On the surface, the idea of making a tabletop edition of Dark Souls seems like utter madness.
The series has long been defined by its mysterious story, punishing, inscrutable mechanics and – more than anything else – a sense of crushing loneliness. There’s no way that you could possibly emulate this while sitting around the kitchen table with the secrets of both setting and rules written out in the manual, right?
To be honest that’s at least partially true. While it will be possible to run through the boardgame on your own, the vast majority of the time you’re going to be working alongside friends and family, and running into characters and situations you’re already familiar with from the existing series. If you’re looking for an experience that doggedly recreates the videogames this won’t be it.
From the early previews, however, that isn’t what Dark Souls: The Board Game, is trying to be. Instead, it’s aiming for an adaption that evokes the spirit of Dark Souls while still being a great tabletop experience.
With the actual shipping date of the boardgame set for sometime next year the rules are naturally in a state of flux. Steamforged, the UK-based company behind the game, are promising to bring in as many mechanics from the videogame as they can, from sorceries and pyromancies to a vast array of weapons, armour and classes.
As it stands, however, the preview build on show at the UK Games Expo earlier this month was fairly bare bones, displaying the core mechanics and not much else.
On the subject of core mechanics, the most important ones are the exact same as in the videogame – managing your health and stamina. One interesting design decision is to have both of these work off the same bar, with stamina filling it up from one side while damage chips away it from the other. If they meet, you die.
As each action (moving, drinking Estus, attacking, etc) takes just a single point of stamina, if you’re willing to risk it you can make a seemingly huge volume of attacks in one go. Over-commit, however, and it’ll only take a tiny bit of damage to send you back to the bonfire.
As in the videogames this forces you to balance out risk and reward, especially when you know an enemy is on low health. Do you spend all your remaining stamina in the hopes of finishing them off before they get to attack, knowing that if you don’t land your hits they may well cut you down a few moments later, or do you back off and risk wasting precious resources?
The preview that our two-person team (a Warrior and a Herald) ran through put us up against one of our favourite bosses from the series – the Dancer of the Boreal Valley.
Going into the fight, we weren’t sure how well a boardgame could emulate the deliberate, unforgivingly murderous combat we associate with Dark Souls. It turns our, however, that the folks at Steamforged have come up with a rather cunning way of emulating the feel of battle without being completely predictable or requiring a pseudo-GM to run the enemies.
When we fought her, the Dancer’s actions were determined by a set of cards that contained each of her potential moves. A set of symbols would, for example, have her run through her infamous grab attack – picking up any character to her right, turning and then slamming her victim down for massive damage that could easily one-shot them.
If nobody was standing to her right the Dancer would run through the motions anyway, potentially wasting her turn. Not all of her attacks were so easy to dodge, however, with others specifying that she would aim for the last player to attack her.
When we played the Dancer had five attacks. Once she had run through them all the deck was flipped over but – crucially – wasn’t shuffled. This meant that if we could remember the order in which they had come out the first time around, on this cycle we could position ourselves to take advantage of it, dodging telegraphed attacks and setting ourselves up for backstabs.
Of course, no matter how good you are at positioning, some hits are bound to get through, and as with the videogame there are two ways to mitigate damage – dodging and blocking. Again, this creates an interesting risk/reward mechanic.
Blocking is more dependable, and allows you to roll a handful of dice that reduce the damage you take from a blow. Dodging will generally give you more dice and if you roll high enough you can avoid the damage entirely, but if you fall short you take full damage with no mitigation whatsoever.
One of the things common to virtually all Dark Souls bosses is their ability to ‘heat up’ (or enter rage mode, power up or whatever you want to call it) when they take enough damage. This has been carried over to the tabletop version, and once we had reduced the Dancer’s health by half she got real angry with us.
What this meant was that she got a new, ultra-powerful move added to her deck – the multi-hit sweeping attack that probably drove you insane in the videogame encounter – that could easily destroy a character unlucky enough to be caught by it. Even worse, when this was added the entire attack deck was shuffled once more, wiping out the pattern we had carefully memorised.
This switch-up was great at getting the blood pumping and you could feel the tension grow. With the Estus supplies running low, our co-operation no longer felt quite as jolly as it once had.
Some bad rolling on a dodge meant that our warrior was soon diced up by the Dancer’s twin swords, leaving the herald with a seemingly impossible task. However, once we thought about it a bit we realised that the turn mechanics meant that bosses actually scale pretty effectively as your numbers grow (or, in this case, drop).
The Dancer took one action for each of our turns, so while two of us were fighting the order went Warrior, Dancer, Herald, Dancer, Warrior, Dancer, etc. With the Warrior gone, this meant that the Herald got to respond to each of the Dancer’s moves in turn, making it much easier for her to dodge and control the battlefield.
This proved vital as the battle drew to a close. With five out of six attacks gone we were fairly sure that the Dancer’s next move would be her Backdraft, which only targeted characters standing directly behind her.
Bearing this in mind we were able to put together a risky plan, attacking until the Herald was one hit from death but confident that she wouldn’t be targeted by the Dancer’s upcoming assault. If we’d miscounted the cards or failed to do enough damage, however, she would quickly be crushed and we would have failed.
Sacrificing the last of our stamina in a bid to take the Dancer down before she could counterattack brought back the exact same feelings as an intense session of the Dark Souls games we know and love.
The mechanics are completely different and having someone along for the ride certainly does away with the feeling of isolation, but the nature of good adaptations shouldn’t simply be to ape the source material but to translate it into a new format, evoking the same feelings without copying the exact details.
On this front, Steamforged has succeeded admirably. And as the Dancer fell to the Herald’s very last attack, so did we.
There are a lot of questions that still need to be answered, especially when it comes to structure, character customisation and exactly what form a session will take, but the bare bones seem a stable enough foundation for the designers to build on.
The steep price tag – even by the standards of specialist board games – is inevitably going to scare some off until the full reviews hit, but confirmed fans of the series who have already dipped into their wallets shouldn’t have too much to be worried about.
As far as we’re concerned, April 2017 cannot come soon enough.
The Kickstarter is over, but you can still get in on a late pledge through the Steamforged Games website.