Saturday, February 25, 2023

Gloomhaven and the Brute's Fatal Advance card

I've been spending a lot of time this winter playing Gloomhaven, both the table-top(s) board game as well as the computerized video game adaptation.

If you aren't already familiar with Gloomhaven, it's an utterly fascinating and extraordinarily sophisticated role playing game designed to be played by 1-4 people over a period of weeks or months or even longer.

As opposed to many (all?) other table-top role playing games, Gloomhaven uses a very clever approach to removing the traditional "dungeon master" role from the games, so that all the players can play their own characters, cooperatively and together, without needing to have a distinguished person who must serve as the opponent. Instead, the game's enemies play themselves automatically, using some mechanics that people often refer to as the "Gloomhaven Monster AI", even though there is actually no Artificial Intelligence involved, just a clever construction of the game's rules.

Dice are not used in Gloomhaven; instead, the influence of chance is introduced through the shuffling of decks of cards. There are literally dozens of decks of cards in Gloomhaven, and the players are constantly shuffling one deck or another. Watching a Gloomhaven game is thus somewhat like watching a group of people play poker or bridge, as somebody seems to always be asking somebody else to "shuffle this, please", or "cut this, please".

Gloomhaven is a role playing game, and shares the common aspects of such games: there is an overall story line, with quests to accept and thematic choices to make. You must investigate the Valrath merchant Jekserah, you must determine the source of the Gloom, etc. You play the role of a character in an adventuring party, and you have many opportunities to influence and determine the outcome of your character. What items will you equip? What abilities will you develop? How will you interact with the other characters in your party?

And, of course, there is a world to explore, dangerous, with many fearsome monsters hidden among its locations.

However, at its heart, Gloomhaven is a game of battle tactics. You'll spend most of your hours with Gloomhaven involved in a small-scale map attempting to accomplish some battle goal (kill this monster, get to this spot on the map, assist this companion, etc.). Your tools are actually quite simple, and boil down to this:

  1. Each player will select two cards from his or her hand to play. An initiative order is determined based on the revealed cards.
  2. Starting with the lowest initiative, players and monsters will act out their turns, performing the actions on their cards, possibly modified by character item cards. With your two cards, you must choose the Top action on one of those cards, and the Bottom action on the other.

So that's it: pick the right two cards, and possibly some of your items, then use those cards when it's your turn.

But now we get to the core of Gloomhaven: the Ability Cards.

Each character has distinct and unique cards, and although some cards are straightforward, others are extraordinarily complex.

Every character Ability Card, at the minimum, offers you the choice of either: (a) move up to 2 hexes on the map, or (b) attack an adjacent enemy with a base attack of 2.

And even these basic capabilities are further adjusted and refined, so even they are not simple.

But the real joy and fascination of Gloomhaven comes when you contemplate how to use a more sophisticated Ability Card. Having just the right card, and choosing to play it at just the right time, paired with just the right companion card, is how you master Gloomhaven.

Which brings us to the Brute's Fatal Advance card.

WARNING! Spoilers ahead, if you are completely new to Gloomhaven and have never played the Brute character.

Or if you are starting out, but you haven't yet leveled the Brute up to Level 2, which is when you get to see the Fatal Advance card.

Anyway, enough of the "spoilers beware", this is a 6-year-old game at this point.

Fatal Advance doesn't look terribly complicated, and it isn't, really. Here it is:

The Bottom action is extremely clear: Move 4. Just like the basic Move 2, except you can move up to 4 hexes on the map.

And the Top action looks extremely clear, too:

  • Kill one adjacent normal enemy.
  • Gain 2 Experience.
  • The card is then lost for the rest of the scenario.

But what are we to make of the seemingly simple "Kill one adjacent normal enemy"?

Really there is no terrible struggle with any of the words "one", "adjacent", and "enemy". Hexes are adjacent if they share a common edge.

And the terms "enemy" and "ally" are quite common and consistently used throughout the rulebook, in language such as "An Attack ability allows a character to do damage to an enemy", and "Figures cannot attack their allies". It does get a bit complicated when additional figures are Summoned; still an "enemy" is a single figure which is not an ally.

But now we are left with two problematic words: "kill", and "normal".

"Kill" is a surprisingly challenging word to see in a Gloomhaven Ability Card. I haven't studied all the cards (there are hundreds), but generally you don't see the word "kill"; instead you see the word "attack" or sometimes the phrases "deal damage" and "suffer damage".

Part of this is because (unless you choose the special Permanent Death rules variant), characters do not "die" in Gloomhaven. Instead, they become Exhausted. A character can become Exhausted due either to damage, or to stamina. If you suffer damage such that you have 0 Hit Points left, you are Exhausted. If, at the beginning of a round, you cannot play two cards (or rest), your stamina has become completely depleted and you are Exhausted. Once you are Exhausted, your figure is removed from the map but the rest of your party continues to play the Scenario until they either win or they all become Exhausted.

For the monsters, it is different: "When a monster is brought to zero or fewer hit points by an attack or any source of damage, that monster immediately dies and is removed from the board. Any additional effects of an attack are not applied once a monster dies."

So we have language about how a monster "dies", it is due to "an attack or any source of damage".

But we don't have a clear use of the word "kill" anywhere in the Rulebook so far as I can tell (it's a 51 page printed book, so I can't use my text editor to seach it, unfortunately).

Let's just posit that the only reasonable thing to do is to interpret "kill one enemy" to mean: "one enemy immediately dies and is removed from the board".

Now we are only left with one challenge: "normal".

Normal is actually a specific term in the Gloomhaven Rulebook. It is first introduced on page 9, where the monster types are described:

Monster statistic cards give easy access to the base statistics of a given monster type for both its normal and elite variants.


A monster statistic card includes ... sections for normal and elite versions of this monster.

And there's even a nice set of pictures on page 9, showing some examples of monster statistic cards.

A few pages later, on page 13, the Rulebook talks about the rules for populating a scenario with the appropriate monsters:

Indications used to populate the scenario map based on the monster key. These indications may be in one of two different orientations depending on the overall orientation of the map. Monster placement is indicated in a symbol's upper left for two characters, upper right for three characters, and bottom for four characters. BLACK means the monster is not present, WHITE means a normal monster is present, and GOLD means an elite monster is present. Normal monsters should be placed on the map with their corresponding standees in white bases, and elite monsters should be placed in gold bases.

So it seems quite clear: monsters are either normal, or elite. A normal monster is not an elite monster. Normal figures are stood up and placed on the map in white bases; elite figures are stood up and placed in gold bases.

And, returning to the Brute's Fatal Advance card, that seems like it now allows us to understand:

Kill one adjacent normal enemy.

to mean: "if you take this action, and if there is a monster standee in a white base in one of the hexes that shares a common edge with your hex, you declare that that monster immediately dies and is removed from the board."

And that, in fact, is how we played that card for quite some time, in our little group.


Some 20 pages later in the Rulebook, we come across this:


Players will occasionally encounter bosses in their adventures. All bosses have their own stat card but act using a universal "Boss" ability card deck. NOTE that bosses are not considered normal or elite monsters.


So that picture on page 9 was tricky! When it showed the pictures of monster statistic cards, labeled "Monster" and "Boss", one could be forgiven for thinking that the Boss cards are "monster statistic cards for both their normal and elite variants".

And the scenario setup description on page 13 was tricky, too! It didn't point out that you might need to populate the scenario map with a Boss, and that you'd then have the challenge of figuring out whether to use a white base or a gold base to put the Boss on the map.

No! Bosses don't have normal and elite variants, they are just bosses.

So, the only remaining interpretation is that a "normal enemy" is NEVER a Boss.

And, at long last, we know understand that the proper way to interpret the Brute's Fatal Advance card is:

"If you take this action, and if there is a monster standee in a white base in one of the hexes that shares a common edge with your hex, and if that standee is not a Boss standee, but is a monster type which has normal and elite variants, you declare that that monster immediately dies and is removed from the board."


Certainly not all Ability Cards are as hard to interpret as this one.

But one thing about Gloomhaven is that you really have to read every single word of the 51 page Rulebook extremely carefully, and even then you have to anticipate that you will make many errors of interpretation until you have played dozens and dozens of hours of the game.

I guess that's why Gloomhaven addicts find the game so fun!

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