Let’s face it, it’s fun being bad and Dark Domains allows you to be evil in spades. It is a splendid worker placement with bags of theme, some mechanical novelty, and super table presence which has enjoyed plenty of play time recently amongst my online group.
In Dark Domains you are an evil overlord bent on dominance; you will build a growing settlement on your domain and gradually corrupt it to evil. You will thwart the attacks of wandering adventurer parties and work to accrue the most evil before the game ends, smiting anyone that gets in your way.
At its heart, Dark Domains is a worker placement and engine building game. In your turn, you will place a total of 4 meeples on the central player board which depicts a winding road snaking its way through the settlement of Harrows. There are a wide range of locations offering plenty of choices. To name a few: you can acquire blueprints for buildings and the materials to make them; you can recruit henchmen with unique powers and monsters to guard your constructions; you can learn spells and acquire the essences to power them. These are at the core of the game’s systems and they are joined by spaces for more money, the first player token, a one-off extra meeple, and an assassin to eliminate an opponent’s asset, among others.
Once all meeples are placed and then resolved the round moves to building, which is fundamental to the game. If you have a blueprint and sent a meeple to the Builders’ Guild to buy resources you will can construct that building on your individual player board. This comprises 16 squares divided equally into four quadrants of different terrain types. At first, the structure will go down on its light (i.e. good) side and from then on it will produce something for you in the Production phase. This will generally be a combination of money, building resources, or maybe magical essences – but while it is light it will rarely produce evil, which is the game’s VP.
Churning Out the Evil
For a building to produce evil it needs to be flipped to its dark side, which can happen through card play or by using one of your meeples in a subsequent turn. On its dark side, it enjoys a comic name change and a change of production: typically you start to produce evil (VP) but stop producing money. So there is some careful timing to think about to ensure your production engine doesn’t grind to a halt.
Dark buildings also become a priority target for the turnly activity of the two AI controlled adventuring parties. They will venture out every Adventure phase to try to smite evil buildings, or potentially good buildings with a monster. The AI for these takes a bit of processing but is visible and enables you to plan in advance where they are most likely to go, unless influenced by other player actions. You can also send meeples to the two taverns on the main board where they are mustering to nobble one of the party. You can’t target the leader, and thus affect their destination in the turn of your visit. However, you can remove one of the other adventurers and thus affect their destination in a future turn. There is some smart play to be had here – defending yourself and/or potentially hitting an opponent’s building before they are ready.
The Spell’s the Thing…
The other key mechanic of note are the spell cards. They come in four flavours: one suit provides one off production boosts, one affects the game state on the main board, a third provides attacks – on adventurers or other players - and the fourth are defensive. Spells are acquired by meeple placement on the main board and powered by essences from buildings or from another meeple placement. They are powerful one offs and there are some big ‘take that’s’ in the various decks that can really sting. Certainly a spicy addition which drives player interaction.
Game end is triggered when a Death card is revealed from the turnly draw from the Fortune deck. These always sit in the last 5 cards so while the precise trigger is uncertain you get a clear idea that the end is approaching. When it does, only one thing matters – how evil are you. Most evil wins.
Great Core, Smashing Innovation
There is plenty that is familiar in Dark Domains and that is not a bad thing – quite the contrary, as the familiar core mechanisms are slick and satisfying. But pleasingly there is also a load of additional spice that really adds to the worker placement experience.
The dual sided buildings that provide two slightly different economic mechanisms are great. This makes the engine building more sophisticated and has you juggling what to build when and then when to flip it lest you totally banjax your personal economy.
The adventuring party is a very satisfying wrinkle – I like the planning that this encourages. In the early game you are likely to play avoidance strategies as a successful attack (powered by some dice rolling) will destroy your building. Later, you may actively try to attract them to a well-fortified evil location sporting a big monster as defeating them will gain you more evil.
Spells provide a heck of a dose of, typically aggressive, player interactions which lead to a fair dose of whack the leader. But they take commitment to acquire and cast, and again you need to balance how far you hit the leader rather than concentrating on accelerating your own progress.
What a Theme
And then there is the theme, which is phenomenal. I enjoyed the ancient videogame Dungeon Keeper, which cast you in a similar role of evil overlord running a malevolent god game come tower defence. This summons all of that goodness (or badness?!) into a tabletop board game. But the real joy of this came from the table talk which ensued as four competing overlords summoned thematic banter and a lot of laughs. And this happened over Zoom as we have been playing on Tabletopia – which is not a medium that encourages that sort of chat.
That said the physical copy is also a joy as art and production values are really strong – it has a great table presence and I am looking forward to playing it face to face as we start to meet again. We have only played it with four and there is enough that you can do fairly simultaneously to keep the pace cracking along. It ran to two hours and the time flew by; every time we played it the points spread was tight across at least three of the four players.
Evil… But Not Bad
Gripe time – and there are only a few. It is a hefty beast with a good dose of rules – not a problem for experienced gamers, but in no way a gateway game. There is also a chunk of mechanical complexity and interactivity to parse at times, and while the pace generally cracks along there are points when AP can hit and grind things to a halt – albeit sporadically. Finally, it can have a lot of ‘take that’ – and I am not sure about that in a game that has so much personal engine building at its core.
Don’t get me wrong, I am a huge fan of directly conflictual war games and area control. Equally, I would usually say I avoid really hefty Euros that lead to group solitaire experiences. But perhaps – and the jury’s still out on this a bit - the level of take that in Dark Domains seems overly punitive for the level of individual planning and investment you put into your engine building.
This said, Dark Domains is a splendid game and a thoroughly enjoyable experience. It does the core very well and then adds a load of welcome spice which will have you thinking hard and experimenting over plays with a range of different strategies. The game is lavish and sumptuous and it has oodles of theme oozing from every pore. It is a game which has a serious mechanical challenge and really satisfying crunchy decisions, but it encourages a load of laughs along the way. Albeit they may be long cackling and maniacal!!