It’s been surpassed now, but, for a while last year, Dark Souls had the honor of being the most lavishly funded board game ever on Kickstarter.
The campaign raked in £3.77 million ($4.8 million) for Steamforged Games, a small and largely unknown British company, which had the luck to land the license for one of the most revered video game series of the last decade.
As a board game, the draw was clear: scores of large, gorgeous-looking miniatures which brought the gothic majesty of Dark Souls’ iconic villains to life—all in an £80 ($105) package that looked like it cost a lot more. (Included in the rewards were a raft of expansions, none of which are yet out, though some are fairly close).
So does Dark Souls the board game match up to the video game series? The answer is “yes”—but with more than the usual number of caveats.
Prepare to grind
For a start, the miniatures are a mite disappointing. They’re made of weirdly soft plastic, presumably because they come assembled and the more rigid material used to make other gaming minis is more likely to break in transit. Nonetheless, many of the smaller figures have sadly drooping arrows and bent swords. Several of my boss models, meanwhile, arrived snapped at certain slender joints, though Steamforged was very accommodating with replacements. What’s more, the detailing on the figures—many of which only existed as renders at the time the Kickstarter was launched—differs massively between characters. The runes on the Silver Knight’s bow are great; the featureless fabric of the Dancer of the Boreal Valley’s cloak is not. The designs are decent enough, and they do absolutely embody Dark Souls’ moody aesthetic, but for a product predicated on the awesomeness of its miniatures, it’s a strange corner to cut.
Mechanically, Dark Souls mimics its parents as much as possible while attempting to differentiate itself from the many other dungeon crawlers out there. It’s certainly not derivative, and fans of the genre will appreciate the care that’s gone into producing a game so different from anything else on the market. There’s an innovative system for players to balance stamina–a renewable resource–against harder-to-renew health points, both of which are recorded on one track. If these tracking cubes cross, You Have Died, as the infamous Dark Souls motto reminds you. The gear system is clever, too; player boards let you slot in upgrades as you find them. It all works as a keen simulation of the video games.
But the thing about video games is that computers do all the number-crunching for you, while direct tabletop ports tend to involve piles of finicky bookkeeping. This becomes apparent when you encounter monsters on your first darkened board tile. One card tells you what to place on each of the little glowing nodes (chests, barrels, mobs, and treasure), while more cards tell you how each of the monsters behave. Much of the game depends on how you deploy your heroes before an encounter starts—making sure charging skeletons can’t hit you on the first turn, for instance.
Fights, especially at low levels, tend to be brutish and short duels in which your guys can barely take two hits before they expire and you lose a scarce, precious life. This doesn’t give space for much nuance, because the low-level monsters, although armored, only have one life, and the round tends to be over in about four turns, making it oddly lacking in depth. Then you heal all your wounds, collect loot, gear up, and go again. And then you do it again and again, and perhaps four more times to really make sure you have enough kit to take on a boss, which is where the game gets more interesting.
Yes, the original Dark Souls games really are all about grinding in this fashion, but it’s less fun when you spend half the time setting up the same six types of grunt in different configurations, and the only piece of terrain on the featureless and quite claustrophobic room tiles is… barrels.
But in the boss fights, Dark Souls really shines–another parallel with the video games, and one that the designers might have nailed a little too well. Once your team has finally ground sufficiently to cross “the fog gate” into the boss arena, the slog morphs into a strategic, balletic effort to observe patterns and then learn when to strike and when to run.
The bosses divide into mini-bosses and main bosses, though mega-bosses are coming in subsequent expansions. You fight the former before the latter–obviously with another quick round of higher-level grinding in between–and they very nearly make up for the interstitial nitty-gritty. Bosses run on decks of behavior cards, which are commensurately more complex than those of the trash mobs and mirror the moves these bosses make in the original games. Depending on what type they are, these bosses can end up darting around the board, leaping from player to player, executing devastating attacks, or lumbering around while attempting to lay you out with a mallet the size of your entire body.
Even though it’s essentially an inert miniature flinging itself around a plain tile, the system is incredibly dynamic. So when the Dancer draws a card that lets her advance toward the players, spinning and slashing with two additional repetitions, the players honestly get an incredible sense of motion that’s way more satisfying than boss monsters in other dungeon crawlers, which are often just pots of hit points with bigger attacks that don’t really do anything jazzy.
That said, the cards are so crowded with symbols that it can be quite hard to parse the behaviors and decide what, exactly, the monsters are meant to be doing. You can spend quite a long time visualizing exactly where the players are vis-à-vis an arc attack that has spun out of a sudden lunge across the board or where they end up after they’ve been shoved out of the way. Once you understand the notation, however, these are tense and challenging encounters which get more fierce two-thirds of the way through, when a random “heat-up” card is introduced from a subsidiary deck, inevitably containing some fearsomely deadly additional attack.