If any single board game could be described as masochistic, it’s probably Dark Souls. It’s brutal. It’s violent. And you’re almost certainly going to die.
But it’s the taking part that counts, right?
Brief Overview of Dark Souls
Dark Souls is a co-operative dungeon-crawler for one-to-four players, based on the video game of the same name. Your party of cursed undead must move from tile to tile, defeating monsters and completing encounters as you prepare for the final boss.
It’s primarily a game of combat, rather than exploration. You’ll need to have your tactical hat on as you choose the weapons and maneuvers to make your dice-based attacks. And, if successful, upgrade your character and their abilities.
Much like the video game, it’s an extremely hard game to win. Luckily, if you die, you get several attempts to try again. But, even then, it will still be a tall order.
Versions & Expansions
Fortunately, Bryan has already written an in-depth overview of all the Dark Souls expansions you need to be aware of.
Unboxing Dark Souls
Inside Dark Souls’ rather intimidating box, you’ll find:
- 4 characters
- 16 enemies
- 2 main bosses
- 4 mini bosses
- 141 treasure cards
- 36 encounter cards
- 15 dice
- 80 cubes
- 106 tokens
- 9 board tiles
The hero characters and enemies are all perfectly good but it’s the boss characters that really take the biscuit here. In particular, the bulging Dragon Slayer Ornstein & Executioner Smough is a real treat to behold. While even the mini-bosses, such as the Titanite Demon, are imposing.
The rest of the kit doesn’t quite reach the same heady heights. The cards all look pretty neat but don’t necessarily add a great deal to the theme. While the tiles themselves are arguably a bit boring. But then I suppose that’s testament to this game’s focus on all-out-combat rather than unearthing new and interesting terrain.
There are lots of little fiddly pieces in here. So be careful, or it might not be only the game that you lose.
How to Play Dark Souls
To create the dungeon you’re going to be exploring, randomly place six square tiles in whatever formation you like around the Bonfire tile. The Bonfire tile acts as your safe haven, or respawn point.
Then, choose the mini-boss you want to fight. The mini-boss you choose dictates the number encounter cards of each difficulty level you’ll come up against on each tile.
Finally, all players choose a character and place the miniature on the Bonfire tile. Also, take the corresponding player board, which tracks your character’s stats, tells you your character’s special ability, and their starting equipment cards.
Winning And Losing The Game
Your party’s goal is to work your way through the dungeon, completing encounters on each tile. Once you have defeated one mini-boss, you set up the board again, but instead select a main boss to defeat. Should you be successful, your team wins.
Defeat, though, is also very possible (if not, inevitable). Should a member of your party die, you go back and start again. However, your party has a certain amount of attempts, depending on how many players are in the game. These are known as Sparks.
If you run out of Sparks and a player dies, it’s game over.
The bulk of the game is made up of encounters. Your party moves from tile to tile through the dungeon. When you enter a new tile, its encounter card is flipped over and set up. Each one comes with individual enemies, terrain, and traps.
Players and enemies are activated to take their turns in alternating order (IE. player 1, enemy 1, player 2, enemy 2, and so on). On a player’s turn, they can either move and attack or attack and move.
Most actions, including movement, cost stamina. So you need to be careful about how you choose to allocate it, for if you run out of stamina, you die.
Once a player has taken their turn, play moves on to the next player. If you manage to defeat all the monsters on the tile, your party wins and gets rewarded in ‘soul cache’, which can be spent in the Bonfire. If a character dies, your party is defeated and they must ‘Rest At The Bonfire’ (see below).
Combat is made using dice, the success of which relies heavily on what gear you have – weapons, armor, spells, etc.
Attacks are made by first choosing your weapon/type of attack you want to make. Different attacks cost different amounts of stamina to use and will determine the amount of dice you roll and its range (how many nodes away your victim must be).
Roll the dice, and however many pips you roll is the amount of damage you deal, minus your target’s block value. Attacks can also cause several types of conditions, like poisoning or frostbite. It is possible for an attack to ‘push’ a character onto a node further away, too.
Health and stamina are measured on the Endurance Bar – health from one end, stamina at the other, with ten squares in between. Each time you spend stamina or take damage, add a block to a square. If all ten squares get filled, your character dies.
Resting At The Bonfire
If you are defeated, your party must Rest At The Bonfire. This restores all your characters’ resources and health. However, you only get so many chances to do this, as explained above. Also, you must reset all encounter cards and go back and do them all again!
Players complete encounters to boost their stats, upgrade their weaponry and collect armor and spells, all in order to prepare them for the boss battles.
Bosses work slightly differently to your other enemies. They have several behavior cards that must be worked through each turn in order to defeat it. Each one sees the boss act in a different way.
The boss also splits its tile into four areas, or arcs, which affect how your characters can move and how its attacks are carried out.
If you manage to defeat the mini and main bosses, your party wins the game!
Your First Game of Dark Souls
I’ll be honest, on your first game of Dark Souls, you’re probably going to lose. Badly. But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn some good lessons from it.
Importantly, don’t assume that rushing through as fast as you can is the best approach. Your time in the dungeon before the bosses is preparation time. Use it to earn soul cache and pay to upgrade your characters and items. You may even want to choose to rest at the Bonfire, purely to allow you to upskill more.
When it comes to rules, one easy mistake to make is to forget to apply a condition or push effect if, due to the target’s block or resist stat, the damage dealt was reduced to zero. It’s still a hit even if it takes off zero health, and the target will still get poisoning, frostbite, or be pushed as a result.
The only way a unit can avoid a condition or push is if they manage to dodge the attack entirely.
Pros & Cons
- Super tactical dungeon-crawler
- Interesting combat mechanisms
- Co-operative and one-player
- Amazing miniatures (described above)
- Very focused on combat
- Hard to win
- Only four playable characters
Unlike a lot of dungeon crawlers, your time playing Dark Souls will primarily be spent in the heat of tactical combat (or dying!). Players that just want to crack some skulls and outwit on the battlefield will have a lot to chew on here, with encounter card after encounter card being thrown at you.
This non-stop action can get very exciting. However, if you’re more of an Indiana Jones type, preferring to sneakily explore a dungeon and discover artifacts than engage in endless chaos, you might find it gets old pretty quickly.
In my opinion, though, the mechanics of the combat system fully justify the skew towards violence. It makes for a super tactical experience. Each encounter will be tackled differently depending on the strengths and weaknesses of the enemies that appear. You’ll need to carefully select the best weapons, attacks, items, and strategies for the job, while effective movement will also play a vital role in how your party fares.
The endurance bar is a really cool balancing act, too, meaning it’s a combination of health and stamina that decide your character’s fate, rather than just HP. After all, it is pretty far-fetched that you could be one hit away from death, with several limbs cut off, but still have the available stamina for an agile attack (unless you’re Monty Python’s Black Knight, of course).
The boss battles are where the combat really excels, though. The uncertainty of the behavior cards means your party needs to be fully alert and ready to adapt the plan at any moment. And the movement arcs are an interesting addition, too.
It’s worth mentioning that – apparently much like it’s video game parent – Dark Souls can sometimes feel nigh-on impossible to win. So do be prepared to lose. Luckily, you get the chance to head back to the bonfire and try again. This nicely emulates a video game checkpoint, resetting everything back to how it was and giving you a chance to hone your tactics and try again with the benefit of hindsight.
The replayability of Dark Souls comes mainly through the sheer number of item cards that get provided, as you can kit yourself out very differently each time you play. These are central to the game, and it’s great how you can bling them up rather than just replace them. That said, I’d have preferred it if there were more than just four playable characters.
Finally, most co-ops tend to be playable as a one-player – sometimes simply by taking on the role of two characters – but these rules are often tacked on the end as more of an afterthought. Kudos to Dark Souls for including rules throughout for a one-player version.
Not one for the kids, Dark Souls is as ferocious as it is impossible to win. It’s a co-operative dungeon-crawler at heart, however, the focus is very much on combat.
Your team must work your way through a series of conflicts, upgrading your stats and weapons as you go, in preparation for your battle with the big boss.
The likelihood of you coming out alive is small. But the intricate combat mechanics and tactics involved make it a brilliant table-top adventure. I just hope you like losing.
Dark Souls is a blood-thirsty game of brutal, yet tactical, combat. In fact, it feels more like a series of intense skirmishes than a typical dungeon-crawler game and is a nice innovation in the genre. Long tunnels, monologues, and mystic puzzles have been sacrificed in favor of in-depth combat mechanisms, which would perhaps have been overwhelming in a more broad system.
Fans of miniatures, especially, will find a lot to enjoy. The care and detail that has gone into the boss models means Dark Souls stands head and shoulders above many similar releases.
There’s simply no escaping the fact, though, that Dark Souls is a very difficult game to win. But don’t let that put you off. Losing – or should I say dying – is just part of the experience. And, if you do somehow manage to win, it just makes it all the sweeter (I would imagine).
Have you tried Dark Souls? How many times did you die? Drop a comment below and let us know what you think about this challenging horror game.