01st Nov2023

‘Damnation: The Gothic Game (with Night of the Vampire expansion)’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

If I were into board games twenty or thirty years ago, I reckon my shelves would have more games like Damnation: The Gothic Game on them. As it stands today, Damnation: The Gothic Game stands alone as just about the only game here that relies on mechanisms that are no longer popular with modern gamers – specifically those involving rolling a die for movement, and player elimination. As things are today, with a general market preference for softer, kinder games, Damnation: The Gothic Game stands alone as a unique experience. It has rapidly become the meanest, most brutal and often most exciting game in my collection.

In Damnation: The Gothic Game, players each take the role of a villain inspired by literary or potentially historic characters (Jack the Ripper, for example) who are thrust (presumably unwillingly) into Dracula’s Castle. Once there, they must move through the castle, explore rooms to find powerful weapons and items and then use whatever means necessary to defeat the other players. Damnation: The Gothic Game has a few twists though, and players face many dangers throughout the castle – traps, creatures, instant-death torture devices and even Dracula himself will all play a part in the story.

There are a couple of things to remember about Damnation: The Gothic Game which I’ve already touched on – firstly, let’s talk about movement. Players move by rolling a single D6 alongside a special darkness die. The darkness die may reveal an event, or it will set the light level for the turn – with darkness, candlelight, or a brazier being the potential outcomes. When a candle is rolled, the player takes their D6 roll and may add or subtract one from the roll, but must then move exactly that distance without doubling back. The brazier allows up to two to be added or subtracted, whilst darkness forces the player to blunder forwards exactly the number rolled – triggering any traps along the way (where normally, a trap would only trigger if a player landed on it at the end of their movement).

Whilst I had always assumed this movement method would be frustrating, it actually fits perfectly well in Damnation: The Gothic Game not only thematically (the castle is dark, and your character is moving as if their life depended on it, with little time to plan) but also mechanically. You see, the other thing about Damnation: The Gothic Game is that it is all about player elimination, and if the players had complete agency to go where they wanted when they wanted, the game would end too quickly, and it would be quite deterministic. As it stands, Damnation: The Gothic Game feels tense and exciting, because even the most powerful feeling villain armed to the teeth with weapons, is vulnerable if they blunder within reasonable striking distance of an opponent.

So here we have a game where any and every turn might end in disaster. Each villain has a few perks that allow them to break the rules once (such as by making a fast move) including two that are unique to them. Aside from the character standee and the fantastic artwork that brings each character its own personality, these abilities make for just enough variation that each character feels different, whilst never overcomplicating the simple rule set. On their turn, a player will simply roll the dice as mentioned above, move a number of spaces in any legal direction and then resolve the consequences of their move.

In a corridor, this may be nothing if the space is blank and there is no one else nearby. If there is a trap or a secret door, the player must resolve it accordingly. If they are next to another player, they may either attack that player using a weapon card they already have, or they may claim the Power of Adjacency, which basically means they will control that player on their next turn – which will usually mean moving them into danger. What does danger look like in Damnation: The Gothic Game? Well, what doesn’t it look like? Traps are almost always painful and sometimes fatal (in a single hit.) One of the rooms features a spiral staircase that leads to certain doom. The moat may be occupied by a monster that will simply kill you in one hit – another contains Dracula himself, and so it goes on.

This closeness to death means that you can’t take Damnation: The Gothic Game too seriously, or if you do, you’ll probably end up frustrated. When a player does die, the other player involved in their death (if there is one) will claim a soul token which can later be spent to enter The Dark Tower- a room with no traps and several powerful items to draw from. For the dead player, the game isn’t over – instead, they first flip a Deathknell card (which adds a new rule that helps the game conclude faster) and then flip over their own player board. They now take their turns as a “haunt” which basically involves them moving up a resurrection track whilst flipping tarot cards to potentially return to the game sooner – or to mess with one of the still-living opponents.

When all five Deathknell cards are flipped face up, and assuming that there is still more than one player alive, The Fall will trigger and the castle begins to crumble – from this point onwards a number of new rules are introduced that include the prevention of resurrection and healing, so from this point forward it really is a race to murder the other player(s) – or maybe just find a way to let them die first, if you’re sure your health total will last longer if you can avoid them. Between the Deathknell’s and the Fall, Damnation: The Gothic Game actually wraps up quite quickly once players begin to die, and whilst a “dead” player may feel like their chances of winning are much lower, I have seen resurrected players come back to claim an unlikely victory.

At a time like Halloween, everyone loves to dabble in games or movies that are a little bit darker than they might otherwise go for, and Damnation: The Gothic Game fits this brief spectacularly well. Whilst this is a very dark experience that involves lots of meanness between friends, it’s also often comical and always fun. In some games, a bit of bad luck or perhaps two or three bad decisions might lead to an early death, but players who die early are more likely to have time to resurrect – at which point they have a decent chance of getting back into the game. In the meantime, the other players are probably going to have whittled each other down somewhat, and so Damnation: The Gothic Game has better balance than you might expect.

One of the most fun features of the game is when a player becomes the vampire. This happens when someone moves into the Vault and willingly submits to Dracula – losing four (of ten) health and then takes the vampire board, deck and matching standee. From this point on, the vampire has a fixed number of turns to move (faster than the regular players) around the map, playing cards to extend their movement and using special skills (or cards) to deal massive damage. The catch? If the player doesn’t return Dracula to the Vault before they run out of turns, then they will simply die – no questions asked.

By modern design standards, Damnation: The Gothic Game just should not work. It has so much luck-based gameplay, so much nastiness and so many potentially frustrating features that it could drive you to the brink of madness, but it really, really works. This is a game that never fails to evoke an emotional response from those around the table – everyone from those who die quickly, to those who build up a load of items and then either walk into an Iron Maiden (ouch) or manage to pull off the win – absolutely loved it. I don’t play Damnation: The Gothic Game with my kids as they really don’t like this level of confrontation (and in any case the theme really is very dark) but for any adult audience, I think Damnation: The Gothic Game is a brilliant and highly refreshing experience in a landscape where games are becoming softer and more sanitised all the time.

**** 4/5

Check out our (p)review of Damnation: The Gothic Game from a few years ago right here. And you can buy yourself a copy at https://www.blacklettergames.com

A copy of Damnation: The Gothic Game was provided for review.

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