Following a disgustingly successful Kickstarter campaign which closed out a full $3.7m over its $50k target, Dark Souls the Board Game is finally finished and ready to ship. Steamforged games kindly sent me a copy ahead of time, which I used to make the video review embedded below. As I dove into the very heavy box (the core set alone weighs in at a hefty 3.4kg), however, I found my mind repeatedly coming back to a comment during the initial kickstarter announcement from Steamforged Games - "Prepare to die. Because this will be the hardest board game you have ever played."
The thing is, while that statement certainly fits thematically with the Dark Souls franchise - or, at least, the way the Dark Souls franchise is marketed - it's not a great fit for a board game. Having an improbably hard board game isn't something to be proud of.
That's not to say I don't like a challenging board game, of course, especially when it comes to cooperative games that put everybody in the same boat, but unbeatable boardgames have a tendency to become unplayed board games. I can see my copy of Forbidden Desert - a game I have beaten all of once - from where I'm typing this, for instance, and the best it can expect from me for the foreseeable future is a suspicious scowl.
As I unpacked Dark Souls the Board Game and its sumptuous miniatures, in other words, I worried that Steamforged had shipped an imbalanced product for the sake of living up to Dark Souls' reputation for difficulty. Thankfully, I was swiftly proved wrong.
Just as the game assets have been recreated with great care, Dark Souls the Board Game also does a great job of capturing what it is that makes the souls games so compelling: not that they're hard per se, but that they're exacting. They exercises in failure, yes, but also in repetition and keeping your wits about you.
Dark Souls the Board Game is carved up into a series of encounters leading up to a mini boss battle, followed by more encounters before a final boss battle. If one of the player characters dies at any point, all players return to the bonfire, reset the current set of encounters and start again. With a limited number of uses (or sparks) on the bonfire, each death or voluntary bonfire rest takes the players closer to defeat.
Death, then, is understood to be inevitable at some stage in proceedings but still ought to be avoided whenever possible. Thankfully, while the combat is certainly a challenge, it mirrors that of the Souls games in that watching the enemy and being mindful of your own energy reserves will largely see you through.
The best bit about combat in Dark Souls the Board Game is that your stamina and health bars have been combined into a single 'endurance' bar. Taking extra steps across the room or committing to especially powerful attacks starts to fill this bar with black cubes from the left hand side. Taking damage, meanwhile, adds red cubes from the right hand side. If ever the two colours should meet, filling the bar, you die. It's an elegant system of risk and reward - overexertion leaves you vulnerable, with a diminished health pool, while taking damage makes you less able (or willing) to expend stamina. In this way, as in the video game itself, you're as much fighting yourself and your own instincts are you are the actual enemies - and it's that system that ensures Dark Souls the Board Game is more involved than it is hard.
Of course, some encounters don't go your way - especially if you haven't taken the time to farm souls, acquire gear and level yourself up - and you can reasonably expect to have to return to the bonfire at least twice during a standard playthrough. Thankfully, this is far less of a frustration than you'd think - attempting the same encounters again with greater knowledge of what to expect adds a cyclical nature to the game which, of course, resonates strongly with the video games. It's an almost meditative exercise (assuming you don't get whomped again) and there's a lot of satisfaction to be gained from going back in as a team and doing the encounter right. It's also pleasingly reminiscent of other board games - particularly the excellently paced T.I.M.E Stories.
The greatest triumph of Dark Souls the Board Game, however, comes in the form of the boss encounters, for it's here that the 'exacting, not hard' nature of this game really shines. The bosses and mini-bosses behave differently to normal enemies in that they cycle through a small deck of attack cards - a deck that, crucially, isn't shuffled after being exhausted. Very quickly, players will be able to memorise and predict where the boss is going to move, in which direction it will be attacking and where it will be most vulnerable. Part memory game, part dance of death, it's here that the beauty of Dark Souls the Board Game and indeed Dark Souls itself can really be seen - it's not unfair, you just need to pay attention.
If you want to hear more thoughts on Dark Souls the Board Game, be sure to watch the full review above.