01st Dec2017

‘Dark Souls: The Board Game’ Review

by Matthew Smail

dark-souls-box

“You Are Dead” states a welcoming sheet of jet black paper overwritten with blood red, gothic print. It’s the first thing you’ll see as you ease the deep, deep lid off of the retail release of Steamforged Games incredibly popular release of Dark Souls: The Board Game. It’s a mantra that will be all too familiar to fans of the From Software’s videogame series and it’s no surprise really, because somehow, Dark Souls: The Board Game captures the difficulty, theme and core gameplay loop of it’s digital forebears almost perfectly.

Peel back that foreboding sheet of paper and you’ll find two neatly packaged boxes, one of which contains no less than six huge and exquisitely detailed boss character miniatures that will immediately be familiar. Highlights include The Dancer of the Boreal Valley, Executioner Smaugh and a spectacular interpretation of one of the Bell Gargoyle’s from the very first game. In another box, you’ll find sculpted miniatures for the hero characters to include The Knight, The Warrior, The Herald and The Assassin, along with a handful of Hollow Soldiers and Crossbowmen, Silver Knights and Great Bowmen, a Sentinel and some Large Hollows. Every single one is cast exceptionally well, with only one floppy weapon among the lot of them in my case.

You’ll also find a ton of other stuff in the box, which is not surprising from the size of it. There are a number of square, double-sided boards including two that feature mini-boss and boss symbols and are reserved for exactly that reason, whilst the rest can be used to create a random board for single scenarios or laid out in specific ways during the campaign. There are some nice spindown dials to represent boss health and player lives (aka Sparks) and a myriad of tokens ranging from chests and barrels that act as scenery, traps, souls, wound tokens and more elsewhere. There’s an absolute ton of multi-coloured dice, a bag of wooden blocks and four large hero character cards to use them on, cards (both large and small) for every occasion and a very glossy manual.

Unfortunately, this manual is probably the biggest misstep that Dark Souls: The Board Gamemakes. It manages to make what is actually a fairly simple game appear extremely complicated by spreading information throughout in ad-hoc pockets of usefulness among great swathes of nonsense. Simple examples are lacking, as is the use of eye-catching symbols that would enable players to rapidly find the rules they need. As an example, the book has a reference guide for each symbol on the back which does match what’s printed on cards and elsewhere, yet even so, no real detail is included there to support play. I strongly recommend checking out YouTube for one of many informative “Let’s Play” videos.

Players initially choose the mini-boss they want to face and place the board randomly, adding an encounter card to each section as instructed by the boss card, or they setup the game as instructed by the campaign rules. Solo players allocate themselves sixteen souls to spend immediately, whilst groups of two to four go into battle with only their base statistics and the starting equipment for their chosen character.

As I said earlier, Dark Souls: The Board Game revolves around a very similar gameplay loop to the videogame, with the object being to visit each room and defeat the inhabitants (which are secreted away on the back of the encounter card) to gain souls. Souls are returned to the bonfire each time they are obtained and can be used to purchase equipment randomly from a deck that is customised based on which hero characters are in play. If a character matches the base stats for any particular item, it can be equipped. If not, Souls can be paid to increase the Tier of character those stats (including Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence and Faith) which may in turn allow those items to be equipped.

Players automatically regain health and stamina after each successful encounter at no cost, but should anyone die (or if the players decide to rest at the bonfire voluntarily) then they must spend a Spark. Doing so resets all the encounters (but doesn’t restock chests) so that players can once again harvest the Souls by replaying them, but should you choose to do so voluntarily, you’ll have one less Spark to face the boss with and obviously, someone might be killed in one of the encounters. Should the party have any unspent Souls when a hero falls, those Souls will be left on the node where that character died.

When battle is joined, it is certainly the most interesting part of playing Dark Souls: The Board Game. Every encounter begins with the assignment of an aggression token to the character who is determined (by player choice) to have opened the door. After the first encounter, an active player token moves around the table, so sometimes the player drawing aggro from the mobs may be different to the one who will take the first player action. This is especially important because the mob takes the first turn in every encounter and then one hero takes their turn (beginning with the active player and then moving around to the left) before the mobs go again. Each individual monster is controlled by an AI card that tells the player how to move them, how far and then what kind of attack they will launch.

Each hero is able to attack or defend more or less efficiently based on the equipment they currently have equipped. Different items denote different coloured dice (or indicate a dodge proficiency) and players add these dice up (for example one black and one blue, or two black plus one automatic success) to determine their attack or defence roll. Blocking and dodging work differently, with a block action being capable of soaking up some or all of the enemy damage based on the roll and the dodge action being an all or nothing roll that also allows the hero to move one space on the board. When it comes to attacking, most weapons even have one or more alternate swings that confer additional benefits at a cost of stamina.

On that note, the health and stamina system in Dark Souls: The Board Game also works well to enhance the feeling that this is a legitimate imitation of the videogame, although it is slightly different. Effectively, if a hero’s expended stamina and lost health should ever meet, that player dies. Moving more than one space in a turn, dodging or using special attacks will result in lost stamina, meaning that the game presents players with some real do or die situations – does the aggro’d player risk taking a big swing to kill that last enemy and finish the encounter, or does she play it safe and try to absorb the damage?

Should the players reach the fog door at the end of the normal series of encounters, they may go through it and face the boss encounter. Most games include a mini-boss first and then a main boss encounter immediately after. It is during these hard as nails fights that Dark Souls: The Board Game really shows its true colours, although once again, a genuine Dark Souls experience is maintained by the inclusion of an element of predictability. Each boss is driven by an AI deck that repeats in the same order and as each card is flipped over, the boss will follow certain behaviours. They may jump forward two spaces then lash their tail to damage hero’s behind them, or they may use a large weapon that swings at all spaces directly in front. In many (but certainly not all) cases, these attacks will leave a weak spot open on one side that should be the focus of player attacks.

I’ve found Dark Souls: The Board Game to be the recipient of quite a mixed bag of opinions when it comes to other reviews, but often it’s the more dedicated board gamers that consider it mediocre, whilst fans of the video game find it to be an exceptionally accurate reimagining of a series that they are fiercely protective over. I played the game with several mixed groups including people who never play board games and people who never play video games, and I found it helped tremendously to bring context to the in game actions even for those unfamiliar with the videogame. The level of challenge isn’t actually as high as some might have you believe, but it isn’t helped by the unclear manual which (in particular) is weak on explaining dodging and how monster aggression works.

When I look at it in the round, I think Steamforged Games have done a tremendous job. Not only have they created an excellent homage to the series that inspired Dark Souls: The Board Game, but they have also created a board game which is in itself hugely thematic, quite simple to play and capable of providing a rich, deep combat experience that (whilst still dependant on dice) provides a wide variety of tactical options for players to exploit. Yes, it’s quite tough, but it gets easier as you get to know it and if you can learn which tactics from the computer game translate and which don’t.

Not only is it a good game to play through, but it’s also a fantastic tabletop spectacle. Many people have remarked about how it provides a much smaller, more contained (and lighter) yet certainly similar experience to Kingdom Death: Monster, and I think that’s true. Only Kingdom Death has a more impressive set of miniatures, yet in the unlikely event you do find a copy, it will cost you ten or more times the price of Dark Souls: The Board Game and you’ll probably never find a crew sadistic enough to play it anyway. Take my word for it, whether it’s for yourself or a hard to please relative, you could do a lot worse than picking up Dark Souls: The Board Game this Christmas. There is more than enough content here to see you through until the days grow longer again!

**** 4/5
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You can buy Dark Souls: The Board Game online at 365Games.co.uk, or at your local games store. Don’t know where yours is? Try this handy games store locator.

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