Following on from the success of the Dark Souls Boardgame Kickstarter, Steamforged Games have produced the Dark Souls Card Game. Set to release on the March 16th, this cooperative card game allows players to select one of four player classes and battle through enemies in order try to take out two of four available bosses. As it's a cooperative card game, players strategize together against opponents drawn and controlled by the decks and the cards they contain. Cooperative card games have the inherent randomness that comes with nearly all card games, but you're not head to head against other players, but trying to win against the decks.
Dark Souls is well known for its unforgiving difficulty and dark shadowy theme. With the Dark Souls Card Game, which takes the character classes and bosses from Dark Souls III, fans of the video game will not be disappointed as the theme is spot on and the difficulty is so frustratingly beautiful, you'll be inventing new swear words.
The Dark Souls Card Game can be played solo, or with up to four players, who begin by selecting one of the four available classes. The Knight, Assassin, Herald, and Sorcerer are available and each have their own special ability and recommended starting deck. Everything in the game is dictated by cards from different decks. For example, when you explore a new area, a card is drawn from the level I, II, or III exploration deck, which details, depending on the amount of players, how many enemies are spawned from the level I, II, or III enemies deck, along with how much treasure you'll earn from the treasure deck for defeating those enemies. The enemy cards detail where the enemies spawn, how they attack, and how much damage is required to beat them.
The player's character deck contains weapons for attacking, armor for defending against enemy attacks, and the stamina cards that weapons and armor cost to use. To play a weapon, you discard the amount and type of stamina cards required by the card. Some weapons/armor have different options and costs, and most give you the option to discard the card for a lower cost, or return it to your hand for a higher cost.
Your deck and your hand are also your life, so while discarding cards searching for an ability or attack is an option, it burns through your life. If at any point a player has to draw a card and can't, then the combat ends and all players immediately return to the bonfire, which refreshes decks and abilities, and also saves any treasure that players have banked. However, any treasure that hasn't been banked by successfully completing the current encounter is lost, and every time you visit the bonfire, your deck size increases, meaning you can complete more encounters if you can afford to purchase cards to fill it. Players can only visit the bonfire five times, either by being defeated in combat or by choice. After the fifth time, the embers of the bonfire fade completely and the players lose the game.
Combat takes place on grid boards of 2x3, which detail where the enemies or characters are located, and how they can attack. Attacks happen horizontally (looking at the boards above in their current position), so you can end up not being able to attack, or blocking other player characters attacks if not managed correctly. Enemy attacks are detailed by their stats cards and bosses use a deck of attacks that make all of their attacks random each turn. Players are allowed to complete a number of actions each turn, and there is no player order between players, so it all comes down to communication of strategy.
We've played the Dark Souls Card Game solo, with two players, and with four, and every game was frustrating brilliant, regardless of the amount of players. The randomness of the decks make every game slightly different in the enemies you'll fight, the cards you'll draw, and the treasure you'll get, which really affects the game's longevity, but this isn't the magic of the Dark Souls Card Game. The beauty of the game comes from how smooth it runs and how frustrating it is. I've used frustrating a lot in this review, but it's a fundamental part of where the depth of enjoyment for the Dark Souls Card Game comes from. The randomness of the decks and the quality of the game design allow for extremely seamless play, enemy turns are quick and brutal, and time is taken up with players trying to work out the best positioning and use of cards each turn.
When you take damage, do you discard from your hand a card that you might need next turn or unknown cards from your deck that could be the exact card you need? Do you risk discarding a few stamina cards for defense when you might need those cards for your next attack? Everything is a balancing act. You can press on straight away, reaching the bosses quickly, but your decks might not be good enough. You can go through some extra exploration to take out more enemies, earning treasure and souls to buy more stamina cards, but every time you visit the bonfire, all players deck sizes increase as detailed by the bonfire cards, and if you don't have enough cards to fill it, they are filled with "remnants of humanity" cards that force you to draw another card, burning through your deck and life quicker.
Several times we were so close to defeating the last boss, only being one or two cards short, and we knew that if we had only planned a little better a few turns earlier victory would have been ours. Every game is yours to win. Sure you might get some bad hands, not drawing weapons and armor or the right stamina to use abilities, but as well as discarding cards for damage, you get the option to discard and redraw cards, making searching for the right cards a possibility at the cost of your burning through your deck.
When you first open the box, read through the rules, and look through the decks, it can take a little while to understand, but a single solo playthrough is enough to work it all out, and after that it's very easy to teach other players. We played a solo game, then a two player game, and then a four player game initially and haven't needed the rulebook since. As all the stats are printed on the cards, once you've sussed the rules, play is quick.
The amount of decks you'll have set out does take up some space. In a single player game you'll have twelve decks (3 exploration decks, 3 enemy decks, 2 boss decks, 2 treasure decks, the treasure pool, your character deck, and the bonfire deck) and their associated discard piles, as well as the three play boards and a small pile of counters. It's a similar amount of space to an average board game, but a little more than other cooperative card games like Death Angel and the Warhammer Quest Card Game. That's not to say it's a criticism, just a point to note. The game is still extremely compact to carry, and for the variety of games, a great travel companion.
The Dark Souls Card Game is my favourite game release in a long time. The depth of play you get for the physical size of the product is exceptional. Play is streamlined, it's very easy to teach, it's fast-paced, and I love the dark design of the cards. It can be incredibly frustrating, and if you don't enjoy a challenge, then this probably won't be for you. Sometimes, when the stars align and you draw the perfect hands, you can win, seemingly easily, but I've only had one such game; most are down to the wire, and I love the game's brutal efficiency. It doesn't pretend to be anything else. The closing comment on the rear box says "Adapt your strategy, evolve your deck and prepare to die," and a few games into the Dark Souls Card Game you'll see why, but I say come at me bro! I've got all night.
The Bottom Line:
The Dark Souls Card Game is very well-designed. Someone will have to sit down with the rules and decks for a few moments, possibly play a solo game, but that's all it takes, and you'll understand everything you need to teach other players very quickly. The randomness of the decks ensures variety in games and coupled with the difficulty, there's a lot of hours of entertainment in the box. The optional rules to modify and create your own decks from each classes starter deck gives me hope that we'll see expansions with new bosses, character classes, and treasure. It must be noted that this isn't just for Dark Souls fans, but playing it may make you a Dark Souls fan.
The Dark Souls Card Game is frustrating, at times unbelievably frustrating, but when the bosses' attack smashes your character, forcing you to draw past your last card and visit the bonfire for the last time, ending the game, you'll sigh and take a moment, then look at your crew. It's 04:00, you have work in a few hours, but slowly, one by one, everyone nods, so you clear the boards and shuffle the decks. This time you'll do it. This time you'll win for sure.
Get this game if:
You love cooperative card games.
You strive for a challenge, a real challenge—one that tests the very limits of your soul.
You enjoy tactical, turn based combat and deck building.
You're a Dark Souls fanboy.
You need a solo game for when the power/wifi goes out or the apocalypse happens.
Avoid this game if:
You don't enjoy a challenge.
You've got rage quit issues.
You don't enjoy cooperative card games and want to see your peers/enemies driven before you.
The copy used for this review was provided by Steamforged Games.
The Dark Souls Card Game is incredibly well designed. It's fast paced, full of variety and theme, a huge challenge and great solo or with friends. It requires a thoughtful approach to tactics and communication if not playing solo. The product is of a high quality, its portable, but does take up some space to play. It's easy to learn and extremely easy to teach and the scope for expansion is there, which I really hope they do.