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The Dark Souls remaster was recently released, but it doesn't make enough [single player] improvements for me to really care to buy it. I might pick it up for the Switch when that gets released, because portable Dark Souls could be fun and interesting and fresh enough to warrant another purchase. However, the Switch version is being developed by another company, and it doesn't even support 60 fps, so I may not bother getting it anyway.

In the meantime, I decided to try out another "remaster" of sorts, and I got some friends together for some jolly cooperation in Steamforged Games' Kickstarted Dark Souls: the Board Game. This is a co-operative dungeon-crawler. I think the closest comparison that I can make is that it's a Dark Souls-themed variation on Descent: Journeys in the Dark. Unfortunately, Dark Souls: the Board Game doesn't seem to hold a candle to Descent.

Opening the box sets the tone of the game right away.

YOU DIED

The big mechanic that is imported from the video game is the inclusion of the video game's bonfire and respawn mechanics. Like in the video game, resting at the bonfire (or dying and being returned to the bonfire) resets everything. This includes all enemy encounters, as well as all the players' resources (such as the Estus Flask, Lucky Coin, or Pendant -- which actually has a function in the board game). However, a bit of the sense of attrition is also lost in translation, as your HP (and stamina) fully resets after each encounter. I think I would have preferred if the Estus Flask had a certain number of uses, but only restored a subset of your damage. That way, you'd retain some of your damage from encounter to encounter.

All the party's souls are dropped
on the spot where a character died.

Nevertheless, the Bonfire mechanic is probably the one mechanic that is most successfully translated from the video game source material. Despite the lack of health attrition, the desire to conserve as much resources as possible for the upcoming boss fight pressures the players into riskier play. Trying to conserve resources can lead to a lot of deaths.

Just like in the video game, if you die, all your souls are dropped on the floor where you died. If any one player dies, the whole party "dies" and is transported back to the Bonfire. The deeper into the dungeon you died, the more you have to fight through [again] in order to reclaim your souls. If you die again before reclaiming your dropped souls, all those souls are lost.

As I understand the rules, you can't leave an encounter once it's started, so you won't be making any "soul runs" to pick up your souls and then run back to the bonfire. You also can't open treasure chests until the encounter is won, which means you can't make suicidal "loot runs" either. The fact that you kept any loot when you died in the video game meant that you still had the potential to advance your character, even if you get stuck dying repeatedly in the same place. You might get better weapons, could farm utilities like firebombs or status cures from the enemies, or might get consumables souls that you could spend at the bonfire to level up. Thus, a trademark strategy of the Souls video games was making suicidal loot runs. Because of these limitations in the board game, there is absolutely no sense of progress from dying repeatedly in an encounter! Dying repeatedly kills the pacing and enjoyment of the board game.

Weakness: grinding

A less-desirable aspect of Dark Souls that is translated from the video game is the grinding and farming. After resting at the Bonfire, you can go back through the rooms and re-kill all the enemies to farm souls. While grinding was always an optional annoyance in the video game, it seems to basically be the core mechanic of the board game.

Some sessions absolutely require a lot of grinding, which adds significantly to the length of the game in the most tedious way possible. The box says the game takes about two hours to play, but you might spend two hours just grinding for equipment before even getting to the mid-game mini-boss.

So much of the game comes down to whether you get useful treasure drops. Some sessions end up being ridiculously easy because you get an early Claymore (for free) in an "easy" encounter treasure chest; while other sessions end up forcing you to struggle to grind out enough souls to cycle through a third of the treasure deck before you can find something that you can realistically use, then grind some more to acquire the souls necessary to level up enough to meet the equipment's stat requirements.

Stat requirements for gear can be obnoxious, often leaving you one point short of using a desired item.

This is exasperated by the weird leveling system for character stats, and by the asinine stat requirements for many pieces of equipment. Often, a character's relevant stat may be one point too low to equip a useful weapon or piece of armor, but leveling that stat increases it by 7, 8, or 9 points, which just feels like overkill. Why couldn't the designers have just condensed the range of stat values? Or added one or two extra tiers and scaled down the cost to make leveling more granular?

Since the treasure deck is so large, the odds of getting a particular piece of equipment for your build is very low. We always end up having to make due with the gear we have, which often means that we don't get to level a character to take the greatest advantage of that character's strengths. This locks us out of very high-level gear, because the designers put very high intelligence and faith requirements on a lot of gear that really shouldn't require those stats. I would be really curious to know the designer's justifications for some of these stats...

Further, every non-boss encounter provides the same number of souls, regardless of the difficulty level of the encounter. Grinding an easy encounter of hollows is just as effective (but considerably less risky) as grinding a group of Silver Knights. This is why the designers had to include the Bonfire Spark system, in which a counter decreases every time you die and also if you rest at the Bonfire. This puts a hard limit on how many times you can revive and how many times you can farm all the enemies. It's kind of analogous to Humanity in the video game, which puts a limit on how many times you can summon friends to help you challenge a boss. It's a fine mechanic, but I think I would have preferred a system in which you get greater rewards by taking greater risks. Maybe the designers tested a mechanic like that, and it just didn't work or was too exploitable?

Very little in the game scales based on player count.

Almost nothing in the game scales with player count. The Bonfire sparks (which are essentially the number of "lives" the party has) is pretty much the only exception -- the less players, the more sparks you get. Also, in a single player session, you get a massive sum of free souls from the beginning, which you can use to cycle through the treasure cards to find a better weapon, and then level up a few times to be able to equip it. The number of starting souls provided doesn't scale. You get 16 in a single-player game, but get zero in all games with 2 or more players. The number or difficulty of the enemies doesn't scale based on number of players. Boss HP doesn't scale (which is something that does scale with the number of summons in the source material). Heck, even the number of treasures available doesn't scale.

Actually, that's not entirely true, since each character has a set of class-specific treasure that isn't included in the game if that character isn't in play. Without reducing the number of generic treasure cards for a single-player game, this means that the odds of finding any of the class treasures is significantly lower. That's probably the very reason that the game gives you all those free souls at the start.

Ambush ahead

The difficulty of regular encounters does scale up indirectly based on the number of players. Even though the number of enemies that are present does not increase, their effective speed does. Instead of having a traditional "initiative" mechanic (like in Dungeons & Dragons and other similar games) that decides player order, the enemies in Dark Souls activate before each player character's activation. This means that every enemy gets an additional activation for each character in the game, which means that if they focus fire on a single character in, say, a four-player game, every enemy will get four activations for each of the target player's one activation.

All enemies activate before each player's activation.

This is where the game really starts to fall apart for me and my play group. If you don't have sufficiently upgraded equipment, then the enemies will mob you and crush you. The ridiculous amount of moves that the enemies get (especially in their first two rounds) really makes the game feel less tactical and deliberate than the video game namesake, and so much of the game just comes down to whether you have enough dice from your equipment to withstand the mobs. The enemies always get the first activation, so the player who starts with the aggro token usually takes two full rounds of attacks from enemies, while only getting one action for him or herself.. Even though this game conspicuously neglects including any content from Dark Souls 2, it very much follows the Dark Souls 2 design philosophy of just rushing the players with mobs in every room.

Every encounter involves the players walking into a room and being ambushed by a mob.

Even though players do recover stamina, that recovery doesn't happen until the start of their turn. This means that any stamina that we spend is not recovered until after every other enemy has activated multiple times. It's almost impossible to ever use a stamina-consuming action after the first round of combat because each point of stamina that we spend is effectively losing a hit point. If you started with the aggro token, you likely won't be able to afford to use stamina even in the first round because you already lost half your health to the ambush. The enemies just make so many attacks in between player turns that using stamina such that you only have 3 to 5 HP left is just not a comfortable buffer. A lot of the healing and support abilities often consume stamina, which we usually can't afford to spend at the times in battle when it would actually be helpful.

Using stamina effectively reduces your health.

The whole party is defeated if even one player character dies, so if the enemies rush a single character, they can easily kill that character before anybody can do anything to stop them.

One thing that this method of game balancing means is that Dark Souls: the Board Game seems to readily adapt to players dropping in and dropping out of the game. I taught the game to two groups of friends, and in both cases, the game dragged on for so long that it had to be broken up into two sessions. Had one player not been able to return the following evening to finish, we probably could have simply removed that player's character from the game without completely breaking the game or making it impossible to finish. As long as the player who drops out wasn't carrying all of your good equipment (and effectively carrying the party on his/her back), you should be fine simply leaving that character at the bonfire. Inversely, if a player shows up late to a session, it's probably not too much trouble to add that player to the game. You might have to give that character some free souls to level up to the rest of the party, but that shouldn't be too much trouble.

Considering that the rulebook doesn't at all address this, I'm assuming that this is not intended by the designers. It may, in fact, be a happy accident that coincidentally mimics the video game's drop-in / drop-out multiplayer mechanics. I haven't actually tested this to make sure that it works, so if somebody does try dropping players in and out, please let me know in the comments how it worked out!

YOU DEFEATED

The regular encounters are kind of a crap shoot, but the focus of the game is supposed to be on the bosses. Every session includes a mini-boss and a main boss. These are where the game starts to show its potential. Boss fights finally make the game feel like the game of "dynamic movement" and positioning that the box and rulebook advertise. Two key elements of boss fights combine to create this effect.

Bosses have attack arcs that expose players and the boss to positional damage.

First, there's generally only a single boss figure (except for Ornstein and Smough), so the feeling of being ambushed by a mob is gone. Heck, even the Ornstein and Smough boss (which includes two bosses at the same time) starts with Ornstein in the back of the arena such that it likely takes several turns for him to reach the party. Secondly -- and more importantly -- the bosses have a set of four attack arcs. Bosses have some attacks that will target a specific player, but many boss attacks will attack all players in one or more node lying within an arc. Since the boss' attacks are determined by drawing cards, and the order of those cards does not change, the players can learn the boss' movement and attack patterns and position themselves to avoid damage.

At the same time, players can position themselves in a boss' weak arc in order to gain an extra die to their attacks. Instead of just picking an enemy and attacking it, players are now circling around the boss (and spending stamina to do so) in order to hit the boss' weak spots. The players can essentially "circle strafe"

This makes it a lot easier to stay out of a boss' attack range, which gives players a chance to back off and heal or restore some stamina -- something that is pretty much impossible against the mob encounters. This all combines to make the boss fights feel more like the tactical and coordinated battles that the game promises. That is, of course, when the boss' "A.I." isn't running the boss into the corner and attacking the walls (which, admittedly, is something that happens in the video game too).

The boss selection is small, but it does contain the fan-favorite duo Ornstein and Smough.

I really wish that the designers had found a way to incorporate arcs into all the characters and enemies. At the very least, maybe having a front and a back arc for characters and non-boss enemies in order to emulate backstabs. That way, positioning in normal encounters would feel more important and more tactical than simply "move onto the enemy's space and roll dice".

Try magic defense

There is a bit of an unfair bait-and-switch, in which a boss' heat up attacks (which are activated after the boss' health is reduced to half or below) often deal a lot of magic damage. The only other enemies in the game that deal magic damage are the Hollow Crossbowmen, which rarely show up in the second half of the game, and which are usually not much of a threat once you have mid-game equipment. So it's very easy to fall into the trap of upgrading your physical defense to the exclusion of magic resist, since that's the damage type that is most commonly dealt by the heavy-hitting, more threatening enemies. Including at least one mid (or top)-tier enemy with a potent magic attack would have been a good idea, as it would force the players to be more aware of their magic resist as they level up and approach the main boss. Perhaps a Channeler or Amana Priestess or Evangelist should have been included as a medium or hard encounter enemy that deals magic damage.

Bosses deal a lot of magic damage in the second phase, which you're probably not prepared for
because normal enemies rarely threaten the party with magic after the mini-boss.

The problems with the boss fights, however, feel more like minor, nagging complaints compared to the more fundamental problems that hamper the rest of the game. Without a doubt, the boss fights are the best part of the game, and the best reason for playing. If there were more options for strategy with regard to navigating the map, such as the ability to unlock shortcuts between rooms or having optional rooms or finding encounter-specific loot (like enemies dropping an ember or Estus refresh when the encounter is defeated), then the actual dungeon-crawl may feel more engaging and player-driven. As it stands now, it just feels like grindy filler content to me and my play-group.

Be wary of resignation

A weird irony is that, despite the game feeling very ganky and unfairly-difficult, the players generally have a surprising (and borderline-exploitative) level of control over the game state. Players have control over how the map is laid out. Players also have control over how the enemies move and where models are pushed to. This allows the players to split up or group together enemy models as they see fit, based on whether they have weapons that work best against a single enemy or against every enemy on a node, or to move characters or enemies into or out of attack range. Perhaps this is supposed to be a representation of "pulling" enemies or mobs in the video game? Put simply, without an actual human adversary, and without stricter rules for making the enemy "A.I." more coordinated, the encounters feel very rote and mechanical.

There's other nagging complaints. Like how there's only [I think] four rings in the whole game, and half of them are in the knight's treasure deck and are, therefore, removed from the game if the knight isn't present in the party. Or how you can't save up embers for when you want them. Or how treasure chests do not feel common enough. Or how enemies can't trigger traps, and so can't be baited into killing themselves with clever maneuvering. Or like how there's no sorcerer, cleric, or pyromancer charater. And so on.

Yes, Dark Souls: the Board Game is hard, but not in a way that feels representative of Hidetaki Miyazaki's "tough but fair" design philosophy. The board game doesn't beat you by punishing you for making tactical errors; it overwhelms you with mathematical improbability. You don't overcome it through skill and perseverance, but by grinding and getting lucky equipment drops or lucky die rolls. The boss fights are good, but there are much better dungeon crawlers on the market.

At the very steep asking price of $120 (this is the single most expensive board game core set on my shelf), it's really hard for me to recommend this one. Maybe I should have played the remaster instead.

WHAT I LIKE

  • Replicates bonfire, respawns, and soul runs
  • Boss fights feature the "dynamic movement" and tactical positioning that is advertised
  • Seems to easily support players dropping in and dropping out
  • Miniatures are detailed and well-represent models from the video game
  • Rulebook is well-organized and well-written

WHAT I DON'T LIKE

  • High initial difficulty leads to too much grinding
  • Comes down to luck of the dice and draw rather than player skill
  • Players have an almost-exploitative level of control over map and enemies
  • Environments lack variety and interesting terrain or topography
  • No late-game magic-dealing enemies
  • Only 4 characters to choose from, and no sorcerer, cleric, or pyromancer?
  • Miniatures are unpainted
  • Very expensive retail price!

FINAL GRADE: D+

Manufacturer: Steamforged Games
Lead Designer(s): David Carl, Alex Hall, Mat Hart, Richard Loxam
Original release: April 2017
MSRP: $120 USD
Player(s): 1-4 players
Game Length: 2-4 hours
Official site: http://steamforged.com/you-died/

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