The launch of Dark Souls: The Board Game on Kickstarter back in 2016 took the tabletop and video game community by storm, raising nearly four million pounds by the campaign's end.
So what happened when all those eager backers received their game? They all DIED.
Not literally of course. That would've been a commercial nightmare for Manchester-based company Steamforged Games. No, I am in fact referring to the accurate but morbidly punishing nature of Dark Souls: The Board Game, and its jump from the computer screen to the tabletop.
This lavishly produced tactical combat dungeon crawler is certainly no walk in the park, but let's take a look at how it all works.
So, What's It About?
Dark Souls: The Board Game takes place in the intentionally bleak and vague world of Llordran. Like the video games, players will assume the roles of the cursed undead, victims of the dwindling age of fire, forever subjected to grisly resurrection upon death. These cursed undead will traverse the dank dungeons, battling challenging enemies, before facing down powerful, towering boss creatures.
And die. Repeatedly.
Along the way they will gather souls from fallen foes, using them to increase their strength and chances of success. This is a lonely world of constant danger, yet a perfect setting for some dice-chucking fun.
How Does it Play?
Dark Souls is essentially a co-operative dungeon crawl game but with a larger emphasis on tactical combat over exploration or narrative. Players will choose a character, receive their starting items, and venture forth, upgrading their gear along the way. Your characters will progress by spending Souls acquired through combat. These Souls can be traded to increase the stats listed on the character boards, or simply spent to blind-draw a new item from the equipment deck.
Each piece of equipment depicts four statistic values which must be met or exceeded by the equipping character. For example, a Knight wishing to harness the Shortsword would need to level up their Strength to at least 15 and their Dexterity to 23. Other weapons may also have certain requirements for the Intelligence and Faith stats. These stats level up in tiers, with each character having different base stats. The Herald possesses a base Strength of 12 with this increasing to 19 at tier one and 28 at tier two. The game comes with a wealth of weapons, armour, and equipment which fans of the video games will recognise, and their implementation here works well. The only negative with this system is that with so many items forming the draw deck, it can be hard finding the gear you want.
After several encounters you may have acquired enough gear and experience to face the mini boss and eventually the main boss! But beware, as death will empty your unspent stash of souls as well as transporting you back to the bonfire, which only has a limited number of uses before its game over. Furthermore, each enemy will have re-spawned!
You will burst into the first room largely unprepared, mostly wielding your character's starting gear. Each room will have an encounter difficulty as indicated by one of three tiers of encounter deck. Early rooms might thrust a pair of Crossbow Hollows and a Silver Knight Swordsman at you whilst later encounters feature enemies such as the fearsome Sentinels or Large Hollow Soldiers.
In a nicely thematic way, each encounter type will effect the manner in which you approach these enemies. It is not simply a case of charging in, getting as close as you can and relying on your dice rolls. Care must be taken when considering your positioning and management of stamina.
How does stamina work you ask? Well, each character board possesses a health and stamina track punched out at the bottom right of the board. The spaces on this track will fill (often quite rapidly) when dealt damage or exerting stamina through attacks or extra movement.
Red damage cubes fill the track from the right and black stamina cubes fill the left. And if ever the two should meet? YOU DIE! A similar mechanism has also recently been seen in Fantasy Flight Games' Fallout, with both games utilising the system to achieve a pretty faithful video game feel.
Aside from the importance of movement in Dark Souls: The Board Game, combat is equally reliant on your gear. Weapons, armour, spells, and other equipment are represented by cards, which when equipped are placed in specific slots on your character board.
Each item card will display the number and colour of dice for a particular attack or effect, alongside its stamina costs. Defensive items will also list the types of die used to respond to attacks, or even perform dodge moves. The dice range from black as the weakest to orange as the strongest with green dice being used for dodging, with strength being indicated by the number of sword symbols embossed on each die face.
When facing down a foe you will decide on your particular attack, exert the required stamina, and roll the depicted dice. The value you hope to exceed is dependent on the enemy, with each one possessing their own behaviour cards. Aside from explaining how each enemy will move and attack upon their activation, the card also depicts that enemy's health and defence. Defence values essentially absorb a number of your successes with any left over dealing damage directly to the enemy.
Defeat all the enemies in a room and you have won the encounter, granting yourselves two souls per player to spend in preparation for the next!
These epic confrontations work differently to the regular encounters, taking place across a larger area and utilising specific and unique boss behaviour decks. Rather than following the instructions of a single enemy behaviour card, each turn will present a new card detailing different attacks, movements, and other effects. Defeating a boss will also reward the players with boss specific unique items alongside more souls.
Towards the end of the rule book there are some loosely defined campaign layouts. After following some brief narrative information players will set-up the game as usual, but encounter certain mini and main boss encounters in a specified order.
Why Should I Play it?
Where Dark Souls differs from classic dungeon crawlers like Descent or the Dungeons and Dragons board games is essentially down to its overall feel. The game is structured as a series of showdowns of increasing difficulty.
Sure, there's hints of exploration as you enter a new room for the first time, setting up the next onslaught of enemies or traps, but actual navigation around the board is relatively abstract. Players won't sneak between tiles, using typical movement points, you just choose a room and go there! Whilst this method perhaps seems a little abstract, it nonetheless launches players into the area where Dark Souls truly excels. Combat.
Steamforged Games' approach to replicating the intense and challenging encounters of the video game is what gives Dark Souls: The Board Game its own unique flavour in the world of dungeon crawlers. Battles are tight, tactical and exciting, requiring careful consideration as opposed to blind luck and brazen brawn.
Alongside the tactical depth is the excellent tactile and dynamic way battles play out. With movement and positioning acting as such key aspects, players are regularly manipulating the pieces on the board including the enemies. This helps to draw players into the action and really makes you connect with and appreciate the extraordinary miniatures as opposed to merely using them as totemic reference points.
All of these aspects are enhanced further during the boss battles. Having an unpredictable deck of behaviour cards dictate your foe's actions brings these battles to life, allowing you to joyously dart a gigantic miniature around the board, shifting its facing in a genuinely functional manner rather than merely trying to maintain thematic cohesion. It's a truly exciting game experience only dampened by the game's in-built reliance on 'grinding'.
Dark Souls: The Board Game's difficulty can't be ignored and can be understandably off-putting to some. Players will have to 'grind' and repeat several encounters just to mitigate the troublesome elements of luck regarding the drawing of new equipment cards. It's commonplace to consistently draw unsuitable items down to the fact that the draw deck is so large, and with each card costing a soul each, finding what you need can be expensive. Many fans have worked their way around this through the creation of house rules, which whilst indicative of an imbalanced game, does nonetheless prove that the outstanding elements of the game are worth digging for.
Steamforged Games can also be applauded for the outstanding component quality. Aside from the gloriously detailed miniatures, the cards, tokens, and tiles have been lovingly designed and are suitably sturdy. Some of the graphic design may appear overall a bit dark but it does well at evoking the atmosphere of the video game.
Final Thoughts on Dark Souls: The Board Game
If you're looking for a miniatures game with a unique and engaging approach to combat then Dark Souls certainly ticks the boxes. The game as a whole is not without its flaws but its design is open enough for subtle house rule changes to tailor the experience to your liking.
As mentioned, the boss fights are a stand out aspect and there is nothing stopping you from diving straight in to one of these encounters. Perhaps give each player a set amount of souls to prepare for the fight beforehand and off you go!
A number of expansions are due for release over this year and the next, promising new miniatures, characters, and rules. This should please fans of the Dark Souls universe both on the screen and on the tabletop, and hopefully keep the game's frenetic combat feeling fresh and as punishing as ever.