The Elephant in the Room
As any hobbyist gamer knows, Gloomhaven is the #1 ranked game on the mammoth database Board Game Geek in an industry of thousands of great options. It has been the reigning champion for several years now, and it appears to be going nowhere as Cephalofair Games pumps out more content that fans are ever hungry for. Gloomhaven is also 100% not for me.
So how then did Isaac Childres and team convince me to purchase their latest title, Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion? Further still, how did they get me to LOVE it? I believe the answer to these questions are what will make Jaws of the Lion one of the most influential and important games of the decade.
For my table, Gloomhaven is too expensive, too fiddly, too huge, too complicated, too long, too intimidating, too stuffy, too exhausting, etc. etc. etc. It’s a massive box full of components and bits that seem to have been left far too long unsupervised and unchecked that they bred and reproduced far beyond a reasonable capacity. It’s the type of game that, when it finds willing victims, often proceeds to consume everything and anything that hobbyist gamers once held dear: table space—some tables for weeks or months at a time—, entire game nights, valuable free time, relationships, house pets, and beyond! Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion, is NONE of those things, and yet it is still Gloomhaven.
Jaws of the Lion takes a game that I would never dare touch and kicks down every wall that was keeping me from joining in on the fun. It takes the sprawling gameplay, trims it down to a reasonable, palatable size, and focuses in on what makes this cooperative dungeon crawler a cut above the rest. You still get that same juicy strategic card-play in a high-adventure package, but you also get to keep the rest of your life. Outside of the general streamlining that the gameplay received, the 5-part tutorial and spiral-o bound scenario books are brilliant features of what has to be the all-time best and most epic tabletop game found on Target shelves.
Instead of spending far too long sorting through mounds of tiles and laboring to piece and stack them together only to later take them apart, you simply flip open the book to the next page and WAM–there’s your map with the scenario description and helpful icons ready to rumble. Instead of getting hit with a bag of bricks rulebook before any fun can be had, it pares down the gameplay into step-by-step scenarios that slowly add more layers of complexity. Instead of triggering an explosion of pieces when the box is first opened, it provides a sheet (the very first thing you see) for how to organize everything in the box to make your maiden voyage—and every setup thereafter—a smooth-sailing experience.
One Giant Leap for Board Games
The convenience contrast between Gloomhaven’s tile setup and Jaws of the Lion’s spiral-book setup is so strong that longtime fans of the series are clamoring for every Gloomhaven game (existing and upcoming) to get the spiral-bound book treatment. It’s so slick and inspired that it’s a leaf I intend to take from Isaac’s book to use on my own scenario-based hot air balloon game. Furthermore, the opportunity to sequentially ramp up difficulty and complexity is a perfect fit for a book of scenarios that also act as your game board. I’m sold on these innovations both as a gamer and as a designer. Jaws of the Lion may not be the first ever board game to use these brilliant features, but its use of these features is arguably the most impactful—both to Gloomhaven itself and to the industry moving forward.
Now, don’t get me wrong; this game is no walk in the park to setup, tear down, learn, and play. It’s not a game I’m going to recommend to everybody. It’s still an option we’re only going to break out on game nights where our energy level is above average. It’s still a strenuous, uphill hike (with beautiful vistas, of course)…. but now it’s on a smooth, paved path with comfy benches, tasty snacks, and cozy restrooms along the way.
What other heavyweight game has taken such a large leap from an exclusively hardcore audience to the masses who shop at Target and successfully stuck the landing? This leap was so successful, in fact, that many critics and fans are saying they prefer Jaws of the Lion over the original Gloomhaven. Within a matter of months it has rocketed itself into the top 50 ranked games of all time. To that I say: Bravo, Isaac Childres and Cephalofair Games! Everybody else, take notes.
Article written by Nick Murray. To learn more about his tabletop gaming tastes and preferences, check out his blog series: Tabletop Tastes: My Favorite Flavors in Board Games. To follow his designs as they come to fruition, subscribe to our newsletter and follow Bitewing Games on social media!