Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

As anyone who plays board games (or with friends who like board games) can attest, an involved, TTRPG-style board game can be cumbersome. From in-depth rules and systems, it takes a while to get into Gloomhaven and introducing new players to its dense combat can make multiplayer challenging. But also like a dense board game, Gloomhaven rewards you when you put in the work to learn its rules and systems. Its deep card-based tactics gameplay shines in its many modes.

Gloomhaven blends hexagonal, grid-based tactical gameplay with a truly unique card-based battling system that’s deeply challenging, but also very rewarding once you manage to get a hold of all its moving parts. Its in-depth tutorial is largely okay at teaching you what you need to know, though not very quickly.

As far as the basics go, it’s in line with most TTRPG-style tactics games. A character or enemy’s stats will determine the turn order and things like movement, as well as attacks and other in-battle abilities. But where Gloomhaven differs is the ways those things function. Instead of attacks that work on a cooldown that goes down by turns like you’d see in games like Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle or Sparks of Hope, everything in Gloomhaven functions on a card-based system. Want to move across the room? That’s locked to a card. How about taking aim at a nearby enemy with a ranged attack? You’ll need the right card for that.

Gloomhaven Review - Screenshot 1 of Captured on Nintendo Switch (Docked)

Thankfully, Gloomhaven balances out this core conceit, at the cost of some of the luck-based elements that come with playing card games. If your ears perked up when you heard ‘card-based tactics game,’ you might be disappointed. Chances are, you thought of a game like Slay the Spire, Monster Train, or the no-longer Switch-bound Marvel’s Midnight Suns, but Gloomhaven shakes things up from the standard card-battler structure in an interesting way.

Instead of drawing cards at random, you’ll start each combat encounter with a full hand of 10 cards – that’s your entire deck. There are ways to add cards to your pool, but you’re always locked to a set number of cards in your hand. With each turn, you can choose two cards from your hand and one of the two actions on each card. There’s a catch to which actions you can select, though. Each selection has to be mirroring an action on the opposite side of the other card — choosing the top action on the first card means that you need to choose the bottom action on the second card.

Gloomhaven Review - Screenshot 1 of Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

Because of this, selecting the right card doesn’t just boil down to which action you want to do, it also requires planning which one you’re willing to sacrifice to get the play you need. And, again, everything in Gloomhaven is tied to these actions. This helps to make each turn count, but it also makes it really challenging. Most decks make it clear enough what combinations work best with each other, but that doesn’t make planning ahead for a particularly tough battle any easier.

To make that selection even more tense, Gloomhaven’s card system doesn’t cycle cards in and out of a discard pile. Instead, once a card’s been played, it’ll usually get discarded. Any card sent to the discard pile is stuck in said pile until you rest. Resting boils down to two options: long rest and short rest. Long rest takes up a turn, but also heals a chunk of your health, while short rest just resets your hand. Either way, you’re forced to burn a card from your discard pile, completely removing it from play.

Burning cards happens in a few situations. Resting is necessary, but there are situations where you can voluntarily burn cards to escape sticky situations. Some enemy attacks can be negated by burning cards as well. It’s a great way to dangle risk in front of the player because when a combatant runs out of cards, they’re exhausted and can’t fight anymore.

Gloomhaven Review - Screenshot 1 of Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

Thanks to its generally short combat encounters, every single action counts – down to the smallest movement. That sense of weight can be really satisfying once you have a firm grasp over both your player characters’ individual strengths and weaknesses and the game’s mechanics, but add in overwhelming and unwieldy menus and it can also make Gloomhaven extremely difficult to get into. With only a handful of cards at your disposal in a full hand, it’s very easy to run out and be forced to end a combat encounter early. Even Gloomhaven’s normal difficulty has some serious teeth, and isn’t a great place to start out even for tactically-inclined players.

But its short battles are really well-suited to Switch’s portable nature. Once you’ve nailed the basics, it’s easy to hop in and out of Gloomhaven without needing to deal with the catching up that can often come with other tactics-driven Switch games that feature extended encounters. We found ourselves playing a few turns before bed in handheld mode in the evening, and then waking up and finishing the combat encounter in the morning.

While it feels like a good fit for the console and runs well in both handheld and docked play, you may find Gloomhaven’s load times unbearable. From resetting a turn after a mis-input to jumping into a battle, Gloomhaven loads like molasses. To make matters worse, those mis-inputs happen annoyingly often thanks to the game’s unwieldy controls, and playing a mishap where it lies doesn’t jive considering how few actions you’re afforded in any given encounter.

Gloomhaven Review - Screenshot 1 of Captured on Nintendo Switch (Docked)

Sluggish menus feel par for the course next to Gloomhaven’s difficult-to-parse combat. In overworld navigation and combat, every action is tied to a specific button — viewing the world map or adding items to your character’s inventory, for example — and nothing can be navigated another way, like with a D-Pad or control stick. These problems wouldn’t be nearly as invasive if there were more control options or remappable buttons but touch controls and alternate options for menu and combat navigation are nowhere to be found. These menu navigation problems are most pronounced in the game’s story mode, where cycling through objectives and following quests is a true hassle.

Menu issues aside, though, Gloomhaven’s campaign is unexpectedly fleshed out. Most of the story is fully voiced, and there are tons of small, random events that can affect your experience. Maybe you’ll witness a robbery on your way to a mission and be able to either turn the thief in or aid them in their crimes for a small cut of the take. Perhaps you’ll stumble on a community event that you can participate in to help build your reputation.

These little events add a welcome, flavorful sense of roleplaying to what would otherwise be a very straightforward tactics game. Events (and their outcomes) are randomized too, meaning that you’ll almost never encounter the same situation, even if the event begins the same way. They’re brief but add so much to the game in padding out combat encounters all while stringing them together really well.

Conclusion

Gloomhaven’s gameplay is deeply challenging and dense, and it almost always manages to provide a satisfying payoff in equal measure if you are able to look past its menus and control flaws (and can stomach its load times on Switch). It isn’t for the faint of heart, but those who stick with its complex, card-centric tactical gameplay will find a great strategy game.