Eagerly anticipated following its 2016 Kickstarter, Steamforged Games’ take on the Dark Souls universe has now hit backers’ doorsteps and the retail shelves. I was a backer of the campaign, drawn in by all of the lovely miniatures (and due to the achievement of stretch goals there are a TON of them to arrive later in the year), and also the dedicated solo mode which is a sure fire way to get me looking straight for the pledge button.
I have now had a chance to play through some complete encounters, and experience the solo mode in all its glory. The first thing to say is that the quality of the components and artwork is superb. There are some small errors and inconsistencies on a couple of stats and cards that I noticed, but they were pretty obvious and easy to correct. There is also already an FAQ on the Steamforged site. The tiles, cards and miniatures really do draw you into the world and make for a truly immersive experience. Hopefully I’ll get the chance to paint the miniatures at some point, which will really add to the atmosphere. The minis are good quality one-piece plastic with bags of detail so they should be a joy to paint.
I won’t go into much details about the rules here – they are all free online so you can check them out very easily. It took me a couple of trial runs to get the rules sorted, and once I’d ironed out the wrinkles of my understanding, the mechanics became pretty second nature. I picked a mini-boss for my first encounter (the Titanite Demon) and set up the tiles per the instructions. It is worth mentioning here that even in the core game, without all the upcoming stretch goals, there is bags of replayability. There are 4 mini bosses to choose from and 2 main bosses. Each of those has a larger behaviour deck (the AI mechanics) than you need for each game, so each time you go up against them there will be subtle differences. If you then factor in the random encounters, 4 different player characters to choose from, and a huge treasure/weapon deck, each game will truly be a different experience. The multiplayer co-op mode would also make for a very difference experience if you got some mates involved too.
I’m not much of a video gamer, but I am aware that people who’ve played the console game say that its REALLY REALLY hard. In that game you need to be prepared to die. A lot. This expectation for the board game is reinforced as soon as you open the box. The first thing you see is an insert proclaiming “You Died”. On my first play-test I did immediately die, and died a few more times as I ironed out the rules and understood how the enemies behaved. But the clever thing here is that each time you die, you learn something, and through learning you survive longer. It didn’t take long before I had some strategies to work with, and I was able to deal with just about anything that came my way.
The solo mode is great. Rather than some co-op games where to play solo you simply play all the characters yourself, and shoulder the burden of 4 times the housekeeping, here you pick one character to play with. This lack of companions is balanced by the fact that you can level up before you start, picking some more powerful gear and tougher armour so that you can take on a room full of enemies on your own. Certain gear requires you to have attained a certain level in particular characteristics, and you pay for both gear and level-ups in souls. In solo mode you get 16 souls to start with giving you some initial choices to make. Do you maximise the level-up to give a greater ability to use the gear or do you buy lots of gear so you can have your pick of the best stuff? Gear is revealed at random, so there are no guarantees your souls will be well spent. I thought I was initially unlucky with the gear I revealed, very little of it was of much use at first. But after a few encounters and earning some more hard-fought souls this changed around dramatically and I ended up with a weapon, shield and armour that I was VERY happy with! Once I had this combination of gear that suited my strategies, I didn’t find the regular encounters to be too much trouble. I managed to face the Titanite Demon and even managed to beat him on my first go. This did involve a second large slice of luck in that the AI deck was randomised very much in my favour so I could study his behaviour pattern before he got to me and I was able to chip away at him with a ranged weapon without taking too much damage. The key to beating the bosses is to survive long enough to see all the behaviour patterns, remember them, and then make sure you’re out of harms way for each attack before hitting back with your own. It really doesn’t take many hits from a boss to finish you off, and you’ll likely need to hit them 20 times or more to chew through their damage. Additionally, once the boss is at half health, another behaviour card is added to the AI deck and it is shuffled, so whilst most of the moves will be the same, you’ll have to learn the order (and the new card) all over again.
Once the mini-boss is defeated you set up again for a main boss encounter. The initial encounters are harder this time as well. I picked the Dancer of the Boreal Valley and set up the boards accordingly. I made it through the encounters without too much problem (I was really very happy with my gear!) and faced off against the Dancer. And then he destroyed me! He’s tricky because he has many other points at which his deck is shuffled so you never quite know where he’s going to be.
Technically, you are supposed to return to your bonfire, reset the encounters and work your way through to him again. I must admit I didn’t fancy another long encounter, so I set up to face the boss again straight away just to take him on. Then I did manage to beat him in a very tense and close encounter. Any whiffed defense rolls and I would have been toast, but I got lucky there and managed to chip the damage away until he was beaten. So not technically a proper win but I’ll take it for now!
This short description may make it sound like is was all rather straightforward, but by the time I got to this point I had probably spent a total of 10 hours across 3 sittings from opening the box, learning the game, and playing through to the end. And don’t forget, I took a shortcut to my second go at the main boss. I may well have been thwarted in my efforts to get back to him. Best case would have been another hour and a half but it could well have been a lot longer if the dice weren’t on my side. So to play through all of the player-characters, and face all the bosses, you’d easily be looking at 50 hours plus of game time. That should keep anyone busy until the expansions arrive!
Overall a fantastically well designed game, with high quality components and a properly thought-through solo mode. I am very much looking forward to playing it again once I’ve painted some minis!