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

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