So you’ve taken the plunge and decided to buy the number one rated board game of all time, the mighty Gloomhaven, but what next?
Gloomhaven is a campaign-based board game in which a group of heroes explores the land and grows in strength as they take on various adventures. The characters explore dungeons and locations while interacting with the inhabitants of Gloomhaven between missions. The game can be played cooperatively by up to four people or solo, in which case the single player can take charge of one or more characters. If playing solo, the manner in which the game is played can make fundamental changes to the way it is experienced.
Gloomhaven can be fun played solo but you need to be the kind of gamer who enjoys puzzles and who is prepared to go through a similar experience many times. To experience the game at its best either play with one character or, for a more involving game, operate two characters at once. An app is recommended to keep track of everything, and is near essential if operating more than one character. Playing solo with three of four characters is not recommended.
The campaign underpinning Gloomhaven is a story that unfolds through multiple adventures, so it is not like a normal game that can be played a couple of times, put back on the shelf and then dragged out a few months later.
To get the most out of Gloomhaven and feel its story come to life you need to play it regularly and with the same group of people.
Getting the gaming gang to join up every week is something everybody imagines will happen but is much harder to do in real life, so you may very well end up having to play Gloomhaven on your own.
Thankfully the game is entirely playable in this way, although it certainly feels very different and can have distinct pros and cons.
If you end up taking the journey through Gloomhaven on your own then there are a couple of things to consider which will have a huge impact on how the game feels.
Because Gloomhaven is a cooperative rather than a competitive game it means that the players work together to try to beat the design, discussing things and hopefully coming to an agreement about what to do.
This sounds great in principle, but people will often disagree about what to do, and the term alpha player is used to describe somebody who can take over in these situations.
Playing on your own means that you take all the decisions, but it also means that you lose the back and forth chatter and discussion before each move.
Of course, you could just pick a single character to represent you on your journey and play through Gloomhaven, but much of the fun and challenge of the game comes about through the way that player characters interact with each other, so you could also consider running multiple characters.
Each of these approaches will work, but each comes with definite positives and negatives, so read on to find out more.
Playing Gloomhaven As A Single Character
Playing a single character is definitely the easiest way to play Gloomhaven, and if you are a fairly new gamer then this is what you should consider.
There are many brilliant design choices in Gloomhaven, and one of them is to make the difficulty of the game scaleable according to the number of characters being played.
In other words, the game’s difficulty changes so that the challenge of Gloomhaven remains the same however many players are seated around the table.
The difficulty also ramps up through the campaign, so as you and your character become more experienced the enemies will get stronger as well, so you don’t need to worry about the game’s challenge feeling different.
There are also solo scenarios available, and these are specially designed for the one-player-one-character approach, although, like much of the material in Gloomhaven, you do need to have reached a certain level to unlock them.
Keeping track of everything, which is nearly a full-time job when playing Gloomhaven, is much easier with the one character, as it is basically far less difficult to get confused about which hero should be activating next or which token should go where.
Here’s a video of a full solo playthrough of a mission with one character to give you a flavour of what this involves.
Playing Gloomhaven Solo As Two Characters
If you are playing solo with just the one character there are definitely some advantages, but the main disadvantage is that much of the flavour and the feel of the game is lost.
Exploration and battle just feel so much more meaty with a second character involved, and much of that has to do with one of the core mechanisms in Gloomhaven.
When exploring a location and coming up against enemies each character gets to play two cards per round, activating the top half of one of them and the second half of the other.
In addition to this each card comes with a number that says how quickly it activates, so something like a powerful fire attack will take a while to charge up, while a stab will happen almost immediately.
This means that two characters do not take turns one after the other, but activate according to their cards…but the enemies can also activate in between or even before you, which can be lethal.
When you have other gamers around the table and are playing with, say, four characters then much of the fun of Gloomhaven is in those discussions – Should we do this first or wait and do something more powerful? Should your character go in or block or dodge or..?
When it’s just you playing with two characters then Gloomhaven becomes much more like a puzzle to solve in which you are trying to work out the best things to do and in which order.
Playing solo with one character is definitely easier, but it also feels slightly washed out, while having two characters on the go can be really exciting.
There are some downsides, though, although these are related more to things that go on around the game than in the game itself.
Obviously, with two characters on the go then there is twice as much administration to look after, and Gloomhaven is really heavy on the administration.
You will need to keep track of status changes, monitor health and do many other things besides, including taking care of the monsters and their movement.
Each type of monster comes with its own AI (artificial intelligence) which describes how it moves and what it does.
You will be activating monsters even if you were playing just the one character, of course, but when playing with two it can all be a little overwhelming, even for an experienced player.
That is why I would strongly recommend using one of the free Gloomhaven apps which are available online, such as Gloomhaven Helper, which is the officially licensed helper app.
You could happily play this without the help of the app, but you need to be slow and careful, and here’s a video of a two-character solo play where the player is using the app to give you an idea of what this approach involves.
Playing Gloomhaven Solo With Three Characters
While this is the best way to play Gloomhaven if you have other players at your table, unfortunately this is likely to be far too complicated if it is just you operating the characters.
It may sound like fun on the surface – all that interaction, all that fighting! – but it will likely turn out to be a tedious exercise in bookkeeping, making sure that all the trackers are in the right place at the right time, picking up tokens that have fallen off the table…
If there are three of you each operating one character then you are getting the full Gloomhaven experience but only doing a third of the work.
Playing solo with three characters will mean doing three times the work, but you certainly won’t have three times as much fun.
Playing Gloomhaven Solo With Four Characters
Dont. Seriously, don’t.
Not only is Gloomhaven not at its best with four characters anyway, but the amount of administration and tracking will make it an unbearable chore.
If you are some kind of gaming masochist who would like to sit through hundreds of hours of what will feel like accounting but with cardboard figures then feel free to try it, but I would strongly advise against it.
It’s probably fair to say that Gloomhaven is always going to be less fun solo than it is with other players at the table, but it can still be a rich and rewarding experience.
Just be aware of what you are getting into, that this will feel much more like a puzzle than a gang of like-minded adventurers meeting up to chat and discuss and fight their way through a hostile environment.
There are many other cooperative games that can easily be played by one person operating multiple characters, but Gloomhaven is a complex machine with lots of moving parts and needs the right kind of brain to keep it ticking over.
It can also be repetitive if you are playing it on your own, with a sequence of travel-explore repeating itself multiple times, and those dungeons turning into a bit of a grind, so that is another thing to consider, as you won’t have those oh-so-witty comments from your friends to see you through.
On the other hand, if Gloomhaven does fall into your sweet spot then it can be a magnificent and engrossing play, and the best thing about playing it on your own could be that you can get on with the story whenever you like rather than having to wait for all your friends to have a free night.
The question of whether Gloomhaven is fun solo really depends on what kind of person you are. Solo Gloomhaven is for you if:
- You are patient and analytical and like to think things through
- You like to tinker with spreadsheets in your spare time
- You are willing and able to devote hours of your life to a single game
- You have played Final Fantasy video games and wished you could take charge of all the administration
- You have a large table
Solo Gloomhaven is not for you if:
- You want a new experience every time you play
- You cannot keep track of your own life let alone multiple modifiers for monsters and heroes
- You think that gaming is all about having other people at the table
- You want knockabout fun in short bursts