Bloodborne: The Board Game Review | Designer: Eric M. Lang, Michael Shinall | Publisher: CMON Limited | Year: 2020
DISCLOSURE: The author of this review backed Bloodborne: The Board Game on Kickstarter.
Funded in April 2019 and shipping at the very end of the year 2020, I was one of the lucky backers who received their delivery of Bloodborne: The Board Game ready for the New Year period. Whilst the complete Blood Moon pledge includes nearly a dozen different expansions, this review will focus on just the contents of the base set. Bloodborne: The Board Game is published by CMON Limited as part of their growing portfolio of video game adaptations including God of War: The Card Game and Bloodborne: The Card Game (the latter also designed by Eric M. Lang).
If you’re not familiar with the video game in question, then you’re in for a Gothic adventure where otherworldly Hunters slay werewolves and investigate strange happenings in a land gripped by sinister forces. The video game sends players into the dark forests and twisted labyrinths of a blood-drenched nightmare, but this base board game focuses exclusively on the introductory city of Yharnam and its adjoining Cathedral Ward.
This is a cooperative board game with a focus on storytelling and adventure. After selecting a Hunter and assembling a basic deck of Stat cards, players must work together to investigate Yharnam, all the while enhancing their deck, collecting equipment, and ultimately confronting a vile boss who lies at the root of the conspiracy. This base set contains four different campaign decks, each one containing more than fifty cards that detail the rules, setup conditions, and flavour of the chosen storyline.
Players will take their turns marching through the streets, uncovering semi-randomised tiles and battling hellish monsters in an attempt to complete key objectives. A nice facet here is that players don’t initially know what the main objective of their Hunt Mission is. Landing on named spaces and reaching certain milestones will reveal additional story cards and events that help players see the bigger picture. This game is not a bland dungeon crawl, and the varied side quests do a good job of keeping players invested in the developing story.
Bloodborne: The Board Game is also notable for its entirely card-driven design. Combat has players selecting a Stat card from their hand and committing it to a slot on their Trick Weapon dashboard. A card is then flipped from a generic enemy action deck which determines how that enemy miniature will behave. Most basic enemies have three different attacks or abilities and if players count the remaining action cards carefully, they’ll be able to predict what the enemies will do during future turns. This is a vitally important tactic because Hunter cards come with effects that can dodge or even cancel incoming attacks if timed correctly.
Combat is just about everything in this board game too, so it’s fortunate that the system remains enjoyable. All four Hunters possess a different Trick Weapon (including the iconic Saw Cleaver and Threaded Cane), with each one built around a specialisation, whether it be dodging, staggering, or healing. Every attack has a speed rating to give combat resolution a deeper texture, and the Trick Weapons are two-sided, meaning that players must also find the best moments to transform and clear those filled slots. Some Hunters want to transform their weapon more often than others, and finding the little intricacies in each Trick Weapon’s available slots and bonuses is all part of the fun.
Fans of deck-building games must know that the mechanic is pretty lightweight here. Stat cards are bland, sometimes clunky, and don’t necessarily accentuate the game’s themes. They’re divided into four categories (Strength, Skill, Endurance and Vitality), but this distinction doesn’t feel particularly meaningful, with Hunter decks usually being a melange of whatever best Upgrade cards were available at the time. It’s true that some Hunters will be more adept at using certain Upgrades than others might be, but the presence of annoying ambush effects and enemy immunities will encourage you to keep a neat spread of card types anyway. Hunter decks don’t tend to be too diverse because of this and the best card picks are always obvious.
On the plus side, the pile of randomised Upgrade cards that players can purchase with their Blood Echoes (read: experience points) is fairly well balanced. Most of these Upgrades feel satisfying to use, though there are a few unattractive picks that activate “On Kill” or when an enemy uses an ability. The reason why those may be unattractive is because they’re totally useless against the bosses in this base set. That begs the question: what’s the point of building a deck that’s less effective against bosses in a game inspired by the works of FromSoftware?!
Jokes aside, only one of the bosses in this core set interacts with Hunter firearms. Firearms were a delightful ingredient in Bloodborne’s core combat, and the board game translates these as limited-use items that players can exhaust to cancel attacks and generally get an advantage over their monstrous antagonists. Most firearms don’t work against bosses though, which is bitterly disappointing as players will repeatedly turn to them for a way out of a sticky situation, only to be reminded that they don’t do anything.
These design elements suggest that the boss battles feel a little out of place, mechanically speaking. Similar to Steamforged’s Dark Souls: The Board Game, the bosses in Bloodborne: The Board Game have their own unique action deck and 2-phase health card, and yet their movement rules remain largely the same as regular enemies. The small-scale tiles make these fights feel like any other encounter, and there’s an element of imbalance that contributes to this. A boss fought in Chapter 1 of a campaign can be an overpowering threat (coming so early at a point where players have relatively few Upgrades to aid them), but a boss fought in Chapter 3 can be a pushover.
Completing Missions unlocks powerful rewards which can dramatically power up any Hunter, and the handy Consumables deck has some items which can be game-changing if played at the right moment too. It means a Hunter party can start to snowball in the space of a single chapter if they play cleverly, and thus a boss’s best tactic becomes stalling for time, which doesn’t feel right.
This brings us to the Hunt Track, which behaves like an in-game timer. It ticks up at the start of each round and when it reaches a red reset space, the players must repopulate the map with enemies and restore any bosses or unique opponents to full health. If it advances past the final space, then it’s game over. Hunters must plan everything they do around the Hunt Track because wasting time on any action that doesn’t forward the Hunt Mission in some way is usually a bad idea.
Those reset spaces can be problematic with bosses and unique enemies because it forces players into this mad rush to kill them as soon as they’re engaged. There’s no ebb and flow where players chip away and try to learn attack patterns because bosses always need to be quickly slain (or advanced to their second phase) before a reset occurs, otherwise they’ll just regenerate and erase your progress. Worse still is if players defeat the first phase of a boss just before a reset, meaning they now need to hang around and dodge incoming attacks as best they can because any damage dealt right before another reset is essentially wasted effort. These tight windows where a boss can be reliably engaged creates further problems when you consider most boss tiles don’t allow Hunters an opportunity to escape or reposition.
Players can get into a similar situation with Mission objectives that reset along with the enemies; it can be easy to lose vital progress if something doesn’t get done in time. The Hunt Track does a decent job of keeping things competitive, but it can also punish an unlucky reveal of tiles where exits get cut off and the Hunters must waste actions traversing the map; something that’s completely out of their control.
Healing is also hard to come by. There is no default method for Hunters to recover health outside of them returning home to the Hunter’s Dream. This side area allows players to refresh, upgrade their deck, and prepare for redeploy, but every time a Hunter returns here (either by choice or by getting killed), the Hunt Track gets ticked up an extra space. This makes any visit to the Hunter’s Dream a luxury because you can never afford to waste too much time unless the game ends in premature defeat.
However, if you take an unlucky attack and lose a chunk of your health or get poisoned, a visit to the Hunter’s Dream can be your only option. There is a very noticeable curve at play here that can make things feel swingy, and when you consider that losing a chapter also causes players to lose their entire campaign, the potential for frustration is clear.
Now, this isn’t to say that everything about the Hunt Track is bad. The game is designed in a way that Missions remain completable via resets and it’s nice that Consumables also regenerate to give your Hunters a boost. Overall though, the Hunt Track is likely to be a controversial feature. This is a game that always pressures you to keep moving, to always push towards the next objective. Some players definitely won’t enjoy that.
With this being said, I think most experienced players are still going to find the game easy. Every campaign becomes easier after it’s played once and familiarity with the game’s systems will help players select the best Upgrades and Rewards to suit their party’s strengths. Either way, the fact that there are no adjustable difficulty modes to cater for players who are finding the game too hard or too easy is a tremendous missed opportunity.
Player scaling is the next logical topic, and whilst the full implications are tough to accurately judge without hundreds of hours of play, I feel the game is easier with fewer players. A Hunter reaches critical mass once they’ve acquired the maximum of four Reward cards and twelve Upgrades, and that’s a milestone that’s easier to reach with fewer players present.
Several aspects of the game scale with player count, but the number of rounds is always the same. With more players comes a greater chance of someone making a fatal error; maybe getting their Hunter killed and dragging the party down the curve. Luckily, turns pass pretty quickly and the basic premise is easy to learn, so including more players won’t bloat session length as badly as you might expect.
Once all four campaigns have been completed though, not everyone will find value in revisiting the same narratives. This is a common gripe with story-driven games, and to its credit, Bloodborne: The Board Game does feature branching paths which slightly improve the variety of repeat plays, but perhaps not enough to counter the longterm need for expansions containing additional campaigns and other goodies.
My biggest criticism involves the rules. Before I continue, I must stress that the presentation of this base set is generally quite crisp and appealing. From the characterful miniatures to the official artwork and decorated tiles, this is an attractive base set to be sure. But the rulebook leaves a lot to be desired and Bloodborne: The Board Game is thus a very frustrating game to both learn and play.
My biggest gripe is with enemy activation. The rulebook tells players to activate enemies according to their icon on the Hunt Board, but how does that apply to the many unique enemies who don’t get placed there during setup and thus don’t have an icon? This is the same for bosses — when are these enemies meant to activate? At the start of activation? At the end? In between somewhere? Because the combat system encourages you to be reactive, the order of enemy activation has huge implications for your turn, so to see a lack of specificity on this crucial issue is just the first of many woes I’ve had running sessions of this game.
More than once a Chapter card has instructed me in bright red letters to read another card during setup. After finally resolving everything that second card asked, I mistakingly missed the black text (underneath the red text) which asked me to resolve a third card during setup. Why not tell me that in the same sentence of red text? I had to reset an entire chapter because of that mistake.
Then you have instructions that fail to reference components by their correct name. For example: “Spawn Djura” instead of “Spawn Old Hunter Djura” — quite important considering there are two NPCs that have “Djura” in their name. Then you have weird situations where figures will exit a space during combat, thus making it unclear if their attack still connects; misprinted cards that ask you to spawn enemies to spaces that don’t exist; and many instances where you’re not instructed to remove mission related tokens from the board.
And then I encountered a Reward card that allows a player to automatically kill an enemy if its health is below a certain number. Strictly there’s nothing wrong with this, but the Reward doesn’t specify non-boss enemies, which lead to a very anti-climactic finish, as one of our players tweaked this card and automatically slew a final boss without even engaging it.
These are just the highlights of a large number of different rules queries, confusions and typos that I’ve witnessed during play. Looking over the dozen or so expansions that CMON Limited committed to for their Kickstarter, you can sympathise with the workload of checking the immense amount of text here, but it remains a sore point in need of one monster FAQ.
A final criticism I should mention concerns the game’s cooperative design. Put simply: I find this to be a mostly fun game albeit one offering a poor cooperative atmosphere. The most successful approach to winning multiplayer games has the Hunters spreading out and uncovering tiles as quickly as possible. Experienced players will therefore spend a lot of time isolated from one another and when enemies activate, they mostly ignore other Hunters in the area and only attack the player whose turn has just resolved. With one minor exception, there are no cards or abilities that bestow bonuses to allies, no real mechanics for teaming up on enemies, and overall very little incentive for players to ever stick together or discuss tactics outside of a boss fight. That can make table talk feel rather cold.
This is a terrible shame because when it does serve up a chapter that doesn’t feature too many awkward rules or scenarios, Bloodborne: The Board Game can be an enjoyably breezy experience. Video game fans will certainly feel at home with the theme. It may not be as bleak or as gory as its namesake, but this adaptation does capture the Bloodborne vibe fairly well and it isn’t afraid to offer up a fresh spin on previously seen events. There are some welcome doses of originality where the writers have explored their own ideas and interpretations (alongside dialogue from the video game) to create something that feels faithful as well as familiar.
Bloodborne: The Board Game is a difficult game to fully recommend, but (for patient players anyway) this base set holds enough content and enough promise to be worthy of a spin at the very least.