Anyone familiar with modern board games will immediately recognize and likely have a positive opinion on Gloomhaven. It is an absolute juggernaut in the tabletop scene. It’s been so successful that now the designer is even following up with a sequel, Frosthaven, which is breaking all kinds of records (including raising almost $13 million on Kickstarter)!
If the title of this piece wasn’t evidence enough, I fall into the camp of huge Gloomhaven fans. The strategic, cooperative gameplay, cohesive campaign, and near limitless replayability made for a unique game that changed the landscape of board games. Plus, the game’s world, the races, and the lore alone are developed to a point of precision that draws you in, challenges you, and leaves you wanting more.
Put all these elements and so much more together, and you have yourself everything you need to build a successful, modern MMORPG. Join me as I look into some of the ways Gloomhaven could use its world to build a great MMO.
The lore is deep with plenty of opportunity for sandbox or themepark gameplay
One of the things that made the game so big was the depth of the game’s lore – which wasn’t just lip service. The game included a campaign with hidden messages to decrypt, a story with secrets to unlock, and several boss battles with unique powers and abilities to challenge you.
All of these are elements that would fit perfectly in any MMO. As a fan of Guild Wars 2‘s living world story, I love following the events that have taken us from our personal story towards the (anti)climatic confrontation with Zhaitan and the other elder dragons all the way to the current Ice Brood Saga. Not only does Gloomhaven have dozens of these stories already designed, but it’s simply teeming with life waiting for new and epic stories to be written.
The story begins innocently enough but builds toward a reveal that only further complicates and teases the players. As you follow the main storyline, several branching side quests become available too. From treasure hunts to other worldly monsters, the plotlines weave in and out. In some cases, a choice down one path will close the ability to complete another.
One example of how well it could integrate into an MMO would be the random event cards that are drawn prior to beginning a scenario. These events will very often have different outcomes depending on which heroes are currently in the party. In an MMO, this would only add to the experience of playing in a living world. I remember one of these encounters involving the players coming upon a group of Inox (one of the warrior races). The players can choose to hide from the Inox or confront them. Well, if you happen to have an Inox in your group, then the group would be harmless. On the other hand, if the party did not have an Inox, then you might suffer some damage and a penalty going into the scenario.
Some games attempt to distinguish gameplay based on your class or race, but those events are typically insignificant and don’t leave the lasting impression that your choice mattered. Here, it doesn’t change the experience dramatically, but it does let you feel like your character and the gameplay choice is more than just a cosmetic thing.
Another important aspect of the game’s lore is that essentially Gloomhaven is the only safe city built after some massive war. An MMO could move forward from that with several survival sandbox mechanics. Players could go out and build new settlements that are always in danger of being attacked. Maybe the game takes place prior to Gloomhaven’s completion and players are tasked with assisting in building the city. There’s just so much that could be done beyond merely taking the existing story and adapting it to an MMO world (although that would be great too!).
Unique races and original classes could offer new experiences
While the game begins with only six starting classes, you’ll begin to unlock a dozen others as you progress through the game’s events. Each class is different from the next without adding too much in the way of power creep. Also, this section mentions some small spoilers on the classes, so if you want the unadulterated Gloomhaven experience, skip to the end.
Of course in Gloomhaven, players can’t build a character the same way you would build one in an MMO. The options there are much more limited, but it offers a template that could be easily expanded on. At the table you are primarily choosing a class to play, although the race associated with each class ties very well into the game’s lore.
The Inox I mentioned are playable as a Brute, which is a standard tank-style class, and the Berserker, which is an extremely high DPS but risky class to play. Of course, there are humans, but there are also some incredibly unique ones as well. I’d like to talk about one of them just to give you a taste of what we could be gaming with (to explain them all would take up a whole column on its own).
The Harrowers are one of my favorite races. These aren’t your typical creatures: A Harrower is actually several thousand chittering, clicking insects that swarm around together in the form of a person… roughly. The game typically depicts them wearing a cloak with long branching mandibles poking through the head and arm sleeves while the body slightly floats above the ground. You can picture a few cicadas or locusts floating around the cloak while others are crawling in and out of the hood all the while others are humming and buzzing around you. They are said to use a hive mind to increase their intelligence, which in that way reminds me of the skritt, but that’d be the only thing they have in common.
Now, while humans as a race may be pretty boring, there is a human class that just viscerally works in a fantasy realm. The Sawbones is a frontline healer – basically a field medic. Nothing too out of the ordinary yet, but taking a closer look at the skills you begin to understand what kind of field medic we’re working with here. We have first aid sure, but regenerative tissue, blood transfusion, and a euthanize skill begin to give me a better picture of how this medic interacts with his friends and foes. I like to imagine this hardened warrior running up to his allies in battle, arrows whizzing past him, only to jump out and cut down an opponent and immediately begin a blood transfusion to heal up!
In my mind, I could see a system similar to Crowfall’s race and class combinations coming together. Players can mix and match their race and class up to a point that makes sense, so it isn’t entirely open-ended. I completely understand the drawbacks to that system, but for the Gloomhaven MMO, I could really see it working.
The game thrives on its skillful, tactical combat system
The combat in Gloomhaven isn’t entirely unique. You’ll find elements of it in different games, but the sum of its parts is incredible. The combat is turn-based, but there are no dice involved. Instead, players have a limited set of skill cards brought into any scenario, and each one has an initiative built in. Every skill has two abilities, a top and a bottom half of the card. At the start of the round, players choose two skill cards to play and then choose which card’s initiative to use; then, on their turn, they must use one card’s top ability and then the other’s bottom.
The reason this becomes a tactical combat experience is because the number of cards you can bring is limited, and as you fight, you’ll have to discard cards. So the longer you draw out a scenario, the fewer abilities you’ll have available and the more difficult the mission can become. Another example is the initiative order. Oftentimes it’s beneficial to play after your allies, but you don’t want to go too slow and let the NPCs smash you.
For an MMO, the combat would be one of the most difficult aspects to translate. Obviously, players can’t be expected to use abilities only once for a full mission. However, the main reason the combat feels so good in Gloomhaven is because each skill used is meaningful. You can’t blow your big combo in the first room when you have no idea what kind of monster is in the next room. The game would need to keep that same sense of meaningful skill usage.
Right now, I could see this working with relatively long cooldowns. I get it, I know, they can suck at times. But even Guild Wars 2 recently took a full pass at its skills and chose by and large to slow down the overall combat. Something similar could work for a Gloomhaven MMO.
We could also imitate the top and bottom abilities too, since another aspect that plays so well is the way the skills are able to synergize and combo off one another. I would imagine you have a limited skill loadout, but holding the control key brings up the “bottom” ability. Another possibility might be something like weapon swapping in Guild Wars 2. There are a few ways it could be done. It would let players choose skills based on both abilities and how they function among the other skills they bring too.
Honestly, I could drone on and on about the different ways we could build a Gloomhaven MMO. I had the thought that it would make a fantastic MMO for so long now that I wanted to get it down and hear what some other gamers’ thoughts are. Are you familiar with the board game? If so, could you see it playing as a great IP for an MMO, or is it best left to the table?