Designed by: David Carl, Alex Hall, Mat Hart, Richard Loxam
Published by: SteamForged Games
Playtime: 90-120 Minutes
Review copy supplied free of charge by Asmodee UK.
The very first thing you see when you lift off the lid of Dark Souls: The Board Game is a piece of black paper that simply states, “you died.” It’s a message that has been seen thousands upon thousands of times by Dark Souls player. This may be the most faithful adaption of a video game to the board game medium ever if its managed to get this detail right. It’s a promising start, so can the rest of the game match it?
But the box holds other wonders than just a piece of black paper, including a tray full of sizable miniatures representing mini-bosses and regular ol’ big bosses from across the Dark Souls games, including the likes of the Winged Knight and a Titanite Demon, as well as the Dancer of Boreal Valley. These guys are wonderfully huge compared to everything else and made of a soft plastic that helps keep them intact for longer, although the tradeoff is a few saggy weapons and perhaps a touch of softness around the details. The smaller enemy models and hero characters look good, too, as does pretty much everything else. The tiles that you play on aren’t the most visually exciting but they are made of thick card, as are the player boards. In other words, the insanely successful Kickstarter for this project has resulted in a game that boasts great component quality, although I am a bit miffed that the tray in which all the cards come packed doesn’t have a little lid so that it can be useful when putting everything back in the box.
Let’s just assume you aren’t very familiar with Dark Souls, though. The franchise is renowned for being incredibly difficult, challenging its players to explore its dark worlds with every step risking deadly traps or beasties who want to murder you in the face. Player skill, reflexes and memorizing patterns are key as upon death all the prior enemies respawn, so you have to trundle through everything again, this time hopefully remembering the monster hiding behind the corner next to a crevice.
It’s also known for its lore which never gets outright explained, rather you piece it together over time or possibly just by watching Youtube videos where everybody else has to do the work.
The point is the video game series has developed a massive, devoted following who have spent numerous hours perfecting the combat systems and learning about the places they’re exploring. Trying to bring all of that into the board game format is no easy challenge.
To set the game up players select which of the four characters they want to take control of, or you can always solo it if you’re in the mood for a challenge. There’s the Herald, the Knight, the Warrior and the Assassin, each with their own special power that can be used once per Spark – Sparks being the groups life counter. With player boards handed out each character gets their basic starting gear, an Estus flask that can instantly heal you once per Spark, a Heroic token that is used to activate your character’s special ability and a Luck token that allows for one die to be re-rolled.
Then you’ve got to pick out a mini-boss to face off against once you’ve managed to battle through the basic encounters. We’ll get back to what makes the bosses interesting later, but for now you pick out your first big foe, and then you can select one of the three main bosses to battle after the second set of encounters has been fought through.
The board itself is made up of four randomly selected tiles, not that it makes a heap of difference as they’re all functionally almost identical with the game only having two pieces of terrain, which feels like something of a wasted opportunity. In the video game situational awareness has always been key, after all. Each tile is made up of nodes that you move around on, the limit being three models per node. On each of these boards you’ll lay an Encounter card, the difficulty of which is indicated by the mini-boss or main boss you’ve opted to fight. These Encounter cards tell you what enemies to place on the tile, as well if there any traps or treasure chests.
An important thing to know is that each encounter is its own seperate event, and thus you don’t move between rooms during them. Rather you “enter” an area through the doorways, and once an encounter is completed all characters get healed and then you either head back to the bonfire tile or carry on to another room.
Since this is Dark Souls the bad guys always get the first turn regardless of what happens, with every model activating in sequence and moving in to deliver pain before you can even squeal in terror. The slightly small selection of six enemy types each get their own cards which indicate how they’ll behave with the instructions reading from left to right. Some will move one or two nodes toward or even away from the nearest player, or from the player currently holding the aggro token, something which you pick up when your turn starts and don’t get rid of until the next player takes their turn. Likewise, attacks are listed along with whether they’ll aim for nearby players, the person with the aggro token, whether or not the attack will hit everybody on the node, the range and finally whether it’s a physical or magic based strike which in turn affects your defense.
Whatever happens, you’ll most likely find yourself being attacked by some ugly blighters who have serious personal space issues, so for defense you have two options; dodging is an all-or-nothing strategy, with each dodge dice you get to roll having a 50/50 chance of success or failure. Succeed and you evade all damage, fail and you have to take it all like a champ. Either way, you do get to move a node for free which is superb for some quick repositioning, but dodging is high risk and only some equipment lets you use it at all because naturally rolling across the floor in full metal armor is tricky. The reliable option is to absorb the damage as best you can, grabbing whatever dice are indicated by your armor, shield and weapon and then hoping for a roll that mitigates the worst of it. I found myself really enjoying the decision whether to dodge or block, and it also serves to create some compelling decisions when it comes to equipping new gear. Do you go all in on armor or dodging, or aim for something in the middle?
Enemy movements and attacks can also include pushing you around the board, literally forcing you back a node or to the side as they shove, charge and swing bloody huge blades at you. At first, the rules surrounding pushing were a tad tricky to get the hang of because the rulebook felt vague about when pushes that inflict damage actually did the damage part, but once you get the hang of that it creates an interesting dynamic in fights where you can find yourself being slowly worked into a corner. There is perhaps a slightly missed opportunity here, though, because you can’t actually get trapped. Movement through enemies is perfectly fine, so no matter what you can escape.
Perhaps more interesting is that while the rules do include sections for deciding where enemies should move to in the eventuality of a tie, there are often moments where the players get to decide things which lets them control the game. In fact, it can almost feel like cheating when you shift an enemy out of range, so some people might like to make a house rule that forces players to always make the best choice for the monsters and not just themselves.
Once the enemy have gotten their hits in, it’s time for you to shine. You get one node of movement for free each turn, but after that you need to spend stamina to wander closer to the monsters. Once you get in range to your target, which might be across the room or on the same node depending on your weapon of choice, it’s simply a matter of declaring an attack and then picking which type of attack listed on your weapon that you want to use. A nice, one-handed sword, for example, will probably let you take a basic swing for free, with a few more deadly options at the cost of a couple of stamina points. A big-ass two-handed sword that can cleave through entire glaciers, though, might chew up some stamina for even its simplest attack. It’s even possible to dual-wield weapons or attack with certain shields, giving you two chances to wreck some stuff in a single turn. Regardless of what you’re swinging you roll the color of dice shown on your weapon, subtract the enemy’s resistance from the total and dish out the rest as damage. Simple stuff. Basic enemies only have a single hitpoint, bigger baddies have more and bosses have a whole lot of points that have to be whittled down.
Okay, so the basic combat doesn’t sound particularly interesting, but there is something that spices it up. Cleverly both your health and stamina exist in the same bar, with damage cubes being placed on the right and black stamina cubes on the left. Should the two ever meet then you die, and everyone has to go back to the bonfire tile for a nice cup of tea, a chat and some good old blaming. Yes, if one player dies everyone fails, resulting in a lost Spark and every encounter being reset across the entire board, forcing you to fight through them all again before getting to the boss. It’s a smart idea to have your health and stamina on one bar that creates some nice, tense situations, because going all out on a big attack that costs four stamina might leave you worryingly close to death, while suffering a bunch of damage also limits your options when it comes to going on the offensive. It also serves to create an interesting pace to encounters since players will often spend their stamina willingly in the initial turns, before fatigue sets in and options become restricted.
Each time you beat an encounter you’re granted a number of Souls based on the player count. These act as shared currency between players, and at the bonfire tile you can spend one soul to flip over the top card of the treasure deck and then equip whatever it is if you want, like a badass new sword, some sweet new armor or maybe even a legendary item if you’ve progressed passed the mini-boss. However, items also have stat requirements, and if you don’t meet those then you can’t use them, so Souls must be spent to love up your characters four basic stats, which can become very costly. This shared pool of currency and having to level up is something else I love as it encourages players to talk about whether they should evenly distribute their souls or consider spending extra on a single person in order to let them equip some of the best kit.
Just like the video game, then, a lot of your time is spent repeating encounters in order to build up your stash of Souls so you can spend them to level up and acquire new gear capable of tackling the boss. Each time you head back to the bonfire you can opt to rest, replenishing your tokens and resetting every encounter at the cost of a Spark. It’s this element that will make or break the game for a lot of people because obviously going through the same four encounters against the same four sets of enemies several times is repetitive, and some people will enjoy it and some simply won’t. A lack of variety in enemy types hurts, too, as the selection of just six basic foes doesn’t feel like quite enough.
Where the Dark Souls board game differs from its digital counterpart is combat, which here relies on the often fickle dice rather than player skill. When making an attack you simply choose which weapon you’re going to use, and then which of the attack types it offers. Yup, a sword or spear might offer a standard strike, but there is often one or two other choices that cost stamina but do more damage or may even be capable of hitting multiple opponents. Whatever you opt to do it’s simply a case of grabbing the listed dice, rolling them, detracting the enemy’s resistance and then dishing the rest out as damage, which in the case of standard Hollow minions usually means instant death as they have a single hitpoint. Pure blighters. To help mitigate the luck of dice there is a token you can flip that lets you re-roll a die, or you might even have weapon upgrades that automatically inflict a point of damage, but at the end of the day your jabs, whacks and swings can ultimately fail completely because you suck at rolling dice.
That’s where the game’s repetition bugs me. In the video game version of Dark Souls repeating encounters is a chance to show off your memory and skill, but here you can potentially get battered around simply because of a few crappy rolls. With that said once you get better gear you become almost guaranteed to deal out damage or absorb an attack. Of course, luck also comes into play when getting new gear, so for example in my very first game we went through eight encounters before we found something that was actually an improvement.
Another potential letdown is that despite the source material being regarded as hugely challenging and not for gamers who aren’t willing to devote time to honing their skills the board game…kind of easy. The fact that health and stamina all reset after each encounter is a large part of this, but I also found myself when I was playing with two characters slicing through everything with relative ease. With more players the enemy models get a lot more activations and one person can find themselves suddenly swamped, so weirdly the game actually feels more difficult with a full complement of folk. As for the boss battles, we barely ever died. Again, in some ways having more players made it tougher since there’s a higher chance of the boss hitting multiple characters in one attack.
Luck does play a part in this. On my very first game I used the warrior and the knight, and lucked into some really good gear that turned them both into tanks capable of absorbing damage and dishing it out in equal measure, and so most standard encounters lost their appeal as they boiled down to moving to the enemy, attacking and repeating as needed. Drawing into some handy weapons and armor, and then getting some good rolls, can let you scythe through the enemies like they are barely even there.
And that’s the problem that die-hard fans of the video game may ultimately have. Whereas streamers, Youtubers and others have shown time and time again that pure skill and reflexes can defeat each enemy, the board game relies on dice, not skill, and so to counter the often fickle nature of Lady Luck you have to trawl through the same encounters again and again in order to get better gear. You don’t learn from your mistakes because chances are you didn’t make a mistake in the first place. In one instance me and three people ventured into a room, and my friend got instantly demolished because the enemies get to go first and his rolls weren’t great. With every enemy activating at once, it’s common to see a player get turned into mincemeat before anything can be done, the only options being some lucky rolls or a few fortunate dodges.
It’s also worth pointing out that while exploration of every nook and cranny is a massive part of the Souls series, here it’s not even a piece of the game. There is no exploration unless you class going into a room and flipping the encounter card as exploring, which I don’t. Since each encounter is its own, separate thing connecting the tiles almost feels pointless because it’s ultimately meaningless to do so. You don’t really move between them, and thus they may as well be strewn around the room.
So there are some problems, but they are surprisingly easy to forget when you’re in the middle of a fight with a giant boss which is where Dark Souls: The Board Game shines brighter than an oiled up bald guy. Rather than having a single behavior card that dictates everything they do, bosses get an entire deck of randomly selected cards, each of which has its own movement, attacks and other bits and pieces. They might lurch forward before swinging wildly then leaping over to another character, or even just run into a corner and ineffectually swipe at thin air. Yup, just like the video game.
But the really interesting thing is that when the last card of the behavior deck is drawn the discard pile gets flipped back over so that it’s in exactly the same order, thus just like in the video game player’s can memorize attack patterns. However, if the enemy’s health is reduced to a certain point a special Heat Up card gets shuffled into the mix, changing the order of attacks and introducing a powerful new behavior card. Again, it’s a nice nod to the video game.
The other thing that makes bosses different, aside from them being bloody huge, is that their bases are divided into four arcs. These are used to show where attacks will hit, as well as the boss monster’s weak point, which when attacked will grant an extra black die. This arc system adds a layer of tactical thinking that just isn’t present when you’re fighting the regular baddies in encounters, with memorizing attacks being rewarded by being able to avoid them and then take advantage of the weak spot, just like in the video game.
Now, like mini-bosses big bosses have powerful treasure cards that immediately get added to your pile of treasure for use by any player, but usually beating the main boss is the end of the game. However, there are two small campaigns included that alter the rules so that treasure and stat increases carry over. These campaigns are based around the first Dark Souls and Dark Souls 3, and seek to emulate those games by including a set number of regular encounters, a couple of mini-bosses and then the big fight against the likes of The Dancer of the Boreal Valley. The inclusion of campaigns is a nice touch, but for me they also highlighted the lack of genuine exploration and story compared to the video games.
Ultimately I’m a little mixed on Dark Souls: The Board Game. On the one hand the boss battles are great fun and I did enjoy leveling my character up and equipping new gear, but on the other hand, the standard non-boss encounters are fairly typical stuff; you roll some dice, move around and repeat, just like most games of this ilk. However, when you average all of that out you get a pretty damn good experience that I think Dark Souls fans will appreciate, even if it doesn’t capture the sense of exploration and player skill that the video games do. And if you aren’t a Dark Souls fan then I think you’ll still have a good time getting new gear for your character, fighting bosses and blaming your mates for running in and getting killed. Bloody muppets.
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