Comparing Imperial Assault and Gloomhaven

Two of the biggest, grandest board games ever made. Two of my all time favorite board games. Two games occupying a similar space in a collection- at least from afar. This article will attempt to compare and contrast these two behemoths, as well as hopefully demonstrate why they are both so beloved by the board gaming community (and by me!). 

Darth Vader with a squad of elite Stormtroopers and an elite Deathtrooper chase down some Rebel operatives. 

I’ll start by painting a broad picture of how the two games are similar, before diving into what makes the two games unique.

At their very most basic level, Imperial Assault and Gloomhaven are both party-based dungeon crawlers with an overarching story campaign and scenario-based gameplay. Both games feature player characters that earn experience and level up over the course of the game, earning new abilities and becoming more powerful. Both games have extensive amounts of items for players to acquire and equip, further enhancing and specializing their characters. 

Scenario set up and management of special scenario rules are also very similar between the two games. In each case, one player is allowed to read the scenario book and is responsible for set-up and reading the rules to the other players. Most scenarios in both games have special events that take place after certain triggers are met (End of Round 1, this door opened, etc) furthering the story of the scenario and the overall campaign. 

Our valiant mercenaries escorting a warrior on his quest for vengeance. 

The two games even utilize similar modular map boards that fit together to form unique maps for each scenario. The map pieces are interesting and varied and combine to form a multitude of exciting places to adventure. 

Unfortunately, both games also share a penchant for loads of tokens and components. Damage counters, item cards, skill cards, enemy tokens, traps, doors, etc. The amount of things to keep track of can definitely be overwhelming. Fortunately Gloomhaven has numerous third party apps to help manage the AI, health, experience, and money. And Imperial Assault has its own app-assisted campaign too. 

So, we’ve examined the facets of the two games that are similar and now we are all convinced that these are the same games. Right? Wrong! Let’s dig into what separates the two games. 

One of the most visually obvious differences between the two games: hex-based maps in Gloomhaven versus grid-based maps in Imperial Assault. A simple difference, but a fundamentally important one, especially when it comes to gameplay. 

Hex-based maps in Gloomhaven present interesting tactical combat possibilities. 

For games that feature tactical combat, positioning and the shape of the map have a large impact on the game. I’m not here to argue about which system is better - frankly, they both work well - but it’s a significant difference with a dramatic impact on how the game plays. 

One of the largest differences between the two games is how attacks are calculated. Imperial Assault uses a tried and true custom dice solution to determine accuracy, damage, and special abilities. Gloomhaven uses attack modifier decks to determine damage. Both systems are excellent. 

The cool part of the Gloomhaven approach is that you can add or subtract cards from your attack modifier deck as your character grows more powerful in order to manipulate the odds in your favor. 

The cool part of the Imperial Assault approach is that each weapon you acquire lets you roll different combinations of dice. Some weapons deal more straight damage while others are more likely to produce symbols that let you use special abilities. This approach gives characters a great chance to specialize and feel more powerful as the campaign progresses. 

Beyond obvious physical differences are some significant differences in how the games actually play. Imperial Assault is a free-wheeling thematic game that encourages you to take risks and - for lack of a better way to put this - play out cool Star Wars stories using your characters. 

Gloomhaven, on the other hand, rewards careful, thoughtful play of your cards each round. In Gloomhaven, each character starts with a hand of cards. This hand represents your abilities but it also represents your stamina. As you use abilities each round you either discard or lose these abilities. Discarded cards can be recovered by resting but even resting still forces you to lose one card. This puzzle creates many interesting and challenging decisions. Do you use that powerful loss ability to escape a tough scrape early in the scenario, knowing that it’ll be gone until the end? Or do you try and save it for an even worse situation? It’s this rewarding hand management aspect that sets Gloomhaven apart. This puzzle part is also something that leads many to declare that Gloomhaven is actually a Euro game hiding in a dungeon crawler’s clothes. I don’t necessarily agree with this sentiment. 

Lastly, I would be remiss if I failed to talk about a few extra factors. Imperial Assault is a Star Wars product. Something about moving these minis around just calls to me and my inner child. Fantasy Flight really did an amazing job with this game. Just look at how cool it is:

If those awesome minis don’t get you excited... go watch Clone Wars Season 7 or The Mandalorian and get back to me. 

Also, the legacy aspects of Gloomhaven are incredible. The thrill of opening one of those new character boxes is sublime. Progressing the story is a wonderful feeling of uncovering a mystery. Fighting against so many different enemies keeps the game fresh almost every time you play. Leveling up unlocks new cards to mix and match and makes you excited to dive back into your next scenario. 

At the end of the day both of these games are incredible and I am so happy to have them as part of my collection. They are similar in many aspects but also totally different. And totally worth your time!

Thanks for reading!

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Supporter5 months ago

Found it!

6 months ago

Really good article, I've not actually played either, do you have player count preference? I was just wondering if #Star Wars Imperial Assault requires more players to be as fun?

Supporter6 months ago

I’ve played IA both solo and multiplayer. I think it is at its most fun when one player controls the Empire and  the other players control the Rebels (as the game was originally designed) But, playing co—op against the app is a ton of fun and really thematic. And playing solo is much like playing against the app, except with cards instead of an app. For IA I would say 3 is one of the better player counts, but any from 1-5 is quite fun.

Gloomhaven I’ve only played solo. The cool part about Gloomhaven is that the difficulty scales dynamically based on the number of players and the levels of characters that are playing the particular scenario. So theoretically a person could drop in and out of a campaign seamlessly. The best part of playing it solo is that you can progress much much quicker through the game. However, there is so much to keep track of that having friends to help would be nice. I definitely recommend the game solo. I don’t know what other player counts would be good but I can’t imagine the game being bad. 

6 months ago

Does the imperial player in AI also 'progress' their characters/team? Or that just the Rebel side? Also, it seems like IA has a tonne of additional content available, is the base game a complete experience on its own or are the expansions kind of necessary?

2 sets of couples who I am friends with are playing Gloomhaven as pairs and really enjoying it. Especially during the lockdown they are powering through the campaign. 

Supporter6 months ago

Yes indeed, the Imperial player does have progression. The Imperial player has a class deck that is very similar to the Rebel class deck. They also earn influence that lets them purchase agenda cards. Some agenda cards can force the Rebels to play extra missions. These extra missions are usually more difficult for the Rebels and offer extra rewards for the Imperial player. 

Imperial Assault is most definitely a complete experience in the core box. There is a ton of content in there. That said, there are a ton of expansions to purchase to add new campaigns and more enemy types. And heroes. And more. 

6 months ago

Nice, I very well might invest when I next get the itch (and my bank account gives me the go ahead). Do you tend to prefer playing the empire of the Rebels? I often (maybe worryingly) enjoy playing 'the bad guys' when presented with the opportunity in a game 😅

Supporter6 months ago

Honestly they are both quite fun. There is something extra cool about commanding a competent Imperial force though...

Supporter6 months ago

You want another rabbit hole? You could paint your minis.... 

Thanks for the interesting comparison. There is no question in my mind about which I would choose if I were to get one right now. 

The more I look at the card play of #Gloomhaven the more I'm interested. 

Supporter6 months ago

I am not good at painting. They would look terrible. 

The card play of Gloomhaven is fantastic. So so good. 

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