Review: Dark Souls – The Board Game
As a board game and Dark Souls enthusiast, I landed squarely in the crosshairs of Dark Souls™ - The Board Game when it was launched on Kickstarter in April 2016. The game was designed by Alex Hall, Mat Hart, and Richard Loxam and published by Steamforged Games. The game was put forth as "a strategically challenging, deeply immersive combat exploration game for 1-4 players set in the Dark Souls™ universe". The Kickstarter campaign was massively successful, earning more than $5.4m from over 31k backers (and even more than that in late pledges and alternative payment methods that Kickstarter doesn't track). Now that SFG had the funds and backing, they needed to answer the big question: How do you create the Dark Souls experience in a board game? I received their answer in early May 2017 in the form of a gigantic 8lb box.
Dark Souls™ - The Board Game is essentially a dungeon-crawler. You set up a board composed of large tiles that represent areas where your party of miniature heroes will encounter miniature versions of the denizens of the Dark Souls universe. You will gain Souls by clearing tiles and use those Souls to level your character's stats to equip increasingly powerful armour and weapons. Your first goal is to reach and beat the mini-boss, at which point the tiles will reset with tougher encounters, and the main boss waiting at the end.
YOU DIED. Upon opening the box, emblazoned on glossy black paper in its crimson font is the iconic phrase that appears when your character is killed in the Dark Souls games. It's a small touch, but this evocative icon at the forefront recalls the oppressive atmosphere of the video games in a fun way that puts the right foot forward as you're setting up a game.
If that doesn't do it for you, the miniatures certainly will. Beautifully sculpted, the minis are highly detailed and faithful to the video games. And BIG. Your heroes are decently sized, and the enemies and bosses are scaled to suitably dwarf your heroes and leave them quaking in their plastic boots.
When it comes to setting up boards games I have little patience. Dark Souls™ - The Board Game touts having "fast setup, long reveal" mechanics that get you into the game quickly. While these mechanics do push some setup later into the game, there are still a number tokens, cubes and boards to be handed out and cards to be organized and shuffled. You may not need to setup everything immediately, but the "fast setup" in practice just delegates setup into the "long reveal", where you will come to an encounter or boss and then need to spend a few minutes setting up minis shuffling cards, which can interrupt the momentum of the game a bit.
My issues with the setup would be mitigated if there were better component organization and storage in the box. As it stands there really is none. I spent 45 minutes and a few bucks on bags to sort the various cards, tokens, cubes and dials of the heroes and enemies. That way, I can just pull out a bag when I'm choosing a character or setting up a boss instead of rifling through decks of cards and bags of tokens and cubes to get the components I need. This is a work in progress, as getting everything back into the box has also proved challenging. The miniatures storage is decent in comparison, with nested boxes and plastic molds to hold them all safely in place.
The basic gameplay loop in Dark Souls™ - The Board Game is to enter a tile, engage in an encounter where your party wins or loses, purchase equipment and upgrades, and repeat until you reach a boss. What is in each room is a surprise until you visit it, at which point you have committed to fight to the death whatever is on the facedown card you placed on the tile during setup. After setting up the room with enemies and obstacles according to the card, you place your heroes at the entrance and begin the encounter. All the enemies will move and attack according to some basic AI listed on their enemy cards, one of your heroes will go, and then all the enemies will move again. This cycle continues until one of the heroes dies or all the enemies in the room are defeated.
If a hero dies, all the encounters are reset, Souls (experience) will be left on the dial where the hero died, the Spark dial will go down by one (Sparks are similar to lives), and the heroes will be placed back on the starting tile (called the bonfire tile). If the heroes defeat all the enemies, the encounter is won and 2 Souls are awarded per player. Souls can then be spent at the starting tile between encounters to draw equipment cards, upgrade equipment, and level the heroes' stats. Either way, heroes will then continue onto the next unrevealed encounter, with the ultimate goal of reaching the boss room. This very simply reflects progressing through an area toward the boss in the video games. This doesn't reflect the complexity or intentionality of the level design in the video games, but this concession makes for a better board game and lets the complexity live in the individual encounters.
The meat of the game comes down to the tactical decisions that occur while your party fights enemies. Driven by the equipment of each hero, players will need to decide how best to position their party to effectively take and deal damage. Enemies have a single pattern and fixed damage so they are predictable, but all enemies move in between player turns, leading to a very dynamic experience as you need to consider a rapidly shifting battlefield. Risk/reward is a major theme players will face when making decisions, as hero attacking and defending is determined by dice rolls. Different "tiers" of dice yield relatively predictable results, but players will often need to risk taking a hit or paying more stamina to roll a stronger attack to play effectively. In Dark Souls™ - The Board Game, stamina and health share a single bar, meaning that higher stamina attacks will bring you closer to death and taking too much damage will prevent you from attacking effectively. The risk/reward of the dice and the shared bar of health and stamina are particularly clever mechanics that effectively translate the stamina management and dangers of reckless play that are such a big part of the video games.
The six basic enemy types limit the variety that is found in these encounters, but the dynamic positioning of the encounters and differences in party roster/equipment keep these encounters from feeling stale from game to game. However, repeating an encounter you've already beaten within the same game is not rewarding, as you feel like you've already "solved" the encounter is this playthrough. Clearing an encounter again feels rote at best, or at worst feels like a time punishment. This issue is exacerbated by the need to grind to gain Souls to purchase better equipment and level stats (to equip better armour and weapons). While you can in the Dark Souls video games, it has never been necessary.
In the Dark Souls video games, player skill was prioritized over stats and even equipment. In the board game, the difficulty (maybe even possibility) in beating an encounter or boss is driven by your dice rolls, and therefore, your character's equipment. While much of the time encounters felt relatively well balanced against the heroes' equipment, I have also seen encounters and bosses made nearly impossible or almost completely trivial depending on what equipment I drew. Player skill in the video games is being substituted with making good tactical decisions in the board game. Trading coordination and timing for tactical decision making is a good idea, but when your equipment is overpowered or underpowered the player is robbed of that choice as they find themselves in impossible situations or absolutely crushing everything. This issue is emphasized more in the solo game where there is only one hero, but the power of the individual heroes can vary wildly in multiplayer depending upon equipment draws. Having an underpowered and overpowered hero in the party might balance out the party, but it doesn't lend itself toward a fun experience.
The two biggest issues with Dark Souls™ - The Board Game, the necessary grind and balance of equipment, share a root cause: randomly drawn equipment. There are no decisions to be made as you grind for more Souls to hopefully draw something useful that will work with your character (and as previously mentioned, playing through the same encounter you just beat is not very rewarding). While you do shuffle in character-specific equipment cards and there are multiple ways to upgrade weapons, I often found myself simply trying to make do with what I have and waiting for that next opportunity to draw more equipment. In the video games, planning a build around a weapon is one of the main opportunities to make long-term strategic decisions in building a character. In Dark Souls™ - The Board Game, randomly drawn equipment results in the inability to reliably build toward anything and creates haphazard character progression.
While I've been a bit negative so far, I haven't mentioned what is by far the best part about Dark Souls™ - The Board Game: The boss battles. After you've grinded or lucked your way into some decent equipment and your party is ready, it is time for the mini-boss or main boss.
Unlike normal enemies that have one behavior they repeat, bosses have an arsenal of different behavior cards that are randomly drawn and shuffled together at the start of a boss fight. Like enemy encounters, the boss will go first, then the first player, and then the boss again, and so forth. Each time they activate the top behavior card is flipped over. While these icon-heavy card can be daunting initially, they become quickly understandable and describe a series of attacks that, while devastating, can be avoided and even capitalized upon. While the first 4 or 5 activations will reveal fresh new terrors, the end of the behavior deck will result in the bosses' behavior cards simply be turned over and play through in the same sequence again. This cleverly translates memorizing boss patterns in the video games, and the power of the attacks heightens the drama of the risk/reward system and places more emphasis on stamina management. You find yourself conservative initially, but progressively more aggressive as the ebb and flow of the battle crystallizes. You begin to test how effectively you can deal damage, and will most likely find yourself sorely punished if you get greedy. Once you're comfortable with the fight, the boss will "Heat Up" around half health, shuffling their behavior deck and gaining a new attack. In short, they are resoundingly successful translations of Dark Souls boss fights.
The only minor complaint I can issue about the boss fights is that failure against a boss will result in having to clear every encounter between the starting tile and the boss. This issue isn't even ultimately about the bosses, but another mark against the forced grind in the game. To quote Gary Butterfield of Bonfireside Chat, "being able to run past enemies in [the Dark Souls video games] is a feature, not a bug". The moments where you can't easily get back to a boss in the video games are not good and not worth emulating in the board game. If I'm underpowered, I can make the decision to grind out a few rooms of my own volition, but otherwise let me get right back into the fight.
Dark Souls™ - The Board Game is a long game. I've averaged between 2-3 hours to beat the mini-boss, with another 1-2 hours to beat the main boss. Even when I've implemented a common rules variant online, double the Souls (experience) received per room at the cost of having half of the Sparks (lives), the game has lasted 3 hours. This isn't a mark against the game necessarily. When using the variant, my group did no grinding and drew decent equipment with the extra Souls. While the encounters became easier as our characters progressed, they were always interesting. Both boss fights had the entire group standing around the table as someone rattled around the dice for a life-or-death roll. It was a really good time from start to finish. Conversely, I played the standard game solo for 5 hours that did not go so well. I simply wasn't making any interesting decisions when I was grinding, and some bad equipment draws frustrated me. Not only because my character was relying on random chance to progress, but because it meant I would need to grind more. The length wasn't the issue here, but what I was doing with my time. In another standard solo game I'd played earlier that week I got some great early draws. I had to do minimal grinding as a result, and became a juggernaut of death and destruction, taking a total of 1 point of damage after the mini-boss. I enjoyed stomping the Dancer of the Boreal Valley, but there was no risk anymore and therefore lacked tension or drama. It wasn't even that I outsmarted the game, which would be rewarding. I got lucky. This game lasted around 3 hours, and even though I wasn't frustrated, walking through everything became boring by the end.
Dark Souls™ - The Board Game is a decent but flawed game that translates wonderfully some of my favorite parts of the video games. At its best, it captures the tension of the tactical decision-making and sense of dread that I enjoy so much about the video games. The boss battles are the highlight of the game, wonderfully translating the palm sweating experience of learning a bosses' moveset while surviving their onslaught of devastating attacks. These aspects of the game are tempered by the misguided design decisions surrounding character progression. Randomly purchased equipment and grinding for Souls do not add meaningful decision-making and bloat the game. If you're a fan of Dark Souls and have $120 to spare, the board game is worth the purchase for the miniatures alone. Otherwise, I would suggest potential buyers wait on purchasing Dark Souls™ - The Board Game to see how the game develops over the next year. There are expansions that are expected to start releasing in October 2017 that will add more enemies, new mechanics, and Mega Bosses for those looking for an even greater challenge. I'm hoping that Steamforged Games also offers up some official variants to address some of the issues I've covered. With a bit of work, Dark Souls™ - The Board Game could be VERY GOOD!
Written by Sean Wagoner aka @thelorehunter on Twitter. Sean runs The Lore Hunter (http://www.thelorehunter.com/), a blog dedicated to collecting the best community generated lore content for the game Bloodborne.