Why even write about a game that’s approaching its fourth year of existence in the tabletop space?
The answer to that is relatively simple. I think at certain points there are some cornerstones of the board game experience that if you get the opportunity to play and write about, then you sit down, play some games and then put together some ego massaging words. As time goes on it’s not entirely wrong to state that Cephalofair games are like assholes, in the fact that most people by now have one. Or at least have been in the company of one. Maybe even lifted one up to see how heavy it was. In truth, they actually aren’t like assholes at all. However it is true that since Isaac Childres birthed the 15kg child that was Gloomhaven, it’s been almost impossible to avoid the fact that this world exists and I should probably make you aware of my thoughts on the smaller of these dungeon delicatessen counters.
Jaws of the Lion is a dungeon crawler technically, so you’ll be spending your games in control of a single character, playing through a quest book that you physically place the characters on as opposed to laying out multiple tiled boards. You’ll have a specific set of time to complete the scenario which is governed by the number of action cards you have left to play in you hand and deck. You’ll play with the same character during the entire campaign of the game, building up their abilities and equipment.
Jaws of the Lion is actually a resource management card game. It does look like a duck, and it quacks like a duck and it even waddles like a duck. But if you look closely enough then you’ll notice that you’ve actually got a cygnet on the table. It starts off like a dungeon crawler with back story and miniatures and health points. There’s an interesting initiative mechanic based around what action you’ve decided on, with modifiers taking the place of standard randomness of dice. When you play a round of JOTL, you’re playing two ‘domino’ type cards with different actions top and bottom and deciding which half you’re resolving. Then the cards go into a discard pile for the rest of the round until you decide to rest. Even if you rest, you’re having to remove one of those cards for the scenario, so the more time you spend not achieving your goals, the less likely you are to succeed. Yes, there’s equipment and there are additional skills and as the games on you’ll bring in more complicated mechanisms, but at the end of the day, your entire adventure is based around managing a deck of cards. Which if this is your first time playing a Gloomhaven type game, is going to make give all other dungeon crawlers you play from then on a sideways glance and make you wonder why no one else in the history of quests had decided to deviate from the oh so generic move then attack. Not only that, the range of characters try to be different from your standard fare but I think this is in part because these characters can be used in the bigger sibling games. Characters are here to act together and synergise, again cementing that this is more thinkage than initial impressions give.
It’s a festival of blood and sinew with murder being the aim in the games that you play, but because it is cooperative, you’ll be covered in claret together. Maybe laughing. Who knows.
Jaws of the Lion is a play as you learn game and you won’t even access all of the various mechanics from the first two games that you play. The rulebook and scenario book work in a symbiotic relationship, both showing you the way and setting up the challenging path ahead and it works very well on both aspects. The piecemeal approach means that you’re never really feeling overwhelmed however it limits your ability to jump ahead and play whatever scenario you feel like. Some may not appreciate the feeling of being herded around to where they should go next.
Do you really want to rush this? For those treating it like a smash and grab then it’s not entirely impossible to polish off a play session in an hour, however bear in mind that sometimes you’ll need extra time to learn new rules and potential have a discussion about your next adventure. I would suggest laying aside a good two hours to let the game breathe like a good red wine.
I have friends who own copies of the original Gloomhaven and some have managed to bravely scratch the surface while others continually have it on their wish list of something to get started. The required commitment and table space has always struck me that the game is not such as a table hog as a table tenant and works best when it is kept alive on a table as you play through the scenarios, sitting like a dinner guest who won’t go home. Jaws of the Lion is funny because in trying to exist as a smaller version of its sibling, it still manages to easily sit at the table with the likes of Descent, Heroquest and Dungeon Saga, because while it maybe doesn’t have the same requirement for the space, it still is something that when laid out is going to need a lot of table space. The box is packed to the brim of content, standees, cards and a decent mission book. The first challenge is fitting everything box was you first get it punched and ready to play, which was something I found slightly frustrating that it wasn’t entirely clear how to organise the content to get the best fit. Jaws of the Lion is meant to act as an introduction to a bigger world but for me, it cemented the reason for why I never played the bigger sibling. As a campaign game it demands that the same players go through the scenarios together if only to learn how the game works. You don’t touch inventory until after the end of the second mission and the game doesn’t open out until you’ve tackled half a dozen games. For those whose only exposure to dungeon exploring was though fixed move and attrition attacks, then JOTL is going to hit you as something of a revelation. The card system action selection is something that first seems weird but after a few missions, you wonder why no one else decided to use it before. One of the things that always struck me about this genre in the games I have played is there was never any really pressure exerted on you from the game itself to get on with things. You could always leisurely walk down corridors, you were able to take your time and collect the treasure when you felt like it. If you messed up an attack, you just had to wait your turn and then try again. JOTL has this wonderful ability of inducing panic as you burn through your deck and realise that if you run out of cards then it’s time to start again. This in itself is a bit of a double edged sword, especially if you have just invested the last 40 minutes taking down your foes to fail at the last hurdle and then you have to pick up and start again. To me it simply reinforces that Jaws exists as an efficiency puzzle, where you are presented with the scenario and from the outset you are trying to figure out from the equipment and cards you have in your possession how you are going to succeed. For those unable to commit to a bigger campaign that both Frosthaven and Gloomhaven demands, the Jaws of the Lion is an excellent excursion that allows you to see was all the of the fuss was about. It’s also a very good game in its own right and for those looking to get their Dun-ge-on then it’s absolutely worth considering adding to your collection if only to understand what Isaac Childres defines as smol.
Take you time and plan. Rushing in and burning cards can see you taking an early exit. Remember to rest but not leave ti to the last possible moment.
This review is based on the retail version of the game provided to us by the designer and publisher. We were not paid for this review. We give a general overview of the gameplay and so not all of the mechanical aspects of the game may be mentioned.
If you would like to support more written pieces on the blog then please consider backing us on Patreon. www.patreon.com/werenotwizards