Yes, Ladies and Gennel’men, it’s Dark Souls!
The hotly anticipated (and hotly kickstarted) board game from Steamforged – the people who brought us Guildball.
Dark Souls is based on the popular video game series of the same name, in which players navigate a fantasy-medieval landscape of enormous castles and fight a whole host of demonic adversaries.
Characters can equip themselves from a wide arsenal of weapons, armour and spells with the end goal of slightly increasing their time between deaths.
Oh, yes. You can expect to die.
Many, many times.
Hence the game’s tagline; “Prepare t’ meet yer maker!“.
The board game follows the exact same premise as the video game – progress through the dungeons fighting a variety of opponents, gathering souls which can later be spent improving stats and equipment, before facing monsterously powerful boss monsters.
I have thrown some coins into the kickstarter hat before, but this would be the first project I’ve backed for both business and pleasure. I liked that there was a “retailer” level pledge; quite considerate of Steamforged to include such a feature so that folks like me don’t feel sidelined by the relentless advance of crowdfunding. I’m sure some other games have also done this (I’m told Kingdom Death added a retailer pledge at some point, but I missed that ship), but I was more actively interested in Dark Souls.
I’ve never actually played Dark Souls, specifically, but I have dabbled with its predecessor, Demon’s Souls, so I have a basic grasp of the game world. While I may not be familiar with any of the named characters, I am more than aware of the game’s lethality.
How would this legendary difficulty translate to the board game? Well, there was only one way to find out…
As I had treated myself to a copy of the game (both for personal amusement and for demonstration purposes), I decided to get with my hot friends and give it a run-through!
I’ve already described the contents of the game on my unboxing video (which can be found on the Shae-Konnit Games facebook page) so I won’t be talking much about that here; it shall be mostly about the gameplay.
The party at this point comprised 3 players; SKPodcast stalwarts, Shae-Konnit (myself), Gordon and Dorian. The core set gives us a choice of 4 characters; Assassin, Herald, Knight and Warrior so our selection was as follows:
Shae-Konnit – Herald, Harold the Uncertain.
Gordon – Warrior, Ailill of Connaught.
Dorian – Knight, Sir Mannfred the Inscrutable, Scion of the Vine (forgoing my suggestion of Sir Stabbalot the Unstable), which means he drinks a lot and cannot be understood while doing so.
The setup was slightly overwhelming at first, as there are a lot of cards. The equipment/treasure cards were a pain in particular, as each character has their own set of equipment cards unique to them to mix with the main treasure deck. Their small size and large quantity meant it’s best to separate them into smaller piles, shuffle those, mix them and repeat this process a few more times. It’s necessary to do this before you manage to get a decent spread of equipment and upgrades, otherwise you could end up with a big pile of upgrades but nothing to actually upgrade.
Once we got all the required decks in place the game actually proceeded quite smoothly.
Now, a few details on the combat system:
All dice in Dark Souls are D6, but the different colours of dice have different numbers on the faces.
Some dice display mostly low results (even 0), and others display mostly higher results. So if your character’s abilities and equipment have them rolling a better quality of dice, you’ll get much higher average results.
Different pieces of equipment also add modifiers as a + or – score and others have you rolling more dice, sometimes of several types.
Characters have 2 hands in which to carry their active equipment, but can store more on their back should they feel the need to switch during an encounter. This means you can chose the classic sword plus shield combination, or go all-out-offense with a weapon in each hand or even with both hands gripping a massive Zweihander.
Characters’ health is governed by 2 factors; how much damage they have taken and how much they have exerted themselves. Both of these are tracked by coloured blocks; red for damage and black for stamina; which fill up your Endurance bar from the left and right, respectively. If this bar becomes filled for whatever reason then the character succumbs to injury and exhaustion, resulting in death.
Death can be staved off by way of restorative Estus flasks, which can recover all damage and stamina, and Luck tokens, which allow you a reroll of a single dice, be it to attack or defend.
The way combat progresses was quite different from the demo game I played at Salute 2016, in which a character could keep making attacks so long as they had enough stamina to do so. The end product is quite different, in that characters can only make 1 attack each turn with each weapon in their hands. You can, however, spend more stamina to launch a more powerful attack which can have a variety of effects beyond increased damage.
For example, whereas Harold would spend extra for a more damaging jab from his spear against a single target, Aillil could spend some more stamina to sweep his axe across every enemy in contact with him.
Enemy attacks are very straightforward – their own stat card will display their behaviour and abilities, with all damage represented as a static number – no dice to be rolled for them!
This does help streamline the enemy turn, and also means you can accurately gauge how dangerous they all are – you may rely on a good roll of the dice on your character’s part, but you can never hope for a poor enemy result. Also, in each and every player turn the enemies activate first, so you have to withstand their assault before you decide what to do with your own activation.
And about those enemies:
What we found interesting was that while enemy distribution in each location was determined by random draw from a deck of cards, at the start of the game you actually get to chose which of the Boss monsters you’d like to fight.
Each Boss has their own level of difficulty, partly represented by the enemies you’re likely to encounter through the game before you finally meet them. As this was our first foray into Dark Souls, we thought the Winged Knight, massive though he was, seemed like the most “easy” of those available options.
This guy is one of the “Mini Bosses” of the game. In a full session, players will encounter a Mini Boss before eventually proceeding to a Main Boss.
(Un)fortunately, we only had time for the mini boss.
And so, we played.
As Herald Harold the Uncertain, I was the supportive character to the two combat powerhouses of Ailill and Sir Mannfred the Inscrutable. My spear meant I could strike from a distance and keep away from the main combats (enemies tend to target the nearest player character, but if it’s your turn and they have an equal choice of targets, they will aim for your character!). My fighting prowess wasn’t too great, as my standard equipment gave me fairly weak attacks and average armour, so the other two often had to protect me. I did also have a talisman which could help restore stamina, but most of the time it seemed a better idea to try killing the enemy.
Early encounters had us fighting small groups of Hollows and the occasional Silver Knight. At first, these guys were quite a challenge and we often felt on the back foot, having to desperately fend off their relentless attacks lest we fail the encounter (all it takes is for one character to die and that’s it; back to the bonfire), but after we cleared a couple of rooms we had accumulated enough souls to uncover a few items of treasure and increase a few stats.
After the game we found that spending souls to get more treasure was the best way to start, as this meant we could pick which weapons or armour we liked the look of and advance our stats to be able to use them (weapons and armour have their own requirements in terms of Strength, Dexterity, etc).
Although we were slightly more tooled-up after our first encounters, we still got absolutely thrashed when we encountered more difficult opponents. Quality of opponents does increase the closer the party gets to the fog gate, behind which lies the Boss battle, so there does come a point when the lesser opponents seem like little more than an inconvenience compared to those brutes you face later.
The more difficult opponents do bring with them a new set of behaviours and much more powerful attacks with varying effects. One such opponent we faced was a towering Sentinel.
This guy was a lot tougher and had a lot more damage output than the Hollows and Silver Knights we’d faced up to that point, and had a dangerous attack that could damage all of us if we stood too close together with the addition of some annoying Push effects which could scatter us about the room. So yeah, it was just a single opponent for us to gang up on, but remember that all it takes is for just one of us to die for us all to fail. Thankfully we had some restorative Estus flasks which could heal us if need be but they are one-use-only over the course of an encounter, only refilling if/when we die, so it’s not something we felt we should rely on.
Thankfully, one single target did mean we could swap characters in and out of combat with it to keep those closest to death out of harm’s way. Having both Sir Mannfred the Inscrutable and Ailill of Connaught in the party, each a dangerous fighter his own right, meant that it wasn’t long before we brought the Sentinel down to our level by way of hacking his legs off.
We found that when there are more opponents, particularly with mixed ranged and melee weapons, they tend to be more of a threat. Since they all act before each player, their varying capabilities could really disrupt our line or even allow them to isolate and gang up on a single character to give him a right good thrashing, and before we knew it we’d be knocking back the Estus flasks like pints on a Rugby club stag night. It would be in such situations where we’d fail most often.
While I’m on the subject, a few more words on death:
Yeah, you can expect to fail more than a few times, with several characters dying over and over – Dark Souls does have that reputation and it is well deserved.
Hence the game’s tagline, “You gonna die, sucka!“.
At the start of the game, the number of characters in the party will determine how many sparks the bonfire has – each spark representing another chance at life. If you use up all the sparks by way of dying too often, it’s game over.
Death in Dark Souls: The Board Game does, at first, seem really inconvenient (*tchoh* I know, right?) in that as your characters respawn, so do all the enemies you’d encountered up to that point; you have to clear through all the previously emptied rooms once again before you get any closer to the Boss. This process, however, is also essential to character advancement.
After we had upgraded ourselves with a few new weapons, facing lower-quality opponents became little more than a speed bump for our party, but killing them does still provide those coveted souls. If we didn’t have to wade through all previously-completed encounters several times over, then we wouldn’t have reaped all those easy souls and so wouldn’t be able to unlock yet more weapons or increase more stats.
Ultimately, without the process of respawning we would not have been able to accumulate the skills and equipment necessary to even stand a chance against the Boss.
And what a Boss he was:
Once we successfully carved a red path through all the Hollows and Silver Knights leading up to the fog gate, we felt more than ready to take on the Winged Knight!
Unlike the rest of our opponents, Bosses’ behaviour isn’t so straightforward and immediately predictable. Each Boss has their own deck of cards which dictates their actions on a turn-by-turn basis, so we wouldn’t know what the Winged Knight might do to us until he actually did it.
Unfortunately for us, said actions included rushing straight at us, waving his massive halberd around.
Bosses are large enough to effectively make several attacks in a single turn – a single swing from their weapon can cover a wide area. So it was with the Winged Knight, whose halberd could swish from left to right, right to left, or come crashing down on whoever was standing in front of him.
These great swings, however, did often leave him with a vulnerable side where his stance offered less defense, so the party would be in a mad rush to strike at those weak points and score a much-welcomed bonus damage dice against him.
Our first encounter against the Winged Knight was disappointingly short as he cannon-balled into us, slapping us back to the bonfire, but at least we learned how best to approach him and what attacks he was likely to launch at us. (Bosses don’t use all the cards in their behaviour deck; just a random few which they then cycle through, meaning there comes a point when you can anticipate their next actions).
As mentioned earlier, our deaths meant we could rampage through our old foes and collect even more souls, which we promptly spent on increasing stats to use better weapons and armour.
So, we re-entered the Boss chamber again, slightly tougher than before, but it was still a very difficult fight. At least this time we managed to survive long enough to see more than just the first couple of attacks he could pull – aside from trying to chop us up he could also charge into us and shove us around the room.
Sir Mannfred and Ailill were unleashing all their most powerful attacks while Harold the Uncertain tried his best to avoid the Winged Knight entirely, as his equipment was still relatively sub-par – the best weapon he had at that point was a throwing Kukri which could cause the Winged Knight to bleed, resulting in bonus damage on the next blow that actually hurt him. This did result in more damage against the giant, armour-clad jerk but he was not impressed. A few more slashes of his infeasibly large weapon, one more death, and on to our last spark.
At this point we had our tactics sussed – our better equipment meant we could still hurt the Boss with our weaker strikes, so rather than go all out and spend lots of stamina for single, powerful attacks, we decided it would be best to run rings around him and gradually wear him down.
This tactic seemed to be working, and we managed to get the Winged Knight down to his heat-up point!
The heat-up point is when a Boss suffers enough damage to make them angry, and their behaviour then changes. To this end, they all have a secondary deck of more powerful heat-up attacks, one of which is randomly drawn and mixed in with his current set of attacks.
In this case, W.Knight began to pirouette around the room, his halberd swishing in great, circular arcs – if he got too close at this point he could kill us all with a single swipe.
Thankfully we managed to either keep our distance from his blind flailing or turn aside the blows with our new equipment. The plan to wear him down remained in play, and so we continued to hack and slash in turn, growing more bold with our attacks the closer the big Knight was to death.
Finally, after weathering strike after strike and creeping closer to death ourselves, we decided to go all out and spend as much stamina as we could to launch attacks powerful enough to finish off the Knight once and for all.
And so, with Ailill of Connaught unleashing his most powerful attacks, we opened that tin can!
At that, we decided to end our session.
Next time we might fight a different Boss, swap characters, or even take the first steps into campaign play so our treasure and stat advances will carry on between sessions as we fight bigger, badder, dangerouser monsters!
Now that we have board setup and all the different decks of cards sussed, our next game should proceed a lot quicker and we’ll be able to immerse ourselves a bit more and not have to keep consulting the rulebook.
As with many of the more complex boardgames I’ve played, the hardest part is the initial setup – after that it proceeds fairly smoothly.
Does the board game capture the dark atmosphere and lethality of the video games? I’d certainly say so.
Embrace death – it shall come for you more than once!
Hence the game’s tagline:
“I Hope You Guys Are Insured!”