Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion review: “All the greatness, condensed”

Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion box with game documentation
(Image: © Future)

GamesRadar+ Verdict

While it has some massive shoes to fill, Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion expertly manages to pull back on size and scope without sacrificing anything in the way of style and substance.


  • +

    30 hours of exciting encounters with in-depth combat system

  • +

    High-quality components with gorgeous art

  • +

    Lots to enjoy but not too much to handle


  • -

    Could benefit from a true solo mode

  • -

    (Intentionally) has less content and is less complex than the original Gloomhaven

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Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion serves as a parred-down, more beginner-friendly prequel to one of the most well-rated board games of all time. As a matter of fact, the original Gloomhaven hogged the number one spot of Board Game Geek’s rankings for over five years. That is one hell of a legacy to live up to. 

As detailed in our Gloomhaven review, this epic co-op dungeon crawling adventure game has all the fun and strategy that you’d look for in the best board games while simultaneously factoring in the satisfying continuity and progression of a tabletop RPG campaign. So what does Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion offer that the original Gloomhaven doesn’t? Well, other than a far more modest price tag, it brings players a new band of adventurers, new locations, 25 new scenarios, and an experience that is a nigh perfect balance of depth and accessibility. 

Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion - Features & Design

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Price$49.99 / £49.99
FormatCephalofair Games
Duration30hrs (best played in 30-120 min sessions)
Play if you likeGloomhaven, Heroquest, Too Many Bones

Gloomhaven: jaws of the lion box contents in baggies

(Image credit: Future)

The contents of Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion come housed in a box of a pretty imposing size. Sure, it's less than half that of the original Gloomhaven, but there’s little compromise made on content. Let me break the news to you right now: the first 45 minutes of your time with Gloomhaven will not be spent slaying baddies and looting treasure. It’ll instead be spent rifling through and organising the many sheets of pop-out tokens and tiles. 

Depending on how much of a fidgeter you are, this experience will either be painfully tedious or oddly relaxing. As someone firmly in the latter camp, the set-up for the Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion felt like a game in and of itself. Cardboard ASMR aside, the rigorous set-up process has a practical purpose too. The folks at Cephalofair Games are keenly attuned to the more unpleasant realities of playing a long-form board game and work to ease that pain for new players. In part, this is done through providing baggies for each and every monster type, and a shielded compartment for each token. Each element of the game has a defined home within the box too, making it a breeze to pack away between each session.

As well as this, the order in which each component is to be unboxed is laid out with exceptional care. As a Level 1 adventurer, you’re not meant to be privy to late-game secrets so these are holed away in sealed boxes that the starter guide very clearly diverts you away from. While anyone who has a lot of experience with games in the vein of Gloomhaven might find the whole set-up tutorial a tad too hand-holdy, it’s an incredibly useful resource for those who are new to adventure board games. 

Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion map

(Image credit: Future)

Jaws of the Lion by no means feels like a ‘Junior’ or ‘Travel’ version of Gloomhaven – the quality of the components is still excellent. Cards feel great in the hands, character sheets are well laid out, and the sculpt on player minis reveal a surprising amount of detail and character. Though perhaps my favourite component of the game is the map with its hardy, durable cardboard, and beautifully illustrated landmarks. This is where one of the legacy elements comes in play with stickers, which are used to mark your progress on the map. 

While I found the stickers to be a satisfying way to mark my progress, I know some players will find the idea of defacing part of their lovely $50 board game practically sacrilegious. So, you’ll be glad to know that you can buy reusable stickers, a handy extra that fully cements the fact that Jaw of the Lion’s campaign isn’t strictly a one-and-done affair. With sufficient care – and those aforementioned stickers – you can reset your progress and start the entire campaign anew. As there isn’t any real emphasis on puzzles or really anything worth spoiling, there’s not much to be lost on the second playthrough. As a matter of fact, there’s a whole lot of value to found in replaying scenarios with different classes and novel approaches. 

Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion - Gameplay

Gloomhaven Jaws of the Lion ability cards, character card and and mini

(Image credit: Future)

The tutorial for Jaws of the Lion weaves between the ‘how to play guide’ and the scenario book itself. By choosing to scare new players off checking the in-depth Glossary for their first session or so, Jaws of the Lion succeeds in feeding players the rules in wholly manageable chunks. This way, the game can appear simple at first but also unravel into enough mechanical complexity to keep adventurers’ mind alight over 15+ gameplay sessions. 

Action in each of these sessions doesn’t take place on a tiled modular map like it did previously. Instead, Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion has its scenario book serve as your play space which as you can imagine, massively cuts down on set-up / tear down time. This is yet another decision that removes potential barriers to more casual players. Not to mention the illustrated hex tiles allow for greater variety in map composition and layout.

In another deviation, far from the 17 playable classes in the original Gloomhaven set, Jaws of the Lion has a much more digestible four classes. These four — being Demolitionist, Voidwarden, Hatchet, and Red Guard — are all well-balanced and all have viable builds worth exploring. This is done through tactically choosing ability cards, which are your central way of attacking and moving around each map. Of course, as you level up your abilities evolve and develop, aiding in creating a rewarding sense of progression and growth in your character. I was like a proud parent by the time my little Demolitionist hit the later levels and not just because he became a total killing machine.

Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion minis showing the four classes

(Image credit: Future)

Fans of any of the best tabletop RPGs will be familiar with the concept of initiative, which plays a key role in Jaws of the Lion too, being a central stat established before combat which determines where in a turn order your character acts. The catch being you only have a very limited ability to preplan moves, meaning you have to guess at part of your friends (and enemies) moves before locking in your own. In this sense, going first can be both a huge advantage and disadvantage. 

The game asks that you communicate your battle strategy to your fellow players in vague statements like “I’m playing offensive” rather than “I’m going to play Power Pitch next turn”. Sure, this is a rule you can bend (who am I to stop you) but it’s a whole lot more rewarding to stick to it and have those wonderful moments where you and your party’s actions synergize organically. 

This is part of what makes playing Jaws of the Lion’s solo mode feel less fulfilling. While going through the campaign alone, you’re tasked with taking control of two characters which makes your commitment to build progression feel slightly diluted. In my view, it’s far more gratifying to focus on one singular character and really embrace the game’s RPG elements. Although, with a little meddling, I’m sure particularly committed players could rebalance combat encounters to allow for single players.

The backbone of the combat system in Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion are ability cards. With all cards having multiple abilities and initiative stats, you are incentivized to choose the right move not only to progress your board but to cement your place in the action order. After using a card, it is put into a discard pile and you draw two each turn until you can no longer do so. Then, one card is exhausted, removing it from this combat, and you continue fighting. These cards serve the dual purpose showing your available abilities and being a kind of stamina system. As a board develops, you’ll chip away at your enemies' health and your own pool of cards, resulting in exhaustion (basically a KO) if you don’t finish the combatant before your cards run out. 

Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion enemy standee

(Image credit: Future)

Managing the turns of enemies is fairly intuitive too, as they each come with easy-to-interpret stat blocks and require little more drawing than from their attack and modifier piles to cause some real ruckus. While your opponents are mechanically simple, they – along with various hazards on the map – do pose quite the challenge at times. Additionally, you have a whole host of variables like elemental essences, modifiers, and status effects that can work for or against your progress. So, occasionally, you’ll find yourself legitimately stumped attempting to strategize the best way for you, your party, and your treasure to make it out safely.

There are a few trade-offs you have to make as part of Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion’s relative simplicity (though simple feels like a ridiculous accusation to levy against a 30-hour board game). For one, the story is more linear than that of its predecessor. There is a narrative that drives your party from one scenario to the next (one which the included one-shot comic helps to flesh out beautifully) but don’t expect it to hold a candle to anything found in the likes of the best D&D books. There’s certainly charm and humor in the short blurbs that introduce and conclude each scenario, but there’s simply nowhere close to the same space for world-building and characterization. 

I'm hardly complaining however, as in place of these extra side quests and branching narratives, you get a far more accessible gameplay experience. It’s still by no means a game to randomly bust out at a party of acquaintances, but it’s a little closer to something you could pitch to adventure board game newbies who are ready to commit to a couple of sessions. Trust me, they're guaranteed a whole lot of fun if they do.

Should you buy Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion?

panels from the Gloomhaven Jaws of the Lion comic book

(Image credit: Future)

While the original Gloomhaven feels like a must-have for all those a little too into tabletop gaming, Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion is a must-have for everyone else. It’s still obviously nowhere near as portable as Gloomhaven’s most recent spin-off, Buttons and Bugs. However, it’s a great middleground for those who have a burgeoning appetite for more complex, involved board game experiences but aren’t ready to sacrifice an entire row of their bookshelf (and a whole lot of time) to the original Gloomhaven.

If the original Gloomhaven was your bag and you won’t feel like you’re gotten your fill of adventures, you’ll still find a whole lot to love in Jaws of the Lion. While it's a slightly lighter title, it still delivers the same core of quality, complexity, and fun. 

Buy if...

 ✅ You liked Gloomhaven or have wanted to try it
Gloomhaven is many board game lover’s Mount Everest, but Jaws of the Lion is a great mountain to practice on. 

You love role playing games
If you find joy in embodying a hero and developing their build and playstyle as the game progresses, you’ll find Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion does a whole lot to scratch that itch.

You’re ready to commit to a big ol’ board game If the idea of 30+ hours of content doesn’t scare you off, this is the game for you. 

Don't buy if...

You don’t enjoy complex board games
Do you zone out when learning the rules to party games? If so, you might find Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion to be too much trouble.

You don’t like playing across multiple sessions
If you’re a tad commitment-phobic or one-shot games just suit your schedule better, Jaws of the Lion isn’t going to be a good fit for you.

How we tested Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion

This review is the product of weeks of hands-on testing including playing through the campaign as a multiplayer party and as a solo player. Alternate scenarios which weren’t included in my initial playthrough were also explored as well in order to get the most complete picture of how the game can develop narratively and mechanically in any given campaign.

You can find out more in our guide to how we test board games and tabletop RPGs, or the general GamesRadar+ reviews policy page.

Abigail Shannon
Tabletop & Merch Writer

Abigail is a Tabletop & Merch writer at Gamesradar+. She carries at least one Magic: The Gathering deck in her backpack at all times and always spends far too long writing her D&D character backstory. She’s a lover of all things cute, creepy, and creepy-cute.