The Dark Souls of board games.
So, Dark Souls then. It’s a series I’m a fan of for many reasons, including its precision timing and learning a solid process to get through the challenges presented to you. So when I saw that Steamforged Games had a Kickstarter campaign for a board game based on it, I had to back it. I mean, I tried not to, but my hands just took over control of my computer and backed it for me. They even backed some of the expansions too. I’d like to say their addiction to Kickstarter has passed, but I think they may need to go into rehab. Anyway, I wasn’t sure how well Dark Souls would transition into board game form but the team have put together something that captures some of the essence of the video game, and works well as a board game — most of the time.
Opening up the box, you are immediately confronted with a black sheet of paper reading “YOU DIED”, which is lovely. It’s quite prophetic really as you will die repeatedly in this (much like in the video game) and fail in your quest over and over. In the box you’ll find a number of board pieces to construct the play area, plenty of tokens and dice. Oh and the minis. Mini is not a good name for all of these as some of them are huge by most board game standards. The component quality is really rather good, with plenty of detail on the minis and boards. I will say some of the tokens are a little on the small side for my liking though.
Dark Souls is designed to be played with 1 to 4 players cooperatively, with the goal of defeating a mini boss and a final boss. Players begin at the bonfire with a certain number of “sparks” (the game’s equivalent of lives) and move from room to room confronting groups of enemies and traps. Each room has a randomly selected card dictating the enemies and items in the environment. Completing a room will earn a number of “souls” (the game’s currency) which can be spent on levelling up character attributes and purchasing items from the blacksmith. If a single player should die during an encounter, everyone returns to the bonfire and the number of sparks is reduced by 1. Run out of sparks and it’s game over.
Encounters are hard, which is in keeping with the source material. Each player can move one space and attack on their turn. Players can move further by spending stamina, a risky move as your stamina is also tied to your health. Attacking is based on dice rolls depending on your weapon. Some weapons allow you to use multiple black dice (fewer successful sides) whilst others use fewer blue or orange dice (higher chance for success and greater damage). Stamina can be spent here too, allowing for a more powerful attack that may have additional effects. After a player takes their actions, all enemies take theirs based on their associated card with most of them moving either towards or away from the nearest or most recent player and attacking assuming they are in range. This means you could be attacked many times before having an opportunity to do anything much it yourself. You can spend stamina to attempt a dodge roll (depending on your equipment) which will negate all damage or reduce it by blocking, but in most cases you’ll get hit very hard.
Players have a single use “Estus flask” to restore their health and stamina, as well as a coin to re-roll one die. These are all restored upon death. Each character class also has a specific, once per life action which can help in a pinch. There is a fairly large emphasis on having good equipment (weapons, armour, shields, spells, etc.) on your character to survive, as enemies hit hard.
Death can come quickly, even at the hands of basic enemies if you’re under-equipped or if you have an unlucky set of dice rolls. This is especially the case when facing the bosses, who play in a different way to most enemies. Bosses have a set of cards that dictate their actions and attacks. These are based on their character from the games, with The Titanite Demon having wide, sweeping attacks whilst The Dancer can attack multiple times. They only have a few attacks, and those attacks are not shuffled after they are used which allows players to learn the pattern. When the bosses are damaged to a certain level, a new, more powerful card is added to their rotation to mix things up. I really like this mechanic as it ties into the video game’s idea of learning how to fight a boss in order to take it down. The bosses are very tough, but learning the path to victory against them feels good and they are definitely the stand out experience.
Fighting the bosses is great and works really well, but the standard encounters suffer and the game has something of a pacing issue. Upon death or returning to the bonfire, all enemies respawn (again, just like the game) to allow you to gain more souls for equipment and levelling up. This means that if you fail at a boss you need to slog through standard enemies again. Whilst you can set up the boards to have shortcuts (a nice nod to the series again), it still slows down the game considerably. With lucky rolls you could get through a game in around 90 minutes, but it’s much more likely to take a lot longer.
The luck aspect is the other issue I have with the game. Whilst the bosses go a long way towards replicating the video game experience, the standard enemies are much more based on luck. If you have a series of poor dice rolls, you may as well start over. I get that the feeling of despair and failure is a large part of the video game, but luck really isn’t. Players learn to skillfully dispatch opponents, not hope for a lucky turn to achieve victory. This is something I wish they had given more thought to.
However, once you get to a boss and manage to take it down through careful positioning (and yes, a touch of luck) is quite satisfying. If you can put up with the early slog then you can have a lot of fun with this. There’s a good feeling to be had when you manage to acquire and equip a powerful item and finally get to throw those orange dice for serious damage. In the coming months there will be additional bosses and sets released (I’m (not) ashamed to say that I’ve ordered a few) to add more to the game. I’m quite excited to take on Sif when it arrives. If you’re in the market for a substantial co-op board game then you could do a lot worse than picking this up. Praise the Sun \o/