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Bloodborne: the Board Game - title

I wasn't sure about the Bloodborne board game initially. The Dark Souls board game wasn't particularly good, and I already had a pretty great Bloodborne-themed card game. But I kept seeing good reviews of Bloodborne: the Board Game, and it was designed by the same designer who made the card game, Eric Lang, who I trusted to make a compelling board game. So I bought it. And then it sat on my shelf for a couple years because my friends and I were busy playing other games, like Star Trek: Ascendancy expansions. One of these days, I'll get around to actually playing a new board game promptly after buying it... One of these days ...

A narrative-driven dungeon crawl

First and foremost, Bloodborne is not simply a Bloodborne-themed reskin of the Dark Souls board game. They are made by different companies and designers, and have totally different design philosophies. Dark Souls is built around grinding with no real purpose other than to eventually beat a single boss. Bloodborne is a much more structured and purposeful game, which is built around narrative-based campaigns. In fact, this Bloodborne game actively and explicitly discourages grinding by implementing a strict turn limit. As such, a Bloodborne session (a single chapter of a campaign) takes about 90 minutes to play or less. It won't drag on for hours, or into the next day, like some of my Dark Souls play sessions did. This, by itself, makes it a lot easier to find people who are interested in playing, and to get them to come back for subsequent sessions to finish that campaign.

Because Bloodborne: the Board Game does have narrative campaigns, I actually feel like I need to preface this review with a SPOILER WARNING. Some of the images may contain story-related cards, board configurations, and enemy placements, which may contain spoilers for the first 2 campaigns (mostly the first one). The review itself does not contain any explicit spoilers for any of the campaigns, so feel free to read on. If you are worried about potential spoilers, and want to go into the game as blind as possible, then I advise that you avoid reading any of the text on cards in any of my photos, especially cards that are labeled "Mission" or "Insight".

Bloodborne is more narrative-driven and less grindy than its Dark Souls board game cousin.

The core set comes with 4 campaigns, each with its own short story and narrative branches that take place over 3 or 4 chapters. As of the time of this review, I've only actually played the first 2 of those 4 campaigns. But I've played the first campaign multiple times, with multiple different groups of players, so I still feel like I have a pretty good grasp on the game -- good enough to give a meaningful and relatively informed review.

Each campaign has a deck of cards that provide objectives for the player to complete, as well as the occasional reward. It plays out kind of like an old Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book, with each card telling the players to draw a specific numbered card after completing the given card's objective. In some cases, the players will have a choice, or the card will have different conditions, and depending on which choice the players make, or which condition(s) is met, the card will instruct the players to reveal one card or another next.

The total of 4 campaigns is actually a solid amount of content, and each campaign can be played multiple times to see the different branching paths. But the campaigns aren't quite as replayable as they might initially seem. Each decision always has the exact same outcome, which means that once you've played a campaign once, you know what choices to make in order to get which results. Knowing the outcomes sucks out a lot of the mystery, intrigue, and threat from the game, and allows players to micro-manage their decisions to optimize their play.

Player choices can cause several branches in a campaign story, opening up different quests and rewards.

Perfect efficiency

Unfortunately, however, the game's turn timer and action economy is exceedingly strict, which usually means that players will have to replay a campaign in order to actually be able to beat it. Without that foreknowledge of what the quest objectives are, it's almost impossible to play efficiently enough to actually beat a given chapter of a campaign -- let alone the entire campaign. Every group I played with had to do the first chapter or 2 of the first campaign at least twice!

The turn timer provides no buffer or grace period at all! Every turn (and sometimes every single action) feels like it needs to tangibly progress the campaign, or else you will run out of time and fail. If one player "wastes" a turn by going out of their way to collect a piece of loot, or kill an extra enemy for more blood echoes, or return to the Hunter's Dream in a non-emergency situation in order to refresh their weapons or claim a desirable upgrade card, it will advance the turn timer. This may result in the board being reset and some mission progress being lost, or it may result in the whole party failing the chapter, and (by rule) having to restart the entire scenario from chapter 1.

The turn timer is very strict, and is actually the biggest enemy in the game.

I get the desire to make every decision feel weighty and consequential. That is a key component of From Software's game design philosophy. The video game Bloodborne, in particular, encourages fast, aggressive play. The video game also has a time progression element, in the form of the moon progressing through different phases as the game progresses. The turn timer feels like a way of adapting both of those concepts from the video game into the board game. But it feels way too strict, requires too much optimization, limits the players' ability to play how they want to play, and doesn't have any options for customizing the difficulty for a particular group's preferences or skill level -- let alone adjusting the challenge level for individual players within a group, who may all be at different skill levels.

I guess this is also in keeping with the video game, which doesn't have explicit difficulty options either. But one of the geniuses of FromSoft's game design is that it still offers flexibility to let the player tailor the experience to your preferences. A single player in the video game can experiment with different weapons, can spend as much times as they want grinding to level up the character's base stats, and can chose how much they want to use the online features such as help messages and co-op. None of that is present in the board game.

Visiting the Hunter's Dream for upgrades often
feels more like a punishment than a reward.

I get that, in an adaptation of a FromSoft game like Bloodborne, player decisions should have weight and consequence to them, but I feel like the trade-off of many actions is too harsh. This is especially true with any decision that advances the turn track, which is actually most actions. Most notably, returning to the Hunter's Dream to trade in Blood Echoes for upgrades feels too costly. I get that there needs to be a cost to using the Hunter's Dream, so that players don't just dream every time they kill a single enemy, but advancing the turn timer feels too harsh. With the timer already being as tight as it is, something that should be a reward and brief respite for a player after a job well done, ends up feeling like a brutal punishment that the group can rarely afford.

Further, I hate when co-op board games require this degree of min/max optimization in order to have a chance in hell of winning. In my experience, requiring this level of optimization usually leads to a single player basically micro-managing the decisions for everybody. Whichever player knows the game the best -- or is simply the loudest voice in the room -- often dictates what the other players do. This leaves one or more other players feeling like they aren't actually playing the game, and are just here for the ride. And it's never fun for those players to feel like they aren't able to contribute to the game, or make any decisions with how to spend their turns. But on the other side of the coin, any single player playing sub-optimally, or making self-centered decisions, can ruin the entire play session for everybody.

Action cards can be kept secret or left faceup for the group to see, depending on the group's preference.

One way to rectify the problem of a single player domineering the game, is for all players to keep the exact contents of their hand of cards secret. This gives players more freedom to make their own decisions (since the other players don't know what that player could have done), but it can also back-fire by preventing optimal group play and lead to the group losing. The rulebook does specify that players "may keep these cards hidden from their allies, [...] [but] placing them faceup in front of your Hunter dashboard might be beneficial for the group!" So it's up to you and your play group deciding how you want to play.

And even if you do clear an early chapter of a campaign by the skin of your teeth, inefficient play could carry forward to make the next chapter(s) impossible, since poorly-performing players may have fewer upgrades, consumables, and equipment rewards to bring into the next chapter.

It seems to me like it should not have been difficult to just make the progress track longer, but include rules for an optional "hard" mode that ends the game before the end of the track. Plenty of games do stuff like that.

Bloodborne technically supports solo play, but winning with a single hunter is borderline impossible.

Bloodbortne also suffers from some lack of scaling features or options for different player counts. Boss health and some objective requirement scale based on the number of players, but nothing else scales on player count. Basic enemies have the same amount of health, and hit for the same amount of damage whether you're playing with a single hunter or with 4 hunters. In my experience, it's never practical (and rarely even possible) for a single hunter to effectively fight even a single enemy without consuming too many resources and progressing the turn timer.

The box may say that it is a 1 to 4-player game, but in my experience, it's really a 3 or 4-player game. If you want to play solo, or with a single friend, you're better off doubling up on characters so that there are still multiple hunters on the board, supporting each other and mopping up damaged enemies.

Mission rewards do not scale with player count.

However, when playing with all 4 players, mission rewards can feel a bit un-balanced. The same rewards are awarded whenever a given mission is completed, regardless of the number of players. So in a 2-player game, both players quickly hit their limits for the number of items they can carry. But in a 4-player game, it's easy for 1 or 2 characters to feel completely left out of rewards, especially if they have died and lost out on opportunities to claim upgrade cards from the Hunter's Dream.

Not engendering passivity

Despite hang-ups with the game's balance and pacing, its saving grace is that is does play very well, and does a good job of adapting many of the core gameplay philosophies of Bloodborne. It does a surprisingly good job of adapting the aggressive, deliberate, and strategic combat of the video game, which requires that the player plan your actions in advance and commit to them. There are no dice, but every action is high-risk / high-reward. If an attack hits, it always does the same amount of damage, and if the attack has a stagger, and it hits, then it always applies the stagger. The players can also make educated guesses about which attacks are coming next due to the limited size of the enemy action deck. Outcomes are more deterministic, and good strategy almost always beats bad luck.

Bosses are a bit of an exception. Bosses often cycle through their decks more quickly, making their actions less predictable. They also have devastating one-hit-kill, area-of-effect, and un-dodge-able attacks that can kill an otherwise healthy character in the blink of an eye. Sometimes they can even wipe the entire party (which will, of course, advance the hunt track multiple steps, all at once).

Bosses are less predictable, with attacks that can instantly kill a single character (or the whole party).

Just like in the video game, the speed of your attacks is as important (or more important) as how hard it hits. When you commit to an attack, you commit to attacking at a specific speed, with a specific amount of damage. The decision on how fast and hard to attack is dependent on which attack the player thinks the enemy will choose next. If you know the enemy only has slow and medium speed attacks, you can choose to play a fast attack to guarantee that your attack hits first. If that faster attack staggers or kills the enemy, then the enemy doesn't get to hit you at all! Playing a slower attack is a gamble, and will likely require that the player keep a "dodge" card in your pocket in case the enemy draws a faster attack, and especially if the enemy's attack includes its own stagger.

The limited number of attack slots on the weapons also almost forces the players to have to transform their weapon on a regular basis. Weapon transforming is a mechanic that might even be under-utilized in the actual video game source material, yet the board game strongly pressures the player into doing it as a matter of course. One character even has special powers associated with frequently transforming the weapon. This is a really cool thematic mechanic, and in retrospect, I kind of wish the video game had some mechanic that pressures the player to transform the weapon more often.

Of course, the other side of the coin is that strict action economy that I mentioned in the earlier sections. Transforming a weapon usually requires an action card, and must be done during the player's turn (unless some other card or ability says otherwise). And dodge actions also take up an action slot on the weapon. Dodges almost always get removed from the action slot after the dodge is complete, so it doesn't permanently fill up that action slot. But using the dodge still requires that an action slot be available. With only 3 (and sometimes 2) slots on any given weapon, players can often feel helpless or defenseless.

All normal enemies share the same action deck, which can make their attacks easy to guess.

I'm also disappointed that the "Rally Strike" is a special ability that is limited to only one character in the board game. The Rally mechanic is the mechanic that allows the player to re-gain lost health by attacking an enemy in the video game, and it is absolutely essential to the video game's broader design. I don't know why this ability isn't on every weapon. At the very least, there should be a class of action cards that grant "Rally Strike". Perhaps something like this is in one of the expansions?

How do basic mechanics work?

When I first opened the game and started preparing for our first play session, I was excited by the fact that the rulebook actually looks fairly small. It's less than 30 pages, has a lot of pictures and examples, and is a surprisingly quick read. I thought that the short nature of the rulebook would mean that the rules would be very elegant and simple to grasp, and that the game would be easy to teach and play. And, to the game's credit, the basic, core rules are, indeed, very easy to grasp and allow the players to hit the ground running.

But then I play for a few minutes, take a few turns, and try to use a card or ability that makes the group stop and ask, "wait, how exactly does this work?", or "did I do that right?". Then I go and look for that rule in the rulebook, only to find that the rule isn't entirely clear about this specific case or interaction. And it's not like I'm talking about the rulebook not explaining super fringe edge cases here; I'm talking about pretty basic gameplay mechanics that come up routinely in normal play. The core rules seem simple enough, but the explanation and wording of many of these rules, and the effects described on cards, leave ambiguities that could have been easily cleared up by either more deliberate choice of wording, a longer glossary, or more examples of different common use cases.

Does the Cannon grant a free bonus attack?
Or does it still require discarding a stat card?

For example, one of the 4 hunters starts the game with a Cannon firearm as part of his basic loadout. The card says it may be used to attack, which seems simple enough. But then, when I want to actually use the Cannon, I had to stop and ask, "Wait, do I still have to discard a stat card to use this?" And do enemies get to attack me back after I use the Cannon attack, since it's not a regular trick weapon attack? Better yet, can I make a regular attack with my trick weapon, and then also fire the Cannon as a free bonus attack? That would be great for bosses and mini-bosses, or in situations in which I want to use a weak, quick attack to stagger an enemy, then finish it off with a Cannon blast!

The other firearms have explicit triggers described on the card that makes it very explicit when the card can be used. The Canon doesn't. And the rulebook doesn't have any general rules that specify how to resolve a firearm attack for firearms that don't have explicit trigger conditions.

Do the effects of Dodge cards only
apply when used as an attack?

Even more basic: how do "Dodge" cards work? The rules are pretty clear that Dodge cards go on open weapon slots, but are not attacks. But it isn't clear how and when the effects of a Dodge card be used. Dodge cards can be used as an attack, so do the effects of a Dodge card only apply when it's used as an attack? Do I still get to clear the slot after playing the Dodge as a dodge? Some Dodge cards have a stagger effect, or lets me draw an extra card. Do these effects still happen if the Dodge is played to dodge an enemy attack?

And yes, the game does have a glossary of terms in the back of the rulebook, which is something that every game should have. But this particular glossary seems like it only defines the words that the rulebook was already clear about explaining. Whenever we had a question about a game term, and would try to look it up in the glossary, it wouldn't be listed.

For example, one mission card requires us to pick up corpse tokens and then "discard" them in the Graveyard tile. But the rulebook never clearly defines what is meant by "discard" (except for the case of discarding stat cards to perform actions), nor is "discard" defined in the glossary. Is discarding a corpse token a free action? Or does it require discarding a stat card to perform an "interact" action? Similarly, does discarding a consumable (as opposed to using the consumable) count as an "interact" action? Multiple mission cards require the players to discard tokens or consumable cards in order to progress the mission, but none of these cards, nor the rulebook, ever clarifies if discarding these items is an interaction or not. And it's not like these missions requiring discards are buried deep in optional missions of the final campaign scenario. This comes up as early as the 2nd chapter of the first scenario!

A masochistic dungeon-crawl

Bloodborne: the Board Game is another really tough game to review and give any kind of comprehensive score. I have a lot of mixed feelings about it. Basically, I really like a lot of the individual mechanics in Bloodborne: the Board Game, and I think that way that they interact does a good job of adapting the video game. But these mechanics are all so punishing and harsh that they don't always feel good to use. The game is difficult, and the strict turn timer and action economy do create a feeling of helplessness and desperation that feels thematically appropriate to the video game. But that also means that I'm feeling helpless and desperate throughout most of the board game, without the regular reward or catharsis that the video game provides. And that doesn't always feel good. And rule ambiguities don't help. You kind of have to be a bit of a masochist to enjoy Bloodborne: the Board Game. But if you are a bit of a masochist, you'll probably love the game!

Bloodborne is a difficult board game intended for more masochistic gamers.

WHAT I LIKE

  • Campaigns tell little stories.
  • Decision have weight and consequence.
  • Combat requires deliberate planning.
  • Characters play very differently from one another
  • Good strategy almost always beats luck of the draw.
  • Emulates the fast-paced, aggressive play-style of the video game
  • NPC hunters can be allies or enemies
  • Play sessions reliably stay under 2 hours
  • High-quality plastic miniatures.

WHAT I DON'T LIKE

  • Rulebook does not explain some very basic gameplay scenarios
  • Storylines and decisions have almost no variability.
  • Action economy and turn timer may be too strict.
  • A single weak or in-efficient character can scuttle an entire party's campaign.
  • Solo play with a single-hunter is not realistically viable.
  • Miniatures are un-painted.

FINAL GRADE: B-

Manufacturer(s): CMON.
Lead Designer(s): Eric Lang, Michael Shinall
Artist(s): Arnaud Boudoiron, Mathieu Harlaut, Henning Ludvigsen, Aragorn Marks, Mike McVey, Adrian Prado, Edgar Ramos
Original release: March 2021
MSRP: $90 USD
Player(s): 1-4 players (best with 3 or 4)
Age Recommendation: 14 years old and up
Game Length: 90 minutes per campaign chapter
Official site: www.cmon.com/products/bloodborne-the-board-game/

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Comments (1) -

Deanah Laure
Deanah Laure
07/11/2024 18:46:52 #

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