Darkest Dungeon – First Thoughts

First Thoughts pieces are my impressions after a single play of the game. They are not meant to represent a deep critical appraisal of the game in question.

Much as critics might want to, it is impossible to ignore Kickstarter. The tabletop culture has been changed irrevocably by that most dominant of crowdfunding sites. Although others are now snapping at its heels it is not uncommon for us to use ‘Kickstarted’ instead of ‘Crowdfunded’ to refer to these products. Such is the all dominating nature of that site it has entered the vocabulary.

I personally have no interest in backing the real behemoths of the crowdfunding world. I feel it is part of my responsibility as a critic to sample everything the hobby has to offer. To that end I bring you this first thoughts about Darkest Dungeon. This is the latest miniature laden product from Mythic Games and designers Nick Niotis and Argyris Poungouras.

Darkest Dungeon was one of those games you see with endless miniatures and stretch goals. The full pledge came in at a whopping $300 dollars, before you even talk about shipping. Based on the computer game of the same name, the first wave has now started arriving with backers. You can check out this episode of Brainwaves to hear about Mythic’s other troubles. This project at least seems to have at least delivered the core experience. 

Darkest Dungeon laid out before play begins
All in copy of Darkest Dungeon. It’s a good looking game.

I’ve played the computer game a bit, enough to be aware how it works and to make the comparison here. First thing to say is that it is an impressive production. There is just a lot of stuff. Miniatures, cards, boards, dice and tokens galore. That said on closer inspection there are some weird corners cut. 

The card quality is not great. Now there are a lot of cards, and a lot of those cards get shuffled. Not a lot, but enough for the lips on the cards to cause me concern. The owner of the game had sleeved the cards on receipt of the game due to this issue. The miniatures are great, and the art assets are superb. The artist is Christopher Bourassa who was responsible for the computer game art. That said, again, the graphic design is a little lacking. For instance monster cards have traits below their name that are dark grey lettering, no border, on black. They look a little easier to see in this photo I took, than they are in real life. 

The battle line for Darkest Dungeon, such that it is
The battle line

To the game itself though. Keep in mind that I don’t own this, haven’t read the rules, and this is just my impressions after a first full dungeon. You start out by grabbing a quest. That might be something like ‘kill all the monsters’ or ‘explore a certain amount of the dungeon’. The quest gives you a random assortment of rooms to explore and some ways to gain XP for levelling up. This is a co-operative game where the players are battling the rot in the land by descending into dungeons and clearing them out.

It really nails quite a lot of the feel of the computer game. As you descend into the darkness and explore, you roll dice to see what you encounter between rooms. You use up those resources as you go to try and mitigate the worst results. It’s arbitrary and mean, making it a perfect fit for the computer game. 

The exploration board ready to be...explored
Exploration board ready to be….explored. Dice are our resources to use up as we descend.

Rooms can be a variety of things but the one you are interested in I am sure, is when combat occurs. If you haven’t played the computer game, the main trick it pulls is to abstract dungeon crawl combat into a linear puzzle where your characters can do different things based on where they are in that line, and positioning and timing are key to doing well. I am really bad at it, but I appreciate the puzzle is interesting.

The board game reverses that abstraction. Whenever combat is met, rather than emulating the linear puzzle of the computer game you grab a dungeon tile, break out the minis, and populate the board. Now you do have the battle line from the computer game as well, and your position on it does matter as to what powers you can use. This line also tells you what the monsters can do on their turn. However the nature of the combat phase means you are moving around a board. For me it takes away one of the things that makes Darkest Dungeon a unique game, and makes the boardgame feel way more ‘just another dungeon crawler’. 

This is kind of my reason for writing up this particular piece. My immediate instinct was that the combat mechanisms in this game occurred because someone wanted there to be a big miniatures Kickstarter for Darkest Dungeon. Now I’m not a game designer, but I can’t see any other reason for the miniatures to exist in this game. It feels like a weird choice to ignore the cool combat that exists in the computer game, and replace it with a more pedestrian dungeon crawling combat. Maybe that would have made the game too close to the computer game.

What I am driving at here is that I feel like a production decision has driven a game design decision, which gives me pause for concern. I don’t mind a game justifying its lavish production because it makes the game mechanisms sing, but if you are designing a game to accommodate a production decision, then I have to wonder how good that game is going to be. 

None of this is to say that the game is particularly bad. I had fun playing it and it does get some of the feel of Darkest Dungeon spot on. I haven’t seen a boss yet, but bar that I felt like I had ‘seen’ most of what the game had to offer. Sure you will be able to optimise parties, tune powers, and get combos going, but it felt like the game had shown me most of its tricks in this one sitting. I might be wrong. 

We can’t talk about this game without talking about price. It feels like price consideration is creeping into my work more and more. That is partly down to the current cost of living crisis we find ourselves in, but also because these games are so expensive. The core box of Darkest Dungeon is $170. You can get Gloomhaven for that, and I really do recommend that game. Darkest Dungeon is a fun time, and I’ll probably play it more, but you can get a lot more game for your buck here. Darkest Dungeon feels at best like a beer & pretzel knockabout experience. The odd graphic design choices, the corners cut on card quality, and the weird choice to ignore what made the computer game unique give you a very mediocre feeling game for the price.

Iain McAllister

Tabletop games reviewer and podcaster based in Dalkeith, Scotland.

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2 Responses

  1. L McNew says:

    Darkest dungeon on Kickstarter was plain theft paid over $100 received nothing.

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