Guest Writer: Christopher Bishop
Dark Souls…a name synonymous with several other descriptions of woe such as brutally hard, not for the weak, or several other colorful metaphors that I will leave to your imagination. Very few video games have inspired the absolute rage and love as the Dark Souls franchise. I must admit, I have been a glutton for punishment with this game since its original inception as the King’s Field and Demon’s Soul games released. The game has caused me to spend months unlocking its secrets and has continuously inspired me to grind away building my character into my vision of bad-arseness.
When Steamforge announced they would be producing a board game, I was skeptical to say the least. How could they possibly capture the gloomy, gut wrenching action of the game. Could I reset at bonfires and build myself up over time? Would I be invaded by beings wishing to do nothing but harm to me? Would I be able to sculpt my character to my liking? As the months of the Kickstarter ticked by and more and more images of the miniatures were shown, and gameplay was discussed, I began to feel my hopes grow. Then one fine May day the game showed up on my doorstep, right before I left on vacation…but true to my gaming form it ended up having to travel on the train with me because there was no way I was going to wait a month to try it out!
So, without further blustering and literary drooling, I will break down the product by what you get, how it worked in playthrough and what I think. Then I will end with discussing the future of the board game itself and what someone can expect for their dollar from it.
What’s in the box????
The Core Board Game comes with 27 highly detailed plastic miniatures. The sculptors really nailed the look of Dark Souls…from elongated necks, to awkward poses of some of the enemies (they are dead after all so they can put their body in some pretty torturous positions) It will not take long for veterans of the video game to recognize some of the more classic Dark Souls Villains. I can hardly wait to start painting my mini’s. I emphasize the miniatures foremost, because with highly stylized games like the Dark Souls, getting the imagery wrong on the mini’s could honestly break the game. Thankfully, Steamforge put a lot of attention to detail.
The other components are on decent quality cardboard and the cards are as well, so you should definitely consider buying sleeves for your cards to protect them. I would have enjoyed a more vinyl feel like the FFG games are known for, perhaps later releases will do just that. Because there is shuffling involved without sleeves a lot of the encounter cards, treasure deck etc will get dog eared pretty quick in routine play. I can’t fault Steamforged for this, and nothing about the quality of the cards and tokens is poor, it is just nothing to write home about either.
You get 9 tiles that are double sided and are used to setup the area of play. Most encounters tell you place the bonfire tile, remove the mini boss and main boss tiles and than shuffle the remaining tiles to produce your exploration area. That means realistically you have a few different appearances you can use within the game, and future expansions promise to add on even more.
Health and Endurance are tracked by little red and black wooden cubes. The cubes are all uniformly smooth and painted. I kind of like when games use wooden pieces. I am not sure why, but perhaps it makes it feel more organic or puts an air of history to it. Mankind has been using carved wood for games for millenia, so I appreciated the touch. The wooden cubes are sized to fit inside the hard cardboard character sheet, and do so with perfect precision on my copy.
What about the Rules?
The rulebook for Dark Souls is fairly light considering the complexity of the game. I will be the first to admit sometimes I have trouble visualizing how a rule works until I see it in action with board games. Generally speaking if I am the one in the household trying to learn the rules, I will admittedly turn to You Tube for Let’s Play or walk-through of the product rules. Dark Souls was not exception to this but I will say that it was not until I reached mini boss section that I found it necessary to do so. I would say if I were letter grading how hard the rules are to follow Dark Souls would get a solid B from me in terms of ease. Where the rules really shine for me though is how close to the actual video game they come.
The other nice aspect of the Dark Souls system is, once you understand how the game works the play is actually pretty smooth and fast. Not only is the setup fairly quick, but the resolution of game mechanics also moves pretty fast. The real selling point on how well the rules of the board game mesh with its video game counterpart is how HARD (yes capitalized for emphasis here) the game itself is to play. In the Dark Souls video game you die, you die a whole lot. The game is deliberately hard, but they do give you ways to beat encounters by using the tools you have already. Memorizing battle tactics of creatures, knowing when to dodge or block and learning to be patient when killing things are the only way to progress and the board game captures all that to the Nth degree. Completely, 100% sets the tone of challenge and does not let up. Just like the Video Game. Every tile you clear makes you want to stand up and high five anyone around you with reach.
What makes it so hard?
To answer this first we have to look at what makes the Dark Souls Franchise to revered and so hated. Each game has you starting off in a desolate kingdom that is on the brink of complete ruin. You are an undead desperately clinging to the last shreds of your humanity while trying to remove the curse that is plaguing your lands and giving whatever shred of life remains a chance. The creatures have a vicious artificial intelligence, they capitalize on your every misstep, such as getting to greedy with attacks leaving yourself open to counter, not dodging a blow, or blocking and running out of endurance because your not paying attention and getting stunned by your own shield smacking you in the tired and exerted face. Traps are hidden in nefarious places and the big bads…well they are truly big and bad.
The board game captures all this perfectly. When you start off you are at a bonfire, which acts as your base of operations. When you step into the next room you activate any creatures within by looking at the encounter card for that room and placing the appropriate miniatures on the spawn nodes they will appear in. Then, just like in the video game the creatures will come after you. They will move node by node but according to a predetermined behavior for that creature. Some will just attack the closest person, others will attack whom ever is trying to aggro, or whomever they deem the greatest threat. The creatures move then you move then creatures then you. Combat is simply a matter of rolling a number of dice given by your weapon and counting the number of swords that pop up on the dice. You tally your success and subtract any defense your opponent has and take the rest off their life total.
Most creatures will die in 1 or 2 hits if they are minions on level 1 encounters, but they can quickly cut you down to size as well. Even though the players control the movements of the monsters, they still have to move them in accordance with their preset behaviors. This does allow for some strategy in how you move the creatures and your characters, and in some cases not being tactical
will ensure a trip back to the bonfire. Speaking of that, just like the Video Game, when you die you go back to the bonfire. Depending on how many players are playing determines how many times you can die before you outright lose the game.
A dial keeps track of how many sparks you have left before it is game over.
If you defeat an encounter than you have cleared the tile, and it remains clear until either a) you die b) you rest at the bonfire. Once the encounter is defeated you receive 2 souls in a standard game which you can use in a variety of different ways back at the bonfire. You can purchase loot from the treasure deck (though it will be random just like in the video game) you can spend souls to level up your statistics, which in turn lets you use better equipment, or you can reset your luck coin with the Firekeeper. You can also upgrade equipment if you have the necessary items to do so. None of these actions reset the encounters.
You always have the option when you are attacked of either a) blocking or b) dodging. Because this game relies heavily upon resource management, it is always a gamble. Dodging, if your able (some armor types do not allow for dodging) to is also effected by your adversaries weapons. Some monsters are really fast or have a long reach so you may need to be able to use a few dodge dice in order to evade their attack. My character had 1 dodge die which meant later on when we faced a mini boss dodge was not an option for me as I needed two successes (think dodge rolling twice in a row in the game to avoid a blow) to survive but only had one dodge dice due to my armor. The other down side of dodging is it causes you to gain a point of endurance loss. Lose too much endurance or get hit too many times and you die.
Blocking instead involves rolling dice for any armor or shields you are wearing to shave off damage that is dealt to you. It does not cost endurance, but is also not guaranteed to protect you from all damage even if you succeed unlike dodging. Once I acquired slightly better armor I found blocking to work better for my herald than dodging.
Tactics plays a huge part in the choices you make. In our 4th encounter we were getting pushed around by a large hollow soldier. Push means it knocks you away from it and in some cases does damage to boot. We were battered from fighting three other creatures, our endurance was almost at the midway point, so my son blasted the creature with the Force spell pushing it away from us and allowing us run the creature around the room while I healed our stamina one point at a time until we could risk taking a hit or two. Most of the time head on attacks will leave you dead pretty fast. You have been warned.
Ultimately the goal is to survive all the way to the mini boss, kill them for loot and then rest and take on the main boss after defeating some secondary encounters. If only it were that easy. As I said before the game is hard. We beat 3 encounters and died to the 4th one several times. The advantage was we earned more souls but in the end we just did not have the mustard to make it through. All in all we spent a good 2 and half hours trying to work through encounters over and over. It was a lot of fun and we barely noticed the time fly by, but this is definitely not a quick one off game. Expect to spend a fair amount of time (think Talisman game) even with a group trying to get through encounters. I promise you though when that first mini boss falls your whole table will be elated.
Is it worth the price?
I think the burning question in everyone’s mind is, is it worth the $120.00 price tag. In my mind absolutely, but I am a huge fan of the intellectual property it is based on. Normally I steer away from IP generated board games and video games. Being a comic book fan the years have not been kind to a lot of my favorite franchises and when that franchise delves into another product line its always circumspect at best. I can honestly say without reservation that Steamforge perfectly captured the essence of the video games. In more ways than I ever thought possible. Which is great for a video game fan but questionable for those perhaps who either have never played or heard of it, or have heard of it and steered clear because of the reputation for difficulty of the games.
I can only say that when played by a few friends that have either never played the game or avoided it, it did not take long before they were raging or cheering right along with me. After playing the board game my son has leapt back into trying the video game again, convinced his new knowledge of creature tactics will help him. I think for any board game fan this game is a beautiful product with great replay value and a high reward value. One thing is for sure with Dark Souls you either leave the game angry at your loss, grateful for scraping by and living or exalting at your victory.
Until next time,
Keep rolling them bones