Dark Souls The Board Game: Prepare to Die or Prepare to Disappoint?

The highly successful Kickstarter campaign of Dark Souls The Board Game by Steamforged Games finally released its rulebook last week for all backers and public to review. Video game enthusiasts, board gamers, and miniature hobbyists alike come together for the much anticipated manual detailing the actual gameplay of the board game. With the gameplay manual now available to everyone, should we Prepare to Die or Prepare to Disappoint?

The rulebook can be viewed or downloaded from this link.

For those unfamiliar, Dark Souls is a video game series by FROM Software and Bandai establishing its roots all the way back to the first release of Demon’s Souls for the Playstation 3 in 2008. Since then, FROM has released Dark Souls 1, Dark Souls 2, and the most recent Dark Souls 3 for different gaming platforms. Bloodborne is another video game title that falls in the same genre by the same creators. Set in similar atmospheres of death, destruction, and despair, the Dark Souls series offers some of the most punishing deaths and the most rewarding victories. Players are tasked with exploring dangerous dungeons, booby-trapped catacombs, and cursed castles as they try to link the fire that is waning to the darkness that threatens to envelop the world. Along the way, they will meet undead survivors, discover new treasures, and battle creatures while uncovering the truth about this once-thriving world.

Initial Reception

The initial reception for Dark Souls The Board Game was a mixture of excitement and skepticism. The Kickstarter campaign for the board game was announced within a month of Dark Souls 3’s release (the video game). With only concept art and 3D renders initially available, many people were skeptical of what the board game promises. Furthermore, many speculated that the campaign was a rushed announcement in an attempt to piggy back off Dark Souls 3’s successful release. Many wondered how a board game might capture the essence of such an atmospheric and unforgiving, yet rewarding, video game.

In contrast, many others were excited to see some of their favorite characters and monsters take on a 3D render for the tabletop. Discussions popped up on how certain video game features could be implemented into a board game. There was definitely interest.

In the end, without a proper rulebook or manual to describe the gameplay, all we had to go on were beautifully detailed renders of miniatures, character/equipment cards, and location tiles, with an occasional sprinkling of vague gameplay information.

Kickstarter Campaign

The Dark Souls The Board Game Kickstarter campaign was hugely successful, accumulating a total of  £3,771,474 (about $4,617,283) from 31,178 backers by the time it ended on May 16, 2016. During this time, and in the subsequent months following the campaign, backers asked (some demanded) for more information on the gameplay. There was still no rulebook. So all we had going for us were short videos of how boss encounters work and different 3D models of the miniatures. Many of the updates following the end of the campaign consisted of “Dev Diary” posts that briefly described a small aspect of the game such as class differentiation, tiles and nodes, trap mechanics, and the occasional discussion of pledge managers and Brexit concerns.It was not until late 2016 that Steamforged Games started producing actual material such as pictures of the real models, and most recently, the rulebook.

The Rulebook

An initial glance at the Dark Souls The Board Game rulebook is a 40-page, sepia-toned manual that seems to be laid out well with colorful diagrams and pictures of the rules, tokens, tiles, and game art. The colors and tones seem to capture the “old” and dark style of Dark Souls, while pictures of the miniatures make me wish they were available now — they look good! However, Dark Souls The Board Game is in fact a board game and so here we go with some first impressions and thoughts on how the rulebook outlines gameplay.

core-rulebook-covercore-rulebook-content

Cool Content

Ranging from thematic mechanics to interesting implementation, let’s start off with some cool content to look forward to.

1. Miniatures 

Those miniatures look badass! From the renders to the hi-res samples, these miniatures, both characters and monsters alike, look as if they’re ready to lay the smack down. The character miniatures bring to life many of the familiar armor sets and weapons we attribute to each character class. The monster miniatures and their variable sizes offer depth, especially the iconic Smough and Ornstein and the Titanite Demon. Maybe your hero won’t seem too badass standing (more like trying to dodge roll) next to The Dancer.

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(Photos from Steamforged Games forum: http://forums.steamforged.com/index.php?/topic/35699-high-res-images/)

2. Use of rings to upgrade armor

A new system, but a cool one. In Dark Souls The Board Game, rings are attachments to armor sets that will upgrade them in one way or another. Rings and armors, being separate equipment, can also be detached from one another, offering many combinations for upgrading armor, and ultimately your hero.

3. Gravestone information

Throughout the game various terrain items will present themselves as obstacles in addition to the creatures trying to end you and your party. Some of these terrains include barrels, treasure chests, and gravestones. When activated, gravestones allow players to have a peek at how bosses behave in battle, giving them a tiny edge when it comes to combat. Small side objectives such as gathering information through gravestones is a great way to keep the game fresh as you hack your way from one tile to the next.

4. Boss Arc

Anyone who’s ever fought a giant boss in Dark Souls knows that positioning can be the difference between seeing the words “Lord of Cinder Fallen” and “You Died” flash on your screen. The implementation of Boss Arc gives bosses an interesting and thematic mechanic when it comes to boss battles. Based on the boss you are battling, their specific boss arcs will detail their strong areas and weak spots. Attacking a monster at its weak spot grants you an attack bonus of another die roll. On the other hand, staying in front of a monster’s fighting arc may leave you vulnerable to many sweeping or area-of-effect attacks. This offers a lot of strategic and tactical thinking in the heat of battle and is very much how Dark Souls should be played. It is also similar to how Kingdom Death: Monster implements its monster showdowns.

boss-arc

5. Boss Behavior Cards

Dark Souls is a game of trial and error, and most of those errors are made by us — the players. Whether it is being too hasty through a dungeon, ill-prepared with equipment, unobservant of the details, or poorly timing attacks, we have all experienced the increased tension of trying to reclaim our blood stains only to die again. Dark Souls is a game that rewards you greatly when you pay attention and take your time. In the Dark Souls The Board Game, when you battle bosses, they will have a set of behavior cards that will instruct who they will attack, how they will attack, and for how much damage. As this behavior deck gets used up, they will get reused in the same order so long as the boss is capable. What this means is that for every boss encounter, bosses will have a certain behavior that they will follow in cycle. In line with Dark Souls’ theme, any player who is observant, pays attention to timing, and anticipates actions will have a huge advantage during boss battles.

boss-behavior

6. Boss Heat Up

In the darkest depths of Dark Souls, corrupted creatures are never what they seem to be, and this is entirely true when it comes to boss monsters. Despite the predictable nature of bosses, when they have accumulated enough damage, they transform, power up, or just get really angry. This is how Dark Souls throws a wrench into your Predictability Engine, and we see this also in the board game. When bosses have endured a certain amount of damage, Boss Heat Up cards are reshuffled into the behavior deck, changing up the anticipated movements and actions of the boss ever so slightly. Though I am not too keen on the name “Boss Heat Up,” it is a great feature to keep boss battles interesting, fresh, and true-to-Dark Souls.

7. Dashing

Dashing allows players to dash through locations without fighting the enemies encountered — but ONLY in Campaign Mode. Dashing is a feature that demonstrates how Dark Souls is able to efficiently juggle a (limited) free-roam world, varied areas of difficulty, and players’ freedom of choice. This feature is cool in Campaign Mode, but seems very limiting when omitted from regular gameplay. No SL1 speedruns for those of you wishing to do so (though a small rule variant wouldn’t be difficult).

8. Campaign Mode

What is Dark Souls without the eminent destruction of the world and monsters behind fog gates waiting to crush your undead bones? Dark Souls The Board Game offers a Campaign Mode that can be played over many gaming sessions. This mode implements a persistent system that allows players to keep any equipment discovered and soul levels earned. The game comes with two suggested campaigns, one following the story of Dark Souls and the other following Dark Souls 3. In the board gaming community of Legacy games and other campaign and story-driven, persistent gameplay, it’s nice to see Steamforged Games offer a thematic campaign as well.

Questionable Content

After reading the rulebook, here are some of my thoughts regarding features, mechanics, and general gameplay that had me questioning their decisions.

1. Luck and Loot

Luck is a character attribute in Dark Souls that govern most resistances, item discovery rate, and certain weapon damage. In Dark Souls The Board Game, Luck is simply a token that can be used to reroll one die when attacking, blocking, or dodging. It has no bearing on weapon attacks nor item discovery, which brings us to the next part: treasure chests. In the board game, treasure chests may only be opened after a location has been cleared of all enemies. This is a limiting factor that boxes in the players into certain actions and limits gameplay. Why can’t I risk running to open a treasure chest that ends up being a mimic? Wouldn’t it be cool if one of the players distracts the monsters while one of the weaker players runs to open a chest? That’s more exciting, thrilling, risky, and when it pays off, more rewarding. Instead, these encounters will have a repetitive nature: dodge, attack, block, kill, open chest…. hooray….

2. Purchasing and Upgrading equipment

In Dark Souls, not a lot of things are random. When building your character, it is crucial to plan ahead what types of stats you will have, because this will build a map for what equipment you can equip later on. In Dark Souls The Board Game, purchasing a weapon from Blacksmith Andre prompts a random equipment to be added to your inventory. Prepping your character and shaping your equipment and skills should never be a risk or a gamble. This unnecessary random factor in purchasing equipment takes away from the players’ ability to equip their characters with the right gear. In the same sense as managing equipment is the management of souls, the game’s currency. The game takes away this urgency by making upgrades free of any cost.

3. Traps do not damage monsters

A small and brief mention, but traps should completely damage monsters as well. Right now, traps only damage the players. How satisfying is it to lure enemies into a trap and not sweat one bit from it?

4. Lack of Spells and Pyromancy

Equipment are mentioned to have physical and possible magical damage properties. However, no scrolls or magic spells (let alone lightning and pryomancy spells) are mentioned. There are brief mentions of bows/crossbows, but not enough to even get me excited about them

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5. No Invasions (Yet)

Dark Souls stands out with its unique online co-op and pvp features. At the beginning of the Kickstarter, there were talks of an invasion system. In fact, the Kickstarter stretch goals included miniatures for some of the more memorable NPC invaders such as Kirk, Knight of Thorns, and Maneater Mildred. This system has been pushed back as a potential expansion and not part of the core game whatsoever.

6. Too much iconography

Just because there are a lot of things to keep track of, does not mean that the game should be overwhelmingly difficult to follow. The number of icons from one card to the next becomes too much to follow. With combat being the central focus of this game, it’s counter intuitive to dump 8 different icons on one enemy data card while trying to keep track of my own weapon cards that have their own 12 different icons and armor with 10 icons, all while tracking stamina, health, and the rest of the board of four more enemies and three more hero players. I think I’ll let the cards speak for themselves. Here are some sample cards from the rulebook.

(From left to right, top row: Armor Card, Boss Behavior Card, Boss Data Card, Encounter Card; bottom row: Weapon Card, Enemy Data Card)

It’s difficult to tell what Steamforged Games was trying to do with this. Are they trying to make things more streamlined with icons? Because I find the icons too distracting. Having to reference the icons during every combat will definitely take away from the immersion. It makes the game unnecessarily tedious and sessions longer than they should. Complex combat does not have to be complicated. Here are some games that I find to have complex combat with a pretty straightforward system: Star Wars: Imperial Assault, Mage Knight, Kingdom Death: Monster, and Lord of the Rings: LCG. On the other hand, Star Wars: Rebellion is a board game that suffers from an unnecessarily complicated combat system.

7. Players roll for attack/block/dodge but monsters do not

Google “Dark Souls Weapon Calculator” and you will get a ton of spreadsheets, calculators, and forum discussions. These sites help calculate the attack rating of each weapon, for each type of upgrade, for each step of the upgrade, and how they scale with different character attributes such as strength, dexterity, intelligence, faith, and even luck. In forum discussions, players compare data and speculate on better results, which inevitably result in more testing and more data and more discussion. If there is one thing that players can cling on to when all hope is lost, it is their equipment. As a Dark Souls player, you get to know your weapons. You know when and how to use them and against which type of monster. They are an extension of your characters after all. If there is one word to describe the weapons, armor, and general gear in Dark Souls, it is “consistent.” Against the same type of enemy, the same weapon should always hit with the same damage, and the same goes for armor.

characte-attack

Steamforged Games’ decision to make player attack, block, and dodge results based on dice rolls is mind-boggling. This system takes away the consistency of a really good weapon that has been upgraded. When a fully upgraded weapon always has a chance to do zero damage when it hits, then why spend all that time upgrading? In effect, “upgraded” or “better” weapons allow you to roll more dice for a better chance. But chance should have never been a part of this equation. Hit or miss and damage and block are two different sets of things. It seems that Steamforged Games tried to mix a hit/miss system with an attack/block system, and the result is a messy RNG combat system. I speculate that winning in battles will not be as rewarding as it should be. Instead of feeling like I really destroyed those silver knights with my awesomely upgraded weapon that I planned to equip and enhanced by my stats, I will probably find myself just praising RNGesus.

Even more baffling is the fact that Steamforged Games only implements rolling dice on attack, block, and dodge for the players. Meanwhile, enemy cards have consistent attack and block values as detailed on their cards. What’s the point?

character-attacks-vs-enemy-attacks

8. Fixed player activation

Dark Souls The Board Game has the players activate during combat in a clockwise order. For a game that prides itself in being punishingly difficult but winnable, victory lies in strategic planning and tactical timing. Dark Souls The Board Game takes this away by forcing players to activate in a specific order. This is a huge opportunity missed by Steamforged Games to allow players to activate in variable order. Allowing players to activate in different orders open a whole new realm of strategic planning. Character classes and role become important. Knights will be able to tank in front of their warriors and spell casters, and healers (are there even healers?) can rescue heavily injured party members at the right time. When every action counts, why cripple the gameplay by forcing urgency away from player decisions?

Variable activation is not difficult to implement. Many successful games have it at the core of their battle systems, such as: Specter OpsDescent: Journeys in the Dark 2nd Ed., Star Wars: Imperial Assault, Kingdom Death: Monster, Dead of Winter (player characters). Why do these games do it? Because it allows players to take action toward what is most important to them at that moment.

Conclusion

Dark Souls never felt unfair to me because of how much freedom it allows the players to have. With certain restrictions, such as stat requirements, any character class can eventually develop to whatever type of character the player needs/wants it to be. Dark Souls gives the player a car and the steering wheel and says, “Drive!” You are welcome to upgrade your car, spray paint it however you want, and put the most ridiculous looking spoiler on it. You can drive that car anywhere, but know that Dark Souls has built an obstacle course everywhere, and it’s up to you to make the decision. Do you drive the Prius through an off-road swamp of digested human-flesh sludge? Do you bring the gigantic four-wheel-drive hummer into the tight confines of an underground tunnel lined with spike-wielding skeleton-wheel monsters? Dark Souls is difficult but not because of chance or randomized reasons.

With the current rulebook, Dark Souls The Board Game seems like a generic cooperative dungeon crawler with the Dark Souls theme tacked on. Some of the rule and gameplay decisions leave a lot to be desired, and a couple make me question of the developers ever even played Dark Souls.

Dark Souls The Board Game looks like a fun dungeon crawler. If it didn’t have the Dark Souls name to it, I’m sure it would be having a different reception. I am still very much looking forward to the game to come into my mailbox this April. Though I don’t think I will be the first one to feature an unboxing video or one of the first gameplay reviews.

Dark Souls The Board Game seems to have an identity crisis. It can’t commit to a type of combat system and a type of probability-based vs. decision-based gameplay. There is no lore and there is no invasion system (yet). It’s a hack-and-slash, turn-based game with an unnecessarily complicated, yet incomplete battle system. Though it implements a lot of cool things, it feels very Hollow, and not very much what one would expect from a Dark Souls title. I would say that Steamforged Games will probably find themselves backtracking to pick up their bloodstained souls, but that wasn’t even mentioned in the board game. I am Prepared to be Disappointed.

P.S. Did anyone notice how each of the playable characters in the featured image are all on different location tiles?

Photos from Dark Souls The Board Game Kickstarter Page and Core Rulebook.

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