of selecting two cards from an action deck. Once the players have all made their choices, the monsters also get action cards, and the cards establish an initiative order. Each player card has a top and a bottom set of actions, and the player can choose one of each on their turn, or use default “basic actions” – a simple attack for the top action and a move for the bottom. Some actions infuse the battlefield with various elemental powers, and others consume that power to boost the action – but the monsters can take advantage of those boosts as well.

Like Gloomhaven and Frosthaven, Jaws of the Lion is also a legacy game – as you play through it, the game evolves based on your decisions and actions. Some scenarios block off others, and monster challenge levels progress with the players. However, it is a “soft” legacy game so far – nothing in the gameplay requires any permanent, irreversible changes to the components,

Components

Each character in the game has a plastic figure, as well as a player board and two decks of cards, one for actions and one for attack modifiers. A pad of character sheets allows tracking of experience, gold, and “perks” – generally upgrades to the attack modifier deck. Punchboard tokens track monster damage, special conditions like “stunned”, and the status of infused elements. Punchboard objects also provide terrain on the maps, such as traps or treasure chests, and, along with plastic stands, represent the monsters. Each monster type has its own set of action cards and shares a common attack modifier deck. One clever mechanic has certain characters or monsters providing “blessings” or “curses” by adding critical success or failure cards to the target’s attack modifier deck (which has saved my character’s bacon a time or two).

The maps come in two spiral-bound books, which speeds up setup time versus tiles or cards for maps (as in Gloomhaven and Frosthaven). This innovation is so popular that the publisher is working on map books for Gloomhaven and Frosthaven as well. A glossary and a learn to play book provide the rules, and a nice map board of the city of Gloomhaven, along with a sticker sheet, provides a means of tracking progress through the story.

One missing component has vexed Joy severely – there is no way of tracking the level of “Shielded” status your character has. Shielded provides damage reduction, but also has other mechanical effects for some characters, and there are neither Shielded tokens nor some sort of rondel system for tracking it. Each player does, however, have a rondel-based tracker for health and experience.

Two Zealots are going down!

Characters

The four character classes appear very distinct, although so far we have only played with two of them. The two we haven’t tried are the Demolitionist and the Hatchet. The Demolitionist is a melee beast with the ability to destroy obstacles to clear a path for the party. The Hatchet is a ranged attacker with exceptional abilities to loot treasure.

Joy is playing the Red Guard, a chain-whip wielding fighter with a lot of ability to move targets from one place to another and a versatile mix of ranged and close combat attacks. The Red Guard also has an ability, Shield Spikes, which damages enemies that close to attack based on his Shielded level (hence the desire for a tracker).

I am playing the Voidwarden, a sort of cross between a cleric and a warlock. The Voidwarden excels at granting actions to other characters and monsters, manipulating everyone nearby to advance the party’s goals. She also has solid healing abilities and can deal out curses and blessings. Interestingly, some of her best abilities carry an associated penalty, like a massive Heal 5 action that also inflicts Poison.

Is it Fun?

HECK YES. The learn-to-play guide provides a smooth introduction to a fairly complex ruleset, and the scenarios are balanced extremely well, so that the fear of defeat is constant but victory does not seem out of reach. Both of us have really enjoyed it and are looking forward to completing the scenarios and starting on Gloomhaven when it arrives.

As of now, Target is sold out of Jaws of the Lion online, but your local store might still have some stock. I would highly recommend it for any gaming group interested in dipping their toes into the Gloomhaven world.

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