Welcome to Tabletop Tuesday! Every Tuesday I'll be posting a review of various tabletop board, card, and role-playing games. Some will be newer games, some will be classics, and some will just be games I like. Today's review is...
Dark Souls: The Board Game
Players: 1-4 Format: Cooperative Strategy By: Steamforge Games
Attack. Die. Revive. Attack. Get to the next bonfire and repeat. Praise the Sun! The Dark Souls series is famous not only for its unforgiving mechanics, but also its mysterious narrative and captivating world. So how well does Steamforge Games' tabletop rendition of Dark Souls handle the lofty bar set by the source material? Well, let' have a look.
The first thing anyone will notice about Dark Souls: The Board Game is the stunning quality of its miniatures, especially the bosses and mini-bosses. While crafted in simple unpainted plastic, the attention to detail is remarkable, with fans of the video game series knowing exactly which enemies are being represented at a mere glance. From the lowly Hollow Soldier to the imposing Ornstein and Smough, every miniature is a work of art unto itself.
Everything else in the game is produced decently enough, generally fairing between moderate and high quality. Map tiles, damage markers, character boards, and game cards are all of the kind of quality you would expect from a high-dollar, heavy strategy board game.
Dark Souls: The Board Game is an intimidating game at first glance. Loot cards have numerous symbols on them, arranged in a specific order. Enemies, as well, are defined by a number of different icons and numerical values, and without the reference on the back of the rulebook it would be easy to lose track. Luckily, after your couple of rounds, everything should click into place and you'll likely only need to consult the rulebook for very specific situations.
The game comes in two formats; Scenario, being the base version of the game, and Campaign, which is a set of special rules at the back of the book that adapt the Scenario rules in order to create a larger gaming experience. Scenario is definitely the stronger of the two types, as Dark Souls is such a lengthy game to begin with that there are very few times I finished with a Scenario and thought "if only this were longer."
For Scenario mode, each player starts by setting up the board and choosing the mini-boss they want to face. Then they proceed from encounter to encounter, facing a different variation of enemies, traps, and potentially chests, in each one. The encounter lasts until either all enemies are defeated (in which case the players can regroup at the bonfire for equipment and upgrades before venturing to another encounter), or until ONE player is defeated (which results in the party being forced to rest at the bonfire, resetting all defeated encounters and losing any unspent Souls). Repeat this process until the players reach the Fog Gate, in which case they can approach and attempt to defeat the mini-boss within. That, in a rather large nutshell, is the entire game of Dark Souls: The Board Game.
The difficulty of Dark Souls: The Board Game shows itself in two ways during encounters. First, enemies act first each encounter, and also act between each player turn. This means that, in a four player game, each enemy will move and attack four times before the fourth player will get to go once. Under this turn structure, it becomes apparent very early on that being able to avoid or reduce damage is much more valuable than being able to deal damage. Luckily, a many of the enemies are relatively fragile, and will go down in a single hit (assuming you can hit them).
The second way Dark Souls: The Board Game shows its difficulty is in the scarcity of resources. The bonfire has a set number of Sparks on it, based on the number of players (5 for 1 player games, 4 for 2 player games, etc.). Each time the encounters are reset, either by resting at the bonfire or by player death, the number of sparks is reduced by 1. Also, each player has three useful tools to help them survive encounters: their estus flask, heroic action, and luck token. However, each of these resources may only be used once per bonfire spark. Meaning if a few bad rolls set you back in the first encounter and force you to use your estus flask, then you lose that estus flask until a party member dies, or until you voluntarily reset the encounters by resting at the bonfire.
Additionally, the concept of farming souls from the encounters isn't just one way to play the game, it's the only way. Even if you defeat all four encounters on your first try and make it to the boss relatively unscathed, your fight against the mini-boss will go badly, and you will realize that you need better equipment to succeed next time.
And getting better equipment is mostly just a crap shoot. There's one single loot deck from which all players pull. By spending souls, players reveal cards from the loot deck and add them to the party inventory at the bonfire. Then, if players meet the attribute requirements of loot in their inventory, they may equip it. But since you don't know the requirements until after its revealed, its very likely that the first 4, 5, 6 or even more loot cards you draw will just sit in your inventory, waiting until you accumulate enough souls to level up, or until you bury them beneath more loot cards as you search for a viable upgrade.
It's frustrating and time consuming, but once you get into the rhythm of the game, and you start to understand that this is part and parcel for the Dark Souls experience. This is part of the strategy, deciding when to spend your souls, when to save them, and when to press your luck against the encounters. It captures the essence of the gameplay of the Dark Souls video games almost immaculately. What it doesn't do, however, is match the sense of exploration, investigation, and narrative experience of the video game series. While this can be a little disappointing to Souls fans, they must also realize that this game never intended to capture those elements. If you're looking for the compelling narrative and shortcut-pornography of Dark Souls, simply play the video game. If you're looking for a challenging, tactical miniatures game to play with your friends, then Dark Souls: The Board Game will likely satisfy that itch. And with plenty of expansions releasing in the future, you likely won't be bored of it any time soon.
Backers of the Kickstarter will have gotten their copies of Dark Souls: The Board Game for around $80. However, a quick Amazon search shows retail copies selling for about $120. The price may seem a bit steep, but for the quality of miniatures and for the amount of play time a dedicated player can get out of this one box, I'd say it's reasonably priced.
Much like the video games it is based on, Dark Souls: The Board Game is not for the faint of heart. Fans of the Dark Souls formula, or of intense tactical miniatures games, will be drawn in and be challenged to hone their skills and perfect their strategy against every enemy in the box. If repetition and tactical combat do not interest you, then you'll likely leave this game feeling as hollow as your wallet. Maybe watch a gameplay video online and decide from there if it's best for you.