Dark Souls: The Board Game is a noteworthy historical footnote. Some may jest for its failure to deliver its limitless heap of expansive content in a timely fashion. But of greater significance is that this game was one of the watershed moments in the fattening of crowdfunding miniatures heavy titles, particularly those based on established intellectual property. Of equal consequence is that the financial success of this series entrenched Steamforged Games as an industry player. Even if you harbor no love for Dark Souls, Godtear is a banger and I’m thankful in this holiday season for that.
There’s really a lot to untangle here outside of the design parameters. It was the first post-Kingdom Death: Monster release, taking heavy influence from that game’s focus on cooperative boss battling. It’s in fact the best element of Dark Souls: The Board Game and remains intact in these new standalone releases. There’s a real sense of clever when you encounter the hulking behemoths. If you pay close attention to their card driven behavior patterns, you can plan around their actions as their action deck is not reshuffled in subsequent rounds. This is really the most inspired Souls moment in the design and obfuscates some of the other sub-par traits.
This also seeks to be the first product line to offer a sense of world exploration by segmenting areas into distinct standalone releases. Both Painted World of Ariamis and Tomb of Giants are unique environments in the Dark Souls video game. Each have their own quirks, feel, and adversaries. They’re autonomous appendages sprouting from the jagged frame of a towering fiend. To experience each limb of this nightmare, you will now need to buy multiple hundred-dollar boxes.
There is an element of inspiration here. Being able to pull an isolated product off the shelf and explore a new facet of a larger world is enticing conceptually. It mimics the modular content approach of games like Street Masters and Cthulhu: Death May Die. It’s a smart way to tackle a larger universe possessed of areas with discrete character. It also provides a way to on-board new players that don’t own any of the previous thousands of dollars’ worth of Dark Souls: The Board Game content. If you’re someone that always wanted to try this game but fretted about the dozens of existing expansions, well, this is a reset of sorts.
But wow is it a tough sell to the legion of hobbyists that struggle with the emotional baggage of bulging shelves. Those people who fight to avoid collecting over playing, sacrificing space and money to experience it all. In that regard, this may be one of the most hostile release models ever seen.
This concept directly influenced the design approach to the Elden Ring board game. It’s led to reaching a new threshold of cost that is overwhelming. It adds a burdensome stank to the game that is hard to mask, no matter the various improvements found in this iteration.
Let’s talk about those improvements for a second.
Despite the difficulties in embracing this new content delivery method, there is a level of dedication evident in the work of designers Sherwin Matthews, Richard Loxam, and Mat Hart. You can tell they love this world. They didn’t have to completely redesign the game’s encounter system. They weren’t required to include many of the best house rules and suggestions found in the Dark Souls community. They could have ditched this game completely and focused on Elden Ring, Rivet Wars, and the recently acquired Euthia: Torment of Resurrection.
The new encounter system, in particular, is a big deal. It reframes the previous mindless grinding of Dark Souls, instead offering more narrative context and unique objectives. Some of these vignettes aren’t particularly evocative of the Souls property, but they provide interesting challenges that help the game somewhat escape from the monotonous nature of the dungeon crawl genre. Yet Dark Souls: The Board Game is not entirely patched with this new inclusion, as there is still an occasional sense of repetition. This is most apparent when returning to previous areas to farm souls which can be a drag. Still, the grind aspect has been improved in comparison to the previous edition.
I also enjoy the revamped campaign structure. It’s intertwined with the new encounter system, but small touches such as the ability to take shortcuts in the pathing enhances the Souls-mood. Other changes, such as the streamlining of dodge/block, the increased stamina refresh, and the idea of moving your character off-turn, are all solid little additions despite not carrying the same fire as the bigger structural changes.
There’s a lot of good stuff here from a design perspective. It’s great being able to see creatives iterate on their work. But there is still a problem. I still possess the nagging feeling that the essence of Dark Souls remains elusive. This board game does not fundamentally capture the spirit of the property. It’s closer. It has moments where you grin and your emotions stir as qualities of the video game are grafted onto a current moment in the cardboard adaptation, but it’s not wholly accomplished or expressive of the core themes in a way that Devil May Cry: The Bloody Palace or Gears of War the Board Game are. Instead, it feels like a competent dungeon crawl influenced by Dark Souls. It feels derived as opposed to foundational.
These new core sets also suffer from a couple of large gaffes. The miniatures and tiles all live up to a high quality standard, but the player boards are a blunder. There are small tokens you punch out which are used to track your stat increases during the campaign. You’re meant to remove them and only insert the values currently applicable. Unless you understand how the system works, it’s incredibly easy to punch these tokens and accidentally mix them up when you first go through the box. There’s no reference to reset them. It’s awful and a tactile black hole during play.
There are several other product development issues These include typos and errata such as item cards which were not updated to align with the new rules. The encounters are also uneven and don’t always work due to scaling. In one encounter I was able to kite a single enemy due to the new off-turn movement rule and refrained from taking any damage at all. The beast felt toothless. It’s quite frustrating to spend the time setting up a battle only to pack it away so quickly. These moments are admittedly uncommon, however, as the bulk of the encounters are interesting and appreciated.
These issues don’t entirely undermine system improvements and the new encounter cards, and they don’t threaten the excellence of the boss confrontations, but they do combine with some of the more inherent mundane qualities of the gameplay to anchor the overall experience to a middling realm of the undistinguished.
The Dark Souls setting does enhance the game for ardent fans of the property and may salvage the sacrifice of time and money required. Regardless, the overhaul found in these two new core sets – and future boxes already announced – is not likely to convince skeptics or those simply looking for something extraordinary. Singular and revolutionary may describe Dark Souls, but it still doesn’t describe these board games.
Review copies of both boxed sets were provided by the publisher.
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Gaming for the rich! I don’t like the trend.
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Agreed, it’s getting a little crazy as this overblown approach is the default for anything utilizing an existing IP.