Dark Souls: The Board Game
Dark Souls, Dark Souls, Dark Souls. It seems like there is just never enough Dark Souls in the world. Whether it’s the slew of games, either original or derivative, the book or the myriad of lore-based videos, it just seems like the world is never going to go away. Whether that is a good thing or not depends on how you feel about the series, but if you happen to be that strange combination of person who loves both Dark Souls and board games, then you’re in for a treat with Dark Souls: The Board Game.
Dark Souls: The Board Game comes from Steamforged games, famous for their successful crowdfunding campaigns for games such Resident Evil 2: The Board Game and Guild Ball. Dark Souls: The Board Game was their first game based on a video game, a trend they seem to plan on sticking with. So was their first foray into the tabletop/video game mash-up genre successful? Well, yes and no. Let’s take a look at this.
The Darkest, the Souls-iest
Dark Souls: The Board Game pits 1-4 players against a dark and dank dungeon through which they must traverse in hopes of fighting and defeating the familiar bosses ripped straight out of the video game. Each player chooses from one of the four classes, each with their own special abilities and starting equipment. The central mechanic of Dark Souls: The Board Game is exploration and combat. When you start out, you select one of the adjacent tiles to explore and then reveal the face-down scenario card and place all of the monsters and obstacles on the different nodes on the board. Combat focuses on using different attacks that come with each weapon to deal out damage to your enemies.
The basic thrust of combat is to roll the dice indicated by your weapon attack, subtract the defence value of your enemy, then apply that damage to whatever monster you’re attacking. The inclusion of dice combat is the first problem. Obviously, there are very few options for combat in board games that don’t use dice, especially when you’re talking about a cooperative game, but dice and Dark Souls just don’t mix.
To properly explain the problem, it’s best to dive into both what makes Dark Souls so unique and what elements the board game attempts to emulate. While the Dark Souls series has a reputation for being insanely hard, the game actually manages to stay tough but fair. If you die in the game, you know it’s your fault, either you weren’t fast enough or you didn’t watch out for that one move, but at the end of the day, you were punished because you made a mistake.
This unforgiving nature is something that Dark Souls: The Board Game also has, but the reason it’s more frustrating than rewarding is because of the included elements of randomness. When you die, it’s not because you made a genuine mistake. Hell, most of the time you can die even if you make the best possible decisions. In this game, you die because a dice rolled onto a blank space instead of the two little daggers that you needed to actually do some damage.
This frustration isn’t just in attacking but also in defending. You basically have two options when it comes to avoiding taking damage, you can either block or dodge. To dodge you roll dice and reduce the incoming damage by the indicated amount; to dodge you roll the special dodge dice and hope that you get enough dodge symbols to avoid taking the damage at all, or you take all of it. Again, the randomness of the dice rolls can end up punishing you, even if you’ve made the best decisions in the world, which just doesn’t work for a game that is this unforgiving.
An Unbalancing Act
The game also just feels unbalanced at times. If you start the game as a solo player you start out with some souls which helps you make your start without the aid of other players. However when you play with more than one player your characters are much more likely to take damage than they are on single player. The reason for this is that when playing with 2 or more players is that the enemies get twice as many turns as each individual player, and that number only increases with more players. This means that with 4 players in the game your character will have to sit on his arse while every single enemy gets to move around the board and attack, meaning that it is entirely possible to be killed without having made a single move at all.
The number of players isn’t the only area where the game feels unbalanced. You get a fixed amount of souls for each encounter your complete, regardless of how easy or hard that encounter was. This not only just feels frustrating and unfair, but doesn’t make sense when compared to the video game version either. It would have been much better if you got souls based on either the difficulty of each room, or even from each individual enemy, perhaps it would have made things too easy that way, but considering how easy is it to take damage I sincerely doubt it.
Possibly the first issue that most players will notice with the game is just how poorly explained and implemented the rules really are. The rules are so front loaded with different mechanics that just trying to figure out how to play the game is a challenge in and of itself. You can try and locate a how to play tutorial online, but each of these can run into 50 plus minutes just to cover the basic mechanics. Not to mention the fact that some of the symbols and indications on certain cards just go entirely unexplained, such as the number 0 on a movement direction behaviour card for example.
Like a Boss
One of the slightly better features of the game are the boss fights, both mini and major. Unlike the normal enemies who have a single card that details their attack and movement behaviours, each boss has an entire deck of different cards that detail their attack patterns. This system emulates the game pretty well too, as you can learn a boss’s attack patterns and perfectly predict exactly what attacks are going to come and when, meaning that you can avoid taking damage while your boss just wails on a blank wall.
The bosses also have a ‘heat-up’ mechanic, which is another element taken from the video games. Once you get the boss down to the right amount of health, they gain new attacks and their attack pattern switches up, meaning you have to hold back to figure out their new attacks before rushing blindly in. These new attacks and behaviours are pretty ruthless, but it’s nice that they add to the tension of the boss fights.
Dark Souls: The Board Game does a decent job of looking and feeling like the video games it gets its name from, but there is something that just completely severs the connection. While Dark Souls as a video game can be insanely frustrating at times, it is never a game that could be described as unfair, but Dark Souls: The Board Game certainly is. You can spend ages and ages grinding souls to try and give yourself the best chance possible, but then you can easily get murdered 4 times on the way to the boss because of a bunch of bum rolls. At the end of the day, the game just feels totally uninspired with a token, random, unfair combat system lifted straight out of the Dungeons & Dragons board game.
Designers: David Carl, Alex Hall, Mat Hart, Richard Loxam
Publishers: Steamforged Games Ltd.
Check out our review of the Dark Souls book here.