Cardboard Children – Cardboard Souls

By Robert Florence on March 11th, 2014 at 9:00 pm.

Hello youse.

In the video game world, this is a big week. A BIG week. Dark Souls 2 is on its way, and it’ll be heading towards your PC not too long after. I’m such a huge fan of From Software’s work with King’s Field and Demon’s/Dark Souls. I think the games stand alone – they feel like truly unique experiences. I’ve been trying to come up with a board game design that captures the feel of these games for quite some time. But more of that later. AT THE MOMENT I thought it might be interesting to talk about some games that Dark Souls fans might enjoy. I’m talking dark, atmospheric, tough, mysterious board games that tell a great story.

ONWARDS

DUNGEONQUEST

First, we must talk about Dungeonquest. It was the very first game I reviewed here on Rock, Paper, Shotgun. (You can travel back in time with a simple click). And almost four years on from that review, nothing has changed for me. It’s still my go-to game for an utterly brutal hammering. If I want to play a game that hates me, Dungeonquest is it. There’s a reason why the game has been popular for decades – people LOVE being punished. And Dungeonquest punishes you hard. And the punishment is usually unfair. The game starts, you walk into the first room and YOU MIGHT ACTUALLY DIE. There are swinging blades and pit traps everywhere. Getting out of the dungeon with some treasure (for that is the goal of the game) feels like a miracle sometimes. And the encounter in the dragon’s chamber at the centre of the board remains one of the most thrilling experience in board gaming. Your fate hangs on the flip of a card. It is delicious. So, if you’re a Dark Souls fan and you would like a board game that kicks you in the face as much as Dark Souls does – make sure that you have Dungeonquest on your shelf.

DARK MINIONS

I bet you haven’t ever heard of Dark Minions. No-one has. Well, wait, I bet someone in the comments will have heard of it, and they will probably say that it’s actually shit.

But they’re wrong.

With this game, we’re really talking about the aesthetic of Dark Souls. Here we have some beautiful dark fantasy art, and a setting that surrounds us with cemeteries and little villages ripe for slaughter. Yes, you roll dice, allocate them, and send your minions to invade towns or to attack towers. Towns and towers fall, your minions die, and you allocate dice to revive them at the graveyard. It’s a game with lots of decisions. You’re constantly trying to out-think and out-bluff your opponents, preparing for final assaults as secretively as you can. Basically, you’re a bastard in this game. A dark lord, with dark minions, sending them to slaughter innocents. The game is really simple, and the setting makes a nice change from putting slaves onto boats with supplies of grain. I think this is a fine, fine game, and I wish more people had jumped on it.

CLAUSTROPHOBIA

I love this game.

Claustrophobia is a two-player dungeon crawler. One player takes control of all the bad guys, and the other player takes control of a unit of good guys. The game is set in deep caves that lead to Hell. There are a number of scenarios to play through, beautiful PAINTED (yes, PAINTED) miniatures, and a rich, dark theme splurged over the top of it all. There’s a weird religious/satanic angle to proceedings, and the simple game mechanics make for a table-pleasing, never-fails head-to-head bloodbath.

The best part of this game is in how the characters are controlled. The player rolls dice and allocates them to the characters’ statistics board. It allows the player to adapt how his characters move and fight. And get this – as characters are damaged, they lose slots where those dice can be placed. As they are hurt, they become less able to adapt to the dangers in the caves. How fucking great is that? The demon player rolls dice too, and can discard them to activate special powers. Or save those suckers for later. Man. SO much going on.

And the game LOOKS beautiful. Dark and rich and lovely. And HARD, when two players know what they’re doing. If Space Hulk is my ideal futuristic themed 2-player dungeon-crawler, then Claustrophobia is my King of the OLDEN TIMESIES.

BUT BUT BUT

But where is the game that REALLY nails that Dark Souls feel? What game gives us that balance of extreme challenge and gradual, delightful progress? I think you’d need to dig into a pen and paper RPG to get that kind of kick. You could certainly tinker with Dungeons & Dragons or Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay until you approached something that felt right. But what about outside the pen and paper realm?

That’s what I’ve been trying to figure out for a while. I have a few board and card game ideas bubbling under, and the ideal “Oh, this reminds me of DARK SOULS!” game is something I’m desperate to crack. I’ve swung from dungeon-crawler to dark abstract and back again. I’ve got pages and pages of notes and mocked up play boards. I won’t give up on this.

Why is it so important?

I think Demon’s Souls is one of the most important game designs ever. Ever. I’m talking about right across computer, board, card and pen and paper gaming. The mechanics of that game sent a shock-wave through an industry that had started to play far too safe. Dark Souls has a reputation for being “THE SUPER-HARD IMPOSSIBLE GAME” – but it isn’t true. It challenges, and it demands that you adapt to its pace and functions, but it is never impossible. In fact, if you give yourself over to those games, if you unlearn the habits that modern video gaming might have formed in you, you will find the games comfortable and comforting.

Board gaming needs its Dark Souls. We need a game-changer. I won’t be able to design it. I only hope that someday someone will.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering whether or not to pre-order Dark Souls 2 for PC, legendary director Werner Herzog seems to like it a LOT.

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18 Comments »

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  1. Bull0 says:

    Grr, Dungeonquest isn’t available anymore. Also, if you like birds, you should make an effort to see a few Dodos.

    • jmtd says:

      Can I eBay dodos?

    • malkav11 says:

      That’s okay, you aren’t missing much. Rab isn’t lying about it being brutally hard and entirely unfair. What he neglects to mention is that there is no progress, no reward for your slog. You score some gold, maybe, but that’s all it is. Score. So it’s not very Dark Souls-y because a) Dark Souls isn’t unfair, that’s why its brutality is so satisfying and tolerable, and b) Dark Souls constantly rewards you for successfully undergoing its trials.

  2. BenAttenborough says:

    That’s an awesome play through video. Herzog should do more of these. I’d love his take on Minecraft!

  3. Svant says:

    I have the old “Drakborgen” (swedish dungeon quest) from 1985, its bloody brilliant.

    Seems like Fantasy flight games stopped making their Dungeon Quest remake?

  4. Romeric says:

    Great article. The game I always thought hated you was Arkham Horror. Things can go horribly wrong very quickly in that game!

    • Walsh says:

      I would arguably throw Arkham Horror on the list. The brutal mechanics of the game causes mostly luck based suffering instead of punishing mistakes like Dark Souls.

  5. OpT1mUs says:

    Only real contender to be called Dark Souls in a boardgame form is one and only Doom: the boardgame. It’s hard as balls. Yes, it’s SF but it’s fucking DOOM. Hardest game I ever played.

    • Pangalaktichki says:

      Absolutely agreed! Doom manages to capture that feel of claustrophobia and desperation from Dark Souls, with tension building after every new area gets discovered. It overwhelms you with dangers but gives you fair chances to dodge the fights or even use level’s layout in your advantage. And oh man what a sight is this game – massive box and sprawling map that can take up your whole table. Too bad the expansion is out of print or super expensive on ebay.

  6. Spacewalk says:

    The thing that I love about Dungeonquest is that it’s realistic. Who in their right mind balances a dungeon which will only end in adventurers waltzing in and fleecing the place? Just put a death trap right at the entrance and another one straight after to mop up the survivors and if there’s still anyone left close the door on them at the end of the day so that there is no escape. There will be no stealing after all that.

  7. Drinking with Skeletons says:

    I wonder how many people will see this and think Werner Herzog actually played the game.

  8. noom says:

    Cave Evil’s got to be worth a mention here. So badly wanted a copy of this but importing the recent limited run from the US was just a bit more than I was prepared to pay for it. Very Dark Souls though. Also, best promo video ever.

  9. jomurph86 says:

    Nice! Claustrophobia is in my top 10.

    I’d love more people to experience a little game I’ve enjoyed failing at for years now, The Utopia Engine. It’s a free solo print-n-play available here: http://nevermoregames.com/index.php/games/utopia-engine/

  10. ben_reck says:

    “I pour many souls into dexterity” .

    That was brilliant, Mr. Florence. Parody so exquisite that it felt like adulation.

    You’ve also been making very funny comments about grain. I’m still going to play Puerto Rico, for I love the shipping of colonial commodities.

    Man, I love your columns.

  11. karthink says:

    “And get this – as characters are damaged, they lose slots where those dice can be placed. As they are hurt, they become less able to adapt to the dangers in the caves. How fucking great is that?”

    I’m not much of a boardgame player, but that system sounds like otherkind dice in role-playing games. I played through Psi-run (a pen’n’paper rpg) last year with an expanded otherkind dice system, and it was great. The players got to roll dice and assign one to each aspect of the intended action’s result. When hurt, they had fewer dice to roll or had to toss away their highest scoring dice.

  12. Ergonomic Cat says:

    I think that Space Hulk:Death Angel does A good job with the claustrophobic in same difficulty soda thing as well. It’s another game that doesn’t feel like it’s just randomly screw you, but feels like you have to play very well and have a little bit of luck in order to win it. I know that I always feel like I’m probably going to lose when I start playing, and I’m surprised when I don’t.

  13. Ubik2000 says:

    Man, my hopes for Kingdom Death: Monster are entirely unreasonable at this point, but if can capture a bit of that Dark Souls vibe I’ll be over the moon.

  14. Memnaelar says:

    Darkest Night is an excellent Arkham Horror-style “the game hates you, but it’s fair” game that has theme (broken down fantasy world facing its last nights) that will totally appeal to Dark Souls fans (of which I’m one.) And it’s great for solo play, which also gives you that nice lonely feel that DS does.