Prepare to (roll a) Die – Dark Souls: The Board Game

June 28, 2017
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When the Kickstarter for Dark Souls: The Board Game (known as DS:TBG to its friends) ended last year, it was the most successful miniature-based board game Kickstarter ever, raking in over £3.5m from over thirty thousand backers. A year later, it’s out for general consumption for a cool AU$159.95. DS:TBG is a cooperative 1–4 player dungeon-crawling board game from Steamforged Games, where the brave undead quest to defeat giant boss monsters and gain treasure, glory and the souls of their fallen enemies on the way.

Why should you care? Well, the Dark Souls video game series is as grimdark as it comes. It is set in a dying fantasy world populated by cursed undead and legions of demonic monsters. It proudly invites you to “Prepare to Die” as it marries brutal difficulty with a steep learning curve and an obtuse approach to storytelling; people are still debating just what the hell was going on nearly six years after the release of the first game. Although hard, there are almost no other video-gaming experiences that compare with finally beating a Dark Souls boss on the fifteenth attempt. When I completed the original Dark Souls, I did five laps of the coffee table in full shouting, fist-pumping, cup-final celebration, pretty much the only exercise I did that year. It’s this marriage of  a bleak, dark tone and glorious triumph-over-adversity that has turned the video games from cult hits to mainstream successes.

So, does DS:TBG nail that Dark Souls tone, then? It certainly tries. The first thing that greets you when you open the lid is the “You Died” message, red typography on black, just like when you snuff it in the video game. Before you even open the box, though, you’ll notice something else: it is huge, twice as deep as the average big-box board game and heavier than I was that year I did no exercise. It’s crammed with miniatures, 27 of them, including boss models that stand almost four inches tall, and a ton of cards, boards, tokens, custom dice and all your board-game gubbins.

The miniatures, components and rulebook are, for the most part, beautiful. Everything looks and feels like a premium product, which is just as well considering how much it costs. The plastic miniatures are especially appealing with a superb amount of crisp detailing, making them immediately recognisable as their video-game counterparts. They have a little give and flexibility which makes them ideal gaming pieces, as they won’t snap or break if dropped or mishandled. The many cards and tokens are all full colour, sturdy and hard-wearing, with gorgeous artwork employed throughout. I can easily see where the hefty price tag comes from, as no expense seems to have been spared in bringing high-quality components to the table. (Click here to watch me un-box the game.)

DS:TBG Miniatures

Dark Souls players will remember these two. They are bastards.”

Now, plenty of Dark Souls fans will be happy just collecting and painting all the shiny stuff inside the box, but not I. No sir, I bought this game to be played, not to sit around looking pretty; the proof of a game is in its gameplay, after all. So, to gameplay: 1–4 players will cooperate to defeat undead monsters. Each game involves questing to a mini-boss, murdering it, and then starting again to quest to a full-boss and trying to murder that as well in order to win. Sounds simple but it’s not. The gameplay was where my initial feelings about DS:TBG became much less positive.

Firstly, the game takes up a lot of space. Each board in the picture below is a square foot. Add that to the space needed for the player boards, which are 11″ by 8″, and I had trouble fitting four of us around the game on my 6’ by 4’ gaming table. Plan ahead. Invest in stable wood, or clear the floor. Curious cats are not advised.

DS:TBG Gameboards

“Prepare to … buy a new gaming table.”

Secondly, the movement system gave all of us quite the headache. The game uses movement “nodes”, not squares like most dungeon-crawling games. These nodes are placed where the corners of a square would be. Each node can hold three models, where they can exchange sword blows or fireballs or curt insults as they please. The lack of lines on the board to join these nodes may show the art in its full glory but this makes it difficult to tell who is next to whom and makes following the instructions for the enemy models (which often attack the “nearest model”) an exercise in interpretation. This frustration increases with the bosses, who have a particular facing and attack in particular directions. This is fine if they’re facing along the edges of our imaginary squares, but not if they’re facing across them. This system is not as cut-and-dried as a good board game mechanic should be.

DS:TBG Tile

“Squares, but not as we know them.”

That brings me to my third point, and the most important point: the rulebook. Oh, the rulebook. I have spent what feels like hours searching through its pages, desperately trying to find out what the hell happens in any given situation while my friends look at me nonplussed, the happiness draining out of them and pooling on the floor and playing hell with the carpets.

It’s not the worst rulebook I’ve ever played with but it’s a contender. It lacks an index – the contents page only goes so far – and suffers from some really odd choices about where to put certain bits of information. This is frustrating when you have thirty, A4 pages to scan for your answer. I’ve consulted the oracles and they are in agreement. Fine, they aren’t oracles, just other people who played the game but it’s a common complaint. Our first game of DS:TBG took nearly three times the stated “two hours” and a lot of that time was spent feeling frustrated, but not in a good way. Every time things got interesting, the game slowed to an unsatisfying crawl, accompanied by the sound of grinding teeth. I wanted to see my friends rolling dice, not rolling their eyes as I asked them to wait another long second while I checked for a rule.

After my first game, I kind of didn’t want to play again. But I did, because I could see something better, something lurking just out of sight. I’m glad I did.

You see, DS:TBG is actually a pretty good game. That seemingly awkward movement system works really well once you get your head around it, much better than the plethora of dungeon crawlers that use a square system for its dungeons. Placing nodes on the corners of the squares rather than putting the models inside them makes the game feel much more three-dimensional and dynamic. Once mastered, you feel like a badass, flying across the board and baiting enemy attacks with ease and sophistication. It’s just not intuitive. And neither is deciphering the myriad of icons on the enemy cards, especially when fighting the bosses but, once again, you’ll be fine once they click.

The combat is smooth and nicely balanced, too, and manages to do a good job of capturing the video games’ sense of risk and reward. Your health and stamina share the same bar, with the damage you take being tracked from one end and your stamina, expended when doing stuff like running, dodging and attacking, is tracked from the other. If the two meet in the middle, you die. If any one of the characters dies, that attempt is over and everyone restarts the game from the beginning. You can only restart a few times before running out of Sparks, a resource tracked at the bonfire. When you run out of Sparks, you die, permanently and thereby lose the game.

So, you can take a mighty swing at the boss as hard as you can, spending extra stamina in exchange for more potential damage, but fail and you may leave yourself wide open to a brutal, lethal counterattack. In this, Steamforged have done an admirable job of transferring the stamina management and reflex-testing of  the video games to the slower, cerebral world of board games. Be too aggressive and potentially be punished; be too slow and get killed anyway.

Speaking of bosses, these are where DS:TBG truly shines. They are powered by decks of cards, unique to each boss, which simulate the artificial intelligence of the video games. There are only four or five cards per deck and, once they’re all revealed, the deck is not shuffled before being flipped back over. This lets the players memorise the bosses’ moves just like they do in the video game and lets you feel very clever when you manage to completely avoid a devastating attack. Once sufficiently injured, though, the boss gets extra cards and the deck is shuffled. Like the video games, the bosses change powers and get more dangerous the more you hurt them, and again, Steamforged have done a good job here of turning video-game mechanics into board-game mechanics. The boss encounters are where DS:TBG is at its best and you always feel one false move from death. Killing them feels almost as rewarding as in the video games and it was fun to see how well the boss attacks have been transferred from screen to tabletop.

As a fan, I was delighted to see fan favourites Andre the Blacksmith and the Firekeeper, allowing you to purchase loot and level up respectively. Loot is particularly easy to keep track of, with half-sized cards being placed on a character doll to show what you’re equipped with, like an inventory screen in a computer game.

DS:TBG Character

“It looks complicated but it’s not. Honest.”

An item’s power level is easy to work out, as the game uses a system of custom-coloured dice. Black dice are weakest and orange the strongest, so your aim is to get more equipment with the better dice on its cards. Like the video game, DS:TBG encourages grinding, spending your Sparks for another run through the dungeon, killing as you go and gaining souls to spend which may not be to everyone’s taste. As a long-time Dark Souls player, I didn’t mind that too much but some of my gaming group considered some of the fights fairly cursory, especially at the very end of the game when you have all the good loot and can murder with impunity. Some players may get bored of doing the same thing again and I can’t really blame them. I would have liked to see some snippets of lore included on the cards as there is no flavour text included on any of them. This may make the game feel a bit dry to those not versed in the lore from the video games.

I just wish DS:TBG took the modern approach of having two rulebooks, a quick-start one which gets you going and explains the basics as you go and a detailed one, organised alphabetically for easy reference. And a proper index for everything! Unfortunately, we’re saddled with one poorly organised book that may find itself sailing across the room when the frustration becomes too much.

This is an admirable first attempt, and a very good game once you get the hang of it. Much like the video game, though, there will be more than a few people who struggle with how unwelcoming it can be to newbies and so never get to experience it in all its glory, which is a shame. Fans of Dark Souls who also love board games, or gaming groups seeking a dungeon-crawler to while away their gaming evenings, should definitely check this out.

Just Prepare to Cry with frustration the first time you play it.