Here are some clues. Can you can guess what game I’m talking about?: It’s cooperative. Evil forces darken the land, and a group of powerful heroes has banded together to fight the seemingly ceaseless tide of wretchedness. The heroes all have special powers and move from area to area on a map. The forces of evil swell each turn, spilling into another area if they are left unchecked too long.
Did you guess Defenders Of The Realm? I would have, but I’m talking about Darkest Night, a new title from Victory Point Games that takes full advantage of their new printing equipment and sudden focus on outstanding production values. This is a company that just a few months ago unapologetically sold games in ziplock bags that used components that looked like they came from your home printer. Not anymore. Their new Gold Banner titles like this one have print that is so inky it looks embossed, ultra-thick counters that are custom-cut by a laser, and silky full-sized cards. And they have art. Real art. Real, gorgeous, big league art. I spent a lot of time in the past pimping out my copies of their games, but now I can just open the box, play, and marvel at how great something from such a small company can look.
SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED
Normally prepping a board game for play is a simple matter of punching and organizing some chits, but these awesome components have some drawbacks. For one, the pieces don’t pop out of the sprue with gentle pressure the way I’ve seen with some other Gold Banner titles. Most of the chits must be twisted out as if they are made out of plastic instead of cardboard, leaving bits of flash on the sides that must be shaved off. Getting some of the smaller custom-cut pieces out intact is tricky, and I had to use a paperclip to apply pressure to the spots where they were attached to get them freed without damage.
The worst offenders are the Key tokens, which are tiny and cut into a skeleton key shape. After mangling one using the paperclip technique I solved the problem by ripping the cardboard sprue surrounding them, which got them all out quickly and intact. Keep some glue handy so you can paste down any paper that inevitably separates.
Once you get the chits out out you have a bigger problem to solve in that the laser cutting process covers their edges in black soot. A napkin is included to wipe them down (VPG is well aware of this unfortunate manufacturing side effect), but come prepared with some dry paper towels and wash your hands several times during the tedious cleaning to avoid making the faces dingy.
Everything looks great once it is punched and cleaned, and the player tokens even have little stands to serve as crude miniatures on the map.
Speaking of the map, both paper and mounted versions are included in the boxed game, and while the mounted map is superior it comes cut as a three-piece puzzle. This means there are seam lines where the pieces come together, but they aren’t distracting during play.
PLAYING THE GAME
Darkest night pits your heroes against the evil Necromancer. You can win by killing the Necromancer, or by collecting three Holy Relics and returning them to the Monastery area. Killing the Necromancer is problematic because you can only hit him if you roll a 7, and the game uses 6-sided dice. Fortunately Holy Relics add +1 to the highest die of the hero carrying one. The problem is that each hero can only carry one Holy Relic, and getting your hands on them is a chore.
You lose the game if the Monastery area is ever overrun with Blight tokens. These represent the minions and powers of the Necromancer, and every area other than the Monastery starts with one already there. If an area ever has four Blight tokens and a fifth is about to be added, it is added to the Monastery instead. If the Monastery is ever about to receive its fifth Blight token, the heroes lose.
No matter how many people you play with the game always begins with four heroes facing off against the Necromancer. These are chosen or dealt randomly, and include an Acolyte, Druid, Knight, Priest, Prince, Rogue, Scholar, Seer, and Wizard. Each has a small player mat with tracks indicating their starting Grace and Secrecy, and they come with their own deck of ten unique Power Cards.
Grace and Secrecy work much like hit points and stamina do in most games. Many Powers are activated by spending Secrecy, and Most of the bad stuff in the game reduces Grace. Unlike many games, heroes don’t necessarily die when they run out of either of these resources, and in some ways they get stronger when they bottom out because they can no longer lose those resources when something bad subtracts them. On the other hand, they become extremely vulnerable because the Necromancer hunts down heroes with low Secrecy, and heroes with no Grace can be killed by certain monsters and events (or the Necromancer himself). One of the bad effects that can happen to a hero is a Wound (represented by a skull and crossbones symbol), which kills a hero when applied unless they spend 1 Grace. No Grace? You’re dead.
The Power Cards give each hero a nuanced and customizable role to play, and unlike many cooperative games some are useless at Attacking and are designed to mainly be support for other characters. The Priest is a prime example, and is best used as a mobile support base for a frontline fighter. Some are also better at Evading than Attacking, which helps them avoid damage and conduct searches even when there are threats present in their area.
CANDLES IN THE WIND
The basic flow of the game is simple: Heroes take their turns in any order they wish, and then the Necromancer takes his turn and makes their lives miserable.
On a player’s turn they lose 1 Secrecy if they begin in the same area as the Necromancer. If they are in the same area as the Necromancer and have zero Secrecy the Necromancer attacks them. The hero must Attack by rolling a 7 on a d6 (better hope they’re holding a Holy Relic) or Eluding and rolling a 6. If they lose either of these they receive a Wound. If they stand their ground and succeed they kill the Necromancer. If they successfully Elude they simply don’t take a Wound.
Then if they are in any area other than the Monastery (where all Heroes begin, and where the Necromancer can never go) they draw an Event Card. These are 99% nasty, and generally force your hero to Attack or Evade a monster, roll a die to see if bad or less bad things happen to them, or just make you flat-out lose resources. The Event Deck is not your friend.
After the Event is resolved the player can take one Action, including:
The player moves to an adjacent area and gains 1 Secrecy. That’s it.
The hero stays in the same area, refreshes any Powers that may be exhausted (through use or an Event), and gains 1 Secrecy.
The hero Attacks a Blight token in the area, rolling 1d6 (unless they have a Power that provides a bonus) against the Blight token’s Might score. These range from 4-6, so they are difficult to hit without using a lot of Powers, and most trigger nasty repercussions if you don’t manage to kill them. This can also be selected to Attack the Necromancer, but you can only kill him if there are no more Blight tokens remaining in his area (and you roll a 7 using a d6). No matter if you win or lose, you lose 1 Secrecy for taking this action.
Each area has a Search target ranging from 2-4, and if you hit that number or higher on a d6 you get to draw a Map card and see what you found. Each area has better odds of coughing up certain items (which are clearly marked on the map), but you can never be sure what you’re going to get.
One of the most important items is the Key, as you need three of those to recover a Holy Relic. Treasure Chests and Supply Caches are also nice, as the former lets you draw one card off the top of the heroes Power deck while the latter lets you draw two and keep one, increasing the hero’s abilities and flexibility. Bottled Magic can be discarded after an Attack to roll three more dice, Vanishing Dust can be discarded after a failed Elude roll to make it succeed, and Waystones are used to instantly transport a hero anywhere while giving them 1 Secrecy. There are also powerful (and rare) Artifact items, Forgotten Shrines that provide 2 Grace, and Epiphanies that let you search your Power deck for any card you want.
This all sounds great until you go searching for Keys and get a string of Power cards or other stuff that you don’t need. That said, there are some Powers that make Searching less of a crapshoot.
Any hero at the Monastery (or in the same area as the Priest when he has a certain Power) can Pray by rolling 2d6 and gaining Grace for every die showing a 3 or higher. This action also refreshes all exhausted Powers.
RETRIEVE A HOLY RELIC
This one is simple: Discard three Keys to pick up the Holy Relic in an area. As mentioned, a hero with a Hoy Relic gains a +1 to their Attack roll, giving them a chance to kill the Necromaner. Alternatively, three Holy Relics can be dropped off at the Monastery to complete the ritual that wins the game.
Any hero carrying a Holy Relic loses 1 Secrecy at the beginning of their turn. If they pass the Holy Relic to another hero, that hero immediately loses 1 Secrecy.
Some Power Cards are Actions, and instead of selecting one of the preceding actions you can activate the one on a card instead. Some of these are instant and repeatable each turn. Others are more powerful and are exhausted (flipped upside down) and unusable again until they are refreshed. Yet others are persistent and assigned to heroes until deactivated. That last category of Power Actions is particularly important for certain heroes like the Knight, who can make Oaths that provide a certain bonus until they are fulfilled (and hurt the Knight if they are not fulfilled). The Wizard has Runes that are activated to change the meta state of the game, while the Druid can shift through various Forms that provide bonuses until he shifts out of them.
BAD TO THE BONE
Once all the heroes have basted the land in their weaksauce, the Necromancer does his thing, which is destroying them along with the world they’re standing on.
First the Darkness Track goes up by 1. Every time it hits a tens digit the Necromancer gains in power, and a lot of Event cards become nastier if Darkness is at a certain threshold when they are drawn. Each time it would go past 30 a Blight is added to the Monastery. This is a good time to concede.
Next a die is rolled, and if it exceeds the Secrecy of a hero that hero is detected and the Necromancer moves toward him or her (unless they are in the Monastery, where they are undetectable and where the Necromancer can never go). If no hero is detected the die is rolled again and the Necromancer is moved according to die faces printed on the exits in the area he’s currently in. Sometimes he stays put.
After movement a Map Card is drawn and tells you what Blight to add to the area where the Necromancer is standing. As mentioned, if a fifth Blight is about to be added to any area, it goes to the Monastery instead.
And don’t forget: If any hero is in the same area as the Necromancer and has zero Secrecy, the Necromancer attacks them at the beginning of the hero’s Event Phase. This can work to your advantage if you’re prepared.
That’s it. The heroes take their turns again, then the Necromancer goes, and so on.
IS IT WORTH YOUR TIME?
I look for three main qualities when judging games:
ARE THE DECISIONS INTERESTING?
They can be. There is always Blight to take care of, or Secrecy and Grace to restore, or Keys to find. Getting the right items in the right hands or the right Powers assigned to the right heroes can be crucial. There’s also a decision to be made regarding when to worry about Secrecy and when to shed it to lure the Necromancer, but that decision is often made for you by Events and Blights.
Darkest Night is a pressure cooker where trouble builds slowly but steadily before exploding, and figuring out the best way to keep the lid on is an interesting exercise in compromise. As with most cooperative games, much of the strategy revolves around getting the heroes to work together efficiently. Items must be passed around, heroes must be healed, and if you end up trying to kill the Necromancer it often takes a coordinated attack to clear the area of Blights so you can take a stab at him. It also takes some planning to keep everyone in the field as long as possible before they must turn tail and run for the sanctuary of the Monastery.
There’s a lot of risk-taking, but much of it stems from the tedious crapshoot of Search and Attack Actions. Search is by far the worst offender, especially when looking for Keys. It’s frustrating to take hits from Events turn after turn looking for a Key when all you get for your efforts most of the time is a series of 50/50 shots that have a chance of giving you something completely different that what you seek. I don’t understand how waiting for a coin toss is supposed to be fun.
There are Powers that bend the Search odds in your favor, and Powers that make combat much more interesting, but getting them is another example of waiting your turn while praying that the dice gods and the card gods favor you.
My main beef with the game is often heroes can’t do much on their turns. Movement eats up a full Action, meaning you are forced to suffer any end-of-turn effects from Blights where you move. Want to Search? Roll and your turn is over. Same thing for Attacking. And if things don’t go your way, you wait until everyone else and the Necromancer has their turns before getting to try the same thing all over again.
IS THERE A CLEAR SENSE OF ACCOMPLISHMENT OR FAILURE?
As with most cooperative games there is a clear sense of frustration and impending doom. There are rarely enough heroes, resources, or Actions to put out all the fires the continually pop up. Heroes with low Secrecy also tend to be the ones that have taken hits to their Grace, meaning the Necromancer often hunts down those least able to handle him. Sometimes the best option is to have a hero lose Secrecy on purpose just to get the Necromancer off of someone else’s back.
Succeeding at this game mainly feels like a matter of luck. It’s easy to figure out what to do, but difficult to get the dice rolls you need to do it. I don’t get the same sense of “I did it!” accomplishment out of this that I get out of a game like Thunderbolt-Apache Leader where there is more granularity in what the player controls, and more easily calculated odds that help guide decisions instead of dictating them. This is trait nearly all cooperative games share, however, and when playing with others the main fun to be had is in planning and strategizing as a group. You obviously don’t get this social aspect when playing solo, and it suffers for it.
IF THERE IS A THEME, IS IT TIGHTLY INTEGRATED WITH THE DESIGN?
The game tries hard to tell you you’re obtaining fantastic Powers and legendary items, but mechanistically it feels more like collecting a bunch of simple modifiers. It brought to mind Lords of Waterdeep, where a bunch of colored cubes are used to represent fighters, wizards, rogues, and clerics, but you have to remind yourself not to call them oranges, purples, blacks, and whites. This problem could have been mitigated by using custom dice with symbols instead of generic six-siders with pips, or via a more complex combat system, though I’m guessing it won’t be an issue for most people.
The heroes are awesome. They all have a distinct flavor, evoke the tropes of the classes they represent, and have some interesting Powers that can combo well once you get them going. I wish they had given each one a unique name instead of using generic classes, but similar games like Defenders Of The Realm have nothing on Darkest Night when it comes to diverse, interesting characters to play.
Secrecy is another thing they got right thematically. Grace works much like hit points, but Secrecy is neat in that losing it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes you want to lurk in an area undetected, and other times you want the whole world to know you’re calling out the Necromancer. This is much more strategic and nuanced than the typical stamina stat.
It’s amazing to see how far Victory Point Games has come so quickly. Despite the soot issue, the boxed version of Darkest Night fits right in with games put out by much bigger publishers, and the new component quality is phenomenal by any standard. I wish more thought had been put into the rulebook layout, as headers are difficult to distinguish from the rest of the text because they all use the same font, but it only takes about half a game of fumbling around before you can put the rules aside and rely solely on the included cheat sheet.
As for the gameplay, it turned out not to be a compelling solo experience. The company’s switch to full-size cards mean that they take up a ton of room on the table (despite containing little information), so managing four heroes by yourself quickly gets out of hand. Planning with others accounts for a lot of the fun in all cooperative games, and you don’t get that when playing alone unless you are far, far crazier than I am. It’s also easy to bump Grace and Secrecy counters when playing by yourself in a cluttered environment. This wouldn’t be a big deal if you were only managing one hero but is frustrating when you’re trying to keep tabs on eight tracks spread across four player mats.
A concern for some is that you can get a copy of Defenders Of The Realm for about the same price as Darkest Night, and there is enough overlap thematically and mechanism-wise that I suspect most people will opt for the former. Defenders comes with loads of colorful miniatures, an enormous map, and other goodies that make you feel like you’re getting a pretty nice bang for your buck. While the components in Darkest Night are great, they don’t hold up to what you would normally get for that kind of money. (Do note that every single thing in Darkest Night is made and assembled in America, and very few game companies can make that claim.)
Despite all my comparisons to Defenders Of The Realm in this review, Darkest Night is by no means a lazy or copycat design. It’s nice to get a game where heroes have so many unique abilities, and where obvious care went into deciding how those abilities would synergize while still representing each class well. The Blights are also varied, and there are loads of them, giving each game an entirely different flavor and story arc depending on where they show up. Replayability is through the roof since there are so many hero combinations to try out and so many random factors at play. The developers also provided many variant rules, including one where a fifth player controls the Necromancer.
I hope Victory Point Games finds great success with this well-done foray into more traditional and family-friendly fare. Darkest Night didn’t work out so well for me as a solo game (nor did Defenders Of The Realm, if you want to read that review), but I can see it being a hit with coop game fans looking for a new fix. Here’s hoping it gets the exposure it deserves.