Review: Dark Souls The Board Game

The successful Kickstarter campaign of Dark Souls The Board Game by Steamforged Games completes its journey as copies make their way to the backers starting last week. The highly anticipated board game undoubtedly has great expectations to fulfill, as a Kickstarter product, as a board game, and as a Dark Souls IP. In this review, we delve deep into the darkness to search for embers that may kindle the flame that is Dark Souls The Board Game.

Before jumping into the pit, I believe it is important to define my viewpoint as I review this board game. Like many of you, I was drawn to this Kickstarter campaign because of its Dark Souls title and what those words mean to me. As a video gamer, I fell in love with the Souls series starting with Demon’s Souls, which was shortly followed by Dark Souls and finally ending with the most recent installation of Dark Souls 3 about a year ago. In addition to my video gaming, I also enjoy board gaming, and most recently, I picked up miniature painting as a hobby. It is then with excitement that I backed the Kickstarter campaign for Dark Souls The Board Game, the perfect collision of my love for video games, Dark Souls, board gaming, and miniature painting. It is with these in mind that I will be assessing Dark Souls The Board Game. As a board gamer, as a video gamer, and as a miniature painter/hobbyist, I will discuss how the game holds up to the hype.

What I enjoy about Dark Souls

The Souls series is (in)famously known for its unforgiving combat in a dark, desperate world plagued by monsters, giants, and other corrupted creatures. Dark Souls is challenging not because it is unfairly or artificially difficult. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Dark Souls is challenging because of the unknown and the unexplored. The game drops us a short walk away from the first boss, and says… nothing. There’s no hand-holding, no training wheels, nothing.

Dark Souls is deliberate. That is how it is able to balance the very fine tight rope between hardcore mode and a rewarding experience. As players soon realize after many trips back to the bonfire, most aspects of the Dark Souls world are deliberate: the monster locations, the traps, the object and treasure placements, the bonfire locations, the object hitboxes, and more. Even the monsters themselves, despite having a varied moveset, are deliberate — each move and attack has a “tell” to signal what’s about to be unleashed. All you have to do is pay attention.

Dark Souls gives the player a chance at an even playing field. After careful observation, it all starts to make sense, and the only variable in Dark Souls is you — the player. What you plan to do and what you decide to do will dictate your adventure. This is evident in all the online character planners and stat calculators that all say one thing: every thing in the world is predictable, and, in a way, deliberate. There is no guessing as to what each stat does or offers. Each weapon upgraded to certain stats all deal consistent damage against particular enemies. This is why it is possible to complete the game at Soul Level 1 with a broken sword, without healing, without getting hit, while taunting the boss’ butt with Praise the Sun after a 360-no-lock-on parry, all while using a Rock Band drumset as the controller.

In the world of Dark Souls, there is no such thing as chance, no dice rolling. You die because you did not time your attack/block/combo right. You die because you miscalculated a jump, didn’t anticipate a trap, or were too eager to open up a treasure box (it was a mimic wasn’t it?). This is why I love Dark Souls, and this is what I will be looking for as I assess how true to its name the board game is. At first glance, rolling dice seems like a huge step away from “deliberate,” but I’ll soon see how that plays out.

What I enjoy about board games

When I’m not video gaming, I’m probably board gaming. I have played a range of board games, from solo to party games, from single-player elimination to full-coop, from deck building to one-vs-many type strategy games. In short, I have been exposed to a fair amount of games, and I’ll use my experience in order to give a fair assessment of Dark Souls The Board Game as a board game. In a board game, I am looking for good execution of mechanics and other gameplay aspects.  I also look at the game pieces, cards, and tokens in terms of quality and quantity.

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Dragon Slayer Ornstein & Executioner Smough in miniature figure form. Ornstein’s spear is bent.

What I enjoy about miniatures

Recently taking on miniature painting as a hobby, I am always looking for good quality figures to bring to life. The process of planning, executing, and completing a miniature paintjob is meditative. It is exciting to find new miniatures for new projects. With my love/hate relationship (mostly love) with Dark Souls, I HAD to get the game. Miniature Smough and Ornstein?! Miniature Titanite Demon?! I had to have them. I will talk about the quality of the figures as a miniature painter.

Unboxing and Component Quality

I received my copy of the game a week later than most everyone. After wearing down my F5 key on the Dark Souls Kickstarter comments page, it was not until many have received their copies that I received a notification of my shipping information. Steamforged Games gave brief and vague updates on the shipping process, but in the end, it was a lot of uncertainty. I received my tracking info on  Wednesday night, saying that the package will be delivered by the end of the day on Thursday. By noon on Thursday, the tracking info magically changed to delivery by Friday.

You-Died

Steamforged Games really wanted to tell us how much they know Dark Souls and its playerbase. The first thing I saw upon opening the box was the familiar red capitalized letters spelling out YOU DIED. Underneath was the loot.

The location tiles and the player boards were surprisingly large, with each location tile taking up as much area as the box itself. All location tiles and player boards were made of sturdy and colorful cardboard. The many tokens of various shapes, sizes, and colors are also made of the same cardboard material. These include tokens for souls, embers, heroic action, conditions, and barrels just to name a few. They seemed sturdy enough. The wooden cubes were tiny and the dice were pretty standard. There are two card sizes that make up the collection of boss/monster cards, behavior cards, equipment cards, encounter cards, and more.

The miniatures are really the stars in the box. Two brown boxes contained two sets of miniature figures embedded in a hard, clear plastic. I was lucky that my whole box was complete, with all the cards, tokens, pieces, and figures. After spending enough time on the Kickstarter comments page, I learned that many backers had missing or broken pieces. In fact, many retailers who ordered the retail package that should include 6 base games received only one copy of the game.

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All of my figures were complete and intact, though several of them suffered significant bending while in the packaging. Bent swords and handles were the most prominent issues. The plastic was harder than the plastic used in Reaper Bones miniatures, Star Wars Imperial Assault by Fantasy Flight Games, and Specter Ops by Plaid Hat Games. The Dark Souls plastic also felt lighter, more brittle, and less bendable than the others mentioned. I am planning to use the usual method of submerging them in hot water. I’ll update how effective that is later.

Overall, the quality of the components seem pretty average. The miniatures themselves were of pretty good quality, aside from the bending issues. I can’t wait to get them painted.

The Gameplay

Though I have read through manual in January, I wanted to read it again to refresh myself of the existing rules, and to see if there are any new ones. Even as an experienced gamer, I had trouble getting through the manual. The manual reads like a disconnected flowchart brainstormed by a group of friends fantasizing about their dream board game and the aspects they think it should have. There is no cohesion or fluidity in the way portions and mechanics of the game are introduced. I found myself reading through many pages only to flip back to other pages to remind myself of how certain aspects may be connected.

Here’s a link to the PDF of the manual.

Iconography and Immersion

One of the first things you will notice upon reading through the manual is the sheer number of things to keep track of. There are 20 different icons just for equipment items alone! There are four types of dice, three colors of cubes, and four different types of condition tokens. There are tokens for luck, heroic action, estus flask, and embers. There are tokens for souls, aggro, activation, and wounds. There are three very similar looking icons for the encounter deck which have even more icons on it to dictate which enemies, indicated by different icons, will go on which part of the encounter board based on their icons. There are icons for obstacles in the world such as barrels, gravestones, and traps, which have additional icons on them indicating the damage they deal.

manual icons
Back of the manual shows SOME of the icons you may encounter.

There are equipment cards which include 12 different icons that indicate things such as range, slot, requirements, dodge, block, symbol. These are the equipment that you will place on your character boards which have 11 different features on them to hold your items and to track your stats, stamina, and damage. If you have the required stats, you may equip an item so that you can kill some hollow monsters. The hollow and the undead that lurk the world are controlled by the enemy data cards which have 9 different features on them that include info such as threat level, attack range, movement, health, and more.

When fighting against a boss, the boss monsters are controlled by the boss data cards and the deck of behavior cards that is specific to each boss. These cards include even more icons that indicate the movement and attacks of the boss. The bosses have arcs which try to simulate weak spots, armored spots, and blind spots; these have their own icons as well.

Suffice it to say, there’s a load of things to keep track of even before you start rolling your dice to battle, which inevitably leads to a steep drop-off in immersion. Instead of being excited to slay some undead, I found myself flipping through the poorly compiled manual, crosschecking the enemy card, double checking my equipment cards, and doing mental math every other turn. Each action is followed by a quick stamina check, and each damage followed by a red cube. By the time you deal a killing blow to your enemies, the excitement and satisfaction are gone. The gameplay has become a task of colorful token bookkeeping.

 

Poor Planning

There is no doubt that the developers rode the hype train of the Dark Souls 3 release in April 2017 all the way to the bank. The Kickstarter campaign was unveiled and completed shortly after, promising an extremely quick delivery, which the devs were able to meet within good reason. But despite delivering what seems to be a completed game, it doesn’t take long to notice the poorly planned features and mechanics in your $100 (or more) investment.

Poor planning had been in the mind of many Kickstarter backers. At the beginning of the campaign, the only view we had of the gameplay was a short Boss battle demo at an expo. In fact, the manual wasn’t fully released until January 2017, AFTER the pledge manager closed. For those unfamiliar, the pledge manager is when backers commit to paying the money they pledged in support of the campaign. Because of this move, which Steamforged Games claimed was due to a licensing issue with Bandai or FROM, many backers (including myself) committed to the game with little to no idea of the gameplay mechanics. All we had going for us were the 3D models of the iconic bosses and monsters and the title of Dark Souls. The hype was real, and I take full responsibility in backing the game.

Several glaring issues presented themselves quite readily. There are clunky mechanics that seem to have been added to the game for the sole purpose of being in the game. Other features are also present in the board game simply because they were just in the video game. Many of these have little thought put into them or just seem like complete afterthoughts. Because of this, the game is bloated with unnecessary tokens and features to keep track of just so we can say we have this “thing” that was also a “thing” in the Dark Souls video games.

ember

A look at the video game series sheds a light on the importance of embers in the game. A desperate world bound to fall to darkness must be saved by linking the fires, or else darkness will prevail. The undead and the bosses that are encountered in the world are merely obstacles toward the goal of link or consuming the flames. In this classic good versus evil, light versus dark, embers are the symbol of hope and life. Consuming embers brings humanity and life to the characters. It’s what separates them from falling into permanent darkness and remain as hollows. Embers allow the characters to continue seeking light so that they may kindle and link the last of the flames. Embers are the veins through which the rest of Dark Souls flows. Without embers, there is no need to seek light to combat darkness and evil.

So it is then expected that embers should make an appearance in the board game version of Dark Souls. And it does. And it is the epitome of afterthought. In Dark Souls The Board Game, embers are a collectible loot, like in the video game. However, in the board game, they have been stripped of their feature, function, and importance to the lore. In the board game, there are ember cards and tokens. Their main function: to reduce damage by one in the event that a character should receive three or more damage in one attack.  That’s it!

embers.jpg

When it comes to the most important symbol in the game, Steamforged Games decided that its best function in a board game is to act as a -1 damage modifier in the event of receiving 3+ damage. Where’s the despair in making sure the fires are linked or consumed? There isn’t. In this board game, the end goal is to roll dice until you defeat the final boss.

In terms of equipment and stats, some of them just don’t make sense. For example, the starting weapon for the Knight is the Longsword, requiring only 13 Strength and 12 Dexterity. Two of my first loot pickups were the Shortsword which requires 15 Strength and 23 Dexterity and the Silver Knight Straight Sword which requires 20 Strength, 20 Dexterity, 20 Intelligence, and 20 Faith.

weapon cards

“Why does the Shortsword require more strength? That seems odd,” I thought. I checked the Dark Souls 3 wiki and found that the requirements for their video game counterparts are completely different. In Dark Souls 3 (the video game), the Longsword requires 10 Strength and 10 Dexterity, whereas the Shortsword requires 8 Strength and 10 Dexterity. That seems to make more sense.

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To be able to use the Shortsword, you would have to upgrade your stats once, spending 2 souls, which is equal to defeating one encounter (not to mention the 1 soul you spent on buying the Shortsword).

Now, the Silver Knight Straight Sword… To use the Silver Knight Straight Sword, you would have to upgrade your stats 7 times. Doing this requires 2 souls to upgrade to Tier 1 for Strength, and 6 souls each for Dexterity, Intelligence, and Faith to upgrade them to Tier 2. After spending a total of 20 souls on your stats (plus 1 soul to buy the item), you are now ready to wield the awesome Silver Knight Straight Sword! Yay! Except here’s a huge, glaring issue — you roll the same dice for the basic attack as you would for the Shortsword or even the Brigand Axe, both of which requiring only 1 upgrade (2 souls). How unbalanced is that?!

Speaking still about stat requirements, Dark Souls the Board Game handles Luck a bit differently than its video game counterpart. In the video game, Luck deals with chances and amount of loot dropped and governs resistances. In the board game, it’s a one-time use token that allows you to re-roll one of your attack, block, or dodge dice.

More on poor planning, Heroic Action is a limited player action that is a class-specific skill. It takes up a good amount of space on the character board and must be tracked using a double-sided token.

If token tracking and color coded icons weren’t enough to track, the Taunt system throws you in for a loop — an If, then loop. When you’re supposedly deep in the action of slaying the undead, you get to do a series of checks based on who’s holding the aggro token, who has a higher taunt, who is closest, and how many figures can fit on one location node.

movement

These glaring issues which pop up during every aspect of the game from setting up, character customization, and combat, do little to keep you immersed and engaged. The more you play, the more it becomes apparent that we received an alpha version that is hugely lacking in playtesting. Hype, huge ambitions, rushed delivery, and poor planning all collide to bring us Dark Souls The Board Game.

My impression of how many parts of the board game came about is as follows:

[Dev 01]: Dark Souls 3 has embers.
[Dev 02]: What’s that?
Dev 01 shows Dev 02 a picture.
[Dev 02]: What does it do?
[Dev 01]: You collect it or something, make sure it’s in the game. Make pretty tokens.
[Dev 02]: I read about Sense Fort Rest and traps.
[Dev 01]: Yeah, put traps everywhere.
[Dev 03]: What about parry as a combat action? Or backst–
[Dev 01]: No time, our deadline’s tomorrow!

Luck

As I mentioned already, I love Dark Souls because it is deliberate. It’s difficult, yes, but it is also fair. The issue of luck comes in two parts and they both point toward making the game artificially difficult for the sake of making it challenging.

Combat proceeds as follows. All enemies must activate following the the enemy data cards. Then, players activate and can either move and attack or attack and move. Rinse and repeat. Enemy attacks are resolved by following the specific movement and attack numbers detailed on their cards. Enemies (not the bosses) will always move in a specific manner and always deal the same damage. Enemies DO NOT roll dice to attack. They DO NOT miss. After the enemy attacks, the player has the option to block or dodge. Blocking is determined by rolling dice equal to the player equipment’s block number. Dodging is determined by rolling dice equal to the player equipment’s dodge number.

When the player attacks, the player looks at his equipment card and decides on which weapons to use. Once decided, the player rolls dice equal to his attack. The number of hits are then subtracted from the enemy’s fixed number of block or resist. The enemies DO NOT roll dice to defend.

The two issues are: enemies have fixed values and players are at the mercy of the dice. The combination of the two makes for an extremely unbalanced system and a frustrating game.

Here’s an example scenario: One of the first combats you might encounter might be against crossbow hollows. Their data card moves them away from players and allows them to shoot with 3 damage without fail. On the other hand, even players with the best equipped characters can die due to bad rolls. This is because everything that a player does in combat, except for movement, relies on dice rolls — attacking, blocking, and dodging.

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Death will come not because you didn’t plan ahead or you weren’t well equipped. Death will come because chances are you will. Your best weapon will miss. Your heaviest shield will fail to block. Your rolls will be useless. All because they rely on dice.

In the video game, when you die you can sit and reflect about what went wrong so you can avoid it next time. In this board game, when you die you can sit and reflect about how you can roll the dice better next time.

 More Luck

Dark Souls The Board Game gives the impression that you should be able to plan your character to be the best at what he does. It does this by giving you a hard cardboard of each character, with slots for tracking stats for Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, and Faith. With the proper stats, you can then wield the best weapons and wear the best armor so you can defeat all that lies in your path.

The only problem is that the Merchant/Loot system is broken. Upon completing a grueling encounter, players gain 2 souls per player in their souls stash. These can be used to upgrade stats and buy weapons. Except “buy” isn’t really the right word for it. The more appropriate word is “gamble.”

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On the bonfire tile, a deck of about 70-100 equipment cards is shuffled and neatly stacked into one pile. These cards include common weapons, transposed weapons, armor, upgrade materials, and embers. When players “buy” from the pile, they simply spend one soul per card that they pick up. That’s it! Whatever you get from that pile is yours to keep. There is no selling system and there’s no telling what you will get.

Because of this system that is purely based on luck and gambling, the character planning dissolves away. Instead of planning to increase strength so you can wield a huge axe, you never really know if you’ll ever get to see that axe. What ends up happening is that character stats and upgrades become the consequence of the equipment that was bought. In the end, your Assassin will have 4 Tiers of Faith because the first weapon you “bought” needed it, and not because you planned it all along.

So between poorly managing your character stats and gambling your souls on maybe getting that cool scythe you thought you could wield, good luck with your Poison Mist and buckler. Remember, enemies never miss, but you can. In fact, enemies will always hit with their attacks and always block your attacks. You, on the other hand, are prone to missing your attacks, your blocks, and your dodges because of dice.

Is it all bad?

No. It’s not all bad, but the bad are so bad they send the good to the Abyss.

Some good things include the Boss Behavior Cards that act as automated AI cards that control the bosses. Just like being able to watch-and-learn the boss actions so you can defeat them, the Boss Behavior Cards are able to emulate this aspect of the video game well. Throw in Boss Heat-up and you have a little bit of unpredictability that simulates a Boss transforming to a more powerful version of itself after taking some damage. With the addition of the Boss Arcs, which breaks the boss miniatures into sections of strong spots and weak spots, boss battles can be quite entertaining and fun. Being able to plan your actions around the Boss, anticipating attacks, and finally defeating the boss can be rewarding. But keep in mind that you have to go through the hordes of undead and hollows first.

boss-arc

Another cool idea is the Campaign Mode which has specific setups that give the game more cohesion and the players purpose. At the moment, there are two Campaign Scenarios, one for Dark Souls 1, and one for Dark Souls 3, each composed of three sections with specific mini bosses and a final main boss. For example, with the Dark Souls 3 campaign, players will find themselves fighting through the High Wall of Lothric, the Undead Settlement, and the High Wall of Lothric with showdown battles against the Winged Knight, the Boreal Outrider Knight, and finally the Dancer of the Boreal Valley.

These bosses, mini bosses, other lesser enemies, and the character figures have been sculpted pretty nicely with few minor issues. I will be spending some good quality time painting these miniatures for sure!

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The Verdict

Dark Souls The Board Game successfully surfed the hype of its video game counterpart, but what looks good on the screen and on paper doesn’t seem to have translated well on the tabletop version. The mechanics and gameplay are plagued by many unnecessary and poorly planned features that create a highly bloated game that frequently pulls players out of the already-shallow immersion.

As a board game, multiple unbalanced systems artificially attempt to simulate the difficulty and unforgiving nature of the Dark Souls series. Unfortunately, these lend themselves only to create a purely luck-based, dice-throwing mess. With the poorly executed loot system, combat becomes a chore and defeating enemies doesn’t carry any sense of reward. The dozens of icons and tokens to keep track of make the game a bookkeeping nightmare. Without the Dark Souls tag, Dark Souls The Board Game is a medieval-fantasy grind-fest of a dungeon crawler with modular tiles and a broken character customization.

As a Dark Souls game, the board game shares only the title, names, and iconic characters and items. Of course, many players will see the miniatures of Smough and Ornstein and other memorable characters and be instantly drawn to the board game, as have I. But aside from the familiar names and bosses, Dark Souls The Board Game seems to have forgotten its origin. The Souls series have earned the reputation of being brutally difficult yet fair. The board game is simply unfairly difficult. Crucial aspects of the video game have been adapted for the board game just as an afterthought with little to no relation to their original significance. It seems the devs followed a simple plan of “If it’s in the video game, we’ll just add it somehow to the board game.”

If you’re looking for a fantasy dungeon crawler, there are other better options out there. If you’re looking for a Dark Souls board game, there are other better options out there.

Should I buy it?

If you’re on the fence about getting Dark Souls The Board Game, here’s a questionnaire to help you decide:

  1. Would you play chess by yourself?
  2. Would you play chess by yourself and have your actions be determined by dice?
  3. Would you play chess by yourself and have your actions be determined by dice, and every once in a while the captured pieces randomly come back on the board?
 If you answered yes to all these questions, you should still not get Dark Souls The Board Game.
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4 thoughts on “Review: Dark Souls The Board Game

  1. Haha this was a great review of the game. I was curious to see how it all worked so thanks for breaking it down 😀

    That said, would you like to share your articles in our FB group? We’re a growing community of gaming bloggers and we’re always looking for more great writers to share their work and discuss all things gaming. Just search for “Game Bloggers United” on Facebook.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This was a well written review that articulated my problems with the randomness of dice while shinning a light on other problems i had not heard of.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. First really deep review I’ve read of the turd that Dark Souls TBG was destined to be from the moment Steamforged chose to meet their original deadline.

    This thing should have been delayed for two years to be acceptable or good.

    Such a waste.

    Liked by 1 person

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