Dark Souls The Board Game is a weighty board game for 1 – 4 players where everyone should “Prepare to Die”. The game features cooperative gameplay across a game which encompasses a modular board, grid based movement and dice rolling. It all adds together to offer an experience brutal enough to live up the video game franchise’s reputation. Fan favourite bosses, such as Dragon Slayer Ornstein and Executioner Smough, make their way into the box in miniature form. Stretching about as far from family friendly as possible the game is set in a medieval fantasy world where players will take up asymmetrical roles as an Assassin, a Herald, a Knight or a Warrior. The board game takes many concepts from the video game, but does it translate to a different medium? Let’s find out!
For a game that lasts a good 1.5-2 hours Dark Souls The Board Game is incredibly fast to initially setup. Grab the bonfire tile from the box, select 4 random exploration board tiles and set them up in the middle of the table. After grabbing character sheets players are almost ready to go. Most of the cubes for the character sheet, which are used for taking damage or using stamina, and rest of the setup occurs as you play the game. The individual rooms are set up only once they are ventured into, which defines the limits of the exploration side of the game.
Setting up the various room based encounters adds some variation into Dark Souls The Board Game make each playthrough slightly different. It is never a huge, whirlwind of change but more subtle tweaks of enemies that you’ll have to defeat along the way. Each boss data card indicates the amounts of each difficulty type should be drawn, level 1 being the easiest and 3 the hardest. To ease players into the level, and the whole game for new players, the easiest encounters are placed adjacent to the bonfire tile. For a whole quest, for use of a better word, players will have to do this part twice. Once initially to create a mini boss dungeon and then after slaying the mini boss to construct a main boss encounter!
When entering a tile, the encounter the card is flipped over and what the characters will face is revealed. On the encounter card what enemies spawn where is listed, if trap tokens are included, special terrain token locations and the perceived the level of difficulty. The minor enemies have symbols which are used to depict which types and amounts that spawn. Select nodes have differing symbols (Basic, Enemy Spawn, Terrain Spawn) that are used to located where things are placed. Traps are slightly different and cover over nodes, not every encounter will feature traps though. Once this is setup you’re ready to battle.
All movement and combat is built around a node based system. This is a simple way for both actions, with adjacent nodes being the closest in any direction (horizontally, vertically or diagonally). It is an intuitive system once players have learnt the rule that a maximum of three units can be on any one node. This limits melee, 0 range, combat to only ever 3 units at a time. Limiting to a maximum of a 2 vs 1 is extremely beneficial for players as often only one unit can cause a problem. This is especially important when moving around the boss, where up to 4 character units can be trying to separately charge in an deal damage to the boss.
This is rarely an issue though as when against a boss it goes between each players turn. In a full 4-player game if you go last the boss will have had four turns before you even get to move. This is where players are somewhat at the mercy of the boss and the cards in play. It could come around to their turn and their character has yet to be affected. Conversely, they could have already been attacked multiple times, pushed up against a wall and looking worse for wear!
In terms of the character boards there is little to complain about. Made of thick solid cardboard these are going to last a long time. Each features a unique illustration for the character you’ve chosen and room for equipment cards in different slots, a stats block and the endurance bar. This is the most important feature as it must be carefully balanced by players. It is a combined bar for health and stamina, each starting from opposing ends, whenever they meet death comes knocking. Choosing when to use those heavy stamina actions which are effectively severely reducing the characters health pool therefore becomes a risky decision but a choice you’ll have to make. This ties in with the learning aspect that the franchise is known for.
Enemies of any kind have a data card, which contains all the necessary stats including for moving them, who they’d attack and how they move/attack. For the minion style enemies, the threat level is one of the most important attributes; as it helps determine the activation order for the enemies. They always go first activation wise but unless the entry point is next to one of their spawn points this won’t matter too much. While they aren’t cannon fodder chances are they won’t rain down too much pain straight away. Turn order wise it is always Enemy – Character – Enemy – Character etc.
Characters are going to use a lot of stamina while fighting, thankfully they gain 2 back stamina whenever it is their activation. Moving one node is free: with subsequent movement costs 1 stamina per node. Stamina all adds up, so constantly running to kite an opponent isn’t the optimal tactic. Performing a dodge action when an enemy trying to land a hit also costs a stamina. It does mean relying on a dice roll. Still, that stamina could be used to hit a bit harder as attacks have varying stamina costs.
There are two types of attack physical and magical, requiring two types of damage mitigation (Block and Resist respectively). You are at the mercy of the dice gods two-fold for landing attacks and mitigating damage, something fans of the likes of Zombicide Black Plague will feel right at home with. Positioning is therefore key, if you’re consistently in the wrong place it doesn’t matter how good your rolls are.
Distance is key to combat and a mistake in knowing when it is safe to reduce the distance can see the party make a swift return to the bonfire. The bonfire has a spark counter and this is effectively how many attempts the players have, the amount determined by the player count. When a single character of the party dies an encounter is lost, the team travels back to the bonfire tile and the spark counter is reduced by one. When it hits zero the game is not over but it does indicate the final attempt, with a subsequent fail losing the game.
Weapons have multiple attack options to choose from and it is left to the player to choose what is best in the situation. Attacks have stamina costs and as a general rule of thumb the more damage dice the higher the cost. Trying to maximise the size of their health pool by using attacks with no stamina cost is a viable option. That party will then just have to survive longer unless they get some consistently lucky attack rolls.
Playing the odds, working out the statistical chance of hitting, balances the different types of attacks with their stamina cost. For example, the classic long sword has two attack options. The first costs 0 stamina allowing damage to be dealt via a single blue die. The second costs a whopping 4 stamina allowing a black and a blue die to be rolled. Interestingly, the same black and blue dice are reused for both defensive block and offensive actions, however the defensive dodge die is different. Speed wise players can get used to the effectiveness of the dice that bit quicker, as they have fewer calculations odds wise to determine.
For example, the blue dice has sides sword symbols on every side. So, no matter if it is for attack or defence you are guaranteed at least one successful symbol. The black die has one blank side, which comes up more often than not when I roll, giving only a 5/6 chance of at least one success. The rare orange dice like blue always guarantee a hit, though can also provide 4 sword symbols at once! For reference that’s a lot of damage or defence in one go.
There are several ways players can upgrade their character, ranging from the equipment they carry to their stats. Souls are earnt by defeating all enemies from a tile, during an encounter. Note that it does not matter how many units have been killed: instead the party gets souls equal to twice the number of players. In a singleplayer game player start with souls to spend from the get go, 16 to be precise, otherwise a party is sent in soul free. This balances the difficulty of having only one character though does seem a little harsh on 2-player games.
Each piece of equipment has a type, requirements, where it’s worn or held, values for block, resist and dodge and the actions the item offers the character. Using small cards this is a clutter of numbers and icons to understand that increases the learning curve. It feels like too much has been crammed in, I’m not sure a larger card size would be the solution but it would help.
Enough of their negatives though as it is great to have loot to find and use through the experience. Having the choice of character build in terms of weaponry is handled well, making it a trade-off to take a two-handed weapon over having a less effective sword in you left hand and a shield in your right hand. As a party you should also consider the balance of ranged weaponry against melee, with certain characters better suited to one type. The stats that can be upgraded help to drive some choices, enabling players to use better weapons with higher stat requirements.
Resting at the bonfire is a double-edged sword. If any single character dies it is forced upon players however it can be done optionally, at the same 1 spark cost. All the character tokens (Estus Flask, Heroic Action and Luck) are flipped to the ready side and can once again be used, however all encounter cards are also reset. This is great if you want to dispatch more enemies for a new haul of souls otherwise it annoyingly prolongs the battle with the boss. For the sake of players mental health, you do get a free rest after defeating a mini boss before continuing onto a main boss encounter.
Resting at the bonfire is the only way to get all the Estus Flask token, Heroic Action token and Luck token flipped back to ready, but why are they important? Each provide one use abilities that can help during combat. The Estus Flask removes all stamina and damage cubes from a player’s endurance bar. The Heroic Action is as the name suggest a special action only that character can do. Note these powers aren’t game breaking awesome powers and instead at just little one-time aids. The last token is luck and a player can spend this to re-roll a dice either for an attack or defence. The Estus Flask is the most useful of the lot, though they all have the potential to change the outcome of an encounter of any size.
When at the bonfire, players can spend any souls they’ve earnt to buy treasures and change their loadouts with the inventory pile. Some of the items found can be upgrades, instead of armour or weapons. One example of a helpful upgrade is the Titanite Shard. The Titanite Shard increases a weapons attack damage by 1. Each weapon can only have a set amount of upgrades based upon its upgrade slot value. Upgrades an only be applied to weapons by Blacksmith Andre at the bonfire tile, though this is normally when you’d be sorting gear out anyway.
Also at the Bonfire is The Firekeeper: where players must go to level up their stats. The Firekeeper is also able to restore luck at the cost of a soul outside of resting. Levelling up is a bigger commitment, though it is a necessity for most of the treasure players will get their hands on. From Base to Tier 1 the upgrade cost is only 2 souls, the next tier is a further 4 souls and then 8 souls to hit the maximum of that stat. This is where some of the grindy elements come into the game, where players end up wanting to just have those couple more souls to use a new item.
The party has survived the encounters and feels ready to take on the boss. As player enter the boss room a few housekeeping bits are required. The boss cards need to be found, Heat Up cards split out and a selection of the boss cards need to be shuffled to create a draw deck. The boss cards dictate what actions the boss will do on their turn. Utilizing iconography which is slightly daunting the first couple of boss fights will see a decent chunk of consulting the rulebook. After this the symbols make logical sense saying which way the boss moves, if they push characters backwards, how they attack, the damage they deal and whom they attack. These cards do a good job of being a dungeon master once players are used to reading them. Each boss has their own deck of cards, which includes more cards than are used in a single fight, so there is to some extent variation to players’ deaths.
Dark Souls The Board Game is like the video game in may aspects, most prominently is that the brutal player verses the game ethos has been well and truly captured. The dying has certainly traversed mediums the most followed swiftly by the way players must learn how enemies attack. This is key in boss fights, where the card mechanics are unique compared to any other board game I’ve played. Usually, once a deck of cards is depleted the discard pile is shuffled and drawing continues. Instead, when the limited deck of cards for the boss is depleted the discard pile is simply flipped over. The limited number of cards are then in the exact same order allowing players to anticipate the boss’ moves. Bosses hit hard whether you know what they are going to do or not, therefore anything towards knowing when or from what direction to attack from is key to victory.
All attack order knowledge goes to pot somewhat when a mini-boss/boss drops below a Heat Up point health wise. A random boss Heat Up card is added in and all of the boss’ cards are shuffled. You now know most of what can come up but not the order, almost back to square one with another wave of learning. As a result, the first time you encounter a boss it is a unique experience. A second attempt at a boss is like going through an escape room for a second time with the clues moved. You know what to look and it doesn’t quite manage to live up to the original victory. Despite never quite offering the same sense of fulfilment upon completion it isn’t like bosses cannot still cause you plenty of trouble… hint it is almost never safe.
There are two waves of luck within the game, one I can accept as it is the drawing of treasure cards. The other is just not in keeping with Dark Souls skill and timing philosophy. Tension is there from rolling the dice but after a few unfavourable rolls you start to think the dice is against you, as well as the boss. This doesn’t appear as an issue initially. While players face opponents for the first time learning the tactics to survive it isn’t obvious. Once strategies are learnt the skill part ebbs away, resulting in the influencing mechanic of luck to become more apparent.
The rulebook for Dark Souls The Board Game is best described as chunky and rule saturated, still it is comprehensive. It is hard to follow as the flow of learning the rules is often disrupted by “see page X”. Any remaining flow is further diminished if you are new to the franchise, as there are a fair few terms for new players to pick up. It is much easier for those whom have played the punishing video game as they will be aware of the concepts, even if the exact mechanics are tweaked.
It would be impossible not to mention the quality of the miniatures. For some these alone will blow any concerns about the price out of the water. They are solidly built with glorious detailing, perfect for those out there with painting kits at the ready. The miniatures aren’t just reminiscent of the over the top characters seen in the video games but are perfect representations. If you are someone happy to spend the money they give the game a huge table presence, particularly due to their size. If you can justify the price is a personal choice though.
Playing a scenario of Dark Souls The Board Game does require a decent time commitment. It would be nice to have seen a balanced way to play the boss fights, the main attraction for many, as one shot mini dungeons. Repetition is what will make Dark Souls The Board Game stay on the shelf a little longer than most between plays. The grind of harvesting souls, killing meh units and gaining loot does become a little samey after a while. While runs won’t become identical the game falls into the pitfall of similar tactics and strategies being overused by a team of players if they find one to be effective. Again, a way to just take on the bosses would have been ideal.
While setup is incredibly fast the time to teardown is a bit painful. Getting everything to fit back into the box is a bit of an issue. I do wish that companies would think about this when manufacturing games. Things might fit perfectly when all the tokens are flat on punchboards but once popped, unless tokens are left loose to rattle around, the lid struggles to neatly close.
For those used to dungeon crawlers there isn’t too much more than normal going on other than a lot of death. The splurge of information that adorns the cards and sheets make it appear so. After riding the wave of the learning curve then the game opens up and players will start to look past any reservations they may have had, developing strategies against the various foes. The boss fights are the big attractions, even though the rest of the enemy units are brilliantly sculpted too. No matter the size of the boss, mini or otherwise, player get that overriding sense of a hard-fought victory.
Overall, the game is a weighty dungeon crawler by design, which oozes Dark Soul’s famous brutality, yet can hinge on the roll of a die. This sentence will either make you excited or cringe and that should tell you whether the game is right for you. I have scrapped a singleplayer victory utilising my Luck token to end the boss and as a party have seen a boss easily wipe an entire team. I’ve enjoyed my time reviewing Dark Souls The Board Game, it will come back off the shelf again many times in the future but with whom is the decision to be made, not everyone will be prepared to die.
[Editor’s Note: Dark Souls The Board Game was provided to us by Esdevium Games for review purposes. The game is currently has an RRP of £99.99. Check out 365 Games for all board games. It is also available from local UK board game stores, find your local store here]