Cardboard Children - Cardboard Souls
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.
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.
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.
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.)