Dark Souls: The Board Game – thoughts from a board game beginner

Gare – Thursday, December 7, 2017 6:01 PM
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Whenever a video game, particularly a well-known title, gets a board game adaptation, I can’t help but ponder how well said adaptation might manage to convey the core essence of the source material. And indeed, that is exactly how I felt upon learning of Dark Souls: The Board Game, a tabletop experience for 1-4 players based on From Software’s series of RPGs known for their unforgiving difficulty, memorable boss fights, and worlds teeming with traps, secrets and endless wonder. Could a tabletop experience recreate the same magic that mesmerized countless gamers on PC and consoles alike? Well, I do feel like Dark Souls: The Board Game was a success, but only a partial one – certain things, after all, just do not translate all that well into a tabletop adventure. Nonetheless, I must also make it clear that I am by no means an expert of board games – at heart, I have always been far more interested in video games than pen & paper experiences. Ever since the debut of Dark Souls’ PC port, I have been following the series with much interest, and ended up pouring dozens upon dozens of hours into the three main Dark Souls installments – games that robbed me not only of time, but perhaps a little bit of my sanity as well. I say that as a compliment, of course. As for supplying us with a copy of the board game itself, I must express my gratitude towards the editor of the gaming blog Ludens – he was a backer of the game’s Kickstarter campaign and, along with two other volunteers, sat down with me to give Dark Souls: The Board Game a try.

The Souls fundamentals

As far as visuals are concerned, I found little to criticize in Dark Souls: The Board Game. It managed to capture the spirit of the video games to a satisfying degree, giving life to all the characters we know and love (or hate), be it everyone’s nightmare, the Silver Knight Archer, or the famed boss duo, Ornstein and Smough. The list could go on. Upon starting the game, each of us picked a character (we had a Knight, an Assassin, a Herald and a Warrior) and began our journey into a dungeon populated by enemy encounters determined by card draws. The basics should be familiar to any Dark Souls player: you hack and slash your way through a horde of enemies until you ultimately reach a boss. If you die, you lose all yours Souls, and if you rest at a Bonfire, all the enemies return to the field. Even trash mobs can pose a serious challenge, while the bosses themselves can be outright brutal, so in that sense, Dark Souls: The Board Game certainly lives up to its name. One would think that with four adventurers, we would make short work of the undead hordes in our way, but… that was not quite the case. Quite the opposite: in the beginning, even the lowliest of foot soldiers could pose a serious threat to my health after one too many unlucky dice rolls. The fact that every monster gets a turn to attack after each player’s individual turn doesn’t help matters much, either: this way, a relatively long time can pass before the same player is given a chance to act again.

I found it a little odd how a character’s base stats (strength, dexterity, intelligence and faith) have no effect on their offensive prowess – instead, they only serve to determine which pieces of gear you can or cannot equip. In the video games, said stats had a key effect on the damage modifiers of each weapon you wielded: here, we find no such system in place, with attacks depending primarily on the success of dice rolls.

The price of defeat

When more than one player is included in the game, probably the largest challenge will be posed by a rule that states that whenever a player dies in battle, the entire party falls and has to start over from the beginning. The harsh nature of the rule I can understand – this is Dark Souls, after all – yet in the video games, the fall of a summoned co-op partner did not mean the end of the adventure. Similarly, when one was summoned into another’s world to help, only the death of the host really mattered. I felt almost like an additional rule could’ve been added that designated a single player as the “host”, stating that only the death of that particular player would result in the collective downfall of the entire party. And while we’re on that topic, I must also note how the process of dying and having to fight each and every enemy again and again can grow quite repetitive over time. I realize that the whole regenerating enemies thing is a key feature of the Souls series, and I have no problem with it. On the other hand, the video games allowed you to skillfully avoid or run past certain enemies and areas in order to get to the boss room faster. Here in the board game, no such thing is possible: when you step into a room, there are only two ways to leave it – by winning, or dying. That’s just how it goes. Once again, I would’ve welcomed the addition of a rule that allowed players to potentially – through a difficult dice roll, perhaps – bypass a previously explored room with only minor injuries. Now, whether or not this would make the game too easy, I’m not too sure of, but it could potentially remedy the issue of having to fight the same old skeletons for the nth time.

Final thoughts

All in all, Dark Souls: The Board game was a decent bit of fun that made for an enjoyable few hours around the table – as a fan of the video games, however, I doubt I’m going to hang up my gamepad in favor of a bag of dice. The tabletop adaptation managed to capture some of the fundamentals of the games: there are indeed difficult fights to overcome and there’s plenty of dying to be had, but Dark Souls is more than just that. Be it the haunting atmosphere of each location, the vast, labyrinthine dungeons, the multitude of hidden pathways and a dozen other things, the video games offer a far more complete and rewarding experience. Dark Souls: The Board Game is nonetheless worth a try if you’re interested in having a good time with friends as you laugh at each particularly unlucky dice roll – or perhaps unexpected victory – even if it cannot fully replicate what made the originals into timeless modern classics.

As for me, I’ll be keeping an eye on Steamforged Games and their upcoming Resident Evil 2 board game, a tabletop adaptation of one of my favorite survival horror titles – with little luck, it will make me dread Lickers just as much as the original game.

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