How does Gloomhaven: Buttons & Bugs fare as an in-flight experience?

We put Gloomhaven: Buttons & Bugs – Cephalofair’s new pocket-sized spin-off – to the test in transit.
Gloomhaven: Buttons & Bugs

If you’ve had even a casual interest in tabletop or video games over the last few years, then you’ve probably heard the name Gloomhaven. A kind of all-in-one role-playing board game with legacy elements, it’s consistently held a top 10 spot on BoardGameGeek’s best list since its 2017 release.

It’s also renowned for being an expensive and super-dense beast of a game, which weighs almost as much as a slab of beer and takes about as much space to store. Cephalofair’s first response to making Gloomhaven more accessible on some of these fronts came with the 2020 launch of a narrative prequel, Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion, which cut the price-point and physical size down by two-thirds.

Almost as a mocking response to those who felt that Jaws was even still entirely too much, in comes Gloomhaven: Buttons & Bugs: a purely solo player spin-off that costs little more than a Scrabble set and is packed in a box the size of a brick of butter.

The designers at publisher Cephalofair claimed during its development that Gloomhaven: Buttons & Bugs was so compact that it would be perfectly playable on an airplane tray table. With me having already booked travel from Australia to the U.S. a week after it began hitting stores, I simply had to know if this was true.

UA99 from MEL to LAX

Determined to be as fully committed to the bit as possible, I opted to not even open the box until I’d sat down in my economy seat.

This presented me with my first experience ever of being thankful for departure delays, as much to my surprise, Gloomhaven: Buttons & Bugs’ box does not contain the rulebook. There’s a 35 page quick-start guide, (and yes, I fully acknowledge how insane the concept of a quick-start guide being 35 pages is), but the actual rulebook is a dryly presented slab of text found on Cephalofair’s GitHub of all places.

Luckily however, I quickly found a beautiful fan-made PDF version with some actual graphic design effort put into it, which saved me from having to spring for in-flight Wi-Fi. Not the greatest first impression, but okay.

An early morning long-haul flight isn’t ever going to be the best condition for one to learn the rules of a game, but even upon reviewing them after I’d arrived and properly slept, I found the quick-start, rulebook, and even the quick reference card to each be irritatingly unclear in their communication of the rules.

I think the fact that page one of the quick-start booklet is dominated by a QR code encouraging players to ‘skip the rulebook!’ and download an interactive tutorial app to their phone is extremely telling here. Nevertheless, I persisted without it and managed to eventually grasp the terms of play, across about an hour of irritatingly cross-referencing between each of the three.

Gloomhaven: Buttons & Bugs is an apt title

Gloomhaven: Buttons & Bugs‘ narrative centres on your newbie adventurer being shrunk down to the size of a housefly, and having to battle their way through a more or less linear progression of numbered scenario cards to restore themselves to full-size. Hilariously, this means that the included miniatures representing each of the six playable heroes (and the coloured cubes used to represent various enemies) end up being 1:1 accurate to scale.

This also means that they will all be alarmingly easy to lose when playing somewhere such as an airplane. There’s a bespoke die that’s constantly rolled during play, too. With the threat of turbulence looming large I opted to wait until after the first in-flight meal was served before I attempted to actually play, and simply asked if I could hang on to the meal tray so that I had a play space with some edges.

Image: Jam Walker / Cephalofair

Buttons & Bugs impressively squishes the epic action role-playing game experience of its bigger siblings into a tiny format. Frustrations with learning the rules aside, playing through the first few scenarios in such a compact space went incredibly smoothly. While there’s nothing to really do in each scenario besides fighting, the strategic depth of the card-based combat is impressive, and the increasing complexity of the encounters in each subsequent scenario will force you to start thinking multiple turns ahead as you progress.

Unfortunately, here’s where the very nature of Buttons & Bugs being an action-RPG started to bump up against the limitations of playing it in such a small and precarious space.

Each scenario card has a piece of valuable loot printed on its top and tail. Once you conquer a scenario, the cards go into your stash and can be equipped on your character card upon the start of subsequent scenarios. As later scenarios can feature a mix of up to four different enemies, each of which will require a card and health dial to be laid out for them, the amount of required table space grows quite quickly as you progress through chapters of the adventure.

Read: 11 of the best travel-sized card and board games

A butt-tonne of value with a few bugs

While I’d never call Gloomhaven: Buttons & Bugs’ story compelling, it’s an enjoyable enough framework to hang the adventure upon and feels spot on for the game’s light and silly vibe.

Each of the six heroes play quite differently, and with significantly varied degrees of complexity. The end of each scenario card will often tell you to skip to a specific number instead of the next one in sequence if you’re playing a certain character, too. These factors go a long way to making Gloomhaven: Buttons & Bugs replayable as the solo play experience that it is.

While the box suggests that any given scenario card should be playable in 20 minutes, the sheer fiddliness of learning the rules firmly blows this out upon first play. The challenge difficulty of scenarios also makes them fairly time-consuming, so keep that in mind if you’re looking to pick up Gloomhaven: Buttons & Bugs with any kind of commute in mind. 

After many hours of play, my feelings are much the same as they were during the first hour I had with it. It’s a tremendously impressive game, but one that kept chipping at me with little frustrations.

The rulebook and its weird situation sucks hard, but I did find the game became intuitive to play, eventually. Its mechanical design is incredibly clever, and I think it’s ridiculously good value at RRP AUD $39.95.

While it can certainly be played out of the house, I feel that the majority of the scenarios simply involve too many components for it to be easily played in any form of transit smaller than the backseat of a car. The time commitment and degree of mental involvement that each scenario requires pushes it a tiny bit beyond being playable during a half-hour lunch break, too.

Gloomhaven: Buttons & Bugs is a terrific game and an impressive reduction of its gargantuan forebears. It’s just a shame that it’s held back ever so slightly by its inability to squeeze down just that little bit more. 

Four stars: ★★★★

Gloomhaven: Buttons & Bugs
Joe Klipfel, Nikki Valens
Publisher: Cephalofair

GamesHub reviews are scored on a five-point scale. GamesHub has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content. GamesHub may earn a small percentage of commission for products purchased via affiliate links.

Jam Walker is a games and entertainment journalist from Melbourne, Australia. They hold a bachelor's degree in game design from RMIT but probably should have gotten a journalism one instead. You can find them talking entirely too much about wrestling on Twitter @Jamwa