The Puzzles of Gloomhaven and Frosthaven (Spoiler-Free)

Ever since we received Frosthaven back in November, it’s been our go to game during free time.  We’re racked up over sixty plays (most of them wins) and have made stellar progress through the campaign.

One of the great things about Frosthaven and the other Gloomhaven line of games is that they are so much more than simple dungeon crawlers.  The games really try to flesh out the world around the game-scenarios in order to create a sense of immersion and investment.  Character creation and retirement, road events, campaign map growth, achievements, and more all work to raise the stakes and enjoyment of what could be a roleplay-lite campaign/dungeon crawler (though dont’ worry Gloomhaven: The Role Playing Game is on the way).  

With that said, Frosthaven takes what Gloomhaven did in all these realms and builds on them.  It’s clear that Isaac Childres and his Cephalofair team learned a lot from Gloomhaven and decided they could do even better and more epic with Frosthaven, though they did show some growth with Forgotten Circles and Jaws of the Lion too.

While we’ve been enjoying it all, one of the areas we’ve been happiest to see growth and improvement is with puzzles.

The Puzzles of Gloomhaven (spoiler-free/spoiler-lite)

When we finally dove into Gloomhaven after being reeled in by Jaws of the Lion, we were excited to discover that the game included some hidden puzzles.  We love puzzles!  The puzzling aspect is “hidden” but the game reveals pretty quickly that there is something worth exploring and trying to solve pretty early on.  Some mysterious languages and ciphers are dropped on players… and that’s mostly it.

Gloomhaven incorporated a large puzzle chain and then didn’t really clue players in on what to do.  Being puzzle-lovers, we pursued the quest fervently, and even we hit some roadblocks and questionable spots, so it is understandable why some players would ignore the puzzle or simply never be able to solve it.

This sadly was Gloomhaven’s puzzle system’s biggest flaw.  In Isaac’s hope of making the puzzle-line mysterious, epic, and only for the most dedicated of players, he stumbled into some puzzle-design mistakes.  

His puzzles lacked proper cluing and any sense of achievement/forward progression during the chain of puzzles.  Players were basically told, “There’s probably a puzzle” and then were left to their own devices.  What are these multiple ciphers/languages?  Wouldn’t you like to know?

Even once we were aware that they were puzzles and set on solving them, actually finding the clues was pretty tough.  A few aspects of the puzzles are given to players during their campaign, but others are left just to be found mixed in with content of this game that has hundreds of components and a tome of scenarios to play.  

Once or twice I thought I found something that might be related, but I decided to hold off on pursuing it too much because I assumed the game would tell me when to advance or use it.  It didn’t.  I was just supposed to take the random clue from outside any scenario/prompt and run with it.  The fact that I started painting miniatures meant I had to study some visual aspects of the game more closely for reference, and only then did I find a few things, which I almost missed anyways.  

Our dedication to solving the puzzle is the only reason we were able to track down every clue.  We had to look back on parts of the game that we interacted with dozens of hours before, when we had no clue a puzzle existed, because things were hidden there.  We had to connect clues in the game to things only found on the internet, with no indicator that aspects of the puzzle would exist outside the physical contents of the game.  

With no hint system or progression indicator, we stumbled along blindly hoping we were on the right track, celebrating small victories as clues started to make sense.  Eventually it all came together, but even then we had to use everything we found to come up with a made up word.  Thankfully, we are good at unscrambling words and could use our imagination a bit to figure out what was required.  

Now, it may sound like we hated the puzzle-track in Gloomhaven, but we actually loved it.  The puzzles were pretty unique and fun to figure out.  Once we know what we were looking for, the adventure we were set upon was well worth the journey.  Finally cracking the case and earning our reward (which was epic and only became even better once Cephalofair delivered on some fan requests, putting them slightly more inline with how games like Too Many Bones handles their puzzle rewards) were fantastic feelings.  We were just bummed to see others we know get frustrated with it or give up on actually solving or even finishing the puzzles because it just felt like so much. 

We might have been at a bit of an advantage at solving the puzzle because we do so many puzzle boxes, and we could figure out some of the thought process that went into the design and some of the aspects that weren’t too different from things we encountered before.

Thankfully, Isaac and Cephalofair not only wanted to include puzzles in the full sequel Frosthaven but they also acknowledged that they saw room for improvement.  So, how did they do?

The Puzzles of Frosthaven (spoiler-free/spoiler-lite)

With over 130 scenarios to play through and a lot of outside-of-scenarios content, there is tons to discover in Frosthaven.  With only about 60 of those scenarios under our belt, we fully admit that there is plenty about the game we don’t know or haven’t seen yet.  However, we have been able to explore some of the puzzles, and we want to talk about them in a general sense because we already see a lot of improvements from Gloomhaven.

This time around, Frosthaven maintains the secrets of the puzzles without keeping the fact that there are puzzles secret.  Players immediately find a puzzle book upon opening the box.  They can’t get into the puzzle book yet, but with a secret language on the cover, they are already teased with the juicy and mysterious goodness that they might find inside.  Thankfully, the game will direct plays on when to open the book.  When this might happen is hidden, but it will be clear in time.  

With a booklet to work through, there is a greater sense of progression and direction to the puzzle-chain.  Progress is measured through completed pages, and direction is given by the current puzzle.  Players may not have what they need from clues hidden throughout the game yet, but they at least know they should be looking and there are clues about where to look for more information.  This captures the best of both worlds: players are given purpose and Cephalofair still gets to put in some challenging puzzles that require players to keep their eyes open throughout the campaign.  They even make great use of their new section book to give story, progression checks, and clues between puzzles.

We also like that the game did a better job of embracing and presenting its puzzle nature, giving players a better option about participating.  Before the puzzles could be completely missed or ignored.  If your game isn’t like T.I.M.E. Stories or Escape from Iron Gate, clearly a board game built around puzzle solving, it’s important to clue your players into the puzzling pieces as well.

While players can still choose to not partake in the puzzles, nobody should completely miss their existence.  The back of the scenario flowchart tells players that some scenarios need puzzles to unlock them.  The puzzle book is on display from the get go.  Even at least one scenario gives  players the option of either taking on a big fight or working through a “challenging puzzle” as the scenario’s end-goal.

So far, the puzzles of Frosthaven have been on the challenging, but doable side.  They are not going to be easy, but completing them will feel like a big win.  We look forward to seeing what else Frosthaven has to offer and solving the rest of its puzzles.

Mostly though, we’d like to take a moment to applaud the Cephalofair team for working so hard to create quality puzzles and for learning from their past work to create an even better experience.

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