Gloomhaven Leads by Example When it Comes to Turn-Based Co-Op
This multiplayer-friendly adaptation is a tactical treasure trove sitting in plain sight
The turn-based tactics genre has exploded in popularity over the last decade, but cooperative experiences remain a rarity.
When it comes to co-op, most people are likely to think about shooters like Halo, brawlers like Streets of Rage or hack-and-slash RPGs like Diablo. The possibility of strategy games that let you team up with a friend or friends isn’t unheard of, but it’s rarely top of mind.
Games like Divinity: Original Sin 2 and Wargroove are typically the exception rather than the rule. Sure, nothing is stopping you from playing Civilisation V as a co-op experience or playing pass-the-controller with the latest Valkyria Chronicles or Fire Emblem game.
However, in many such examples, it’s incumbent on the player to do the heavy lifting where the developer won’t.
There’s a gulf between the many games that merely support cooperative turn-based strategy experiences and the few that actively encourage them. That’s a shame because team-based tactics titles can offer a fun change of pace to many other multiplayer games.
Gloomhaven is a standout example.
An adaptation of the popular board game of the same name, Gloomhaven plays like a cross between Diablo, XCOM and Slay the Spire. Players take on the role of adventurers crawling dungeons in search of gold and glory.
While Gloomhaven can be played solo with one player controlling up to four party members, multiplayer is where it really shines. The game’s turn-based battles eschew the typical action point system seen in turn-based tactics games like XCOM for a card-based alternative.
Each turn, players move, attack and cast spells based on their customisable deck of cards.
An important detail here is that the order in which players take their turns isn’t fixed. Instead, initiative is tied to the cards each player chooses to play that turn. A card that unleashes a powerful fireball might mean going later in the turn order. Meanwhile, a card that only moves your character might allow you to get the jump on enemies with a low initiative number but little else.
This tension between making the moves you want to make and making the moves that are most likely to let you act before enemies on the board is a big part of what makes the moment-to-moment gameplay in Gloomhaven compelling.
What’s more, it’s only multiplied when additional players enter the mix.
When there are multiple voices in the room, the balancing act at the heart of Gloomhaven’s combat system is cast into a new light. You’re not just negotiating when your character moves and acts relative to AI-controlled opponents, but trying to scheme with your allies and calculate the ideal sequence for everyone involved.
If your character moves earlier than your ally, will it interfere with or outright undercut the value of their planned move? Where most turn-based tactics games emphasise the macro, Gloomhaven leans into micromanagement with a social twist.
Asked why this was the case, Flaming Fowl Studios creative director Mike West said that the reason that more turn-based tactical games don’t offer co-op is that their gameplay isn’t deep enough to sustain the experience.
“If every turn, all you do is move a character forwards into cover and fire a shot off, the fun comes from move 6 of them and the area-based tactics of cover and line of fire. If you only have 1 or 2 of these very simple characters, then your decisions are limited and the experiences are less fun,” he said.
In contrast to this, West said that Gloomhaven’s co-operative multiplayer works primarily because of its complexity. Players need to discuss what they’re doing to do, balancing what they individually want to do against the larger interests of the team.
“This creates complex situations every single turn and means the experience is never boring or the same as 20 minutes beforehand,” he said.
Unlike a lot of digital strategy games, West said that Gloomhaven was primarily designed as a 2–4 Player board game, and a number of the systems in the game feel quite different when played with more than one player.
In other multiplayer games, looting is personal, and the party doesn’t share resources. In Gloomhaven that’s not the case, and this quirk can cause interesting party dynamics to emerge.
West said that “Gloomhaven isn’t a game you will generally play with people you don’t know, as there are many choices you make as a party that can help or hinder individual members of your squad.”
He said that developer Flaming Fowl Studios envisioned that Gloomhaven players would usually already know one another and rely on voice talk whether possible, as it allows for banter between players and makes individual successes or failures feel shared across the team.
“We obviously spend some time adding in ways to communicate using the GUI, but voice chat was always the best way to converse about tactics or story choices,” he said.
Gloomhaven’s uniquely modular save system was also shaped by the natural realities of how early access players approached the game.
“Although someone hosts the game, everyone who played in the session gets a copy of the save and can continue to play the campaign at a later date.”
This means that players can drop in and out between sessions, allowing the digital version of Gloomhaven to offer just as much flexibility as its tabletop counterpart.
West believed that there are more opportunities in co-operative turn-based tactics experiences.
“Certainly it’s something that we as a company will likely be exploring in the future,” he said.
Gloomhaven might be one of the few games to lean in on cooperative turn-based tactics, but it probably won’t be the last.