Session Review: Darkest Night, 2nd Edition from Victory Point Games

Session Review: Darkest Night, 2nd Edition from Victory Point Games

As a fan of cooperative games, I’ve been interested to try Victory Point GamesDarkest Night for a while. The sub-genre is one of my favorites and I find it hard to believe it’s almost a decade on since Pandemic made its splash onto the board game scene and inspired the hobby to get on the cooperative game train. Sure, it had predecessors but Matt Leacock’s tightly-designed end-of-the-world wonder introduced a larger audience to the sub-genre and we’ve had a lot of great ones and many not-so-great ones since then.

DN‘s publisher is run by Alan Emrich. Alan is a genuine hero for Southern California gamers, as one of the guys responsible for the Strategicon series of conventions while making many other contributions to the hobby even before he launched VPG. I was glad to hear they were doing a new edition of the game with updated rules, gorgeous new miniatures and stretch goals-a-go-go. Having recently gotten interested in the design work of local designer Jeremy Lennert anyway (his Hunt: The Unknown Quarry was recently brought into digital form thanks also to a Kickstarter campaign), I thought it was finally the chance to give it a go. Jeremy was kind enough to explain the game for me and ‘referee’ a play of the title at a recent game event, which I partially Periscoped while we got the rules explanation if you’re inclined to give it a look.

Darkest Night is a fantasy-themed cooperative game but it’s no Pandemic clone (that’s Defenders of the Realm). Instead, Darkest Night draws more from the feel of adventure-oriented co-ops that give players more of a chance to develop their character (think Runebound or Return of the Heroes). This is welcome because one of the problems with co-ops is the tendency for one player to kind of take over everyone’s roles (“The Director,” they are often politely called). Darkest Night gives players an opportunity to develop themselves out with powers from their own deck of 10 cards (13, if stretch goals happen). I’m also in love with the statistic the characters have. No typical “Strength” and “Dexterity” stuff here. Instead, you have “Grace” (hit points) and “Secrecy” (how hard you are to find). The way Secrecy works is intriguing since this value will govern how easy it is for the Necromancer to find you. Kind of like Fearsome Floors, he’ll move to the closest player he detects when he moves.

The new edition has gorgeous miniatures that you can buy as an add-on plus some expanded rules. While this was my first play of the game and I cannot compare the new rules to the old, it would appear the updates expand the options available and make the game even more flexible. As with many games, it’s the cards that bring the variation to life. The new edition adds even more event cards, which are drawn from most locations. These cards can lead to conflicts, bad mojo stuff happening that will provide you misery and, occasionally, something not terrible. While the different cards are welcome, they do feel very 80’s Games Workshop, as they usually have a die roll to see what happens. I’m of two minds on that one. While the additional variation of cards not always doing the same thing can be enjoyable, there are times when you get results like “nothing happens.” Kind of a yawn but okay if it happens rarely. In our game, it happened more than that.

The Event cards also trigger some interesting elements to add to the board, including Quests. These are opportunities for characters to complete a task to gain an advantage but they also come with timers. The urgency and interest these provide make for a richer game and it’s a welcome mechanism. There are also Artifacts and Mystery cards that provide some other opportunities for interaction with game mechanisms that help players along. We played on a prototype board so it is hard to judge it but there are a lot of things that can show up on the board and it can get a bit crowded, but all of these elements work well for the game.

Then the bad guy gets a turn (notably, after all players get a go – not like Pandemic where it happens after each player). Blights (or the ‘infection cubes’, if you like) that get dropped out onto the board are implemented in an interesting way as they turn regions of the board into startlingly difficult places to be. Instead of just stacking up to show their threat as in Pandemic, Blights provide a specific penalty to the players at the location where they sprout. They’ll hit you for a combat or evading penalty or some other problem. Blights works well – in fact, my only issue with the Blights is the design of the tiles. While you are usually defending against or evading them, those values are quite small. Near the bottom, in a MUCH bigger font is the value you need to roll to defeat them (and the penalty for failure), but this is less often used. Were I their graphic designer, I’d switch those immediately to increase the ease of use because we kept having to squint to complete the action we did the most with these guys.

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Session Review: Darkest Night 2nd Edition from Victory Point Games (continued)

Session Review: Darkest Night 2nd Edition from Victory Point Games (continued)

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While Blight works well, I do wish I could see the effort help us manage the threats. While removing them reduces frustration, I had a hard time tracking how our efforts were helping in the battle against the Necromancer. Once in a while, something we did reduce the ‘Darkness’ (a marker not unlike the Knizia Lord of the Rings tracker, or the Minion Hunter –  the precursor to all of these games – track that all four threats live on), which felt like we were striking a blow. Too often, though, our efforts felt like they were just us swatting flies away from our efforts to get enough artifacts to get enough clues to do…something. While the turns were short, a lot of times, it just felt like we weren’t doing very much and yet turns have a lot going on from an administrative perspective. You start with that event card, which can often turn into multiple event cards. Then you do your action: moving (again, a whole turn to travel makes sense in the name of the mechanisms but not in the name of players feeling a sense of accomplishment), taking a single swipe at a Blight (miss the roll and the turn is over, bub, which could mean another event or just lost Grace), or do something with one of the cards on the space. You can also just rest to restore Grace. Then, you need to deal with any monster Blights (either fight them off – notably, not killing them – or just evade them).

Screen Shot 2016-05-22 at 12.42.40 PMThere are just an awful lot of turns. The length of a turn is a challenging problem. As a eurogamer, I’m no fan of lost turns. While the Web (a Blight that makes a player lose a turn when they leave a space with it) is manageable because you can opt to fight and remove Blights, it is less appealing to go to the Monastery and pray, only to find that you get absolutely nothing for it with bad rolls. I won’t make a religious joke here but I will say that I’d rather see the devotion do you good regardless of the dice. Darkest Night has that war-game sense of resolutional luck rather than situational luck. I’m sure that’s a lot of the appeal for RPG players and the huge community of fans the game enjoys (which has led to many expansions).

Unfortunately, the storytelling is not as strong as the interesting mechanisms. The names are all generic and the board is made up of a handful of locations that have functional names “Monastery” and “Swamp,” that are descriptive but not evocative. While the Necromancer is a threat somehow, it’s not something that comes out in the game much. In Pandemic, you’re saving the world (real places with city names) from the disease and the paths to a loss make it clear what is happening. This is even more powerful and effective in the truly awesome Pandemic Legacy. In Knizia’s Lord of the Rings, Knizia benefits from the legendarily intriguing Middle Earth, which is abstracted out but there is a definite sense of location with the unique characteristics of the areas.

It’s an interesting problem. Is it more appealing to let players imagine their own names with the characters to tell their own story? Sure, I buy that idea. The 29 characters and their unique 13 card decks provide players with a chance to experience the game many different ways, adding to the replay value of the game. Yet, I can’t say the same for those generic name for the locations on the board. There’s nothing particularly inspiring about going to The Forest or The Castle. That’s where the storytelling would be welcome. Even the Necromancer seems to want a name to make him seem more grounded and real. As a double-size cardboard standee, he looks imposing but without a backstory or more visible signs of the impending doom, Darkest Night’s story didn’t hold my attention for the full length of the game, even though the mechanisms are strong.

Darkest Night plays in two to three hours but it was a first game for our crew so it ran longer. I think my recent forays into three-hour games of Star Wars: Rebellion may have given me a false sense of my stamina for over two-hour games. I believe the storytelling strength of Star Wars: Rebellion is why three hours with that game feels like not enough time. Of course, familiarity with almost, ahem, forty years of Star Wars in my life means there is a built-in level of interest there. Still, I think the rich theming is what makes it all the more compelling and keeps players deeply engaged.

Darkest Night 2nd Edition is good fun for RPG cooperative board gamers and is available now on Kickstarter. It’s already funded but a bunch of excellent stretch goals await. I recommend you check it out because if you like this kind of game, you get a whole lot of fun in this new edition. The campaign runs through June 11 and the details can be found here.

Boardgame Babylon Rating

BIN (Buy It Now) PIN (Play It Now) TIF (Try It First) NMT (Not My Thing)