Publisher: Steamforged Games Ltd
Number of Players: 1-4
Play time: 90-120mins+
Age Guide: 14+
Type: Co-operative
Mechanisms: Modular Board, Dice Rolling, Node Movement, Character Progression, Enemy AI

Okay, I’ll get this one off my chest straight away: I’ve never actually played the Dark Souls video-game. Any of them. On any platform. I’m not even sure why, as I’ve been a Playstation gamer since its first incarnation and the game has received critical acclaim. That said I’ve always been more of a run’n’gunner than hack’n’slasher.

This will inevitably hamper my ability to give a fair comparison of the board game to its digital counterpart. That said, it also means I’m not a biased Dark Souls fanboy. So if I’m not a fan, why did I get the game in the first place?

Dark Souls The Board Game - Dancer of the Boreal Valley Screen Grab

In-game footage from the video-game Dark Souls 3, featuring the Dancer of the Boreal Valley.

Well, I am a fan of miniatures, and when I saw some of the bosses for Dark Souls it made me want to dig out my brushes despite not having painted a thing for a decade or so. I suppose I was also intrigued by demos I’d seen of the “programmed” Boss battles.

Whilst not a Dark Souls video-game player, I’ve played plenty of similar games that feature the same kind of final, end-of-level dance around an absurdly powerful foe, usually part skill and part remembering a set sequence of moves, and it appeared the game strove to replicate this experience.

Dark Souls The Board Game - Dancer of the Boreal Valley Miniature

Dancer of the Boreal Valley miniature from the board game.

So with that in mind, let’s see how Dark Souls performs. As a board game first and foremost, but I’ll also see if it gives me that digital vibe at the same time, without being compromised by gushing about how awesome the Dark Souls series is.

Components

Dark Souls The Board Game - Components

There’s a reason for the big box.

Popping the lid off the box and you’re immediately greeted by a “You Died” message — a nod to the message constantly seen in the famously harsh video game. Once you’re past that inspiring motivational message there’s a sight that’s familiar to a lot of Kickstarter miniature game backers: a couple of brown cardboard boxes containing injection-moulded goodies.

Dark Souls The Board Game - You Died

Charming!

Although I was one of the first few to get hold of the game, I’d heard mixed rumblings on the grapevine about the quality of the miniatures — not so much the sculpting or moulding, but the plastic quality and assembly quality control. All I can say is, either I’ve been lucky or the few negative reviewers haven’t.

The plastic is that nice balance: soft enough to stand up to some table abuse without snapping, and yet not so soft as to result in Bendy Weapon Syndrome. Detailing and poses are good, the bosses are satisfyingly HUGE and I haven’t had any of their limbs detaching. Yet.

In fact my sole niggle on the miniatures front is that the colossal hammer of Executioner Smaug (he’s the guy sporting what can only be described as Neck Breasts) is so big and heavy that it slightly bends the shaft of the weapon by sheer weight of plastic alone.

Dark Souls The Board Game - Bosses

A vac-formed clamshell of awesomeness. The boss miniatures are huge: the tile they’re sitting on is a foot wide.

Although there’s a decent quantity of miniatures in the box, it’s not an intimidating amount for those wanting to slap some paint on them, and the colour palette is pretty limited (mostly metal) so it’s good choice for new painters or just lazy old gits like me.

The Sentinel models possess hilariously small heads (and/or absurdly big bodies) and the Silver Knight Great Bowmen have impractically big bows that look like they’re firing lances (from the hip no less), but I presume these are faithful reproductions from the video game, so I’m going with it.

Dark Souls The Board Game - Tiny Head Huge Bow

I guess extreme violence mostly stops folk laughing at these two.

There’s a card tray stuffed to the brim with good quality cards. At first I thought “Cool — card storage and a caddy in one!” before realising that, lacking a lid, it’s completely useless once you remove the cellophane wrapper. Fortunately there’s plenty of spaces in the miniatures boxes for baggies of cards.

Talking of baggies, none are provided, which is a shame as in addition to cards there are a fair few counters. Your best bet is a small compartmented box you can store in the main box. The counters all punch out incredibly easily and are made of good card stock. The artwork is top notch although some of the item tokens are a little too similar and hard to discern as the imagery is just a bit too dark.

Dark Souls The Board Game - Cards

There’s the odd splash of colour, but not enough variation to differentiate easily between cards.

That actually goes for the card backs too. Everything is very samey. Once you read through set-up and the rulebook and know the iconography a little then it’s more understandable, but the cards could have benefited from a wider colour palette to distinguish the types.

Whilst the rulebook at first glance seems lengthy and complex, and perhaps not laid out quite as well as it could be for introductory play, everything is there, and within the first few encounters and one Boss fight you’ll rarely need to refer to it.

Dark Souls The Board Game - Player Boards

I really like the player boards. The character art is great and the cut-outs for the stamina/wound cubes are helpful to stop things getting knocked about by errant dice (although I’d like to have seen the same implemented for the equipment cards and tokens).

If I had one criticism of the player boards it’s that they’re a little too big — it’s hard to fit four of them on an average table along with up to seven board tiles that you’ll need for encounters, plus the various counters and card decks. Then again without making the equipment cards smaller (and they’re already crammed with information), or laying them out in a less intuitive way, it would be a struggle to compromise on size.

Dark Souls The Board Game - Tiles and Nodes

Tiles and Nodes. Do you want to dungeon crawl in style, or rough it?

The room tiles themselves are a good thickness and double sided. One side features a fairly swish looking interior with faux Celtic knot work floor designs, whereas the reverse is home to your typical dingy dungeon, with broken stuff and dirt everywhere. I’m a fan of the latter.

Set-up

For such a lengthy rulebook the initial set-up is fairly basic. First you place the Bonfire tile, where adventurers start, where you’ll store your souls and treasure, and where you level up or buy back rerolls between encounters. It’s also where you end up automatically should any of your party die, using up a precious Spark on your bonfire dial.

You also place the deck of loot cards here, made up of all the basic cards, plus five class-specific items mixed in for each character. You add more of these class cards after defeating the Mini-Boss, of which there are four to choose from in the core set. I chose the Boreal Outrider Knight, mainly because I liked the miniature, despite it seeming far from Mini to me, wielding a sword about twice the height of a man.

Dark Souls The Board Game - Gaming Table

Even solo there’s not much room for all the components.

Your chosen Mini-Boss comes with a deck of behaviour cards, a dial for recording wounds, and a card listing the difficulty level of encounters cards to place on each location tile. Four such tiles are chosen from the six provided and can be placed however you like, so long as their doors line up. The Fog Gate leading to the Boss encounter is placed at the doorway furthest from the Bonfire tile.

After placing encounter cards as directed and putting all the various counters, tokens and miniatures within easy reach, you’re ready to select your hero and begin the game.

Dark Souls The Board Game - Heroes

Warrior, Assassin, Knight and Herald. More heroes will inevitably come with expansions.

There’s four characters to choose from, and I chose the Warrior as I presumed he’d require very little finesse in terms of tactics (run at it, shouting). He also looked pretty Viking, and I have a soft spot for my Nordic pagan ancestors. As such he gets an axe as a starting item, and everyone loves a big axe, right? Besides which, Knights are boring, the Herald seemed poncy and the Assassin appeared woefully under-armoured for the tribulations ahead.

Gameplay

[Download the rules here]

Given the very mixed reception, I decided to give Dark Souls a solo play before letting the games night regulars loose on it. Besides, as I understand it the video-game is a solo affair isn’t it? So I thought I should face the horror alone.

The good thing about solo play is that you get an initial sixteen souls to level up and buy treasure for your character before you set off. This is a huge amount, considering that clearing an encounter will reward you with a paltry two, regardless of how many enemies you defeat.

Dark Souls The Board Game - Thrall Axe Drang Armour

Real Warriors fight with an axe. Everyone knows that. Not sure about Drang armour, but it sounds funky.

This made me feel considerably more confident, especially when I was lucky enough to draw a few half-decent equipment cards that only needed a small bump in stats to let me use them. I also got lucky with an upgrade that added one damage to my rather trick new Thrall Axe, plus a precious Ember that would reduce damage of three and above by one point. Sweet.

Suited and booted, I sauntered into the first encounter feeling reasonably cocksure.

I wasn’t particularly overawed by my initial opposition either — a couple of what looked like skeleton crossbowmen and one similarly puny swordsman. Easy-peasy, thought I… until I discovered that the seemingly innocuous-looking crossbows fired magical bolts, and my Drang Armour’s magical resistance was precisely zero. I’d have to dodge arrows it seemed.

Dark Souls The Board Game - Crossbow Hollows

Skeleton-type-thingeys. A walkover, surely?

This was potentially the Achilles Heel in my otherwise reasonably hardcore character. He also turned out to be crap at dodging and so got fairly peppered by magical bolts before being able to move to a position to deal with the bowmen and their sword-wielding buddy.

Movement and combat in Dark Souls are carried out on nodes that can hold up to three models, friend or foe. You can move one of these per turn for free, or more if you’re prepared to spend some Stamina. Beware though — your Stamina occupies the same bar as your health, so take too much damage and expend too much Stamina and fill the bar, and you’ll be a (very tired) corpse.

Dark Souls The Board Game - Sword Hollows

After my Crossbow Hollow woes, these Great Bowmen looked worse than they actually were. They do affect an entire node so would be more worrying in multiplayer.

However, I managed not to overexert myself in dealing with my foes, and scraped through the first encounter without having to use a reroll (which costs a soul to replenish), let alone my precious special character ability or worse still my Estus Flask (which would remove all damage and spent stamina immediately).

These last two items can only be replenished by resting at the Bonfire, which will reset all your previously completed encounters, so resting is usually something you only do if you’re compelled to by failing an encounter, or you feel like grinding out some encounters for more souls.

Enemies gradually get tougher as you progress to level two encounters, but thanks to my relatively good kit, reasonable luck with the dice and thankfully not encountering too many more Crossbow Hollows, I made it through to the Mini-Boss and my first taste of this programmed AI.

Dark Souls The Board Game - Boreal Outrider Knight

My, what a big, frosty sword you have. This is my axe.

Unlike the basic monsters that have a preprogrammed move and attack on a single stat card, a Boss has a small behaviour deck of randomly selected cards (four in this case) with various attacks. Each activation you flip over a card, resolve the movement and attack on it, then discard, but importantly, you don’t shuffle the discard pile when the deck is finished — you just flip it over and start again, meaning that like a video-game Boss, you can learn the sequence of moves and attacks to best position yourself and avoid trouble.

The fly in the ointment is that once you do a certain amount of damage a Boss will heat up, which adds an additional, more powerful attack to their deck, and also causes a reshuffle, meaning you have to learn the sequence again.

Dark Souls The Board Game - Behaviour Cards

A Boss’s stat card and behaviour deck. For this foe you pick four cards from the five on the left and then add one of the three heat-up cards on the right when he drops to 13 hit points.

However, fortune smiled on me again, and apart from getting a little sliced up with a frostbite-inducing blade that would have cost me large amounts of stamina to move had I not been standing right next to my target, things went pretty smoothly. I was able to make good use of my heroic ability and Estus Flask which allowed me to burn huge amounts of stamina in a devastating final assault.

After nicking the Outrider’s loot (which turned out to be bloody useless to me), it was time for a quick rest at the Bonfire (no spark payment needed after a Boss battle) and then set up again for the main Boss: the infamous Dancer of the Boreal Valley, who appears to be a kind of poster girl (yes, a girl) for Dark Souls, so was an obvious choice.

Dark Souls The Board Game - Bonfire Tile

Bollocks to the Boss loot… I want that shield!

Set-up is identical for the second round as for the first: randomly draw and place tiles, select encounters from whichever difficulty deck you’re directed to on the Boss card (in this case from levels two and three) and you need to keep two rather than one Boss tiles handy for the final battle.

At this point you also get to shuffle in some funky new class-specific booty to the treasure pile, along with some legendary items. Spending a few souls on flipping the next few treasure cards, my eyes lit up at a rather fetching shield and some equally flash armour — I just needed to boost my stats a tiny bit. So I saved my souls and set off again.

After a couple of fairly straightforward encounters, the shiny shield and armour were mine. There were actually better shields available for protection, but I always opted for one that allowed me to use it as a weapon too, which meant two attacks per activation.

However, although the Exile armour gave me two tasty blue dice to roll in defence (much better than black dice in attack or defence), it still had no magical resistance and even more worrying, it made me lose my solitary dodge die. If I encountered any magical attacks it was going to be automatically painful.

Dark Souls The Board Game - Warrior Player Board

The laughably dense, yet marvellously tough Warrior with all his collected Bling and bonuses.

Still, nothing ventured eh? The lure of the bling was just too much and off I set for the final few encounters, revelling in my new kit’s ability to shrug off most attacks and deal enough damage to even vanquish a pair of tiny-headed Sentinels that showed up.

Don’t mistake me — I still had to keep my wits about me with each combat, but the weapons and especially the armour were allowing me to take greater risks and power through encounters more quickly. In fact everything was going almost too well as I flipped the final encounter card before the final Boss… to reveal a room chock full of bad guys, with two Crossbow Hollows lurking on the other side of the room, and worse still the entire room was trapped, which made getting to those nemeses of mine all the more tricky.

Dark Souls The Board Game - Sentinel and Hollows

Uh-oh. This doesn’t look too good… The yellow counters are possible traps, that might automatically deal damage to a lumbering non-dodger like my Warrior.

I felt the sting immediately as the two crossbows hit me automatically for six damage total, reduced to four thanks to my still flickering ember. The rest of the room’s enemies lurched towards me, but my Exile Armour proved its worth against the Sentinel, who was the only opponent to get in range.

I had to deal with the crossbowmen. Even with the help of the ember, Dark Souls isn’t the kind of game where you can just soak up four points of automatic damage per turn. Besides which, whilst i could kite the swordsmen, the Sentinel would have the reach for another pop the next turn, so I had to get to those crossbowmen. There again any of the traps between them and my Warrior might also spell my doom in terms of damage. The only clear path was around the edge of the room, but it would cost me a large amount of stamina to go the five nodes required.

Dark Souls The Board Game - Traps

After the enemies’ activations, there wasn’t really any choice at all. The Crossbowmen had to be dealt with. It was Heroic Ability and Estus Flask time…

I didn’t feel like I had much choice, so it was time for the old Beserk Charge heroic ability, which at least allowed me one stamina-free move in addition to my first, and also allowed me to attack every enemy on a single node, and helpfully the two Crossbow Hollows were sticking together like glue. They never knew what hit them and never stood a chance. A gulp of Estus and my activation ended with the immediate threat dealt with and no damage or stamina on my track. Perfect.

Back to the more mundane attacks of the remaining foes and my Warrior was in his element once again. Laughing off his paltry flesh wounds, he cut them down with almost contemptuous ease and banked the two souls, giving me enough for a final upgrade to my shield before my showdown with the Dancer.

Dark Souls The Board Game - Dancer of the Boreal valley Showdown

Let’s dance…

Apart from a larger fight area (two tiles as opposed to one for a Mini Boss), the second Boss fight played out exactly like the first, although the Dancer has one more card in her behaviour deck than the Outrider, and obviously a load more hit points. However she only has a solitary magical attack in her arsenal, and I was fortunate enough not to draw it for her deck (although i didn’t know it at the time of course!)

Despite being a giant, her attacks were no more powerful than some of the level two encounter monsters I’d faced, so a lot of the time my shield and armour soaked up any damage, and unlike the Outrider there were no nasty Frostbite surprises.

So there was a little bit of deja vu about the fight: I didn’t really get a chance to memorise the deck before it was all over — I just manoeuvred according to the Dancer’s weaknesses and once she was at low enough hit points I burned a load of stamina to launch a final all-out assault to bring her down.

Dark Souls The Board Game - Dancer of the Boreal Valley Kill

The Dancer only had four hit points left by this point, but I wasn’t taking any chances. As it turned out, with a roll like this I needn’t have worried.

It was all an enjoyable enough duel, but it wasn’t particularly challenging — in fact less so than the encounter preceding her. I was partly relieved and partly disappointed.

So the game was over, I had miraculously survived without using a single spark at the Bonfire, and I was left to ponder my Dark Souls experience.

The Low-down

I actually enjoyed Dark Souls a lot more than I thought I would. It seemed well-balanced and although I managed to make it through without dying, I was aware throughout the game that I was walking a knife edge, and several times I weighed my odds and gambled on moves that fortunately paid off.

Combat was also a lot more tactical than I’d presumed it would be. From the plethora of dice of different hues I thought combat would simply be a colossal luckfest, and although luck undoubtedly plays its part, the way you plan and tackle encounters, how you utilize the way that enemies behave to your advantage (such as allowing them to push you into more advantageous positions for your own attack), and how you utilize your own skills and expend stamina play a huge role in whether you succeed or fail.

Dark Souls The Board Game - Stamina and Damage

About as close as things got on a couple of occasions. Uncomfortably close.

The standard black dice with their many blank faces make you feel incredibly vulnerable, but as soon as you have some blues to play with the world looks a little brighter. I never got to use the powerful orange dice, preferring to roll a handful of black and blue instead. Bruising dice indeed as it turned out.

The Boss encounters were novel and fun, and did indeed remind me of a video-game boss, especially when the programmed moves have your foe barging into and madly attacking a blank wall. Having said that I didn’t really find myself having to memorise moves, as I was lucky enough to inflict so much damage that the Boss deck was reshuffled before I’d played through it once, but it was still fun to plan my actions to allow me to attack the Boss’s weak arc each activation where possible.

Perhaps if I’d picked a less “tanky” character I might have had to plan more and the Boss encounter may have lasted longer, whereas I tended to simply rely on my shield and armour to keep me safe and bludgeon my way to victory. Unsophisticated it may be, but I think it was playing to the Warrior’s obvious strengths. I also obviously relied heavily on non-magical protection. A few more Crossbow Hollows or magical Boss attacks and things would undoubtedly have turned out very different.

Dark Souls The Board Game - Games Table gameplay

I can’t imagine this being the last time the table sees any of Dark Souls.

Do I want to play again? Definitely. In solo play I’d love to see how the different characters perform, and I’ve yet to see how the game scales up to more players. I’m a little dubious as to why, when playing solo, you get sixteen souls to spend straight away, and yet with two-players and above you get nothing — I may house rule that: nothing with four players, three souls with three and eight with two?

I’m also equally dubious about the activation order with multiple players — all enemies attack, then one character, then all enemies again, then another character etc. On the plus side because of the way that you plan out combat encounters, more players should result in an immensely intense and satisfying cooperative experience. Or maybe everyone will just die.

Dark Souls The Board Game - Boreal Outrider Knight art

I’d like to try the campaign rules that see you tackling encounters and Bosses in a progressive way resembling the first and third instalments of the video games. You can keep loot and character progress between each session, and also sell unwanted Treasure items for souls, which might make up for the relative paucity of them during the game. You can also dash through previously faced encounters to alleviate the grind of getting back to where you died (which is apparently much like the video game).

Is it worth £100, as I’ve seen it advertised? I don’t think so, although I guess it depends on how much you love miniatures. If you consider that each of the huge Boss minis would probably set you back at least £15 from the likes of Games Workshop then I suppose it looks like better value. But compared to what else you can get for your money in the dungeon crawl sector… I think not, but it does feel like a surprisingly unique experience compared to the competition: it’s not just a crawler-clone with a pasted theme.

Dark Souls The Board Game - Expansions

The game will be well-supported with retail expansions. Kickstarter backers will get all of them as part of their pledge reward.

Kickstarter backers get a better deal. Not only did they get the game significantly cheaper, but come Autumn 2017 (ish), they can look forward to a whole host of additional content to play with, which turns their pledge into good value for money. On the plus side for those that didn’t back it on Kickstarter, all that content will also be retail and not exclusive to backers  — they’ll just have to pay extra for it.

All in all, as a solo experience it’s very enjoyable and I heartily recommend it. It’s more cerebral than you might imagine and doesn’t actually take too long to play. In terms of multiplayer… well, I’m off to rope in some unsuspecting mates to face it all again, so watch this space for an update!

Pros:

  • Suitably imposing Boss miniatures.
  • Nice miniature production all round.
  • Great artwork.
  • Nice interpretations of and nods to its video game roots.
  • Cool Boss battles and surprisingly cerebral combat encounters.

Cons:

  • Very expensive.
  • Potentially long play times.
  • Graphic design could have benefited from more variety,
  • The rules feel like they need tweaking straight out of the box.

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