Gloomhaven Jaws of the Lion Review

Gloomhaven jaws of the lion review - cover image

Hi there, welcome to my personal and very subjective Gloomhaven Jaws of the Lion review! Before diving into the review itself let me please bother you with a quick introduction that will explain how I got to play this fantastic board game.

It all started a few years ago, back in 2017 to be exact, when the original Gloomhaven came out and I wasn’t ready for that journey at all.

A month later the game release date, I would have flown with my father to the UK, with 3 fully packed luggage, ready to start a new career path.

My mind, at that time, was 100% focused on that challenging adventure and I made a promise to myself to not get distracted by anything until achieved what I came to do; no video games nor board games were allowed to creep in my spare time.

(There was a game though that I played from time to time: Hive, what a great game!)

Now, in 2022, when I finally decided to commit to Gloomhaven, I happened to find another version of the game published just about a couple of years ago… Gloomahaven: Jaws of the Lion.

After reading a few opinions online stating that this game was the perfect first step to entering the Gloomhaven universe, I decided to give it a go.
I have ordered the game and the removable stickers for a total price of £50.52.

To be honest I am very happy that Cephalofair published a lighter version of the game as, even though I felt ready to play its “big brother”, my spare time was still very limited.

Therefore this version of the game seems to be the perfect choice for me and whoever doesn’t have that much time to play. Let’s find out if it really is, shall we?


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Game story

Gloomhaven jaws of the Lion map
Game map – drawn by the talented Francesca Baerald

The story takes place a few years before the events narrated in the original Gloomhaven game and follows a group of mercenaries, the Jaws of the Lion, in their research for missing people in the city of Gloomhaven.

You are firstly hired by Sandy, the blacksmith’s wife who hasn’t stopped looking for the husband even though quite some time has gone past since he went missing.
You and your group are on your way back after chasing a bad lead outside the walls of Gloomhaven, when a group of oversized rats, Vermlings, decided to ambush you.

They have chosen the wrong group of people to mess with and it’s now time to show everyone the outcome for anyone who dares threaten you!

The story has a really simple introduction, but as the game progresses the events will lead you to discover that there is so much more hidden behind the scenes.

Unboxing

Gloomhaven jaws of the Lion - game components
Game components – image from cephalofair.com

At the moment of writing this section of the review, I have just received the game and it is still sealed here next to me, so everything I type from now on it is basically my first reaction to what I see.

The game comes in a 29 x 23 cm sturdy and yet “soft and glossy” box which I’d expect to be full of cards, tokens, miniatures and rulebooks; unless of course I have been robbed, in which case I’d find a couple of clay bricks instead of the game… let me open it!

*crying*

The above were tears of joy luckily as not only I did find the actual game and not bricks, but most importantly I loved how the publisher took care of some little details.

In fact, when you open the box you are welcomed by a paper sheet saying, guess what? -> “Welcome to Gloomhavem“.

And continues with “Stop! Read this before you do anything else!” guiding you through all the various components of the game and how to store them properly.
I don’t recall any other recent board games that introduce you to the game with such a pleasant welcome.

Yeah I know, I’m probably over-reacting over what is just a piece of paper… but f**k that, I love it!

Game components

After the welcome sheet, you will find:

  • Learn to Play Guide, a 30 pages rulebook that seems to be very detailed.
  • Game terms Glossary, another 30 pages book that collects all the game terms in alphabetical order and a few appendices, including a components list where to properly check if your game has missing parts; luckily mine hasn’t, yay!
  • Scenario book, where the story is narrated and the game is played on, as this book is also the game board. Be careful when you flip through it because in my case some pages were a bit glued to each other and the risk to break something is high (I did it, unfortunately… dammit!)
  • Supplemental Scenario book, that contains additional scenario descriptions and maps that, I guess, will have to be added to the main game board as the story progresses.
  • The sticker sheet and the map of Gloomhaven, I love the artwork! Francesca Baerald did an amazing job, as always.
  • And finally, you’ll find the rest of the components, 144 Character Ability Cards, 4 Player Reference Cards, 16 Monster Stat Cards (13 monsters, 3 bosses), 108 Monster Ability Cards, 8 Warning Cards, 22 Event Cards, 179 Attack Modifier Cards, 52 Item Cards, 32 Battle Goals.

At first glance, the game feels huge in any sense of the word.
Even if you don’t know anything about Gloomhaven you can easily tell there are tons of stuff to learn. And I can’t wait to lose myself in there!!

All right, time to stop… what I could have written about the game ends here.
Now I have to dive in and play it multiple times before being able to write a trustable review. I should be back in a few weeks, don’t you dare to move.

SEVERAL MONTHS LATER…

First game and impressions

Gloomhaven Jaws of the Lion photo of the first scenario
Beginning of the campaign – scenario 1

Hi there, I’m back! And I’m also late, I know.
A few months have passed since I started writing this article; it was a cloudy day in January and it is now a damn hot day in Summer.

I have been playing Gloomahaven Jaws of The Lion since the week after it landed at my doorstep and to be honest I couldn’t wait any longer to get you to know my thoughts about it.

The first 5 scenarios of the game are aimed to introduce the player to the Gloomhaven world and rules.
I appreciated how they split the tutorial into different sections, as the rules are quite a number and can be overwhelming to try to learn them all on your first game.

I have completed those first 5 scenarios in 3 days (scenario 4 was flipping tricky, but I managed to win on my first try with some help from Lady Luck) and I was completely blown away by the game already.
From scenario 6 Gloomhaven JoTL actually starts.
The tutorial is over, now it’s time to stand on your own feet and slay as many evil creatures as you possibly can.
It took me a few weeks to complete the rest of the campaign and now that it’s over I kind of feel the need to start the journey again with other characters.

Thinking about a character build, how to maximize the efficiency of the attack modifier deck, evaluate items and weapons to buy and sell, and so on.
These are the elements I want in a dungeon-crawl board game, and Isaac Childres and his team at Cephalofair have included them all.

How to play Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion

Gloomhaven Jaws of the Lion photo of one of the scenarios
The Hatchet and the Voidwarden fighting against Giant Vipers

I was really in doubt if writing or not this section of the review; there are already tons of reviews out there and I thought to focus my attention elsewhere.
But since I’m writing a Gloomhaven Jaws of the Lion review I kind of want to include a brief explanation of how to play the game to fill what could have been a huge gap (both in the article and my soul).

Having said that, I’m not going to waste too much of your time anyway, therefore I’ll keep this section of the article very short.
If you are looking for a detailed version of what you’re about to read I’d suggest you have a look at the official rules, as they are very well written.

Character selection

This is the first thing to do before doing everything else.
This game can be played by up to 4 players and you can choose your alter ego among 4 classes very different from each other.

I’ll be covering the classes a bit further down in this article so I won’t add anything else here.

Game setup

This could take up to 15-20 minutes depending on the number of players and the scenario you’re playing.
Luckily for us, Cephalofair decided to use a scenario book as a map for the adventure and that saves a lot of time compared to the original Gloomhaven game.

You’ll have to set up the followings:

  • Scenario book with all the tokens, characters and monsters miniatures following the instructions written on the book itself;
  • Plastic tray containing all the components needed for the game, such as damage, buff, and debuff tokens;
  • Monsters stat cards and the modifier deck for each of them;
  • Characters mat, ability cards, deck modifier and the hit point dial.

Playing the game

The game is played over multiple scenarios and each of them is split into rounds. They always follow this order:

  • Card Selection: players simultaneously choose 2 ability cards from their personal deck, which have top and bottom actions to use in that round; in this phase you can discuss the strategy to follow with your fellow adventurers without saying any numerical values or card titles.
  • Ordering of Initiative: along with the top and bottom actions, the character ability cards also have a number written in the centre of it, which will determine the round order. Players will pick one of the two numbers written on the cards to be their initiative number.
    The lower the number, the faster your character will move. Monsters have their initiative number too.
  • Character and Monster Turns: once the initiative order is determined, you can finally start the dungeon exploration. Each character will take one top action and one bottom action throughout their turn. These can be attacking an enemy (melee or ranged), moving around the map, healing yourself/allies, inflicting buffs or debuffs, and so on.
    Monsters will do the same following the order of actions written on their ability cards.
  • End of Round: once everyone has completed their actions the round terminates.
    The two cards used for that round will be temporarily discarded and each player will then select another pair of ability cards for the next round.
    If a character does not have at least two cards in their hand at the beginning of a round because the player runs out of cards, that character becomes exhausted and consequently removed from the dungeon.

This is basically how the game works.
There are plenty of additional rules and mechanics to learn, but once you play the first 5 tutorial dungeons the game will become very straightforward.

Classes

Briefly introduced in the above section, character selection is something to deeply consider in a legacy game that is played over a series of scenarios that will probably last a few weeks.

Every player has to choose a class (if you want to play solo you have to choose 2 classes and you use both characters) and they are:

  • Red Guard
  • Hatchet
  • Voidwarden
  • Demolitionist

Each class has its own deck of cards with unique gameplay mechanics and abilities. They have all very different styles so be sure to choose the one that fits your preference.
If you want to know the characters first before making any move I’ve written a Gloomhaven Jaws of the Lion Classes guide, in which you can find a detailed overview that could help you make the right choice.

When it comes to choosing a character I always lose too much time on the process and the class choice for this game didn’t go differently.

I started my first adventure with two characters I thought could be a good and balanced pair: The Hatchet and The Red Guard.

Luckily I wasn’t wrong. I had tons of fun!
Break into dungeons with the Red Guard leading the charge and the Hatchet taking care of the flanks or the big bosses, thanks to his incredible attack power, was extremely satisfying.

Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion main gameplay mechanics

Gloomhaven Jaws of the Lion photo of one of the scenarios
Our party of 4 characters fighting against a bunch of Vermling Scouts

First thing first… what kind of game is Gloomhaven Jaws of the Lion?
I should have written this question and the answer at the beginning of the article I know, and now I’m too lazy to fix it.

Anyway, it is a legacy-style dungeon-crawl board game with a sprinkle of hand management mechanics.

Legacy-style

A game is defined as “Legacy” when its components permanently change while progressing the game through the course of several sessions.
Some examples of these permanent changes are placing stickers on the map, writing names on cards, destroying cards and components, and so on.

The idea behind a legacy game is to make players’ decisions weigh more and therefore force them to think about the possible outcomes of their choices more than in any other game.

In Gloomhaven the number of permanent changes is very limited, in fact, you only have to place stickers on the map every time you complete a mission.

Now, if you are like me and despise ruining the components of a game, I’d suggest buying a Removable Stickers Set and Map that allows you to place the stickers and remove them once you want to start another campaign.

Dungeon-crawl

A dungeon-crawl game is a type of role-playing game in which players explore a dungeon, fight monsters, solve puzzles and loot the treasure they find.
Gloomhaven revolves entirely around this concept as the whole campaign is the sum of various dungeon crawling sessions.

When you enter a dungeon you’ll be facing a broad variety of obstacles, terrains, traps and of course monsters.
Given the fact that the map is always entirely visible, as you play on the scenario book rather than tiles like the original Gloomhaven, you can carefully plan the ideal path of your character in order to complete the mission with the least amount of pain.

(To be honest, I actually missed the fog on the map but you can’t have everything. It’s a minor flaw considering how faster the game setup is compared to Gloomhaven).

When you eventually complete a dungeon you can loot treasures and write down on your character sheet the amount of experience and gold you earned.
The more experience you earn, the faster you level up and unlock new cards for your deck. Gold is used to buy better equipment.

Hand management

A game that requires hand management skills is a game in which players must carefully plan the combination of cards to play in their turn, in order to get the most valuable outcome.

In Gloomhaven each player has a hand of cards which represents the actions you can do during the scenario. On their turn players have to choose 2 cards and pick a combination of top and bottom actions.
Top actions cards are usually offensive abilities, while bottom actions are usually movement/defensive abilities.
All the cards also have an initiative number which will tell the order of players/monsters during the turns.

The interaction between players is allowed but only in the form of vague hints, therefore you can’t say “I’m going to attack that monster with 5 attack points and an initiative of 9”.
Instead, you can say “I will move very fast and hit quite hard that monster”.

Due to the fact that in this game you can lose cards permanently while progressing through a scenario, choosing the right cards at the right time is very important if you don’t want to exhaust your character.

Levelling Up mechanic

Gloomhaven Jaws of the Lion photo of two characters sheet
The Hatchet and the Voidwarden character sheet

Levelling up is a core mechanic of every role-playing game and it is probably the funniest and most rewarding aspect of that type of game.
Seeing your character growing up strong while acquiring better gears and items is something I’ll never get used to!

How does Gloomhaven JotL perform on this matter?

In Gloomhaven you’ll be able to earn experience points when you complete dungeons, when you trigger particular effects on your cards and when you pick certain options on the city interaction events cards.

When you complete a dungeon you may visit the market to buy new gear/items and, if you reached the amount of experience needed to level up you can also unlock new cards and, sometimes, perks.

I honestly love the way the game allows you to really customize your character.
You have plenty of options to choose from in order to make your class gameplay tailored to your preferences by trying and mixing combinations of cards and perks.

Conclusion

Fun
When it comes to deciding if a game is fun or not I usually ask myself this question: would I play the game again? Yes, totally!
What could be called fun if not entering a dungeon and mercilessly killing waves of monsters? If you’re into this, the game is 100% fun.

I played the whole campaign twice so far, first with my girlfriend and then in solo mode.
It was totally captivating and I already imagine how much funnier could it be playing with a full party of 4 people.

Something to say about the solo mode tho. As you must use 2 characters at the same time, as well as controlling monsters, it can be a bit overwhelming and some dungeons could drag you into an analysis-paralysis type of situation, which can be a tad frustrating.
I got myself headaches on a few occasions.

Quality
The quality of the game is way above average. Miniatures are made out of good plastic and suited to be painted if you are into that hobby too.
All the books in the game as well as the map, tokens and cards are made with stronger and resistant paper.
All the components can be easily stored in the box without much of a hassle.

Considering the quantity and the quality of all the components, the game totally ticks the box and you can’t really get any better.

Replayability
One of the most common questions I usually read online: is Gloomhaven Jaws of the Lion replayable?
The answer is yes, this game offers almost endless replayability and I’m pretty sure anyone can’t say they tried everything the game has to offer.

Seriously, you can choose between 4 characters that can be built and used in different ways. You can tackle dungeons by following different strategies every time you try, sometimes with poor results and sometimes with greater success.
You can try the game with different friends and I’m sure the outcome will always be different.

Player Interaction
The game encourages you to speak with other players in order to come up with smart strategies.
Gloomhaven is meant to be a cooperative journey and loose cannons players can easily be beaten by the AI.

Of course, if you are playing the Hatchet you might be more free to move around the map compared to a Red Guard player, but to exploit the strengths and weaknesses of each member of the team the interaction between players is necessary.

Difficulty
At first glance, the game might seem difficult, mainly due to the number of rules you have to learn. And it actually is.
Luckily the first 5 scenarios are meant to be a series of tutorials for all the newbie players and I very much appreciated this choice as learning the rules while playing is the best way to not fall asleep.

Speaking about the actual game difficulty, I can say that the AI is well structured with a broad variety of actions and some of the monsters’ moves can’t really be foreseen. On a few occasions, I completed the dungeon by luck, while on others I tremendously failed.

And this is good, I guess nobody wants to explore easy and boring dungeons. And if you find yourself really stuck you can always reduce the difficulty (but don’t tell anyone I said that).

Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion is the answer for anyone seeking a great cooperative dungeon-crawler adventure, without feeling overwhelmed by the number of rules and components of its older brother.
After playing the campaign multiple times, I’m now more than ready for Gloomhaven and Frosthaven!


GLOOMHAVEN: JAWS OF THE LION
1 – 4 players | 30 – 120 min | 14+


Boom, done! Thanks for sticking around until the end.
I tried to keep this Gloomhaven Jaws of the Lion review as short and tidy as I could, while also making it useful. I hope you enjoyed it and catch you on the next one!

If you liked this post, you may also be interested in:

Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion Classes – Overview & Rank