One Sentence Synopsis: There’s still light in the darkness, but it’s fading fast.
A darkness spread over the land on the heels of the Necromancer’s undead hordes. Villages fell, castles toppled, and the King’s armies broke and fled in the face of such unimaginable horror and evil. Four heroes have barricaded themselves in a monastery which has thus-far resisted the Necromancer’s blights, using its holy protection to plan the kingdom’s last gasp of resistance. Their efforts to regain the lost holy relics represent the people’s only hope before darkness and despair swallow the land for eternity, but their path is fraught with peril and uncertainty, and the Necromancer’s power grows by the day.
Darkest Night is a cooperative, fantasy-noir, RPG board game for 1-4 players from Victory Point Games that is playable in roughly one-and-a-half to two hours if you’re lucky enough to make it that long. Players take on the role of four adventurers, choosing between nine unique classes each with an accompanying array of customizable skills, who must find holy relics locked away across the map and defeat the increasingly powerful Necromancer in roughly 30 turns lest the land fall into permanent blight. Limited actions each turn make cooperating a must to find items and level new skills to more effectively combat a multitude of varying blights spawned by the Necromancer, all while balancing the need to find keys which allow the heroes to find holy relics. Only one holy relic is necessary to kill the Necromancer if players are powerful enough, and well-coordinated enough, to confront the Necromancer head-on while he’s in an area purged of blight, but finding all three holy relics and taking them to the Monastery to enact the holy ritual will destroy the Necromancer without the need to face him directly. Both options are completely viable strategies depending on group makeup and player dynamics, though neither is an easy feat to accomplish.
Players start the game by picking four heroes out of the classes available, including common fantasy tropes like the Priest, Rogue, and Knight, and dividing their control amongst the group. In a solo game this means one player controls all four characters, whereas in a game of four each person will control a single hero. Each of the classes is distinct, comprised of different values for grace (health), secrecy, which allows the hero to move undetected by the Necromancer, and ten skills/powers. The classes each play extremely differently from one another, and each offers something useful to the group so there’s never really any “bad” class for someone to end up with. That said, group synergy is extremely important for players’ potential to win, so successful groups will likely spend some time coordinating their class selections.
Each character begins the game with three powers out of the four that are marked as beginner powers, and the rest are placed in a deck off to one side. Powers in Darkest Night are just that: powerful. Being able to essentially take two actions on a turn instead of one, getting boosts to certain kinds of dice rolls, or being able to spend grace or secrecy for different effects, are easily some of the main make-or-break elements in the game. Using powers at opportune moments (many of them exhaust after use until the player takes the ‘hide’ action), deciding whether to save them, using powers in the best/right order for the group, or perhaps not having a power available when it’s critically needed, are all parts of the very difficult decisions players will need to make throughout the course of the game.
And oh, how many critical decisions there are. Critical not only because each decision can have such a huge effect, like the gaining of a new power which might tip the scales against blights vs. acquiring a key to help unlock a relic, but because player actions are so excruciatingly limited each turn, and are rarely guaranteed to succeed. You’ll never finish a round thinking you got to do everything that was necessary to advance your cause, let alone having done everything you wanted to do. You must often choose the greater of two evils, allowing one challenge to languish in favor of a more immediate problem; the heroes can’t win the war by killing everything..you must choose how best to stem the tide. Gameplay is tense, and players will constantly feel like there’s not a moment to lose, not one action to waste, and possibly not a dice roll they can miss.One round of the game consists of each character taking one turn; players may choose every round which order they’d like to go in. Each turn begins with the active player losing a stealth if they’re holding a relic or on the same space as the Necromancer (he will attack them if their secrecy is already at 0), then drawing an event card which almost always has a negative effect waiting on the flip side. Usually it involves that player facing down ghouls or some such monstrous creation, or perhaps even an entire horde of nasties. Depending on the difficulty and the character class, the player may choose to either roll against the fight value (shield), or try to elude by rolling against the eye value on the card. Ties go to the player, but if they happen to fail the result is usually the loss of one grace. If a player runs out of grace the next hit they take will kill them, forcing the player to drop all their items in the space they died, and resurrecting as a new class in the Monastery with one less base stat apiece than normal, and only two powers instead of three. Players are therefore allowed to stay in the game, but their death significantly weakens the party’s ability to win.
Having confronted the event the player takes ONE action:
Travel to a new location on the map and gain a stealth, which symbolizes the Necromancer losing track of the player as he/she travels.
Hide to refresh any used powers and to gain a stealth.
Attack a blight or monster in the current location. Attacking is done similar to the event cards, by rolling either a fight or elude check against the monster’s value, or a general attack action against a blight. Dice are rolled together, but they represent separate attacks and are not added together. Winning just one dice roll destroys the blight, but in losing the player suffers the listed negative effect of the blight.
Search by rolling against the search difficulty of the occupied map space. The icons below the search difficulty represent the items players are most likely, but not guaranteed to find at that location. A success allows the player to draw a map card and take the item which has an image corresponding to his/her location. This can be anything from a key, to a powerful artifact, to allowing the player to draw a new power, or even a chest to pass along to another hero which allows them to draw a power.
Pray to restore grace if the player is at the Monastery.
Use a Power card.
With only being able to take one action per turn, which includes traveling, you can see how it becomes necessary to plan ahead two, sometimes even three turns in advance to make sure characters are getting around the map and performing necessary actions. Those intentions are often confounded by failed rolls, unwanted card draws, or by the Necromancer himself, forcing players to constantly discuss updates to their strategies as the darkness closes in.And close in it does. Fast. You may remember I said game is over in roughly 30 turns; that’s because the game can technically last longer than 30 turns, but the chances of victory after 30 are next to zero in my experience thanks to the Necromancer getting progressively more powerful as the game proceeds, in addition to the domino effect of bad mojo that’s already present in Darkest Night.
Each player must defend against any blights, which usually negatively effect the ability of players to carry out actions, or monsters remaining in their map area at the end of his/her turn. Winning will allow the player to avoid any immediate, negative consequences they would have suffered from losing, but the blight or monster remains on the board. Once all players have taken their turn, it’s the Necromancer’s time to shine. First, the Necromancer increases the darkness tracker by one, or possibly more if any Desecration blights exist on the board. The tracker goes up to 30(seeing the connection?), and gives the Necromancer additional abilities the higher it gets. At 10+ the Necromancer spawns two blights instead of one at his location if it has none, at 20+ he spawns an extra blight if a one or two is rolled on his movement dice, at 25+ each blight has +1 to the value needed to beat it, and at Darkness Tracker 30 the Necromancer spawns a blight at the Monastery for every additional Darkness increase from that point forward. Four blights at the Monastery and it’s game over.
Next, the Necromancer gets to move. A dice is rolled and that value is compared to all players’ secrecy values. If the result is greater than anyone’s secrecy, the Necromancer moves towards them unless the hero is at the Monastery. If the roll is less than all heroes’ secrecy values the Necromancer moves according to the dice/arrow icons on each space of the map. Once arrived, the Necromancer drops a new blight at his location as determined by a freshly drawn map card.
And so the game progresses, with players taking one action apiece per round, followed by the Necromancer spreading more corruption across the map and attempting to track players down, all while becoming even stronger and more difficult to defeat. To win the game players must either defeat the Necromancer by having at least one holy relic in their control and confronting the Necromancer in battle (his strength starts at seven, which necessitates combat bonuses to win), or by acquiring all three holy relics and delivering them to the Monastery before it’s overrun with blights. Both are possible, but as I mentioned before, neither is easy. Keys are fairly rare, and the best place to acquire them is on the other side of the map from the Monastery. Getting three of them to find one relic is hard enough, let alone nine to unlock the other two. Getting one relic attached to a relatively powerful combat hero doesn’t let players off the hook, however, because the Necromancer can’t be attacked directly unless the space he’s on does not contain any blights. Considering the Necromancer adds one blight to his space, or potentially more, each time he moves, means players must coordinate their movements and actions perfectly just to have a clear shot at killing him.
This all adds up to an extremely difficult, but hugely thematic and engrossing RPG experience that generates poignant stories of cooperation and sacrifice for the greater good. The hopelessness that slowly builds in your gut as each turn ticks by on the Darkness Tracker: the anxiousness that accompanies each card flip as players determine whether they received the loot or power they wanted: the sound of breath being drawn in and held around the table as the dice for a critical roll bounce across the table. From start to finish Darkest Night is a bitterly tense, and satisfyingly masochistic affair that is punctuated by the game’s mechanics, and by the hugely thematic artwork that simply screams fantasy-noir.
For as much as I like the base game of Darkest Night, however, it is, in my opinion, mechanically fundamentally flawed. Some groups may not notice the flaw over 100 plays, but I noticed it during the first game and it’s something which served to completely break the strategic aspects for me (if you don’t want to know what it is, stop reading this paragraph). For discerning players, it’s possible to have one person lower their secrecy to purposefully kite the Necromancer away from the rest of the group, and to have other characters park themselves on the mountains and roll searches until enough keys are found to unlock one relic. Players then kite the Necromancer over to a chosen spot and brute force him down. It’s not a foolproof strategy, but it represents the path of such least resistance for the base game there’s literally no reason not to use the strategy other than wanting to make things more difficult.
Enter the game’s first expansion, With an Inner Light, and the reason I’m reviewing the two together. In addition to adding four new heroes which include two I’ve grown particularly fond of, the expansion adds the sorely needed, and very well implemented, Quest card mechanic.
What are Quest cards? They’re basically the game’s way of singing “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.” With an Inner Light adds new event cards to the deck which, when drawn, spawn quests from the new Quest Deck.Quests are assigned to a specific map area, and are only completed by visiting that map area. Multiple visits are usually necessary to complete the quest, and since they’re timed it normally means more than one hero needs to contribute towards the objective. Players generally receive a small reward if they complete the quest before the timer is up, but there are serious consequences to most quests if they’re left unchecked. Multiple quests can exist at any given time, and some cards make the quests advance faster than they otherwise would, so their addition to the game really ramps up the need to stay mobile and flexible to changing situations, all while giving players more strategic decisions about whether a quest is worth their time to devote precious actions to.
I don’t really have many issues with how the game actually plays other than the aforementioned mechanics issue which is fixed by the expansion. Some players may be put off by the heavy reliance on dice rolls to settle encounters, but much like in Dead of Winter I think the uncertainty fits thematically, and positively adds to the tension. Still, if you don’t like relying on a D6 to determine your outcomes I doubt you’ll find much redeeming value in Darkest Night. The rulebook is also a bit oddly organized in places, with most sections referencing other sections that are 2-3 pages ahead, making learning the game more difficult than it should have been for how straightforward it actually is, and necessitating going back to the rules multiple times for clarifications.
The biggest criticisms I’ve seen leveled at Darkest Night are that it’s really just a solo game experience that masquerades secondarily as a cooperative game, and that quarterbacking is a huge issue. Firstly, quarterbacking is, in my opinion, a non-issue I intend to deal with more fully in a dedicated blog post, but suffice to say I think it amounts to an excuse to scapegoat a game for having played it with someone who doesn’t truly know how to function in a cooperative group setting. That said, if you consider quarterbacking a serious design issue, then Darkest Night may not be a good purchase for you. My response to the solo point is this: almost any cooperative game that does not use a real-time element or have hidden individual objectives is going to be playable solo with basically the same rules in place. That doesn’t stop people from enjoying games like Pandemic, Robinson Crusoe, Ghost Stories, or any number of others, so it confounds me how that criticism has gained traction against Darkest Night, but is readily dismissed against other games. What’s more, I think Darkest Night’s most redeeming quality is its ability to generate a dynamic narrative between and involving the players; a solo experience may let you create stories involving characters, but there’s a big difference between deciding in your inner monologue to sacrifice the Monk for the greater good, and your friend playing the Monk to heroically suggest they try to stall the Necromancer in turn 28 to buy the team a precious round to put the final showdown into place.
Darkest Night’s component quality may also be disappointing to some if you’re not familiar with Victory Point Games’s business model; they print their own games in-house for the most part so the box is simple with a sleeve cover, and while the cardboard used for pieces is very thick it’s not as high quality as players might be used to from other companies; specifically, it wasn’t as condensed as I was expecting, so I had issues getting some of the standees and tokens punched without their graphics ripping. Pieces also become progressively more difficult to punch as you get to the last ones on the sheet since the entire slab of cardboard isn’t as structurally sound anymore to brace your fingers against for a clean punch. After getting them out, however, the pieces function well, and I wasn’t bothered by the tiny bit of carbon residue left by the laser cuts which is easily wiped off by a dry napkin (included). Card quality is a bit more consistent with published games, luckily, and allow for easy shuffling. The game also comes with two boards: a folded, slightly smaller, light cardstock board, and a 3-piece board that’s thicker and slots together like a puzzle. The seams in the puzzle board are noticeable once it’s together, but not distracting as long as you’re playing on an even surface. Both iterations are a little small, but I’ve never found anything hard to read and anything bigger would, quite frankly, just end up having a whole lot of wasted space.
As far as aesthetics are concerned I think the art style and graphic design successfully reflect the dark atmosphere of the game. The graphic design is fairly minimalist and nothing to write home about, and certain cards are a little unimaginative, but overall the artwork is interesting and I think both art and design do the theme justice. The character art is particularly noteworthy.
COG Takeaway: Darkest Night succeeds in delivering a tense, thematic, and narrative-building cooperative experience for 1-4 players, and even includes a one vs. many mode for five players if someone wants to take on the role of the Necromancer. The randomness that accompanies having most situations resolved through dice rolling should rightfully dissuade anyone who likes full control over their outcomes, but I personally found the uncertainty made sense and added to the theme. The base game is fundamentally flawed, however, so I recommend Darkest Night with the caveat that you purchase it with the first expansion, With an Inner Light, which not only adds additional player classes but includes a new Quest dynamic which patches up the original’s mechanical shortcoming. While there’s plenty of replayability in these two boxes thanks to the high number of unique characters, each of which can be different from one play to the next thanks to customizing power choices, Darkest Night also has a number of additional expansions for players to dive into should they need some fresh content. So, if you enjoy cooperative games, aren’t bothered by dice rolls determining outcomes, don’t play with a group that has a quarterbacking issue, and are looking for a challenging, thematic experience for your next game night, Darkest Night and its first expansion is a combination I’d highly recommend considering.
Have you played Darkest Night? Please share your experiences and thoughts below, even if it’s a contrary opinion- I’d love to hear from you!