Dark Souls: The Board Game | Designer: David Carl, Alex Hall, Mat Hart, Bryce Johnston, Richard Loxam, Jamie Perkins | Publisher: Steamforged Games | Category: Cooperative, Dungeon Crawl | Players: 1-4 | Year: 2017
DISCLOSURE: The author of this review backed Dark Souls: The Board Game on Kickstarter.
With CelJaded already well into the topic of video game bosses at the moment, it’s with excellent timing that Dark Souls: The Board Game finally ships out following its explosive debut on Kickstarter last year. After all, the spectacular boss battles of Dark Souls are among the franchise’s major attractions and they’re but one element that developer Steamforged Games has sought to recreate for this cardboard adaptation.
Without getting too far ahead of ourselves though, it’s best to summarise in clear terms what this game is all about and review how successful it has been in translating one of gaming’s hottest properties of the past decade.
Dark Souls: The Board Game is a combat-driven dungeon crawler set against the murky yet fantastical backdrops of the Dark Souls universe. Granted, the cooperative gameplay and loot heavy progression system are not the most obvious fit for a product bearing this name – neither is the term “universe”, really! – but as a standalone experience it does an admirable job of distilling the core concept of Dark Souls into something that’s both attractive and intuitive.
Cooperative board games have been in vogue for a long time now and so too has Steamforged Games upheld the trend of shipping a luxury gaming product that’s jam-packed with sweet-looking models, linen-pressed cards, and sturdy cardboard tiles and tokens.
The graphic design work is also very crisp with clear and easily parsed iconography and text. The cards, player boards, and rulebook all take advantage of official artwork which makes for a much nicer visual experience over the sort of blurry in-game screenshot art that has spoiled similarly-themed board games in the past.
In gameplay terms, Dark Souls: The Board Game is a fairly straightforward affair with a node system for movement and dice-based combat resolutions for whenever players want to dodge an attack or perform one of their own. The overall objective is likewise very simple; players explore a set of connected tiles in search of a Miniboss to slay and then do the same again for a bigger and scarier Main Boss.
Clearing a regular encounter rewards the party with a scaling number of souls (think: currency) which players can spend in order to increase their vital statistics and thus equip their character with more powerful equipment. This premise is greatly enhanced by the generous size of the Treasure deck that features a randomized selection of swords, armour, and other trimmings inspired by the Dark Souls video games.
Drawing certain items early can readily alter the flow of play and take characters outside of their preferred roles and comfort zones. Each hero comes with their own array of statistics and unique abilities, but like the video games, characters can usually be whatever their players want them to be, providing they invest enough time and effort.
The Assassin frequently doubles as a spellcaster for instance and it’s not uncommon for the Warrior to splash a few points into Faith in order to use a supportive healing Miracle. I’ve even witnessed one build where our Warrior ditched his Battle Axe and equipped a set of grenade-like Firebombs; storming into melee combat whilst lobbing explosives at the feet of his enemies! It’s this variety that strengthens the feeling of every session being different to the last.
Combat is usually quite swift to resolve because each enemy has set movement routines and attack values depending on their matching behaviour card. Players only roll dice to decide the outcome of their own attacks which helps reduce the amount of time spent rolling dice and allows more time for deliberating on the state of the board.
Because of the programmed nature of its enemies, combat in Dark Souls: The Board Game often resembles a simple puzzle. Formulating your ideal turn of which enemies to attack and nodes to escape to feels very systematic and it’s the Pandemic fan in me who really appreciates this quality, though I know some players will just as equally dislike it for being too orderly and predictable.
The concept of the Endurance track is a huge win. Managing your Stamina in relation to your Health is a concern that you must always account for and there will be times where players must resist the urge to get ‘greedy’ with their stronger attacks and forgo bonus damage in order to have a better chance of surviving the next enemy activation.
Careful Stamina management is one of the key areas where Dark Souls: The Board Game feels very much in line with the video games that inspire it and yet nowhere is that positive crossover in theme more evident than it is with the boss battles. Bosses represent the most enjoyably tense moments that you will experience in the game and all six of them do a superb job of capturing the difficulty and the drama that their video game equivalents are famous for.
Bosses behave differently from regular enemies as their activation routines are dictated via a whole stack of randomized AI cards that cause them to move and attack in more diverse or dynamic ways. Once the small deck of cards is exhausted during play, however, the order of those cards is not changed; the deck simply resolves in the same sequence thus encouraging players to learn the boss’s patterns based on what information they can memorize.
Further enhancing this spectacle is the presence of Boss Arcs. These are the divider lines that split the miniature’s body into segments and standing a player in a particular Arc will determine their effectiveness with attacks and the safe zones from where the boss cannot strike them. There are plenty more factors to consider including a boss’s tendency to ‘leap’ towards a target or sweep its attacks through multiple nodes at once as well their deadly “heat up” routine for when their health dial depletes to a certain level.
This is where the true dynamism of the combat system shines through and it’s easy to see why the publishers have been so keen to preview the boss phase at the expense of the more mundane exploration phase. I’ve played sessions where victory here has resulted in actual cheers; such is the satisfaction that these encounters can bring.
Despite what the boss battles might suggest though, Dark Souls: The Board Game isn’t totally fixated on emulating its digital counterpart. The presence of magical damage, spells, and other notable mechanics have either been simplified or omitted in the name of proper streamlining. Some fans might be irked by the direction Steamforged Games has taken with a few of these concepts, but considering how quickly you can teach this game to a new player, the pros certainly outweigh the cons.
If Dark Souls: The Board Game does have a major problem at this point, then it’s found in its average session time. Put simply: this game is interminably long with the recommended playing time being grossly underestimated. Far from the 90-120 minutes that’s stated on the box, I’ve seen sessions of Dark Souls last anywhere between 4-6 hours for a game with two experienced players to sessions that go even longer with a full party of four.
Part of this boils down to the expectation that the party will repeat the regular encounters in order to further strengthen their characters. You can try to ace both bosses in a single run of their respective exploration phases, but chances are you will need to rest and reset the board at least once. Much has already been made of this necessary “grind” and as far as your enjoyment goes, you won’t be able to settle down with Dark Souls: The Board Game until you make peace with it.
To counter this problem, some people have suggested increasing the number of souls rewarded per encounter, but this is not a balanced solution for all player counts and it upsets the steady reveal of Treasure cards that players have the option of purchasing when not in combat. I’ve tried it myself and it doesn’t work.
A much better solution is to skip any encounters that no longer pose a realistic threat to the party’s current pool of resources and though at times this makes the game feel like it’s on autopilot, it does wonders in reducing the downtime. Either way, I think Steamforged Games should address this concern in future rulings as the game will start to get repetitive if played “legit” in such lengthy sittings.
It’s fortunate then that the designers have resisted the urge to make Dark Souls: The Board Game abnormally difficult. As tough co-ops go, this isn’t in the same league as Ghost Stories or Gears of War, and yet the overall challenge level does feel well considered.
Out of the box, Dark Souls: The Board Game is definitely harder with more players though and it’s certainly no cakewalk when played solo either. Distributing damage across four players is a challenge. There are several basic enemies who target all characters on a node; something that rarely affects a party of two, but will certainly come into play with more people. Ditto for traps!
A party also needs to factor in the upgrades for every player at the table and that gets expensive fast. You can hit critical mass with two players far easier than you can with three or four and early on (when the game is at its hardest) you won’t be risking as many activations with a player who still has starting equipment. Therefore you’ll be spending fewer turns on potentially vulnerable players who can’t make as big of an impact on the state of play.
Bosses are also more challenging with an increased player count because the number of safe nodes from turn to turn are dramatically reduced. It’s much harder to keep four characters safe when a boss starts swinging all over the place and if one player hasn’t balanced their defensive values then they can risk getting torn apart in a single flurry! A three player game is probably the sweet spot in terms of difficulty, with two players being slightly easier and four being slightly harder.
As previously mentioned, the early stages of this game tend to be the hardest as players skulk about in desperate search of Treasure. The Treasure deck can be unpleasantly ‘swingy’ in this regard though because even the basic items sometimes have curiously high attribute requirements. Wielding a simple Shortsword requires quite a lot of investment for instance and if you fail to find a decent shield or suit of armour in time then you’ll be going into the Level 2 encounters feeling extremely underprepared.
Because of the baffling decision to keep soul rewards the same for every tier of regular encounter, optimal play suggests that you should replay the easy ones over and over again until your ‘Sparks’ (think: lives or available resets) start to run low. Thus the late game feels weighted in the players’ favour as ‘over-levelling’ can quickly snowball your team to victory. Balancing the risk between your grinding with the number of remaining Sparks is the key concept here, but it’s a mechanic that will certainly feel a bit too ‘video gamey’ for some.
The Campaign mode at this time is also pretty weak. Here the souls needed to level up and purchase Treasure is doubled and thus progress takes a lot longer to achieve in the most artificial way possible. There’s also an understandable yet potentially game-breaking alteration that allows players to purchase extra Sparks, so don’t allow the party to skip encounters if you choose to play that way!
Each campaign ‘story’ merely strings together a series of set maps with very little in the way of substance. It reminds me of those single-player modes in early wrestling video games where all you did was play a sequence of matches one after the other until your chosen wrestler had all the belts. There’s no context, lore flavourings are absent save for a spot of intro text, and there are very few interesting mechanics present to make the journey seem worth taking.
The game wasn’t originally designed with Campaign play in mind though and considering the vague nature of Dark Souls lore anyway, the prospect seems like it could be a difficult one to get right. At this stage the rules are a make-good gesture to the Kickstarter backers who requested them and it’s my hope that Steamforged Games can expand upon this area with their upcoming expansion sets.
There are some other minor gripes to be had with the game. For some reason there are no playable female characters, some of the status conditions are a bit lame (especially Poison), and there are a few component misprints hiding in this first edition too. And whilst the overall quality of the sculptures is extremely impressive, the Dancer of the Boreal Valley boss looks quite stupid with her “lunging” pose being so precarious that the model risks snapping off of its base if not handled with care.
The game certainly has its flaws then, but I’m happy to say that the accurate theme and overall enjoyment factor has won me over. Dark Souls is about more than just extreme difficulty and it’s nice to see Steamforged Games embrace that philosophy with their board game’s honed feeling of progression, sharp visual design, and dramatic boss encounters.
As a premier release it may not be a recommended purchase just yet, but Dark Souls: The Board Game shows great potential and I’m very interested to see where the product line goes from here.