‘Dark Souls: The Board Game’ Makes Death Feel Truly Unfair

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‘Dark Souls: The Board Game’ Makes Death Feel Truly Unfair

By putting players’ fortunes in the hands of fate, rather than skill, Steamforged’s tabletop adaptation loses a vital aspect of Dark Souls’ appeal.

Steamforged, developers of the newly released Darks Souls: The Board Game, have had to face up to some pretty unique challenges in bringing FromSoftware's iconic action role-player series to the tabletop.

When you think of Dark Souls, the word "brutal," or a variation on it, usually isn't too far behind. The franchise's reputation is one of pain and suffering—of pushing the player to learn its every nuance, and perfect every possible exploit in order to fully succeed.

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Board games, of course, can be challenging. But what makes them tough to beat is very different. In a video game, the proverbial nuts and bolts, the machinations of the AI, are hidden beneath a veneer of animation and sound, the surface presentation. They reveal themselves more through trial and error than telegraphed design. On the tabletop, however, these are usually revealed from the very outset of the experience: cards, miniatures and dice comprise the interlocking gears, tactile objects that are directly, physically engaged with.

Dice are a tabletop staple, but Steamforged's decision to include them in its Dark Souls adaptation was actually met with negativity by the game's community on its announcement last year (when it raised over £3.7 million on Kickstarter, on a goal of just £50k). Ever since, it's been one of the more controversial elements of the conversion from the screen to paper and plastic.

Detractors said dice fundamentally undermine the purity of Dark Souls' philosophy of skill-based advancement, turning what was studied and practiced into a game of chance. The designers at Steamforged, however, countered by arguing that the inclusion of dice represented nothing more than the best tool to translate the fluid nature of the franchise's combat.

Photographs courtesy of Steamforged Games Ltd.

But, the presence of dice here does feel instantly incongruous. The game's attack dice come in three grades, each one offering more opportunities to land hits on the enemy than the last. Better equipment gives you access to better dice. The bottom-tier dice have some sides which are blank, a swing and a miss, meaning that when you're starting out on your quest there's a chance, even with the best possible planning and optimized play, you can end up failing on the whim of a plastic cube.

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This is a reliable tabletop mechanic, but it doesn't feel like it belongs here. There's no doubt the dice make the game less knowable, and therefore more difficult—but arguably, that's not the kind of difficulty that Dark Souls fans crave. It is difficulty imposed on you by the winds of fate, rather than your own lack of preparedness.

The combat isn't the only area in which Dark Souls' conversion from console to cardboard encounters resistance. Steamforge has clearly felt a slavish need to replicate the challenging nature of the source material, as evidenced by its dicey combat. But by giving into that urge they've forgotten that Dark Souls was more than just a difficult game. It had a narrative, obtuse though it could be across its main installments, with countless tomes' worth of lore to digest, if you wanted to look for it.

In the first moments of the original (video game) Dark Souls, a mysterious knight tosses a corpse into a cell in which your character rots. The corpse holds a key, that unlocks the cell door, and so your adventure begins. This is a simple storytelling device, but it succeeds in creating the lure of a mystery to be uncovered, inviting you into a larger world to be explored.

Just as you start to feel like you're really playing a Dark Souls game, you'll roll two blanks when dodging, fail through no fault of your own, and remember this is all just an illusion.

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It asks questions that you want to know the answer to, and therefore gives you a reason to subject yourself to the brutality of the game. Due to the nakedness of components, the tabletop translation simply doesn't offer the same.

Almost the entirety of the map is laid out as you set up. While the precise contents of each room are unknown until you enter them, seeing everything spread out before you is actually an obstacle to meaningful exploration. The only parts of the map that remain hidden are those containing the bosses, such tiles lurking behind the fog gate token. It's a neat reference to the games, but it is also a trick that doesn't last long, as the excitement of passing through the gate yields rapidly diminishing returns.

Superficially, The Board Game is rich in little nods to the Dark Souls universe. The mechanic whereby you have to recover your souls after you die is true to the video game, and the bonfire section of the map is an important hub.

But these elements are only ever skin deep. Just as you start to feel like you're really playing a Dark Souls game, you'll roll two blanks when dodging, fail through no fault of your own, and remember this is all just an illusion.

You can't escape the impression that this is a labor of love. The designers have a clear affection for Dark Souls—but that isn't necessarily a good thing. The desire to bring a digital game into the physical realm has, in this instance, inhibited its makers' creativity.

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In contrast, there are a number of examples of video to tabletop translations where the designers have managed to create a game that embodies the spirit of its source, without simply attempting to copy, given the pitfalls that lie that way.

Fantasy Flight's XCOM: The Board Game, for example, isn't a turn-based strategy game. Quite the opposite, it relies on real time decision-making and teamwork to create a sense of growing tension, and a looming threat. Mechanically speaking, it bears very little resemblance to the digital versions, but emotionally it still feels very much like an XCOM game.

Likewise the official Portal board game, aka The Uncooperative Cake Acquisition Game, comes from a franchise that can perhaps claim to have as much of a cult following as Dark Souls. It, naturally, incorporates a portal mechanic, but isn't obsessed by it. Instead it focuses on capturing the cruel humor and occasional silliness of the game that inspired it.

In both these examples, inspiration is the key word. They display an obvious understanding of, and affection for, their digital counterparts. What they don't display is an obsessive urge to imitate them. (You can read more about both games here.)

One can look at Dark Souls: The Board Game as an item for hardcore fans with a collector's instinct. It's loaded with miniatures that are, a few production issues aside, deeply impressive. Those that represent the bosses are particularly good, with a heft that's suitably imposing on the board. A painter with a little skill could transform them into something quite magnificent.

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Related, on Waypoint: The Surprising Success of Tabletop First-Person Shooters 

I get the sense that this is an item one would purchase for the prestige of owning it rather than quality of the game itself. Whether that's a worthwhile thing to spend your money on is of course an entirely subjective question, but it may hint at the way forward for future Kickstarter-funded licensed products.

The nature of Kickstarter, and other crowd-funding platforms besides, encourages manufacturers to create a product that borders on the opulent. The more generous the contents of the box, the more likely it is that a potential consumer might see value in backing the project. And this facet of crowdfunding is further compounded by stretch goals.

With Dark Souls, the more money pledged above the target level unlocked more and more toys for people to play with. It's fan service driven mad by cash-injected steroids.

Viewed through such a lens, that Dark Souls doesn't coalesce into a solid game is almost irrelevant. By finding a way to deliver to fans a lavishly produced board game, Steamforged may have inadvertently set the bar high for smaller publishers looking to bring beloved franchises onto tables across the world.

But those that do follow, as they surely will, regardless of aesthetic quality, would be wise to prioritize systems that work to the medium's benefit, rather than ham-fistedly adapt elements that just don't work outside of a video game.

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