Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion - First Impressions from a Gloomhaven First-Timer

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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!

Pre-Game Impressions

(++) 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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)

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5 months ago

Wow, that's a pretty glowing review! Do you think you'll enjoy it enough to want to play the big game once you're done with this one?

Supporter5 months ago

I bet he will. I told him to start saving because he's going to get to the end and want more, haha.

Supporter5 months ago

He really should. 

Supporter5 months ago

Trent thinks I will but it's currently a no for me haha. Will have to see where it takes me, but I'm more interested in getting onto #Aeon's End or #Too Many Bones after this (leaning more to Aeon's End).

This game is definitely not in my typical preference of a "5 min setup game," but the story and gameplay is enough of a draw to get it to the table for solo sessions. I currently don't think I'll feel the same way about the original Gloomhaven (yet).

Supporter5 months ago

I’m so glad you enjoyed it Phil.

I really think you should put aside your fear of the real Gloomhaven and just go for it. Finish Jaws and then continue onwards. If you organize Gloomhaven properly it does not take long at all to dive into scenarios.

But in general If you keep restricting yourself to certain arbitrary conditions (5 minute set up, $60 or less, etc) you will miss out on tremendous experiences. 

5 months ago

What may be arbitrary to you may be very important to him for reasons we don't know. I feel the same way on a lot of things. I know I've passed over games that people love due to poor production or art. I've passed over games due to theme and tone I find objectionable or uninteresting.

Different strokes for different folks and all that.

Supporter5 months ago

Yes of course, you are correct. I apologize for the forthright nature of my comment. It’s from a place of love though, because #Gloomhaven is so amazing and I want everyone to enjoy it. 

5 months ago

I hear ya. I took it to heart as I've heard the comment that boils down to "ignore that thing that's important and do this thing because I want you to do it" and it irks me. At the end of the day we're all just people who love games and want others to love them too.

Supporter5 months ago

I definitely don’t want to ignore anyone or make them feel less important. Sorry Phil. I’m just so passionate about #Gloomhaven!

Supporter5 months ago

As I mentioned in my text, no worries! I'm definitely liking the solo potential for #Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion though.

5 months ago

TMB is a big jump lol. 

5 months ago

This is for sure on the list of games to get to play with my wife once Aeon's End has lived its life! thanks for the rec!

Supporter5 months ago

Looking forward to hearing how Aeon's End goes for you!

5 months ago

I am trying to get the first scenario played this week/weekend but we will see. Life has gotten quite busy!

5 months ago

I've gone from ambivalent to obsessed with this game in like two days. I think the multiuse cards and hard decisions is what appeals to me and not just a roll of the dice. Still the theme is a turn-off. Here's hoping for GloomStation: Fangs of the Xenomorph (sci-fi theme) coming in 2025!

Supporter5 months ago

I wouldn't mind seeing a SciFi themed version.  Would love to see ships incorporated somehow.

Supporter5 months ago

Hahaha I'd personally want this game rethemed into Final Fantasy :)

How are you holding up by the way? Caving into all of the hype yet?? It's amazing to see the number of reviewers raving about this one and people trying to secure a copy.

5 months ago

Holding strong, but I have entered your giveaway.

Supporter5 months ago

Any FF in particular?  If you remember you might be able to guess the FF I'd like to see it rethemed as. (Sort of).

Supporter5 months ago

VII for me, Tactics for you right??

Supporter5 months ago

Nice VII would be my second, but yeah Tactics for sure.  Of course I wouldn't want it to just be Tactics, rather I'd want to see a game that takes place in Ivalice either a couple hundred years before the story line of Tactics, or Immediately following the events of Tactics.

5 months ago

Scenario 1 took me less than an hour from setup to playthrough.

The tutorial scenarios make the Gloomhaven learning process so much easier!!

And I had fun!

Supporter5 months ago

I realized that I added monsters at the hexes where I wasn't supposed to for 2p count haha. Plus, I tend to take longer turns when I solo... still a great solo experience.

Supporter5 months ago

With everything I've been looking into Jaws of the Lion has been creeping up my wish list.  This video solidified it for me...

Jaws of the Lion - NPI

I'm really happy the company made this new lighter version of Gloomhaven.  I don't think I would have really been into Gloomhaven (it would have been too big a commitment to me).  But Jaws of the Lion looks like it'll hit a nice sweet spot for me.

Supporter5 months ago

As much as I enjoy #Clank! Legacy: Acquisitions Incorporated (and I REALLY do), it's a bit of work juggling all of the stickering, reading the book of secrets, and anything else that gets triggered throughout the game. Especially because I have a small table.

Jaws of the Lion doesn't have that feeling of players shaping the world, but it sure seems to deliver on the feeling of story and progression, coupled by a very tactically pleasing gameplay and teamwork. I'm liking it so far and it'll be hitting the table again tonight for me to introduce to my wife.

Supporter5 months ago

What’s the stigma associated with dungeon crawlers?

Supporter5 months ago

I think it has to do with being a close connection with DnD, which isn't as "accepted" or as widely embraced by the board game community and the mass market. At least, that's the impression that I get. It'd be way more difficult for me to suggest playing a dungeon crawler to someone who is new to tabletop games because they usually seem to associate it as being "too nerdy" or draw connections to something that doesn't appeal to them. It may be a different story for them if they were to actually give it a try, but at least from personal experience, the term "dungeon crawler" isn't one that many of my friends would say "yes!" to without hesitation.

Supporter5 months ago

Sounds good 

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