I’ve been trying to crack this problem of getting Gloomhaven to a wider, more casual demographic for a while. Around this time last year I was working on a Gloomhaven card game. Something simple in a small box that would feel like Gloomhaven, even if the mechanics were totally different. I remember play testing it at a convention, and somebody told me that it felt a lot like Splendor, which was enough for me to pack it up and never look at it again.
What I eventually realized was that a watered-down card game with the same name was never going to capture people like Gloomhaven has done. The only thing that would capture people like Gloomhaven is Gloomhaven.
I see all these casual gamers sitting down for demos at conventions, or I hear about hard-core gamers getting their partners to play with them, and, well, it seems to me that the core Gloomhaven experience – that process of looking at your hand of cards and picking the best two to play – is not overly complicated.
I’ve taught Gloomhaven to all manner of people. With a good teacher and all other barriers removed, I believe that anyone with an interest in this type of game can learn and enjoy it with little difficulty. So what I needed to make was a version of the game that tore down every wall the original game put up.
So let’s start with the obvious stuff. A lot of people are wary of the $100+ price tag and the giant box of stuff that comes with it. It’s intimidating and feels like a significant commitment. Sure, it’s a good value for the money, but only if you’re willing to invest a significant amount of time into it. And, again, the box is so big! It’s so full of stuff! How will you organize it all?
These issues have been huge barriers of entry for people, so how do we fix it? Well, like I said, this is the obvious stuff. We make a smaller version of the game that is far less of a time commitment, far cheaper, and far easier to organize. This means a smaller campaign, fewer characters, fewer monsters, and less of everything else to boot.
It’s kind of funny because it’s like I’m designing Gloomhaven in reverse. With the original game, one of the core design concepts was a huge, open world, and then I developed all these campaign systems – retirement, prosperity, a multitude of characters and monsters – to support that concept. With this new project, I am basically saying, “Nope, we don’t need that anymore,” and then all that other stuff can get stripped away along with it.
So, yeah, well, I’ve been talking around this for a while, but I guess it is time to just let you know that, in case you didn’t see the Shut Up and Sit Down video, or any of the posts on BGG, Reddit, or wherever else you get your board game news, a new Gloomhaven product is in development that is aimed at mass market stores like Target or Barnes and Noble, and is intended to appeal to more casual gamers. It doesn’t have a title yet, though I believe that will be remedied before too long, and the current plan is for it to hit stores in August or September of next year at a $40-50 price point.
So what exactly is being removed/changed to get the price and box size down to reasonable levels? Well, the scenario book has roughly 24 scenarios in it instead of the massive 95 of the original game. And since it would be impossible to cut those 95 down to 24, and because it is more fun the other way, I created an entirely new campaign. There are still plenty of side quests, so roughly half the scenarios are optional, and people should be able to get through the story in 12 sessions if they want.
But is 12 sessions enough to retire multiple characters? Of course not. The game will come with four new characters and that is it. This campaign is their story and they will see it from start to finish. This means that retirement and prosperity are no longer a thing. There is also no need for a party sheet, as there is no reputation or complicated achievements either.
There are still city events where players can make choices and endure the consequences, but the campaign will take place entirely within Gloomhaven, so there are no road events and the map is much smaller. We thought about cutting out the map completely as well, but I think it is a fun and engaging element of the game. There are still stickers, but we’ll also provide a pad of campaign tracker sheets to keep everything straight for those who don’t like the joy of affixing stickers to maps.
The monster pool has also diminished significantly, with a much more manageable 15-20 types. Some of them players will recognize from the original game, but many will also be completely new, including some cool new bosses.
But I know what you’re asking. What about all that other cardboard? The giant map tiles and numerous, numerous overlay tiles? Well, it has largely been removed in the name of faster setup times, which has also been a major barrier for people. Instead of cardboard maps, players will run through scenarios printed in the scenario book itself (well, many scenarios actually incorporate two books because they are too large to fit on a two-page spread).
I think this picture speaks for itself pretty well, even though it is using old art assets. Most features of the scenario will be printed in the books, leaving only stuff that can move or be directly interacted with left to be represented by cardboard. There is so much less stuff you have to fish out of the box, and the stuff you do have to still fish out is coming from a much smaller pool of components. Just open the book and get going!
There is still one last barrier to entry to discuss, though, and it is surely the most difficult to crack. How do you teach people the rules? A professional Gloomhaven demoer does not come in each box, and at the end of the day, Gloomhaven is a fairly complicated system, especially when it comes to monster AI. The rules are a long read. Yes, you can cut out most of the campaign rules, but they are still a long read. We can’t just throw people into the deep end. We have to introduce them to the game a little bit at a time through a series of carefully crafted intro scenarios.
So the idea, which certainly isn’t new to the hobby, is to have a “learn to play” rule book that will guide players through the first 5-6 scenarios of the game, teaching them a little bit at a time and then asking them to use that knowledge in a scenario crafted around the concepts learned.
This starts with a basic scenario where players use a hand of 6 very simplified cards to move and attack a single room of enemies that don’t even have an ability deck. It then gradually progresses until players are playing through full scenarios with all of the rules. Plus, we have a lot of data on all the pitfalls new Gloomhaven players fall into, and we can make sure the learn to play guide emphasizes the proper way to play for each. And, of course, we will have another comprehensive glossary of rules that people can reference after they’ve gone through the learn to play guide.
So I think that’s about the whole concept explained, though I would be remiss if I didn’t mention something else. We’ve done some extensive play testing since announcing this product at SHUX two weeks ago, and have come to the clear conclusion that the Necromancer class is just too complicated for the audience we are targeting. All the play testers agreed that it was a very fun and interesting class, but it just wasn’t right for this product. The current plan is to incorporate the class into the upcoming bigger expansion, so, uh, congratulations! I accidentally gave you a sneak peek at something from that!
The issue was that summoning in general is a pretty fragile experience. You either manage your summons well, and they stay alive and do lots of damage and other cool stuff, or your summons get killed off as soon as you summon them, and you just feel crappy doing nothing. Managing summons requires a pretty good grasp of how monster AI works, and there were lots of other important considerations the Necromancer had to take into account to play well on top of that. It was just a lot to ask of a player new to the system.
So I’m working on a new class to fill in the fourth chair. I’d like to get it a little more solidified before I announce anything, but it is definitely coming along and I think will be equally fun to play.
So that, finally, is all there is to say about that. Except I’m sure I forgot to mention something. Feel free to ask questions in the comments and I will work on answering them all.