Dark Souls: The Card Game | Designer: David Carl | Publisher: Steamforged Games | Category: Cooperative, Deck-building | Players: 1-4 | Year: 2018
It’s easy to recognise the niche that Steamforged Games is gunning for with this latest release of theirs. Whereas its companion board game is a veritable mass of plastic and complex rules, Dark Souls: The Card Game aims to be a much leaner rendition of FromSoftware’s hit video game that trades in the miniatures and bulky rulebook for more straightforward card-driven action.
This is still a cooperative affair though and likewise the goal is still to defeat two boss creatures before the party’s precious stack of bonfire cards runs dry. You accomplish this by strengthening your characters which is a concept represented by the cards in a player’s personal deck containing Treasure (weapons, spells, useful trinkets) and the different types of Stamina (strength, dexterity, intelligence, faith) that lets them use that equipment in battle.
The cards in a player’s deck also form their character’s overall health and once this deck is depleted, that character will die and the whole party is forced to reset and try again. The ebb and flow of each engagement is remarkably simple because of this; each turn a player will check the cards in their hand for an item, as well as the Stamina needed to activate it (if any), before unleashing it on an enemy standing in the opposing lane. The attributes and positioning of enemies, as well as a few other ingredients such as status effects and special abilities mix things up slightly, but overall the gameplay remains quick and easy throughout.
With the basics covered, however, there really isn’t much that’s positive to say about Dark Souls: The Card Game. An abundance of presentation woes and design flaws ensure that the game rarely gets exciting and its weak theming isn’t likely to impress hardcore fans of the license either.
The problems begin with the rulebook which fails to provide enough specificity on the game’s basic systems. Occasionally this is down to a simple typo (Encounter Setup is said to start on page 9 when it actually starts on page 11), and other times it’s due to an omission of detail. When resting at the bonfire the rulebook states that the new top card [of the bonfire deck] “immediately takes effect” but then it fails to actually describe what this means. Reading the third bonfire card instructs players to “Gain a 2-soul Stamina Card”, but further detail is absent. Does this mean each player gains one of these cards or is it just the one copy for the entire party? Does it go into a player’s deck? Into the loot pile? Into the party’s inventory? Likewise is the procedure you must follow when defeating an enemy where the rulebook tells you to shuffle the card back into its respective deck, but at no point tells you when to gain the rewards printed on that enemy’s card.
There are quite a few oversights like these. Another is during Encounter Setup where the rulebook explains taking a mulligan is allowed “if any player has no weapon cards in hand”. Only there are no “weapon” cards in the game. There are Treasure cards that represent weapons, armour, spells, and so on, but whether the rules are checking for a card with an attack value here or something that just isn’t a Stamina card is unclear. If the rulebook used more bulleted lists to clearly define the instructions during each phase and used more specific keywords to identify cards, these problems wouldn’t be so pronounced.
Ultimately though, these are niggles that can easily be corrected with an official FAQ document whereas other challenges faced by this game will be much harder to fix. Chief among these concerns relate to the gameplay, which being blunt about it, just isn’t very fun.
Players don’t have many meaningful choices from turn to turn; you simply wait to see what cards show up in your hand and then match Stamina icons to Treasures as best you can. If you continue to draw Stamina cards when you really need equipment, or vice versa, then that’s just too bad. You always have an option of drawing new cards in the middle of a turn, but it’s a risky move that instantly drops you below the health curve, so sometimes it’s better to just let enemies hit you so as not to endanger your deck too badly. Thematically speaking, that feels wrong.
Now it has to be said that the risk-reward ratio with regards to pursuing encounters is much better implemented here than it is in the board game. In the board game adaptation of Dark Souls, it rarely makes sense not to keep running encounters (until the party dies) because of how easy it is to spend the experience points you get rewarded with after each one. Dark Souls: The Card Game is more cunning in this sense as any ‘soul’ rewards and Treasures you earn first go into a loot pile that can only be cashed out by winning another encounter or using one of the party’s limited number of resets. Losing an encounter wipes the loot pile completely and yet risking your rewards in this way is potentially lucrative because it grants more mileage out of each reset you use. Seeing each player check their deck size against the encounters left on the exploration board and discussing whether to risk another skirmish is one of the game’s better moments and it’s quite true to the video game as players weigh up the risks and rewards of exploring whilst low on resources.
However, whether it’s a level 1 encounter or even a boss fight that the party is considering next, each one is similar in the effect it has on a player’s deck. In another divergence from the board game, even the easiest encounters here take their toll on the party. Even when sufficiently upgraded with new Treasures and better Stamina cards, you’ll still be looking for the correct combination of cards in order to slay enemies and if you don’t draw enough of these into your hand during any given turn, then it means burning through more of your deck until that winning combination can be made. Some players will appreciate that all encounters remain relevant as the game goes on, but it does make it tricky to feel strong, as strength is primarily represented by how consistently you can dish out damage and maybe to a lesser extent, how much damage you can block when the enemies return fire. In short: it’s often better to be lucky before it is to be well-armed.
The exploration board that dictates what order you must attempt the encounters is curious in that it doesn’t force players into the hardest (level 3) encounters. Because of the sheer attrition factor in fighting such a battle (against the most resilient enemies this game has to offer), it makes way more sense to just continually run the smaller encounters which grant higher rewards simply by their virtue of not wearing the party down as fast. The upshot of all this is that whenever my party was presented with the opportunity to undertake a level 3 battle, we always turned it down. Thus entire piles of cards for the relevant encounters and enemies just sat on the table doing nothing.
With Dark Souls: The Card Game being a cooperative experience, a special mention should be reserved for its difficulty. It’s a surprisingly tough subject to draw a conclusion on because of how wildly the player scaling varies. As one example: a team of two players need only deal a single extra point of damage to kill the Pontiff Sulyvahn boss compared to a solo player, making your life much easier with a buddy in tow. Whereas having three or more players brings even more allies to the fight, there will also be a greater number of friendly targets subject to area of effect attacks, so the difficulty level can vary quite a bit. The added concern of player positioning, which is almost a nonfactor in games with one or two players, does encourage a bit more table talk with a full party, but you also risk the game outstaying its welcome because of the extra time needed for bookkeeping.
The experience does feel a tad easy on the whole, so it’s another missed opportunity that each boss doesn’t come with some sort of expert mode to increase the game’s longevity. With only four bosses and no extra difficulty settings or interesting variants, the replay value of this game is very poor indeed and for two players especially, you can have everything beaten by the end of only your second session due to its ease.
The rulebook does suggest shuffling the bosses from their default setup on the exploration boards, but once again the game’s presentation causes problems with this. Unlike the board game which groups bosses into ascending categories of difficulty (Mini boss, Main Boss, Mega Boss etc.), there is no clear distinction between bosses in Dark Souls: The Card Game. Players can actually attempt any boss in any order they choose and indeed the rulebook states (in the Alternate Modes of Play section of all places) that two of the bosses in this set are considered to be “easier” with the other two being “harder”.
Why they couldn’t have clearer indicators of this fact like the board game is aggravating enough, but even though you could mix up the bosses into different orders, Pontiff Sulyvahn and The Abyss Watchers, AKA the “harder” bosses, don’t actually have any rewards printed on their cards. It’s clearly intended that the “harder” bosses – and man, am I getting tied of saying that already – are always to be attempted last because beating them early doesn’t reward the party with anything!
Elsewhere you’ll find the production quality to be similarly problematic. The overall look and feel of this set is quite consistent, but it must be said that, visually, Dark Souls: The Card Game is an unappealing game. Every character, enemy, and boss card featured in this core set is supported by official concept art taken from the Dark Souls III video game and whilst this adds to its already consistent and reasonably hi-res appearance, it does make everything look static and dare I say it: too dark!
Concept art is intended for realizing ideas, to act as a basis for artists to understand the look and feel of their media; it isn’t always suitable as a dynamic illustration for gaming cards that need to convey a sense of character or ability. Such gloomy artwork is a characteristic of the license and isn’t really SFG’s fault, but the decision to recycle certain images (often with a different level of zoom or brightness applied to a repeated illustration) looks jarring to say the least.
The Stamina cards are pretty boring in appearance too and for a “deck evolution” game, the actual tinkering you get to do is incredibly slight. Successful encounters reward the party with souls which players can only spend on more powerful Stamina cards. Either you buy a 2-cost card, which can act as two different forms of Stamina, or a 5-cost card which will always generate 2 of its respective Stamina icons. The only visual difference between these cards though, other than the fact they feature two icons instead of one, is that the 5-cost card doesn’t have a line through the middle of it. It’s just not very inspiring.
The board game adaptation had its fair share of problems too with its excessive length being a particular sore point for most players, myself included. Fortunately Dark Souls: The Card Game is nowhere near as long. The storage box claims a 60 minute runtime, which I still feel is way off, but you can at least finish a solo session in an hour, so the lie isn’t quite as absurd as it was in the previous case.
Unlike the board game though, the boss fights aren’t as dramatic or exciting here. It’s hard enough to accomplish this feat without impressive plastic miniatures on display, but between the muddy card art and flat gameplay, the boss fights don’t have much of a systematic quality to them. Trying to learn the order of activation in the boss’s personal deck of behaviour cards is pointless due to each one containing roughly 8 cards a piece. Battles are usually decided long before that deck resets and even if they weren’t, player characters are slow and enemies tend to hit them regardless of position anyway, so there’s not really much you can plan for.
And when you do fail to win an encounter, really, what could you have done differently? If the cards you need don’t appear in the right order then there’s not much you can do about it and careful deck building only goes so far when the Treasure cards are randomized and your deck size keeps increasing after every reset. It’s impossible to create any kind of engine with the cards at your disposal, so most battles just provoke an attitude of “let’s wait and see what happens” rather than offering any sort of climatic brawl.
Between these major flaws and even some of the minor ones like the unnecessary nature of the exploration board, the suspect utility of healing actions, or the boring status effects that are pretty much just four different variations on the exact same thing, Dark Souls: The Card Game is an effort that struggles to come together. With credit to the developers, it’s certainly not an unoriginal take on the genre. It is at least an attempt to do something different from the surfeit of deckbuilding games on the market today, but the opportunity cost of this one compared to more accomplished co-op efforts like Aeon’s End is very high indeed.
At best Dark Souls: The Card Game is a functional rendition of the video game experience in cardboard form, but with so many structural problems and a harsh lack of any genuine thrills or longevity to sustain it past a couple of sessions, you’re much better off getting your fix from SFG’s board game adaptation instead.