I was very excitedly contacted by my friend Carl the other day to let me know that his copy of the Dark Souls board game had shipped. I’d rather forgotten it even existed, with it having been backed on Kickstarter about 2 years ago, but it handily arrived just in time for our monthly games night so our usual evening of party games became an evening of getting rekt.
I’ve not really spent much time with the Dark Souls series, I have a couple of them from Humble Bundles and the like but I haven’t made it down to D yet. What little experience I do have has taught me that they’re punishingly difficult and that you die. A lot. We were rather curious how this would translate to a board game with multiple players. On first opening the box we got our first hint to what we would experience.
With that reassuring message, we began dismantling the many, many components of the game. Dark Souls can be played with up to 4 players, with each player choosing one of the starter characters. There are four at present, with more to be added Through ‘DLC’ later. Each character has a main board with many holes that need to be pushed out as well as a detailed miniature and a number of equipment cards. There are counters for health and stamina, a massive number of tokens and cards. The enemies in the game also have their own miniatures and cards, with the bosses also having loot cards and health dials.
After a good while spent assembling the various card decks, we were ready to start properly setting up. A lengthy manual accompanies the board game that details everything required for setup, and we were about 25 pages and an hour in before we began the game proper.
You first assemble the boards that make up the dungeon layout. There are tiles for the bonfire area, which is the starting point of the game, as well as two for the boss encounter which will all be used in each game. The rest of the dungeon is then assembled from any four of the remaining six tiles, with the other two put aside. This creates a different dungeon layout for each game. The bonfire tile contains the spark counter, which effectively counts the number of lives the party has. If a single party member dies during a fight, you all die and return to the bonfire and deduct one spark from the counter. When you run out of sparks, it’s game over.
Next, you prepare the loot deck ready for any enemy encounters and choose which bosses you want to fight. The enemies available are all from different Dark Souls game, I believe a mix of Dark Souls 1 and 3 with presumably Dark Souls 2 ones coming in an expansion down the line. We picked the Frost Knight for the miniboss, and the Dancer of the Boreal Valley for the final boss. The boss cards each list encounter difficulties at the bottom. These tell you how many cards to pick from each encounter deck which are used to populate each room with enemies. The encounters come in three tiers of difficulty, with the Frost Knight having two each from the tier 1 and tier 2 decks.
With the tiles laid out and a randomly selected card from our selection placed on each, we were ready to begin. Each tile contains a number of coloured nodes that represent movement within the tile. Yellow nodes are clear movement spaces, while purple ones indicate locations for obstructions and red ones enemy spawn points. The encounter cards tell you which enemies and items to place on the tile, and the enemies themselves then have cards that list their strength, attacks etc. You also choose at this point which player has instigated the attack as they will become the focal point of most enemy attacks.
Enemies set up, you then begin combat. The enemies go first – all of them. With their goes out of the way, assuming no-one died during the attack, the first player gets to take their turn. Much like the enemies, each player character has stats indicated on their card. You can move towards enemies up to your character’s maximum range but can push further at the expense of stamina should you need to reach a far off enemy. At the bottom of each player’s character board are a row of slots that you can fit small cubes into. The cubes come in two colours, red and black. Black represents stamina, and you count them in from the left each time you expend stamina. Red is health, and this counts back from the right depending on how much damage you’ve taken, and you can see I’ve taken quite a battering here. If the two meet and there are no empty slots left, you die. Each player begins the game with a flask that can be used to replenish your health – it can only be used on your turn however so if you’re taking a beating from enemies and have a couple of enemy rounds before your turn you can very easily die without getting a chance to use it if the other players can’t thin out the enemy on their turns. Characters each have standard attacks as well as a special move that is more effective the more sparks you have, meaning dying can actually weaken you.
Once the first player has had their turn then the enemy go again. All of them. The next player then goes and so on around the table until you either kill everything or die and go back to the bonfire. Should you survive the fight, all health and stamina is reset and you’re automatically fully healed for the next fight. Each room has a treasure chest, so on completion you get to share the loot between you to increase your power. Any items you can’t yet equip go to the bonfire tile and can be used later if you then meet the requirements. There’s no penalty for going to the bonfire, and it doesn’t cost you anything unless you choose to rest there and reset the dungeon.
Defeating enemies also gives the party souls, which again can be spent at the bonfire. Souls are used to increase player levels, which is primarily used to equip higher level gear.
Despite the gameplay area not looking all that physically large compared to some games, it takes quite a while to work through the various rooms of the dungeon (especially if you die and reset, or choose to rest and tackle the rooms again for the chance at some better loot) and as such it was nearing one in the morning by the time we reached the miniboss room – with no sparks remaining.
The boss characters have the largest models in the game and also some new gameplay mechanics. The base indicates directions, and unlike the smaller enemies in the game players attack from specific angles of the boss, and can even move around the base as if it was movement spaces on the tiles. The boss is controlled by the boss deck of cards that effectively acts as the enemy AI. When you start the encounter you shuffle the boss deck, and then turn over the top card for the boss’ move. This will say what kind of attack it does, how much it moves or turns etc. It will also indicate a weak side which is where the next player should attack it from. On the next boss turn you play the next card and so on, flipping the deck back over when you reach the last card so you can begin to predict the pattern the boss will attack in (as long as you haven’t drank too many beers by this point and can’t keep track!)
This all changes once you get the boss down to half health and it enrages. A new attack card is added into the deck and it gets shuffled, breaking the previous pattern and making the boss more unpredictable. The extra attack is also incredibly dangerous, of course.
Had we managed to beat the Frost Knight we would than have set the game up again from the bonfire, this time drawing enemy cards based on the Dancer of the Boreal Valley’s card and fight through the dungeon again, beat the Frost Knight again and then finally fight the Dancer. However..
Yes, Mike, yes we did.
Great review Dan. Looking forward to dying again. And again.
Nice review well written makes me want to play it.Sounds brutal!