The Dark Souls video games, a dark fantasy action RPG hybrid, have been played by millions, would seem ripe for a tabletop interpretation as part of an elaborate pen and paper RPG. Steamforged Games took the risky move of bringing the beloved IP to Kickstarter as a full-fledged miniature-based board game. Dark Souls: The Board Game’s Kickstarter looked extremely promising and broke backing records for tabletop games, bringing with it the high expectation of quality and fidelity to the source material. Does Dark Souls: The Board Game meet its lofty goal of bringing the on-screen experience faithfully to cardboard or is it destined to die a quick death?
For those unfamiliar with the Souls series, you play as one of many undead heroes cursed to be eternally resurrected in a decaying fantasy landscape until you renew the world or condemn it to darkness. It is known for its dense lore and its brutal but gratifying difficulty, rewarding patience during combat and punishing recklessness and overconfidence. Dark Souls: The Board Game attempts to recreate all the video-game’s most recognisable features. Players choose from characters with familiar class names and begin around a bonfire. You explore the dilapidated villages and abandoned castles looking for equipment and items while carefully negotiating encounters with ever stronger enemies. As you play you acquire souls which you can use as currency to purchase equipment and character upgrades but if perish you restart at the bonfire without the souls you gathered up till now. You will need to regain them by returning to where you lost them. Once the area is clear, you can reset it by resting at the bonfire, replacing all the enemies back to their starting positions allowing you to collect more souls. Once you’re ready, you can pass through the fog gate and challenge a powerful boss to progress to the next stage where you start the process all over again.
For the most part Dark Souls: The Board Game sticks closely to this design with a few changes to accommodate the tabletop format. While in the video game you can die or rest at a bonfire any number of times in the board game this is limited depending on the number of players. Since you can also be joined by up to 3 other players if any one member of your party dies during an encounter all players are brought back to the bonfire to start again. In its default setup, you play to defeat one mini boss and then reset again for the main boss. Defeat this boss, and you win the game. There is also a campaign mode, taking you through setups with a familiar progression to the original Dark Souls and Dark Souls 3, with a few additional rules to account for the longer play time.
Let’s start with what Dark Souls does best: it recreates the feeling of the video-game’s combat perfectly. Attacking, defending and dodging are done the same way. Match the number of dice indicated on your equipment cards for the type of action, roll those dice, count up the results symbols, match the total up to the enemy attack, defence or dodge number and apply the result. This keeps combat moving at a nice brisk pace with lots of make or break dice rolls to get excited about. Most actions taken will require some use of stamina which is on the same track as your life bar. Fill up the whole bar, and you die to create a nice risk versus reward mechanic for life management.
Movement is handled by nodes which are printed on the board tile. Players can move to any adjacent node in any direction creating a very good sense of movement. The first move is free, but additional moves will require the use of stamina requiring some strategy to manage the distance between your characters and the enemies.
Enemy behaviour is printed on cards in the form of icons that dictate movement and attacks. Once you understand the icons, combat moves quickly and smoothly and encounters evolve into solving small puzzles, finding the optimal way to exploit the enemy behaviour to quickly eliminate them.
This becomes even more evident in the boss fights. The bosses have 4 easily identifiable arcs with not only determine their facing and where their attacks will land but also where there are weak, granting bonus damage to attacks to that arc. Each boss comes with a small deck of behaviour cards which are randomised and then drawn in order so their pattern can be exploited if you have a good memory. Half way through the fight a boss will get ‘fired up’ adding a new powerful attack and reshuffling the behaviour order. Anticipating the boss’ attacks and exploiting the weaknesses is where Dark Souls really shines.
The collaboration with From Software in the art department is evident as each miniature is pretty much picture perfect compared to their game counterparts. The boss miniatures are fantastic, towering over the player characters and absolutely jammed with intricate detail. Dark Souls fans will adore seeing favourites such as Executioner Smough and Dragonslayer Orenstein in plastic form.
The board game version also recreates the video game’s need to ‘grind’, meaning to repetitively return to previously completed areas to acquire more experience or currency, in this case, more souls. This is very authentic to the Souls experience but can frustrate some players, especially those not invested in the game genre. Repeating the same battles, particularly when you have better equipment and don’t even need to roll for attacks anymore, can either become tedious or it can be a rewarding indicator of your character’s growth.
Sadly Dark Souls: The Board Game fails to replicate one fundamental element of the electronic version, and that is the exploration portion. Discovering what comes next and being surprised is a big part of the Souls series. In the board game, the large square tiles are laid out in advance, and the only real differences between them are the pattern of the coloured nodes used for enemy and feature placement and the number of entrances. There are no tiles with fewer nodes, different shapes, or built-in hazards meaning they could all have been blank and cards could have been used exclusively for setup. They are nice and thick, and the artwork on them is very evocative of the game, but they miss the mark at making us feel that we’re discovering a location. Trapped rooms are also a complete failure of execution at making the room’s distinct. If the scenario card for the room indicates traps, then each empty node will have a hidden token that could contain a trap icon underneath. Randomness could result in all the nodes being trapped, and enemies cannot trigger them which is a valid strategy for defeating them in the original Dark Souls games.
Character progression is also misleading. The only benefits to stat upgrades are to meet the requirements for new equipment cards which are provided from chests or purchasing cards from the blacksmith. This equipment is random which can frequently provide you with useless gear. I spent an astonishing amount of time and souls drawing cards looking for useful upgrades to progress through the game. It could be entirely possible to have a totally wasted play session simply due to the luck of the draw from the equipment deck. With multiple players this issue is mitigated, there is a higher likelihood of the item being useful to someone though occasionally this still resulted in one character needing to run and hide because their gear wasn’t up to par while the others participated in battles. Once you do find the new equipment, you will need to spend souls to upgrade your stats, but due to the limited number of resets, you may not be able to pay the necessary cost. So far I’ve tried a few house rules to try to relieve this issue like a default buy back system (there is one in the campaign mode but not in the base rules) or an available item pool, but nothing works entirely well yet. I would recommend checking BoardGameGeek’s page for more house rule suggestions.
The manual is unfortunately poorly laid out and will require several readings to explain all the core concepts. On my first two solo sessions, I had missed the critical setup step for 1 player games of adding 16 souls to the available pool before starting. This was not described in the setup instructions but later on when describing the functions of the bonfire tile. Similarly, the steps for resetting the game after the mini-boss are split between the setup section and the boss encounter section. Some of the icons that appear on equipment and enemy behaviour cards, in particular, the repeated action icon, also need to be researched in several places and we constantly needed to search through the book again to be reminded of what the Ember item did despite there being an inventory card for them.
I feel like I have been unfairly negative in my review because I genuinely enjoy playing Dark Souls: The Board Game but as a fan of the series I have trouble being as objective as I could be and this makes its flaws more apparent. I really wish that more time had been taken to refine the elements that are either lacklustre or don’t quite align with the source game’s feel and mechanics and can’t help but feel that this is a game needing significant revision for a second edition. Like me, fans of the series will love the parts that have been so faithfully rendered on the tabletop but will find the unpolished elements glaring. Non-fans will feel that the core concepts have been done better and in a more accessible way in other dungeon crawler games like Descent or Claustrophobia. Your mileage may vary, but if you are a fan of the game series you will find something to like in Dark Souls: The Board Game otherwise it would be best to move on.
Praise the Sun \o/
- Feels and plays like Dark Souls
- Incredible miniatures
- Boss battles are exciting
- Feels and plays like Dark Souls
- Relies entirely on random equipment for characters progression
- Tiles lack variety beyond icon placement
- Grinding may not be enjoyable for everyone
- Manual requires multiple careful read-throughs