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!