17th Oct2019

‘Damnation: The Gothic Game’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

damnation-game-box

Nostalgia can be a funny thing. How many people look back on their childhood toys, favourite shows or even books, as an adult, and wonder why they seem to have aged so badly? Sometimes however, the magic remains, and the desire to share those happy memories with others takes over. The Gothic Game was a 1992 roll and move game designed by Nigel Andrews and Robert Wynne-Simmons, which, by modern standards, would be considered very unappealing. Despite that, talented solo designer Kriss Rees has taken it upon himself to reboot the title via his upcoming Kickstarter. The remake is called Damnation: The Gothic Game, and we’ve been playing an early version of it.

In the original version of The Gothic Game, players were tasked with exploring a haunted mansion occupied by all manner of hideous creatures including Dracula himself, but the most unpredictable foes of all – the other players – were the greatest threat. The objective of the game was simple; kill everyone else and eliminate them from the game. Kris is all too aware that player elimination is frowned upon in most modern games, not to mention mechanics that depend almost entirely on luck (as several systems in the original game did.) With this in mind, Damnation: The Gothic Game offers a raft of modernisation’s and improvements.

First of all, just take a look at the images of this version in comparison to the original. Digital artwork and modern production standards have improved manifold in the past thirty years, and Damnation: The Gothic Game is not only technically very pretty, but each and every component is linked by a consistent art style that is both strong and thematic. The player cards have real personality – from the resolute expression on the face of The Wanderer to the cruel smile that curls the corner of The Collector’s smile – whilst the board itself is dark and foreboding, but with superb use of colour that makes it stand out among similar titles.

The card art is similar, and I know from several conversations with Kris that there have been a number of different design steps towards creating the near final set of cards that you see in these photos. Personally, I think the current crop are the best – the artwork is consistent with the board, the player cards and the other materials, whilst the splashes of colour and use of thematic artwork (rather than stylised) enhances the overall experience. Brief passages of flavour text, whilst occasionally still clearly work in progress, further enhance this.

I should note that the version of Damnation: The Gothic Game that I’ve been playing is certainly a quality prototype, but it is by no means the finished product. My observations are that the artwork appears to be final (or at least nearly) final, but the board itself was printed on six separate pieces of card, and there was no finalised instruction booklet. If I were reviewing this as a final version, my only real negative feedback about the component quality (apart from them being of retail production quality) would be that some rooms have far fewer cards than others, and overall I felt the game would benefit from having as many cards for each room as possible (since that’s where a lot of variety comes from.)

To help make sense of the last paragraph, let me tell you a bit more about the game and how it plays. Damnation: The Gothic Game is still built around the idea of killing your friends, but it now comes with several variant modes, with the default option sitting right between the brutally extreme original and the softest, friendliest option available. In the standard mode, players will still be killed and eliminated from the game for a variety of reasons, but the chance of that happening without any warning is much lower, and it usually happens closer to the end of the game.

The other variant modes include classic, which strips out several of the features that soften the modern base game, returning Damnation: The Gothic Game to something that basically resembles a re-skin of the original. The softer variants change things the other way, with one mode that essentially allows defeated characters to be resurrected back at the starting space, whilst in the other, players work in teams to try and defeat their opponents and again, respawning can be included.

Regardless of which mode you choose, Damnation: The Gothic Game itself is very straightforward to learn, teach and play. The setup time is fairly quick, with the only real challenge being the sorting of the decks of cards that represent each room, as well as the heirloom, vampire and castle decks. The players are each represented on the board by cardboard standees, and everyone has a player board with a health tracker, a soul token and three fate tokens that allow them to use each of three special abilities once – unless something restores a fate token.

On their turn, a player will first roll a movement dice and a castle dice together, and must then move exactly the number of spaces shown on the movement die, modified by the outcome of the castle die. A darkness roll will result in any traps the player moves over being triggered, whilst a candlelight roll results in the player being able to modify their movement by one space more or less than rolled. This mechanism is simple and remains true to the original game, but crucially, it allows just a touch more flexibility. Player abilities like “Run for it” and certain item cards allow further modification.

Once a player has moved they may then take actions. These include claiming “Power of Adjacency” over another character in an adjacent space, or attacking them. Power of Adjacency is interesting, as it allows the player claiming it to control the direction of movement for the other player on their next turn – allowing the controlling player to send an opponent into a potentially harmful situation. Attacking other players is as simple as it sounds, and in Damnation: The Gothic Game, it simply means deal damage as instructed by the attack card you wish to use. I should mention that there are some cards that give protection against being controlled or attacked, but they aren’t common.

As players move, they’ll navigate corridors and ultimately enter rooms, which usually triggers the need to draw a card from the deck that matches the room. In many cases, this case result in players drawing useful items or trinkets that give them extra actions, attack options or ways to heal or protect themselves. Other cards represent events that can be bad or good, such as being attacked by a swarm of rats that deal damage based on a die roll. One card called The Iron Maiden can be found in The Torture Chamber, and it is infamous among fans of the original game because it instantly kills whoever finds it. Yes, really.

Some rooms have special effects associated with them, such as The Grand Staircase or The Vault. In the Grand Staircase, players will be dragged towards the bottom (where the spectre of death awaits) unless they can fight their way out, but those who escape may be rewarded with a Soul – usually only obtained when another player is killed – which allows them to reactivate skills and essentially acts as a victory point. A player entering The Vault may take control of the Vampire that resides there, giving them six turns to move about the board killing other players with ease – but if they don’t return to The Vault within six turns, then their mortal body dies.

When death occurs, which it will, the game includes an interesting Deathknell feature. Basically, if a player dies, they can choose one of the Deathknell cards to flip over and activate, introducing a permanent change to the rules. One such example being The Creature, which basically introduces a tentacle monster to The Moat room, and means that anyone falling into a pit fall will now be killed immediately, instead of finding themselves in The Moat and needing to roll dice to escape. These rules, in general, speed up the end of the game because they help to get the other players killed more quickly, although that can be little consolation for the player that died if it’s still early in the game.

Now, a lot will likely be said about Damnation: The Gothic Game before the end of its Kickstarter and I am expecting some lively debate in the community. Firstly, I have to acknowledge that I can’t imagine there having been much demand for a remake of The Gothic Game (such is the uniquely challenging and unwelcoming nature of the experience) but then again, I cannot fault Kris Rees for making it his sole purpose to resurrect this game for a modern audience, complete with a considerable number of concessions.

Most importantly, I think Kris has struck the perfect balance between rebooting a classic in such a way that it remains true to the source material, whilst also acknowledging that things move on. I would have been tempted to take out some of the particularly unfair cards (like The Iron Maiden) but I also understand that with each cut like that, Damnation: The Gothic Game would be less The Gothic Game and more of something else.

The artwork is exceptional given the size of Blackletter Games and their team (which is just Kris as far as I know) and I’d even go so far as to say that Damnation: The Gothic Game is one of the best looking new IP’s that I’ve seen in a year or two, I just hope that the game hits retail before bigger publishers begin to copy the style. Having now seen the prototype components, I am also confident that the final version will be of a high standard, which should make Damnation: The Gothic Game a decent showpiece for any casual game collection.

On that note, Damnation: The Gothic Game is a casual experience that’s best played between friends who don’t take things too seriously. The action is direct, brutal and often concise, meaning that players need to accept and be OK with the idea of the confrontational elements of the game. Crack a beer, stick your favourite horror movie on in the background and dim the lights and you’ll have a blast with this one, but don’t expect too much strategy or long term planning, because that’s not what this one is all about.

As a preview copy was provided, no rating is given at this time, however my impressions of the game are favourable and I am excited about seeing the finished product.
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Damnation: The Gothic Game launches on Kickstarter on 24th October.

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