Calling all Bat-fans… this is the game for you!
Now, there have been a LOT of Batman themed board games in recent years, but none quite like The Dark Knight Returns. For the first time ever, one of the most famous Batman stories comes straight from the page to your tabletop!
The Origin Story
In 1986, Frank Miller released the first issue of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. The 4 part series has since been dubbed “The Most Influential Comic Ever”. For the uninitiated, it’s a nihilistic, future Gotham which hasn’t seen or heard from Batman in a decade. Things are just as bad as ever in the city without hope as a teenage gang called ‘The Mutants’ stalk the streets and the very act of being a superhero is considered a crime. Then one fateful night, unable to bear anymore, 55 year old Bruce Wayne comes out of retirement and dons the cape and cowl for one last ride!
Conceived as a sort of ‘Ragnarok’ for Batman, The Dark Knight Returns turned the comic book industry on its head and has inspired countless creators of both books and movies down to this day. And now, three decades later, it has been translated from page to board as the phenomenal tabletop game, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. This review is for the standard version, not the deluxe edition (which includes miniatures as opposed to standees).
I Am Born Again
What really makes Batman: TDKR stand out is that it plays directly as if one were reading the 4 part book. Although there is an optional VS mode, this is primarily a solo adventure. In this game of attrition, Batman is older, slower and facing a relentless bombardment of obstacles; including returning enemies, the Joker, Two-Face and… Superman!?
Game developers Cryptozoic have made it clear that this game is not about winning. No, it’s about enduring and surviving to the end of the 4 books. Batman’s damage is categorised as grit, health and sanity and should any of these reach zero, it’s game over!
At the end of each book your current status will carry over to the next chapter so you need to ensure you don’t just barely limp across the finish line. Happily though, you can play this as one giant play through (a very time consuming endeavour) or choose to tackle it as four smaller missions by recording your progress after each book.
Each book will have it’s own objective and boss to defeat. But Bats won’t be going it alone, throughout each mission there will be new allies joining him in his quest and new vehicles available to collect from Wayne Manor.
There are four rounds for each book and if the boss is undefeated by the end of round 4 then you automatically lose (inevitably, there are several other game ending events including the Doomsday Clock reaching 12 or the city being overrun by riots).
Every round provides Batman with four turns. These turns include the following steps:
- Draw and Resolve an event
- Move Batman
- Activate an ally and use their special abilities.
- Fight enemies or sneak past the press
- Use an action space
After each round, riots may breakout and the Doomsday Clock advances. However, at this point you can DRAW on the map as you create a new path between two locations.
Now this is a key part of the experience as throughout the game you will be using the dry marker pen to add to the map. You’ll be creating pathways yes, but also using vehicles such as the Bat-Tank to blow up locations, making them unusable for the rest of the game!
World's Changed Son
The main villains aren’t immediately available to battle; don’t forget you are the world’s greatest detective so you will have to follow the strategically placed clues to find them. Once you track down the big bad you will use dice rolling and well timed ‘Fight’ cards to come off victorious. Using your allies will be vital as some of them, Robin primarily, will provide you with additional dice to boost your attacks.
But, of course, everyone wants a piece of Batman and so there will be plenty of cops and mutants to encounter who will use their dice to battle Batman as he moves around the board.
Find the boss, defeat the boss… move onto the next chapter! Sounds easy enough but you will really need to keep an eye on the damage track as villains like the Joker can drain your sanity whilst others wear down your health or grit. Not only that but if too many adversaries occupy the board, more and more riots will break out causing extra chaos.
Your Sense Of Humor Is Keen As Ever, Sir
One of the lifesaving factors of Batman: TDKR is Wayne Manor. Visiting this location on the map will enable you to regain some health, grit and sanity but also allow you to acquire a new vehicle. Said vehicles are a great way to move around the board and clear away some adversaries but are limited to only one use per book. Don’t worry though because you can always go back for them during the next mission.
This Is The End For Both Of Us
It’s not just the classic rogues gallery that Batman will face this time around. Sure, Two-Face and the Joker have re-emerged and are now seemingly ‘cured’ (SPOILER ALERT: they are not!) but Batman himself is a wanted man. Enter the Man of Steel, Superman, who is now a government agent with orders to bring in the masked vigilante. Don't expect to be able to conquer Superman - by the time you face him at the climax of the game your only goal is to survive and that really will be a challenge for the retired caped crusader!
Now let’s address the Batcave sized elephant in the room… this is a BIG game! It takes up a lot of space on the table and there are plenty of rules; in fact each book has its own unique rulebook guiding you through the story. But should that put you off? Not at all, this is a very rewarding and enjoyable game but it does require about 90+ minutes per book. If you are unable to leave the game out for a while safely between books then setup time is quite time consuming; don’t get me started on the time I went through the long game setup only for my Canadian Sphynx to jump onto the table and cause a messy riot all of his own!
Basically, the setup time is so long because there is just so much going on and that’s what makes the board map seem so interactive - Whilst Commissioner Gordon quells a riot in Crime Alley, Batman has to sneak past the press at the Botanical Gardens and Robin tackles mutants in the Downtown Regions. There really are bits and pieces going on everywhere. If you are easily flummoxed or overwhelmed this may not be the best gaming experience for you.
That said, it’s not a particularly hard game. Spend your resources correctly and use your time wisely and you can quite comfortably progress through the story without courting death. Some may want a harsher, less forgiving difficulty level but with the time it takes to play the game you don’t really want to be restarting your progress all the time do you?
As for the enemies, I particularly appreciate the randomness of where adversaries will pop up as the GCPD track dictates which adversary appears where each round. The variety of dice types and the cool-down track that removes certain dice at certain points brings some nice strategy to the game and the fully interactive map is a delight! For example, being able to create new pathways to Selina Kyle’s apartment to beat the new Commissioner to Catwoman is a fun way to customise an experience that is very much player-led.
As this is a true love letter to TDKR it stays very faithful to the source material, including the original artwork and plenty of quotes from the story; Frank Millers gritty and bleak illustrations lend themselves beautifully to the cards and standees.
All in all, this game is not for everyone and as it’s predominantly a solitaire game it won’t be one to crack out when friends are over. But for me it’s a very similar experience to sitting down with a good book, which can also be a singular and personal activity. Yet if you are a fan of Batman, or even just a fan of solitaire games, then you really can’t go wrong this one. It provides plenty of content and packs a big punch. Replayability won’t be an issue either as there are plenty of subtle changes that pop up with each play through.
Having played several comic based board games I would have to say that Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, despite being a different kind of animal, is definitely one of the best I have played!