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Board Game Review – Darkest Night

darkestnightA while back, like maybe a year or two ago, I reviewed a handful of games from Victory Point Games. While a small handful of the games were decent games, they shared one common attribute – utterly crappy components. See, the company started out as a classroom exercise, and all the games were built in-house. This meant cheap art and cheap production. Like, crappy clip art and cardboard tokens that tore in half when you punched them out. Boards made out of thick paper. Basically, crap. So I quit reviewing for Victory Point Games, and never gave them a second thought.

So when I saw their booth at BGG Con, I was not inclined to stop and see what new, ugly, unplayable garbage they were peddling on people unfortunate enough to try their overpriced budget games. But I glanced over and happened to notice a board with what I could only describe as really nice art. I slowed, looked more, and was amazed. Victory Point Games has forsworn those crappy components and untested games, hired a guy to make everything pretty, and started actually spending money to make their games kick ass. So when they offered me a new round of review copies, I took a few to try out.

Boy, has this turned around. Darkest Night looks beautiful. It has art so good, I want to hire the illustrator to do some work for me. It has rules that make sense. It has heavy cardboard pieces that don’t tear when I punch them, and an actual game board that is not just a big piece of paper with some horrible clip art. And best of all (for me) it has a story.

The vile necromancer (who does not have a name, but is still pretty rotten) is nearly finished destroying the land. Only your small pocket of the realm is left to defy him, so the players must band together to face down the villain and defeat him once and for all. This will be no simple task – the necromancer cannot be killed unless the hero delivering the killing blow has a holy relic, but those holy relics are hidden and locked away. Plus the necromancer is hot on their trail, and wants to chase them down like a divorce attorney after unpaid child support. The heroes have to sneak around, avoiding the necromancer until they can acquire their relic and stick it up the necromancer’s ass like a barbed wire suppository.

The result is a tense, exciting cooperative game that tells a tale of noble sacrifice and heroic courage, cunning escapes and tragic failures. The heroes start out neophytes searching for the mystical weapons that can save the world, but time is against them, and things get worse as the world gets darker. They’ll probably have to heal up once or twice, but if they do, they just let the evil spread through the land and clog up all the sewer drains until the whole place smells like a waste refinery plant. Full of angry dead people.

Darkest Night resembles Pandemic in many ways. There’s the constantly developing threat, as the land is slowly and inexorably covered with liches and zombies and spies and cheese that gets stuck in the cracks of your heater intake during the winter so your whole car stinks like feet. There are the different characters with different abilities. You’ll also find that sort of planning thing where one guy says, ‘OK, you go here and do that, and I’ll go do this, and then you move here to give me that thing so I can do this’ and by the time that guy finishes, half the table has left under the pretense of needing to use the bathroom.

However, I dislike Pandemic, and I really enjoyed Darkest Night, so there are obviously some impressive differences. For one thing, the heroes get better as they play, so they will have options toward the end of the game that they did not have at the start. This adds a little mystery and unpredictability, as well as granting a little of the hero’s journey that makes games like this more compelling. In the same manner, the new threats that appear on the map are randomized and have varying threat levels, so you could be coasting along, finding keys and killing zombies, and then the necromancer goes and defiles a church and suddenly all the priorities change. These differences mean that where Pandemic tends to be predictable and solvable, Darkest Night keeps you guessing. Plus there’s a lot of die-rolling, and that tends to mix it up, too.

And you know how, when you’re close to winning Pandemic but you’re almost out of time, and you have nearly everything you need if you could just figure out how to get the two players together to swap cards? And then the board is almost cleared, and you end up losing even though you had everything and the world is almost completely disease-free? Well, in Darkest Night, the end of the game is just plain hairy. There are blights everywhere, spies in the villages, the monastery is about to be overrun by zombies, and one of your guys just took a dirt nap by stalling the necromancer to keep him from wandering off. But the acolyte has the relic, and he has just finished meditating to restore his expired spells, and if he can get to the necromancer before the villain drops that last blight in the ruins, you just might have a shot.

I may also have overstated the Lead Dick problem. Sure, one guy can tell everyone what to do – but there’s no such thing as perfect knowledge in Darkest Night, so the other players are free to do whatever they think is smarter. Darkest Night can sometimes seem a little like a puzzle, but at the same time, it’s not solvable or predictable, which means that the one dude who wants to tell everyone else what to do doesn’t necessarily have all the answers.

But most of all, Darkest Night tells a story. It starts out light, with the heroes trying to conquer their own inadequacy, then there’s the middle part where they’re trying to contain the spread of evil while they search for their secret weapon, and then the third act is this desperate rush to get in there and finish the fight before it’s too late and the world is lost to darkness. It will play different every time, and since there are plenty of different heroes to take for a spin, there’s plenty of reasons to play it a few times.

Unfortunately, this is where we start to see problems with Darkest Night. There’s just the one bad guy – the necromancer – and the one pile of evil blights to choose from. The details of the story might change, and the outcome is not always going to go the same way, but ultimately, it’s always a bunch of heroes against the same damned villain. This is sad, because it means Darkest Night is going to wear out its welcome after a few plays, and then just sit on your shelf. Happily, there are already two expansions and an add-on character, so while the base game might get repetitive, there’s new life just around the corner.

I should mention one last thing. It’s a very minor issue, but it might be more of a thing for someone else. Victory Point Games still makes all of its games in-house. They just bought a fantastic printer and a laser cutter to replace the box of Crayolas and the three-hole punch they had before. The token sheets are magnificent and detailed, with some great art and cool standup heroes. But there is still one tiny downside – ash. See, a laser cuts by burning things, and when it cuts cardboard, it leaves a residue. After you punch this game, you will have to wash your hands. I am not even remotely kidding.

But I don’t care. Darkest Night is the first of the new Victory Point Games I’ve reviewed, and now I am really looking forward to playing more of their stuff. It’s a fun game that has obviously been tested, with excellent production values and ten straight miles of charm. I can get past dirty fingers for a game this fun. It’s everything I love about American-style gaming – violence, story and old-fashioned luck. When things come together and the heroes manage to beat down the evil despot, it’s exhilarating. And when the bad guy gets a few lucky rolls and hands the heroes their asses in a burlap sack, it’s still a hell of a lot of fun.

Summary

1-5 players

Pros:
Exciting cooperative game
Great art and design
Unpredictable and fun
Cool story that unfolds as you play

Cons:
Lends itself to the Alpha Dick syndrome
Could get repetitive
A little bit of an ash problem (but seriously, very little)

If you like adventure stories and cooperative games, you really ought to check out Darkest Night, right here:

IT IS PRETTY DARK

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