Gloomhaven’s immense popularity always surprises me, not because it’s bad, but because of the sheer level of difficulty present in its many scenarios. Gloomhaven digital – the video game counterpart to the tabletop title from Cephalofair Games – may have exchanged the physical components for computer graphics, but it remains committed to the original’s challenging gameplay.
The ‘Dark Souls’ of something is a term that’s been thrown about so much that it’s become a meme, especially as it’s been used entirely inappropriately in the past. For those who might not be familiar with Dark Souls, it’s a fantasy roleplaying game series that’s garnered a reputation for being exceedingly difficult. However, sheer challenge is not the reason that the video games made by Fromsoftware make for a good comparison to Gloomhaven digital, rather it’s their shared approach to orchestrating player defeat and using that to help people get better.
Similar to the Dark Souls series, Gloomhaven digital can be misunderstood as providing its players with an unashamedly masochistic experience. The tabletop video game is certainly difficult, there’s no denying that. My group and I have put almost 10 hours into the game and we’ve not gotten past the second main mission. I’ve lost count of the number of times we’ve failed a scenario, sometimes right at the precipice of victory. It hurts to suffer defeat as much as we have, but it hasn’t dampened our determination to win. The key is that Gloomhaven digital’s challenge doesn’t stem from unfair gameplay mechanics or the need for an unreasonable amount of luck, instead, it comes from the need for players to learn its rhythms and try different approaches.
Losing because you made a mistake feels bad, but it also incentivises you to not do that mistake again.
It would be lying to say that our failures in Gloomhaven digital haven’t mostly stemmed from our mistakes. Just as a Dark Souls boss will punish a player for misreading its movements, Gloomhaven digital will dole out hits to those foolish enough to not consider all of the potential outcomes of a decision. In Gloomhaven digital, a player’s entire turn is almost always made up of choosing two cards from their available hand. This might be a very simple action on its face but the ramifications of doing the wrong thing are harsh. You have to make sure that you’re maximising those actions, that you’re not putting your character or allies into a deadly situation and that you’re preserving your resources as much as possible. Heck! It’s unbelievably easy to misread text on a card and realise your actions are going to result in diddly-squat – or sometimes worse – way too late.
Having your arse handed to you by a gang of angry Vermlings is about as enjoyable as watching your Dark Souls character get sat on by an Asylum Demon, but they both serve the same purpose – teaching through defeat. Losing because you made a mistake feels bad, but it also incentivises you to not do that mistake again. I began Gloomhaven digital by burning through my cards like wildfire and running into adjacent rooms filled with enemies, but several exhausted characters and misbegotten corpses later and I’ve learnt not to do those things. Now, I’ll wait until the optimum time to use actions that burn cards and let my chunkier allies step through doors before I follow suit.
The more difficult a task is, the better it feels when you’re finally able to complete it.
Trying new strategies and approaches is a core tenant preached by both Gloomhaven digital and the Dark Souls series. There are elements of luck and circumstance found in the video game series and tabletop adaptation, such as drawing a curse card in Gloomhaven digital or having a random enemy player join your Dark Souls 2 game. However, trying to do the same thing over and over with no success is akin to banging your head against a brick wall that just isn’t going to budge.
In Gloomhaven digital, if you’re walking into a room of undead and finding yourself getting overwhelmed time and time again, it’s time to try something else. Perhaps opening the door, only to retreat back and let the enemies come to you, will make the situation more manageable? Or equipping your most defensive character with some armour to help them take more hits? Alternatively, players can decide to leave the scenario and switch out cards from their decks, acquire some new equipment or even take on a side-quest for more experience and rewards. The Dark Souls series does something similar, wherein players are free to explore other areas in the hopes of finding something to help them overcome a challenge they’re struggling with, whether that’s a different weapon, items or abilities.
Every defeat along the way is going to push you in a new direction, one that will eventually be the right one.
Walking into a scenario in Gloomhaven digital with three curses in your attack deck right off the bat is absolutely infuriating, just as getting immediately bodied by a Capra Demon in Dark Souls feels humiliating. But the elation of finding a way of overcoming these kinds of challenges is a wonderful thing. It’s a matter of fact that the more difficult a task is, the better it feels when you’re finally able to complete it. When it comes to Gloomhaven digital and the Dark Souls series, you’re probably going to have to suffer a lot of defeats before you can get to that point. But every defeat along the way is going to push you in a new direction, one that will eventually be the right one.
That’s the beauty of Gloomhaven digital and Dark Souls’ approach to difficulty - defeat is just another step towards victory.
Buy Gloomhaven Digital on Steam.