One of the more common buying dilemmas I keep encountering is Mage Knight vs Gloomhaven.
Deciding on buying new board games is always hard. Our time and money are limited, but there are a lot of choices, a lot of good games, that may even look very similar (at least on the surface). The dilemma is harder when the games are more expensive and demand an insane amount of our time.
I was in this situation a couple of months back. I did my research and I gathered a lot of information about both games. That’s why I decided to write a guide – to help others in a similar situation figure out which one will suit you best.
Both are exceptional board games, so this is not a comparison with a clear winner – except for you, the reader.
Mage Knight Facts
Designer: Vlaada Chvátil
Year published: 2011
Number of players: 1-4, best with 1.
Playing time: 120-240 minutes per set-up.
Suggested player age: 14+
Complexity rating (according to BGG): 4.29/5
Average rating (according to BGG): 8.1/10
- Mage Knight Base Game
- The Lost Legion Expansion
- Dual Color Cards Expansion
- Krang Character Expansion
- Shades of Tezla Expansion
- Mage Knight Ultimate Edition
With the base game being out for quite a while, Mage Knight has received plenty of expansions, adding new characters, scenarios, enemies, and more. If you are looking to get into it with a clean slate, there is only one way to go – Mage Knight Ultimate Edition. It contains everything listed above, has some revised rules, and is a lot more cost-effective than buying items one by one.
As for playing it, I’d suggest starting with the elements of the base game and add expansion elements (new heroes, terrain tiles, enemy tokens, action cards, spells, artifacts, and units) slowly, one at a time.
Designer: Isaac Childres
Year published: 2017
Number of players: 1-4, best with 3.
Playing time: 60-180 per scenario.
Suggested player age: 14+
Complexity rating (according to BGG): 3.81/5
Average rating (according to BGG): 8.8/10
- Gloomhaven Base Game
- Forgotten Circles Expansion
- Solo Scenarios
- Return of the Lost Cabal Promo Scenario
- Secrets of the Lost Cabal Promo Scenario
- The End of the World Promo Scenario
- The Lucky Meeple Promo Scenario
Gloomhaven is a younger game, therefore hasn’t received that many expansions yet. In fact, only Forgotten Circles are considered a true expansion, adding new elements to the game (twenty new scenarios, that take place after the original campaign, new character class, new monster types, and fourteen new items).
Solo scenarios add 17 solo-only scenarios and a deck of 17 new items as rewards for those missions. Promotional scenarios are rewards for backing certain projects.
If you’re in the market for Gloomhaven, get the base game. After you’re done with that, look into Forgotten Circles. Other scenarios are optional (if you even get to find them for a reasonable price).
In 2020, a prequel, Jaws of the Lion became available. It’s a simplified version of Gloomhaven. It retains all the outstanding card-playing mechanisms, dungeon-crawling, story, and character progression, but it removes a lot of fiddly stuff, like setting up.
Similarities between Mage Knight and Gloomhaven
- Big games, with a lot of components, a lot of moving parts, and with a large footprint. A fair amount of set-up time and tear-down time is a given (Gloomhaven’s setup takes longer for what it’s worth). All these combined means, that something like a spare table, where you can leave the game set-up for longer periods of time, is more than welcomed.
- With a lot of components, post-market inserts, or at least some self-made storage boxes are almost mandatory – they can really speed up the set-up process. Here’s how I organized my Mage Knight.
- Expensive. Both Gloomhaven base game and Mage Knight Ultimate Edition come at around a 100 (dollars or euros). Being such a large investment, you really have to do your homework before you buy it. Or you can just re-sell if you don’t like them – used copies in very good condition don’t lose much value.
- Both are a big commitment, time-wise. Gloomhaven’s scenarios take 1-2 hours to complete (some are longer), while a Solo Conquest mission in Mage Knight can easily take 3 hours.
- You’ll be reading the rules a lot – and going back to them as you play as well. Moreover, there are some concepts that are harder to understand (like resistances in Mage Knight) or are edge-case (like enemy target priorities and line of sight in Gloomhaven). Expect to also research on those online.
- A lot of moving parts you have to keep track of (and is easy to forget too) during the game. There are apps available for both games, that can help with that.
- In principle, similar card playing mechanics – you use cards to perform actions. Cards are similarly structured into top and bottom actions.
Differences between Mage Knight and Gloomhaven
- There is no written narrative in Mage Knight (except for the intro in the rule book), while Gloomhaven’s campaign is story-driven, with players’ decisions helping build the world around them.
- Mage Knight offers a traditional one-time set-up (you can set-up whatever you like), where you can finish one set-up in an evening, while Gloomhaven is structured as a campaign and you only play one mandatory scenario at a time – the story will tell you what you will play.
- Map layout in MK is randomly generated, while the scenarios in GH are pre-made and fixed (there are over 90 of them). Map in Mage Knight is on the surface, a lot more open, even adventurous, while Gloomhaven is a dungeon crawler, made from series of dungeons.
- This means you will experience MK’s characters to fully develop in one sitting, while GH’s character progress is stretched through the campaign. You will have to commit time for the whole GH campaign, to see how things pan out, while in MK every set-up is a finished game.
- MK’s is more strategic – you plan on a grand scale how you will go through the terrain, which enemies you will fight, and how you will progress. GH is more tactical – the state of the board often changes (as enemies make their moves) and you react to the current state.
- Mage Knight’s enemies are static, waiting for you to come to them (with few exceptions in the expansions), while Gloomhaven’s are much more unpredictable – driven by dynamic artificial intelligence.
- In MK, combat is very deterministic. You see (most of) the enemies and you know in advance if you can take them on. GH adds more random modifiers (like your combat deck and enemy AI deck) which ensure you can never be sure how the fight will unravel.
- This means MK is prone to analysis paralysis (overthinking, trying to find the optimum solution), while in GH random modifiers and simultaneous play prevent that. It makes GH more of a game, while MK could be considered more of a mathematical problem.
- All these factors combined make Mage Knight a fantastic solo board game. You can really take your time solving the puzzle, with no fear of boring out others, while they wait for their turn. Gloomhaven benefits more from cooperative play. Simultaneous play guarantees smooth gameplay and more players help with keeping track of all the parts, making GH ideal for 2 or 3 players.
- Both games offer a very long playing time (replayability). Mage Knight draws freshness from the infinite combination of objectives, terrain tiles, characters, enemies, action cards, spells, and artifacts, ensuring no two games are the same.
Gloomhaven keeps the player engaged with the campaign: making meaningful choices, loving and identifying yourself with the character, and discovering new stuff.
- Gloomhaven’s heroes differ much more from one another than Mage Knight’s and each demands a different play style, compared to subtle differences in MK. On the other hand, Mage Knight offers more options to customize that character (build his deck) in a way you like during the game.
- In MK, you can play all your hand cards in a single turn if you like, giving you more options. In GH, you only play 2 cards at a time.
- Mage Knight is played in traditional turn by turn fashion, while Gloomhaven introduces an innovative simultaneous play. All players play their cards at the same time and the momentum number on the cards determines in which order they will be executed.
I hope I’ve shed some light on both games and showed their similarities and differences. Hopefully, I helped solve your Mage Knight vs Gloomhaven dilemma and you have a clear winner by now.
As for myself, I decided to go for Mage Knight in the end (as you may already know if you follow my blog). I mostly play solo and the deterministic puzzle solving was very appealing. Plus, I don’t think I can commit the time for Gloomhaven’s campaign, while I can play Mage Knight chunk by chunk.
I feel I have decided right. But your decision may be different, of course.
If you have any questions, ask them in the comment section below.