Wednesday 16 April 2014

Review - Dark Darker Darkest

Dark Darker Darkest

Dark Darker Darkest
Published by Queen Games
Designed by David Ausloos
For 2-5 players, aged 12 to adult

Okay, before I start this review, I'm going to lay my cards on the table. I backed Dark Darker Darkest on Kickstarter. It was not the first game I backed, but it was the first (and currently only) game that actually arrived at my house. Additionally, I was one of the people who had some involvement in the second edition of the rules book (on a voluntary basis). So, yeah, this game is a little bit special to me. If you feel that either of those things in any way devalues or negates my opinion, better jog on, because there is a big, fat dollop of opinion heading your way... right... now...



Anyone who frequents this blog knows I am a sucker for a game that tells a story (yeah, I'm talking about stories again). There is something joyous about sitting at a table with a group of friends, and creating a unique adventure in another world. What that means is Dark Darker Darkest was a very easy sell for me. You see, Dark Darker...

Wait. You know what? I've got to say this first. Dark Darker Darkest is a bloody awful name for a game. It doesn't really mean anything. And if you say it quickly you sound like that guy from Team America: World Police, flailing his arms around in the jeep.

Right. Got that out of the way. I feel better now.

Where was I?

Right. Dark Darker Darkest turned up on the Kickstarter website at a time when I was beginning to despair. I had recently received Zombicide, and had found it a little dull and a little clunky. I was thinking it had reached the point where there was never going to be a good zombie game, despite the industry churning out new games about necrotic fiends on a bi-weekly basis.

Dark Darker Darkest zombies
"Hey, look! Another game about zombies!"

But then there was Dark Darker Darkest: A game that involved a group of everyday people sneaking into a fortified manor house to hunt down a mad scientist and then steal the antidote for the virus that is ravaging the population.

Yeah. It's Resident Evil, the board game.


Dark Darker Darkest hero characters
And these are supposed to be the good guys?

More than just a zombie game, this was a game that promised the thrill of being hunted through cramped hallways by reanimated dogs, undead birds, infected gorillas, and giant snakes. It's like the worst day trip to the zoo ever.

(Please note, I do not believe there is a gorilla or snake in the retail game, they were extras that Kickstarter backers got, and which other gamers might get at some point in an expansion. Sorry, folks!)

So I backed the game. I only backed at the basic pledge level which got me the game and the stretch goals, as I didn't feel the need to buy anything else; and I was incredibly excited when two gigantic boxes arrived at my house. I mean BIG boxes. It's a game about zombies, and I thought there might actually be a real corpse in there.

(Please note, my excitement was slightly dampened by the absence of a whole bunch of stuff that Queen still haven't sent to me, and are unlikely to send to me for some while yet. Never mind, the game's the thing...)

If you were to explain Dark Darker Darkest to someone, the first thing you would do is tell them to ignore the stupid name. Then you would tell them that the game involves a small group of people moving around a mansion which you create from a big stack of nicely illustrated tiles. Some tiles have cameras which you need to try to avoid, and some tiles are locked. Avoid or kill the zombies, unlock the doors, find the antidote, and escape. You'll be back home in time for Scooby Snacks.

Dark Darker Darkest mansion
Sorry. If I'd known you were coming, I would have cleaned up.

But describing what this game is really doesn't do justice to what this game is.

You see, The Big Ds is a co-operative game. Everyone works together to win against the game system. And it is one of those beautiful co-operative games that genuinely feels co-operative. It achieves this with a fabulous team mechanism. At the start of each turn, you look at where people are in the house. Any people on the same tile form a group. You then create an order in which the groups will activate. Every character within each group gets a set number of actions (moving, searching, attacking), but those characters do not have to take those actions in a strict order. One person could move and shoot, then pass control to someone else in the group who searches, who then passes control back to the first person, and so on. Only once all the characters have exhausted all of their actions does control move to the next group, who then get to take their actions.

Dark Darker Darkest team tracker
The team tracker.

Do you see what I'm saying?

Do you see?

If all of your characters start the turn together, then you just get one big turn for everyone to act in, and there is no strict order for characters to move in, and you can hop back and forth between characters as much as you want. But if you spread your characters out, then they all act independently.

And did I mention that every time a group finishes activating, zombies and creatures in the house might respond to the sound the group has made, and lurch into abnormal life, hunting down survivors to gnaw on their entrails?

I didn't?

They do. And the fire might spread too.

I didn't mention fire?

Man, I suck at reviews. Which is really worrying considering what this blog is all about.

But anyway, do you see? Do you see why Triple D is so cool?

The game encourages you to forge a unit, to stick together and work as a team. It actively encourages you to act like you would bloody well act in a zombie apocalypse.

If you are one of those people who watches horror movies and says, "Why are they splitting up?" Well, this is the game for you.

Or, maybe it isn't.

Because there is another mechanism in this game that is either going to make or break it for you. You see, for all the plastic zombie miniatures, and the brooding artwork, and the fire - oh God, the fire - this whole game revolves around a mechanism which is its most magnificent triumph and its biggest failure.

Unlocking doors.

The whole game is about unlocking doors.

Throughout the mansion there are locked door tokens. When you get close to them, you flip them over to reveal two or three coloured symbols. Every item you start with, and every item you find in the mansion, has a coloured symbol on it. If a bunch of people have items with icons that match all the icons on the door token, you can unlock the door. You then keep the token, and you can cash it in later on a "security panel" to break the code that is sealing the entrance to the mad scientist's laboratory.

Dark Darker Darkest security panel
The security panel.

(Please note (really? Again?), in the original rules for the game, one person had to have all the items required to unlock a door. This was changed in the revised rules, which you can find over on the BoardGameGeek website.)

This is the game's greatest triumph, because it creates agonising decisions for the players, and gives the game a heavy dose of resource management which is often lacking from other games of this sort. For example, you are out of ammo, and there are zombies closing in; but you really need the icon that appears on your spare ammo clip. If you reload, you lose that icon, and you cannot unlock the door. If you cannot unlock the door, you cannot win. If you don't reload, the zombies eat your brains, and you cannot win.

(Not winning is a really big aspect of this game, by the way.)

But this mechanism for unlocking doors is also the game's biggest failure, because it is so absolutely, totally, unapologetically unthematic.

You know what? I don't care. It is a concession the designer chose to make for the sake of making the game gruelling, tense, and entertaining. And it works. Managing your equipment is like a mini-game. You have to finely balance the useful weapons you want for fighting zombies, with the tat you need for unlocking doors.

And when you do finally unlock the laboratory, the game flips on its head. The group activation mechanism I talked about earlier transforms into this crazy Euro-style worker-placement type thing where the group can "place" six actions at a time, after which the bad guys react. Used actions are then locked out for several turns before being returned to the players, so there is a chance certain characters may have to miss a turn and you never have quite enough actions for what you want to do. And of course, the whole time, the crazy scientist (or one of his relatives) is attempting to set fire to the mansion with you still in it.

It's bat-shit crazy.

And absolutely joyous.

And you might hate it.

Dark Darker Darkest components
Wooden cubes? In a thematic game? Heresy!

You might hate it because, while I think the artwork is incredible and sets the game apart from anything else in my collection, you might think it looks ugly and drab. You might hate it because the miniatures aren't great (a friend of mine said they were like "cheap army men"). You might hate it because the price in the UK makes you want to be a bit sick in your mouth. You might hate it because the iconography on the cards is often difficult to understand, and you will need to reference player aids during every game unless you are really familiar with everything. You might hate it because it is so bloody difficult to win.

And you might hate it because it chucks about a dozen mechanisms into the pot and stirs them together into a stew that some people are going to think is awesome and some people will think is stew.

I guess that's as fair as I can be about the game. I love it. It is the zombie game I wanted all previous zombie games to be. It does that thing where it takes great game mechanisms and dunks them in a vat of theme, and while some of the theme might drip off on your shirt, there is still lots of tasty theme left to enjoy. No, wait. I'm thinking about fondue, aren't I?

But the theme is strong in this one. Even with those idiosyncratic rules that don't quite gel.

Need an example?

Here's an example of something that happened in one of my games:

Towards the end stages of the game, a fire was running rampant through the house, and it looked like the whole place was going to burn down. While Lucy Chang ran to get into the laboratory, Leo and Bunny accessed the sprinkler system, dousing the flames. It was a losing battle, but Leo was keeping the fire at bay just long enough to stop the game ending through the destruction of too many mansion tiles.

Dark Darker Darkest character board
Character board.

Lucy opened the laboratory, and the crazy scientist lurched at her through the billowing smoke. She set to him with a baseball bat, and for the next two turns they wrestled with each other as the scientist approached the sprinkler room.

Eventually outpacing Lucy, the scientist entered the sprinkler system room. He thrust Bunny into the adjacent room and attacked Leo. As the scientist tore bloody chunks from Leo, he glanced at Bunny, and nodded. She knew what he meant.

With trembling hands, she pulled the pin from the grenade she had found earlier, and lobbed it into the room, bringing the whole place crashing down on the two combatants.

Dark Darker Darkest grenade
This icon does not mean throw grenades at the one you love.

You can chalk that up to a win for the good guys, and a climax that rivals any number of horror films.

And that is why I love the D-Meister.

I can't say you will love this game too, but I can say you should definitely try it if you get the chance.

If nothing else, you will have some stories to tell.

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