Gloom of Kilforth board game: A solo review

The Gloom of Kilforth board game is an epic fantasy themed experience. Released in 2017, the game will take 1-4 players around 2-3 hours to complete. And due to its complexity and dark theme, the age range is around 12+.

As the current coronavirus lock down continues, I’ve decided to put out some solo game reviews. While Gloom of Kilforth can be played with more it is generally only recommended for one to two players, and is largely considered at its best as a solo game. I have only played it solo, so if you’re looking for a review covering more players I suggest heading to Board Game Geek.

This is largely a card flipping/dice chucking game, as you explore a 25-card map grid trying to complete one of the game’s eight story lines. You’ll take on a number of encounters, picking up equipment and experience before taking on one of four end game bosses. In the box you’ll find 300+ cards, 150+ cardboard tokens, eight cardboard standees (no minis), six dice and a cloth bag. The component quality is generally good, but the artwork is of a high standard. However, you’re going to have to like a dark Gothic fantasy theme to really dig it.

Playing the Gloom of Kilforth board game

I’m not going to go into great detail here, but instead cover the basics. Just know that these basics have a long list of smaller rules behind hem. And be aware the game has a 28-page rulebook which, for me, was far from from intuitive to use. But it does have a detailed index and the game also contains a nice double-sided A4 player aid. It takes some dedication to get all the rules into your head, so you’ll need a player who’s happy to be the rules lawyer.

The game is played over a number of turns, each of which has a day and then night phase. During the day you’ll be taking your actions. Then at night the game takes its turn, (usually) throwing up some fresh obstacles. There are 25 ‘night’ cards, one for each of the game’s locations. This deck also works as a game timer. If you run through the deck, you’ve lost. To win, you’ll need to defeat your chosen saga/ancient before this time runs out.

To begin you’ll lay the location cards out in a random 5×5 grid around your central start spot. You’ll choose a race and class (taking their cards and standee), which will give you your starting attributes. This basically equates to the amount of dice you can roll when taking skill checks in four categories: fighting, studying (spell casting), sneaking and influence. Next, you take a set of ‘saga’ cards – complete them all and you win. To make things easier you can pick a saga that roughly match your class strengths, or ignore some enemy abilities.

The hero actions

You start with four health points, which can raise to eight before the end of the game. These are doubly important. If you run out, you’re dead. Not good. But the amount of health you have at the start of a turn also dictates how many actions you’ll get that day (one per current health). You can do these actions in any order, any amount of times each.

Move (one space), rest (heal one point) and market (shop for items) are simple. Regale advances your saga to the next step if you meet the criteria. Hide mostly gives an advantage in, or way to avoid, battles. Discover and clear get you stuff when in the right areas. While search and confront let you roll some dice and try and defeat a card at your location.

Anyone used to skill-based RPG or adventure board games will be in very familiar territory. Most locations (strangers, quests, places) are defeated by dice rolls (5-6 is a ‘success’, with more needed for harder tests). And battles are slightly more complex versions of the same. Each part of your saga requires you to have collected cards with particular keywords; while the ancient you need to finally defeat will be the toughest enemy you fight all game.

The five criteria

In a change to my normal reviews, I’m instead looking at areas in which solo board games tend to be judged – either favourably or not, depending on your tastes.

  • Elegance: The Gloom of Kilforth board game is in no way elegant. It’s fiddly in much the same way old school FFG titles were. There are definite similarities to Arkham: needing 5-6 on rolls to pass a long series of very similar skill tests masked by short pieces of text. And constantly having to dip into the rulebook to find little rule exceptions. You won’t find many games with more keywords. Some of which mean something different if they’re in brackets…
  • Meaningful decisions: As with many solo/co-op experiences, much of the decision making is around risk. Being gung-ho can work – but you’ll need the dice on your side. Caution can also work, but the more you try and prepare the more time you’re wasting – meaning the game probably puts more obstacles in your path. While you do need to react to these challenges, it does feel as if you’re largely choosing how to complete each task. You can certainly complete a game in a number of different ways.
  • Replayability: If I go slow, I’ii probably get to roll more dice during skill checks. If I play a rogue I’ll be looking for ‘sneak’ tests, rather than ‘influence’ checks for my priest. But all that really changes is the colour of the skill check/narrative flavour text. Worse, the four sagas play out identically for the first 50-70% each play. Find keywords, pay money, complete. The ancients add variety, but is that enough for multiple plays? If you like the basics, then yes – just about. As for difficulty levels, there are ways to make your first games easier. But once on ‘normal’ mode there’s nothing harder – unless you find something online or set your own challenges.
  • Theme and narrative: I found Gloom of Kilforth too fiddly to lose myself in. Even near the end of my third play I was having to regularly check rules exceptions. The 80 location cards add variety, but soon become a little repetitive as the game’s main way to deliver narrative. As for theme, it is fantasy 101 – which will be fine for many. But for me, bog standard kobolds, elves and paladins feels so tired in a thematic game. However, it is done solidly. The artwork is high quality, fights feel dangerous and the flavour text is relatively well written.
  • The ending: The game certainly builds towards a climax. Each turn another location card is flipped over and if you end your turn there, you take damage. There are also plot cards which must be dealt with or they make the ancient battle tougher. You get skills as you complete saga cards and get a large boon just before the final battle, meaning each finale should be a brutal and often short dice fest. So win or lose, the game does build nicely. But all the prep in the world won’t save you if you roll a bunch of ones and the ancient rolls a bunch of sixes. Whether that’s OK with you is going to be very much a matter of taste. Solo it’s basically a binary ending: win, or lose.

Key observations

I’ll start with my usual ‘highly ranked game’ caveat here. With more than 1,000 ratings on Board Game Geek, Gloom of Kilforth ranks well over a 7.5 average and is just outside the top 1,000 board games of all times. However, that should be tempered by the fact the vast majority of people that have played it would have gone in expecting/wanting to like it. It won’t be a random pick-up for many – or game you risk playing with non-narrative game fans.

Yes, the fantasy art is – well – fantasy art. It’s cliched, dark and booby at times. But it is of a very high quality if you like that kind of thing. Yes, its orcs and elves and dwarves and zzzz… But that’s hardly a criticism – if you don’t want that in a game, why buy or play it?

The rulebook, for me and many others, is awful. And I have the second edition of the game which already had a lot of improvements. Due to all the exceptions and keywords, it could have done with a proper old school war game style rulebook. Instead it meanders around and nothing is easy to find. This constant rulebook diving also makes the game play very long. I expect most players will be looking at 3-4 hours – at least until you get the hang of it.

Putting your imagination to the test

The ‘illusion’ of replayability and narrative are strong and common negatives too. The keyword collecting makes it feel like a set collection game. And there’s a real lack of imagination in the sagas, where you feel the narrative could really shine. Negative reviews talk about Talisman and Runebound – with a bit of Arkham thrown in. But funnily enough, while this will ring alarm bells for some it will turn the heads of many others. But you’ll have to use your imagination to find the story being told through this very mechanical dice game.

I don’t fully agree it’s a luck fest. Yes, there’s a lot of dice rolling and card flipping, hoping for the right keyword. But there are many ways to mitigate the dice and a cautious player, with average-ish luck, should be able to work their way through to the end game with relatively little trouble. But then, is that a good thing? Once you know the formula you are only going to fail if you get really bad luck on the dice, or in the card draws. And worse, that will likely happen in the final battle. If you know that going into each play, what is drawing you back?

Conclusion: The Gloom of Kilforth board game

I really wanted to like Gloom of Kilforth. I’d heard good things about the game and company, thought the artwork looked impressive, and wanted a solo adventure experience. But sadly this is not a game that will be staying in my collection. For me it was too mechanical, too cliched, but worse too samey. Combined with constant diving into the rulebook, the negatives easily outweighed the game’s positives. However, it positives are there for the right type of players. So if you’re an adventure game fan who like to chuck dice in a fantasy setting, especially if wanting a step up from Talisman et al, you should certainly take a peek.

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