Gloomhaven proving a bit too difficult? This guide is to help players get better at Gloomhaven so that they can beat scenario after scenario, starting with Black Barrow. Will it be a cakewalk? Mostly no, but who wants that anyways. With the strategies I am going to share you will be able to consistently beat scenarios and even, sometimes, steam roll them.
I’ve played a lot of Gloomhaven. Through complete luck, my FLGS(friendly local game store) happened to have a copy from the original Kickstarter and I was on a waiting list. They called me and I left work to go and grab it because I just KNEW it was going to be amazing. This was 2017 and I’ve been playing ever since.
I mostly play on standard difficulty. Sometimes I kick it up a notch or two but I find that games on standard difficulty are hard but don’t require you to min-max or play your turns with more than a modest amount of planning.
Beating Black Barrow
You most likely ended up here because the first scenario, or first few scenarios, are giving you some trouble. Even if you aren’t a beginner though keep reading after the Black Barrow section to learn some more advanced tips about Gloomhaven!
Black Barrow is the first scenario but it’s not really a tutorial so it’s difficulty is mostly in line with the rest of the game. Jaws of the Lion is much easier in the beginning as it has 5 tutorial missions which slowly introduce you to the concepts. I wrote an article comparing them so check it out here.
The very first piece of advice I can give you is that you can turn the difficulty from 1 down to 0. This will immediately make it much easier. Personally I don’t love this as I prefer a challenge. Read this whole article and then try it at level 1. If you still fail, which you probably won’t, then you can turn it down to 0. Now let’s talk about beating Black Barrow!
There are a lot of bandit guards in the first room. Your job here is to take them out quickly. This is not a big map and it is pretty monster dense so quickly dispatching monsters to mitigate them attacking you is key. This way you can be more aggressive and spend less turns defending and kiting the enemies, which means you won’t run out of cards from extra turns.
I am going to illustrate a couple of turns to make some key points. I’ve chosen Tinkerer(very underrated especially early on, he can be extremely strong) and Brute. Even if you are not playing these characters the principles will still apply.
Bear in mind that this particular example may or may not be optimal and that it can definitely change based upon monster draws but it should give you a good start and a mindset about how to play Gloomhaven. A lot of Gloomhaven is taking what you think was going to happen, VS what really happened, and making the best of it. if you can consistently output damage without wasting turns you will do very well.
Brute plays Wall of Doom and Shield Bash at initiative 15. This is a retaliate play and retaliate can be amazing but it must be used carefully. In this case guards have a 25% chance of drawing a card where they don’t move and just shield up, and then they have a 12.5% chance of drawing a ranged attack where the Brutes retaliate won’t hit. so this play only works perfectly 62.5% of the time. However this play means the Brute will most likely take zero damage(only a lucky +2 or x2 dmg will be able to damage him and even then it won’t be much) Early on you won’t know the odds like this but just be prepared when you retaliate to have plan B and as you play more you will learn how enemies behave.
Tinkerer Plays Hook Gun and Flame Thrower at initiative 72. Tinkerer wants to make sure that he goes nice and slow so that the Brute draws all the aggro and then he is going to reposition and attack so that for turn 2 he is in the right position.
Remember you can’t use perfect information but the Brute could say I am going fast and I’m going to retaliate and that is fine.
Luckily, the guards draw a regular attack, and all 3 move in to attack the brute. With Shield 3 the brute takes no damage from any of them and outputs 6 retaliate damage, gaining 2 XP. Great turn!
The Tinkerer repositions and does 5 total damage, creating fire, gaining 2 XP and wounding the elite and the reg. Remember, it is always better to lose a powerful card and reap the rewards, rather than save it and take damage, then have to lose a card later on to mitigate damage. The #1 mistake new players make is to play too conservatively. Tinkerer is great for being able to play some powerful loss cards early because of a 12 hand size.
Both characters want to go fast this turn to kill as many of the guards as they can before the guards can attack.
Tinkerer plays Stun Shot and Proximity Mine at initiative 20. Tinkerer moves and opens the door with 3 of 4 move. This is where you populate the next room. Then Tinkerer moves back one and using proximity mine puts a 6 damage trap at the door that the enemies must move through. Tinkerer does 6 damage and takes zero damage.
Brute plays Spare Dagger and Leaping Cleave at initiative 27
Brute does 8 damage, gains 1 XP and kills one elite and one reg, unluckily leaving one reg left with 1 hp. The reg attacks him doing 3 damage.
It’s important in turn 2 to have a character open the door, if at all possible. This way the archers at the very end will move towards the characters so that no movement is wasted. At the very latest open the door turn 3 to get those archers going.
So 2 reg guards killed, 1 elite killed and 2 guards left. This is all in 2 turns and now the archer(s) are on the move. Now quickly kill the guards so that you are ready for the archers as they move into range. The elite archer in this instance will be able to hit the Tinkerer but any regs will be out of range. You should be able to kill all of the archers and guards and be on the last room by turn 4/5.
It may take a couple of loss cards to get there but you should have at least 7-8 cards left for the Tinkerer and probably 7 for the Brute. This is plenty to storm the last room and blitz it with ease and scoop up some good treasure! Remember that once you kill the last enemy you finish the turn and the scenario is over.
There is a treasure chest at the end of the 2nd room. If you are having trouble beating this scenario, leave it.
Pro Tip: Leave one enemy at low HP and go get as much treasure as you can when you are not in danger of losing!
Initiative and Aggro Management
Managing initiative and aggro is key in Gloomhaven. Sometimes it makes sense to go late and see what moves the monsters make before you make your move. If you can stay out of range, go late and then move in you can get two turns to the monsters zero(most of the time) which is a huge advantage.
Positioning is part of this. Monsters always target closest first so you can manage which characters are going to be attacked by changing distances. If you are really good you can actually avoid all damage by correctly positioning. If you can’t kill or disable the monsters, or mitigate the damage with shield or healing, then try to spread the damage around.
Door Opening Strategy
Just to make sure you are clear. Any time you open a door all monsters in the new room get a turn, NO MATTER WHAT. Even if they are the same type as a monster in the first room and their turn is over, they go right away after the player who opened the door finishes their turn.
Another rookie mistake is waiting too long to open a door. You don’t have to wipe the entire room before opening the door. Strategically open the door so that monsters use turns to move towards you, saving you valuable turns having to cover ground.
Have a Backup Plan
Very often monsters won’t move, or won’t attack. This means at times your best laid plans will go awry. Make sure that you don’t lock yourself into some perfect plan only to have the monsters shield up and not move that turn. Always anticipate that they might move more, or less, or not at all and you will be able to at least salvage something out of the turn. Wasted turns in Gloomhaven are what end up costing you the scenario.
Understanding Enemy Targeting and Movement
Enemies always target first and then move. They always target the closest character and then if there is a tie they target lowest initiative. Ranged enemies will step back 1 hex so they are not at disadvantage. This one is easy to forget, so pay attention when you move in on a ranged enemy!
Understand who monsters are going to target and plan accordingly. Sometimes their cards may change their movement or add ranged attack to a melee monster but if you follow my previous point you will be ready!
I see a lot of misinformation online about this with people saying never lose a card in the first few turns because of the math involved and how many turns you lose overall. You do have to be careful about losing cards early on but Gloomhaven is all about managing amount of turns vs. the effectiveness of each turn. Lasting a lot of turns doesn’t do you any good if you can’t kill anything or are outputting weak amounts of damage.
Think of it this way. You can lose a big card first turn but it will kill 3 enemies and do 15 damage. You may lose a few extra turns of life but if you play your non loss cards it could easily take you 5+ turns to do that much damage(talking about a level 1 character here). Not only is the damage potentially better this means that enemies are alive that much longer, hitting you back, doing damage.
Another example: Would you rather do 50 damage in 10 turns or 40 damage in 15 turns? Simplistic example but doing more damage usually means more kills, which means monsters are not alive as often.
If you don’t kill or disable the monster then they get an attack on you. Being low on health disadvantages you as you have to take time to heal or you have to play way more conservatively than you would like, which costs you turns and cards.
So, the main point is use loss cards to make big moves. Don’t save them regardless of circumstance so that you can just end up throwing them away when monsters damage you enough that you would go below 0 HP.
Long Rest VS Short Rest
From my experience, most newer players don’t long rest at the right times. A long rest should be used when you have cleared a room or are about to clear a room.
Say there is one monster left and one party member can easily kill it. This is the time to take a long rest and let that one character finish off the monster. Make sure you clearly communicate that the one player is going to do this!
When you long rest you get to choose which card you want to lose which is a big advantage. The other big advantage is unlike a short rest you actually give yourself a full extra turn because you don’t play any cards.
Pro tip: if you only have one card remaining, long rest and try to be a meat shield for your friends for one extra turn!
Long resting when you have a room full of monsters is a terrible idea because instead of doing damage and killing monsters to reduce numbers you are ineffectually hanging out, healing 2 hp. Killing monsters is always the #1 priority as long as it doesn’t get you killed.
If you are in a full-on fight, short rest so that you don’t miss a turn of killing monsters or doing damage. Very rarely is there anything more effective than killing a monster before it can do damage again. Don’t forget that when you short rest you randomly pick a card to lose. 1 time and, 1 time only can you take a single point of damage to randomly choose another card if you can’t bear to lose the first card. If your friends are like mine they will have some sort of 6th sense about this and choose the wrong damn card every time!
This is a very common mistake where players will take multiple points of damage to choose new cards, but you only get 1 chance and then you must take the next card.
I thought this was funny as I was reviewing my Gloomhaven campaign book I noticed that I had put a big black X through the treasure tile in the campaign book below. Hilarious, and I have no idea why! Check out the featured image pic again.