Often, taking a beloved video game franchise and adapting it for a different medium is a tough challenge, as countless films out there will attest. I’ve always felt the best chance for a seamless conversion of a video game would be to bring it to the table as a board game, but it’s still a fraught undertaking.
When the video game in question is truly iconic, much lauded for its style and innovation, the magnitude of the task increases ten fold. So the bravery of relatively new UK based publisher Steamforged Games has to be applauded as they have taken on the mammoth task of bringing none other the mercurial Dark Souls series to the tabletop.
Successfully Kickstarted last April with a whopping 31,178 backers pledging an eye watering £3,771,474 to bring this concept to life, the game has finally been fulfilled and now the question hanging round this game like a ACME tonne weight can finally be addressed: does this deliver the difficulty, dread and despair worthy of the Dark Souls games?
As one of the most hyped games I have ever known, the day this was delivered was special. It was always going to be for the miniatures alone; finally getting my hands on the Ornstein & Smough figures, as well as the other 22 instantly recognised Dark Souls enemies that are included in the base game box. The great insurance from pledging for this game was always that if the game failed to delivery, at least us Dark Souls fanatics would still have these quite spectacular miniatures to treasure. The quality and level of detail is exceptional, capable of instantly installing a permagrin on your face each and every time you gaze upon them.
It’s not just the miniatures that ooze quality, everything in this near 3.5kg box is well crafted. The game boards are sturdy and illustrated in an instantly recognisable Dark Souls theme. The cards, tokens and custom dice likewise. The rulebook is thorough and well laid out for a 40 page manual, yet still relatively straight forward to digest for a game of this complexity. Included within is a guide for the campaign mode that has been created to accompany the game, back-story and all.
At the heart, Dark Souls: The Board Game is a co-op dungeon crawler for up to four players. It is also tailored very well for solo play, and to mix things up from my usual reviews this is based on the solo-play option. Players explore the game area set out by the tile boards, fighting off the various enemies that spawn when venturing into a location. Each enemy has a pre-programmed attack as indicated on their corresponding card and reward souls when defeated. In true Dark Souls punishing fashion, the player has a turn then all spawned enemies move before it is the turn of the next player, or indeed back to the solo player. With multiple players, the “aggro” token comes into play with all enemies focussing on the character that holds this token, creating an added strategic dimension. If enemies kill a player character, then their souls are left on that node and the player returns to the bonfire and must try and retrieve the souls before dying again.
Like the game that inspired it, the bonfire plays a pivotal role in the game, offering respite from enemies and returning there will let the player buy equipment, use Blacksmith Andre to upgrade equipment or interact with the Firekeeper to level up and also replenish the very useful luck tokens and heroic action tokens. As in the game, resting at the bonfire will restore all enemies as well as refilling your estus flasks. It also houses the fire spark dial, which determines the amount of overall lives the player(s) have. When it reaches zero, the next death is game over.
In a really cool twist from the source game, the staple health and stamina meters have been combined into a single track that is populated with wooden cube markers, with black representing stamina and red symbolising damage. To carry out movement, attacks and other actions, players will take the number of black stamina markers indicated and for every bit of damage they suffer a red marker is added. Should all the spaces on the players board be filled with either black or red markers then the player dies and returns to the bonfire. It makes management and careful planning of actions paramount for success while providing yet another potential pitfall to a swift demise. In the event of a multiplayer game, if one player dies all players are returned to the bonfire.
Levels of equipment available in the game is excellent, all familiar to fans of the franchise. Naturally they provide benefits to players, with weapons determining what and how many dice a player can use when attacking. There is three types of attack dice, with orange and blue guaranteeing hits over the standard black which don’t. Improved armour will increase the amount of green dodge dice that is rolled, and certain equipment, such as rings, bringing with them special bonuses. All told, managing the player inventory is not only a really cool mechanic but absolutely vital for improving your odds of survival.
The ultimate goal of each game is to defeat the boss which players choose and place behind the fog door. In order to do that players must ensure they are at a decent level to face the daunting foe or it will be short work. Bosses act very differently from other enemies and come with their own behaviour deck that will determine the actions they take. As well as many more deadly attacks, the bosses also have far greater health and a “heat up” action that will introduce new, stronger attacks than before when triggered. One advantage to the player(s) is the larger bosses have arcs that breaks the map into four areas, creating weak-spots and blindsides that can be exploited with efficient manoeuvring, bringing a whole new strategic element and replay ability to these encounters.
And these boss fights are just utterly sublime; truly magnificent. They offer a real challenge and feel very organic, flowing in a manner anyone who knows the franchise will recognise. They evolve, change approach and constantly spring the unexpected. It is the single most complete emulation of a video game battle I have ever seen in a board game. Greater than anything I could have imagined last April when backing this game.
However, to get to a point where you are able to take on a boss – or indeed the slightly-less-intimidating-but-still-relevantly-brutal mini-bosses – you are going to have to level up a hell of a lot, and the only way to do that is to grind with repeated runs through the lesser enemies. And while there is no denying that is a fundamental trait of Miyazaki’s masterpiece, it doesn’t quite translate onto the tabletop. It drags the game out to the detriment of the overall experience, with the three solo runs I undertook all taking well over three hours to play. Add in more players, and that could become a five or six hours. Once you get a taste of fighting a boss that adrenaline rush and excitement will become a drug, and the next adventure through the game will become a bit of a slog as you trundle through the almost uneventful to get to the real delight of the game.
It feels a little like Steamforged has gone to the thorough extremes of trying to replicate such a distinguished video game to perfection that somewhere along the way they forgot what actually makes a board game work. While the crescendo is indeed beautiful and brilliant and monumental and mesmerising, the build up is at times flat and unimaginative.
Everything in Dark Souls: The Board Game is all about trying to recreate the experience of the video game, and for all intense purposes, they do achieve this. However, what this teaches us is that games as rich and punishing as the Dark Souls franchise maybe don’t translate as well to the table as you would hope. Where an extremely difficult video game is a challenge to face head on when that formula is applied to the tabletop is becomes frustrating and due to set up involved in psychical games, far more time-consuming. The end result is a board game, that while utterly immense in areas, feels a little long-winded, awkward, repetitive and even incomplete.
Which in a round about way is somewhat true. Given the overwhelming success of Steamforged’s Kickstarter campaign, a multitude of stretch goals got added that have now been grouped into six separate expansions. Keen to remain on schedule, a decision was taken to split the core game and the stretch goal expansions into two print runs, and ultimately two fulfillments. Backers of this game won’t get their entire reward until October this year – and maybe then the game will feel more complete? Although it will probably extend the playtime even further.
Unfortunately, these stretch goals will not be included in the retail version coming later this month, and with a £90 RRP, it’s not a cheap outlay when you consider the Kickstarter backers got twice the game for a cheaper price – the benefit of Kickstarter shining through once again! Although for the scrumptious miniatures alone, I would still class this as a must have for any diehard fans of the series.
Without any doubt, Dark Souls is one of my most treasured and beloved video game series of all time and this board game is something to really admire for its boldness and bravery. It is complex, bursting with a rich theme and has captured the feel and lore of the franchise very well indeed. With an absolutely absorbing and challenging boss battles, ingenious player management and abundant strategies on offer to approach the game it is something that truly deserves a lot of credit.
Yet despite all the positives, as a board game, it does feel rough around the edges; both cumbersome and unbalanced. Tragically, as a champion of physical games, when it comes to Dark Souls, in my eyes digital is most definitely king!
NEXT WEEK: I will continue the “Prepare to Die” theme with a look at a very funny party game…