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Jaws of the Lion hands-on: Gloomhaven comes to the masses

Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion is a standalone, cooperative tabletop role-playing game that teaches you the rules as you play.

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Gloomhaven has become the stuff of legend. It's a massive board game that comes in a 20-pound box and costs around $120. It's earned a ton of critical praise and the top ranking overall on the popular board game enthusiast forum BoardGameGeek. Gloomhaven even has a sequel coming out next year called Frosthaven that is (for now) the most-funded board game in Kickstarter history, having raised just under $13 million in pledges. 

For some, though, Gloomhaven might feel like a bridge too far. The giant box of plastic pieces to organize, the thick manual of rules to learn and the high price all add up to a steep barrier to entry. Enter the new Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion. This beginner-friendly version is only $50; it's easier to learn, and it's even being sold in Target stores (exclusively, for now). 

Just like the original Gloomhaven, Jaws of the Lion is a fantasy adventure board game in which your mercenaries brave dungeons to fight monsters and collect treasure. It's cooperative and the world changes as you play, with story elements leading you from one mission to the next, and your characters gradually becoming more powerful. The campaign is lengthy, but you can easily save your progress from one session to the next. 

Get organized 

After spending a few hours with Jaws of the Lion, I'm happy to report that it does what it sets out to do quite well. At least, I'm pretty sure it does. See, I'm not a Gloomhaven beginner. I've sunk hundreds of hours (not an exaggeration) into the original game -- it's my favorite and I can't get enough of it. Because of social distancing, I also can't just collect a group of friends and give it a whirl as I normally would. 

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Jaws of the Lion is smaller than the original, but it's still not small. 

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But just like the original Gloomhaven, Jaws of the Lions supports solo play, so I put myself into the mindset of a beginner and dove in. Right away, Jaws of the Lion offers a helping hand, with instructions for how to organize everything in the box and a couple of containers and plastic bags so you can efficiently make sense of all the plastic. 

Within an hour, I had all of the plastic pieces punched out of the six punchboards full of them and put away. An hour isn't insignificant, but this is still a big, complex game. It just offers an olive branch if you're not used to big, complex games. 

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Jaws of the Lion contains a lot of pieces, but helps you organize them. 

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By comparison, it took me a full day to get my Gloomhaven set properly organized and ready to go, and I bought an extra $20 to $40 worth of tackle boxes, bags and file folders to make sense of the pounds and pounds of plastic. Jaws of the Lion offers functional organization within the box and walks you through the process.

Learn as you go

Gameplay is still complex compared to something like Catan, but this version includes a lot more explanation. If you want to try this out with family, it's important to set the right expectations. You won't be able to open the box and have everybody playing and slaying monsters left and right within a few minutes. Even after you have everything organized, it takes time. 

Jaws of the Lion includes a Learn to Play guide and a scenario book for each chapter of your adventure. The Learn to Play guide is great. It literally walks you through every step of setting up the game and playing through the first five tutorial missions. During the first mission, you'll go back and forth between the Guide and the Scenario book as it helps you through the first few turns with explicit suggestions for moves and instructions for how to manage your characters.

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My setup for the first mission. 

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In games like this, it generally falls to one player to learn the rules and explain everything to newcomers as they go. Fortunately, the first tutorial mission is also nice and simple. The game only offers a few options for what you can do in each turn and simplifies the actions of the bad guys so you can get the basics down. 

For the sake of comparison, the original Gloomhaven uses a standard encyclopedic instruction manual. It's well written, but you and everyone in your group need to know how to play the game in its entirety before you start. The first mission is a little easier than the rest, but not significantly so. 

I've introduced Gloomhaven to lots of friends and they all generally get a look of murderous intent in their eyes as I dive into the fourth or five layer of complexity that they need to understand before we can start playing. 

That look generally goes away after a few rounds of actually playing since I can continue to help them, and lots of the friends I've introduced to Gloomhaven ended up purchasing it themselves. Once you know how to play, it hooks you quickly. 

Jaws of the Lions takes that same learning process and spreads it out over the course of five missions, so players can start taking turns with simplified movesets much sooner, and hopefully before the murderous intent sets in. It successfully eliminates the need for a Gloomhaven sherpa to guide you up the mountain. 

Making the first turn easy

One of the hardest moments for new players is picking that first turn. Each character starts with a unique deck of 8 to 12 cards that define what you can do in a battle, and you need to choose two. You'll usually use one card for movement and one to attack, but with all of the unique things each character can do, the choices can easily feel overwhelming. 

Jaws of the Lion even addresses this issue. For the first missions, you have a much smaller deck specifically tailored for the tutorial with simplified options and explanations right on the cards. The Learn to Play Guide even offers two suggested cards for that first turn. All tutorial decks only have six cards per character, so for the next turn, you only need to pick two out of the remaining four, then you're rolling.

By the fifth mission, it feels like you're actually playing the real Gloomhaven, and an interesting Gloomhaven mission at that. The fifth mission involves a boss fight and tough enemies that are unpredictable and hit hard. You have access to a large deck of unique cards and tough strategic choices to make to give your team a chance of success. But you get there a step at a time.

If you're a Gloomhaven veteran, you might want to skip the first few missions, but be sure to read through the story elements as they set up a lot of the plot. You should still play that fifth tutorial mission. Then you have 20 other missions and four new characters to enjoy, which should be the perfect amount to tide over fans until Frosthaven comes out next year.

A good starting point

Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion is an experience tailored for beginners with enough new content to please returning fans. If you like the idea of Gloomhaven or Frosthaven but haven't had the chance to try it, you should definitely start with this one. I wish I had it for several of the groups I introduced to the game. 

Over the years, video games have ditched instruction manuals in favor of in-game tutorials. Perhaps Jaws of the Lion is a sign that board games can follow suit and ease more people into the magic that complex games can offer.

If all of that sounds appealing and you like the idea of Gloomhaven, but have been turned off by any aspect of its immense scope, I recommend giving Jaws of the Lion a try. It's still $50 and seven pounds, so it's not a small game. But it's tailored for new players with missions that teach you the rules as you play. It contains significantly fewer plastic pieces and helps you organize them better. It also makes setup and cleanup a much quicker process. Jaws of the Lion makes the daunting task of diving into the world of Gloomhaven a much more manageable one.