Dark Souls: The Board Game (REVIEW)

One of the hottest Kickstarter success stories arose last year when UK board game publisher Steamforged Games announced that they had acquired the license to make the Dark Souls board game that most fans didn’t know they wanted. Within 3 minutes of the Kickstarter campaign launching, the game reached its initial goal of $72,000, and over the course of its run, would earn well over $5 million, making it one of the most funded board game Kickstarters and the 12th overall project for the crowdfunding service at the time (it has since dropped to 16th).

But was it much ado about nothing?

Getting into the hands of backers earlier this month, I was finally able to see for myself. I was one of the earliest adopters, proudly proclaiming that I am number 387 out of over 31,000 backers. It’s no small secret to anyone who knows me that Dark Souls holds a special place in my heart. It is, without contention, my favorite family of games (including both Demon’s Souls and Bloodborne into the mix). So I make no attempts to tell you that I am going to come into this with a totally unbiased mind. Take that as you will, and let’s get on with it.

With Dark Souls: The Board Game, the designers over at Steamforged Games attempted to recreate the sense of dread and oppression that the video games so effortlessly exude. They wanted it to be “hard, but fair,” a moniker that fans will often tout as being one of the hallmarks of the franchise. It’s true that with plenty of practice and a lot of patience, anyone can conquer the challenges of Dark Souls. So did they succeed? It would be quite the daunting, if not impossible task, to translate a game of such precision and finesse into a tabletop experience, so instead Steamforged opted to go the more traditional dungeon-crawl route and simulate the video game’s tense and weighty combat with dice, AI behavior cards, and tactical node-based movement.

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1-4 players will suit up as one of the 4 starting classes: either the Warrior, the Assassin, the Knight, or the Herald. Backers of the Kickstarter will be receiving a second wave of shipments later this year, which include the stretch goals, and among them, additional classes. These initial 4 fulfill specific roles, and veteran Souls players – or anyone knowledgeable in typical RPG-tropes – will know what those roles are from name alone. The Knight is your tank, the one you want to soak the damage so the others don’t have to; the Warrior and Assassins are your damage dealers, focusing on either large and heavy or small and quick weapons, respectively; and the Herald is a bit of a hybrid, boasting adequate defense, low attack, and minor utility to aid the other players.

Each character has their own unique player board, which has spaces for equipment, stamina and health, and various one-time use tokens. The stamina and health track is the most important part of each character’s board, perhaps in conjunction with their gear; 10 slots are punched into the board to form the character’s joint stamina and health bar. For certain actions the players take on their turns, they must add 1 or more black stamina cubes, starting from the left side. For any damage the character receives, they add 1 or more red cubes from the right. If at any point these two paths meet, the character has died, and the whole group must return to the bonfire.

Like in the video games, the bonfire serves as your place of respite. At this location, players can level up, purchase new items, swap out their gear with anything they have stored in the inventory, and attach upgrades to equipment that have available upgrade slots. Players may also choose to rest at the bonfire, which will allow you to refresh any of the used-up abilities, but also returns any defeated enemies back to the board. Dark Souls: The Board Games is played on a series of modular tiles – large and fairly thick, but visually stark and uninteresting. On these tiles are a series of nodes, either yellow, red, or purple. These form the grid for enemy placement and character movement during the course of the game.

When the party enters a room for the first time, an encounter card will be revealed. This card details which enemies are present, and the exact locations they spawn, as well as any additional information such as treasure chests or traps. After setting up all of the enemies, players then choose their starting location – any node adjacent to the door that they entered from. An adjacent node, for all purposes of the game, is anything 1 space away either horizontally, vertically, or diagonally. Players can choose to group their characters up or try to spread out, but there is a limit of 3 models (player or enemy) per node. Should a fourth enter a node, one model must be pushed off to an adjacent node. Many actions can push either characters or enemies, and how you use this to better position yourself plays a huge part of the game’s tactical feel.

Actions are taken in turn-based fashion, and already this is an immediate departure from the video game. Enemies will always activate first, and they do so in order of their taunt levels, which is indicated on the upper left of their behavior cards. These cards detail everything you need to know about an enemy: its health, its block (physical) and resist (magical), where it moves and how many spaces it does so, and how much damage it does when it attacks. This is a game heavily dependent on knowing what the symbols mean, so expect to be flipping back and forth through the rulebook your first and second time playing, and even then occasionally afterward.

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When an enemy moves, it will move towards a particular target: either the player who is closest, or the player with the aggro token. Players tied for closest is broken first by whether or not one of them has the aggro token; if neither, then whichever character has the higher taunt level as shown on their character board. If an enemy moves toward the aggro token instead, it simply ignores everyone else. The holder of the aggro token is determined by a couple of things: initially, when players enter a room for the first time, designate one player to be the aggressor. Think of this as them leading the charge and drawing the attention of the enemy first. Other than that, the player who last performed their actions will be the new aggressor.

After resolving movement, then resolve damage. Enemies have a flat damage value, so to mitigate, roll dice equal to the number of appropriate symbols you have showing on all of your equipped gear. If the enemy is dealing physical damage, check your block; if they are dealing magical, look at resist. Roll the dice, and take damage as necessary, if at all. Additionally, players can choose to dodge attacks and attempt to ignore the damage entirely if their gear shows any value next to the dodge symbols. All enemy attacks have a dodge value that must be met or exceeded in order to successfully dodge it – typically 1 or 2. The dodge dice, however, are split: 3 sides are blank, 3 sides are successes. Furthermore, dodging also costs 1 stamina, and should you fail the dodge, you take all of the damage. It’s an all or nothing gamble, but whether you succeed or fail, when a player performs the dodge action, they may choose to move to 1 adjacent node if they wish at no extra cost. Sometimes you may want to dodge and risk getting hit just to get into a better position for later.

Where Dark Souls: The Board Game really cranks up the difficulty, however, is that all enemies perform their actions in between each player. So, for example, a brand new encounter would start with all of the enemies’ actions, then it would be a player’s turn, then the enemies would go again, and then the next player in clockwise order. Because of this, downtime can be a serious issue, especially if some players take exceptionally long turns or if enemies are making some slightly more complicated maneuvers. This is more an issue when you’re learning the game, however; after several sessions when everyone is familiar with the game, turns should be brisk.

On the player’s turn, the first thing they do is gain the aggro token. Then, if they have any spent stamina on their bar, they remove up to 2. They may also swap gear from their equipped slots with anything in their backup slot. You can hold a max of 3 weapons (shields are classified as weapons), but you can only have 1 equipped in each hand, so anything extra you have goes into your backup. Some items can even be used from the backup slot. For their main actions, players can move and attack in either order, but may not split up these actions (such as move, attack, move). Characters may always move the first time for free to an adjacent node, but any additional movement is considered a Run, and costs 1 stamina for every extra node. Afterwards (or before), players may attack once with each equipped weapon they have. The weapon cards have a number of symbols on them as well, but the most important ones at this time are the range, the stamina cost, and the dice.

Many weapons have tiered attacks – think of this as the light and strong attacks from the video game. For the most part, light attacks cost little to no stamina, but also have the weakest potential. A second, and sometimes third option may be available for a cost of stamina. Knowing when to effectively manage your stamina use is key, just as it was in the video game, but perhaps even a little more so here simply because of how the health and stamina bar is tied together. The weakest dice – the black ones – have a number of sides with 1 or 2 successes on them, but only a single blank side. The blue dice range from 1 to 3 while the orange dice from 1 to 4, and neither of these have a blank side. Because of this, things don’t always feel so stacked against you.

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For every encounter you successfully defeat, you’ll earn 2 souls per player. Unlike the video game, these are not stored on your character, but rather they are placed in a cache back at the bonfire tile. These are not lost upon death and you don’t earn souls individually; instead, you decide as a team how to best split up the rewards, who should level up, and what character should equip the new piece of loot you just purchased. But that, unfortunately, leads to one of the game’s biggest problems: the treasure deck.

Perhaps the most egregious difference between board and video game is how new gear is obtained. The treasure deck is a massive heap of cards ranging from decent to obscenely powerful, and when players return to the bonfire tile, they may spend a single soul to draw the top card from the deck. The problem may not be imminent, but if you find yourself spending far too many souls on gear that no one can equip, or even wants, then you’ll know. Perhaps a better method would have been some kind of shop where players can see a limited number of items and choose from those which ones they would like. As it is, the treasure deck is the most random part of the game – and this is a game with a lot of dice rolling.

Chances are, when you purchase new items, you probably won’t immediately have the stats to equip it. So you’ll need to spend souls leveling up. Each character has four tiers of stat gains, all with varying thresholds: Base, and Tiers 1 through 3. Leveling up from the Base to Tier 1 costs 2 souls, from Tier 1 to Tier 2 costs 4 souls, and from Tier 2 to Tier 3 costs 8 souls. With a full group of players, because you’ll only be getting 8 souls per encounter, and there are four encounters available before a boss, you’ll have to be extremely precise with how you spend those souls, and in that respect, the game adheres very closely to its inspiration.

Once players clear the way, they can finally attempt the mini-boss. Defeat it, and the board resets with all new encounters and the final boss waiting at the end of the road. The way bosses and mini-bosses behave is fundamentally the same as normal enemies, with the most distinguishing factor being that normal enemies have a single behavior card and bosses have a small deck of them. This deck determines how they move and attack every single round, so players will need to constantly be on their toes when fighting one of them. In a very Soulsian twist, however, when the deck runs out, it is not reshuffled. Instead, it is simply flipped face down again and the boss will behave in the same order. Because of this, players can learn patterns and try to remember which attacks are coming up to better position themselves.

But it wouldn’t be a Dark Souls board game if something didn’t mess with your plans. When a boss reaches a particular health threshold – roughly half – it enters into its second phase. When this occurs, players will add a randomly shuffled Heat Up card from the boss’s deck into their current AI hand, and then shuffle it. This gives the boss an additional, unpredictable behavior, and also revitalizes the encounter to keep players constantly on their toes. Bosses also have a few symbols exclusive to them, and the way they target players is different. The larger bases for their models is split into four arcs (as shown below), and many of their attacks will target all players in a particular arc within range. This means that positioning is even more crucial now than ever.

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There’s so much more to the game that I haven’t covered, like gravestones which serve as the board game’s version of the online messaging system and allow players to see one or more of the behavior cards for a boss before the fight; barrels and traps, which act as obstacles that can either hinder your movement or damage you; the campaign mode, which modifies some of the rules for extended play and takes players on a loosely reminiscent version of Dark Souls 1 and Dark Souls 3’s stories; each character’s heroic action, which gives players a little bit more individuality in how they play, and more.

Dark Souls: The Board Game doesn’t completely reinvent an exhausted formula; much of the tension still comes down to the roll of the dice, and for a board game based on a franchise known for beautiful, complex worlds, the tiles don’t do that the least bit of justice. But the way characters can move and push other models around, how the bosses behave and react – it all feels very much like what a video game’s mechanisms would be if translated into a board game. Conveniently, that was the point. A large aspect of the Souls games was using an enemy’s AI against it: backing it into walls, or using pillars and other obstacles to create distance between you and it. And playing this, that feeling is translated pretty effectively. This gives the players a slightly twisted dungeon master feeling, as they maneuver enemies into legally valid positions all the while opening their own characters up for pincer attacks and access to their weak spots. The ability to control exactly how an enemy moves according to its behavior card is a crucial factor in the game’s tactical element and one I feel many people will simply overlook.

But it’s not perfect: the rulebook is structured more like a table of contents rather than a “how to play” guide; the downtime can be a huge turnoff for many people; the absurd luck of the treasure deck will often be the difference between doing well or not, even more so than the dice; and, of course, the game’s relentless difficulty and the repetition of encounters if you die or rest at the bonfire are acquired tastes, but certainly hold true to the IP. But there are an abundance of “moments” in this game that will outshine the rough edges. It’s certainly a game aimed at fans of the franchise first and board game enthusiasts second, and for that there’s little persuasion to be done. But without question, Dark Souls: The Board Game captures the essence of what it feels like to fight a video game boss better than any board game before it.

Players: 1-4
Time: 2-4 hours
Age: 14+
Set Up/Clean Up: Long/Long
Difficulty: Hard
Component Quality: High
Final Verdict: Great

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