Disclaimer: Jaws of the Lion is my first step into the world of Gloomhaven. I've honestly never had much of an interest since I'm new to dungeon crawlers and the stigma associated with the genre certainly didn't help. I also like to stay far, FAR away from any games with long setup times. So even though I like to solo games from time to time (once a week/two weeks), I never felt drawn to try out the "#1 game of all time". Recently, though, I've been wanting to branch out from my typical euro games. As much as I love them, I often find that I greatly appreciate games that are a marriage of solid euro mechanics (rewarding strategic and tactical plays) and strong thematic connections. And this is where I make my obligatory shoutout to #Root, but recently #Clank! Legacy: Acquisitions Incorporated for its focus on storytelling. Well, it looks like I've found another great match through the accessible counterpart to Gloomhaven, #Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion. Here are my first impressions after playing through the first scenario.
I'll start with the pre-game experience, starting from my Sunday morning trip to Target. Skip to "Setup and Learning the Game" section if you don't want to read all the extra stuff!
(++) Hype - Has there ever been another board game release at Target that caused this much commotion? I can't remember one, and I think this is history in the making. Part of the fun in our hobby is talking about games, and I couldn't help but feel excited as I made the trip, knowing that this is the single most talked about game at the moment.
(+/-) Judging by the cover - I felt iffy about the cover art when I first heard the announcement, but it's grown on me. I like it. The box is hefty and you can tell from the weight that it's Gloomhaven Jr. One thing I found interesting is that the lid already comes with quite a bit of lift. Not a good sign in terms of the ease of "reboxing" after gameplay.
(+) What's inside? - The fun part of unboxing these types of games is the sense of mystery and discovery. You can't open everything just yet, and have to wait until the right moment. The game comes with plenty of baggies and have a tray for all of the different tokens. The insert is decent but there's so little room left in this box after you punch out and organize everything. But the highlights here are the great minis, scenario book, learn to play guide, counters for hit points, great monster standees, cards, and so much more. At $50 (before tax) and 25 scenarios, this game most definitely delivers on value.
(+) Minis - I appreciate that the sculpting on these is better than Gloomhaven's. I've always had a bad impression of Gloomhaven's minis, although it's probably unfair for me to compare them against CMON's. In my opinion, the posturing on GH's minis are very stiff and the body proportions are completely off in comparison to the illustrations.
Setup and Learning the Game - How Beginner-Friendly is Jaws of the Lion?
(+) Initial Setup - The rulebook walks you through how to organize everything for max efficiency for setting up future scenarios. Including punching all of the tokens, identifying and bagging all of the monster cards, standees, and other components together, I think I took about 1.5 hours. Possibly too long for some people but it was a great way to become familiar with the game's world.
(++) Scenario Book - Storytelling and tone is just right for me. Nothing cheesy or cliched and gives you just enough to keep you interested. I just really love the idea of flipping open the book and having a great game session lying in wait.
(+++) Starting the game. Low intimidation factor - At first, you might think to yourself that there's too much prep time. But if you consider how much time (and mental energy) typically goes into learning any new game, this is a very pleasant experience with lots of "hand-holding". It leads you through one action and round at a time, saves some of the more complex elements to introduce in the next scenario, and makes you feel confident enough to walk on your own.
How Does it Play?
(++) For those who are familiar with my preferences, you know that I have a high regard for simple mechanics that reward deep tactical and strategic plays. Maybe it's from my Chess and Go background, but I always enjoy that aspect in gaming. In the first round, each player has a hand of 6 cards and you play two of them as an action. There are two "catches" that turn this game into a great tactical gameplay that reminds me of turn-based battles in games like Final Fantasy.
- Each card denotes a value for "initiative". If you're not familiar with this concept, it's a way to determine player order, including the monsters (the monster in the first round had an initiative of 50). In each round, you lay down two cards you will play for the round, and the card you place down first determines your initiative. Once all players/characters have placed down their cards, the player order is then determined in order of lowest to highest initiative. So you have to think about how early you want to take action, how you want to position yourself to attack or support a teammate, whether you should let the monsters approach you first, etc.
- Each card comes with two different character specific abilities, one on the top side and one on the bottom side. You will have to choose which ability you will use. So you're constantly going through choices like "Hmm should I use this ability to attack? But I'll have to sacrifice not having a movement option..." and so on.
(+) Distinct play styles for each character - I always love variable player powers and you can choose from 4 very different "flavors" in play style. When you solo, you have to play with at least two characters, so I went for the melee-based character and a support-type character.
(+) Luck in combat - Each figure (characters and monsters) on the map has an attack modifier deck. This is meant to simulate the probability of success/failure in how potent the attack will be. For instance, my melee character was low on health but I decided to take the risk and go for a strong melee attack that I was sure would success, but after a really bad card draw that basically nullified my attack (there are only a few of those in the deck), I was a sitting duck to take in lots of damage. I always like combat mechanics that make great use of luck, so I like this a lot.
(++) Smooth gameplay - Once you get past the initial setup, there's surprisingly little upkeep involved even when you're soloing with two characters. The way the monsters move is intuitive and you're mostly spending time thinking about which moves you should make. This is one of those games like Root where the mechanic blends so well into the game that it "disappears" on you.
As usual, I had a lot to say! And while it's still too early to tell, I can only guess that things will get more interesting with more plays. If I were to rate this game on a 5-star scale, I'd lean closer to a 5/5 at the moment, and I rarely give those. I think you'll really enjoy this one @nealkfrank (when you're done with #Aeon's End: Legacy, of course :D)