Darkest Night is not the type of game you set up to play if you are looking forward to a relaxing night of gaming. Darkest Night is not the game to play when you want to play as a heroic adventurer who gallivants around the countryside, slaying foul beasts and collecting glittering treasure. Darkest Night does not care about your happiness. Darkest Night does not care about your friends. Darkest Night does not want you to feel heroic. Darkest Night does not want you to win. All Darkest Night cares about is stomping you into the mud and engulfing the world in darkness ... and I love it.
What is Darkest Night?
Darkest Night is a game designed by Jeremy Lennert and published by Victory Point Games in which 1 -4 players will take on the role of 4 of the game's nine heroes in an attempt to stop the evil Necromancer from covering the land in eternal darkness. In typical fantasy fashion, a party of 4 powerful heroes will set out from the Monastery, the last bastion of light, against the Necromancer in an attempt to gather Holy Relics and put an end to the Necromancer's reign of terror. Atypically though, these same powerful heroes are made to feel insignificant and weak when brought face to face with the terrifying visage of the Necromancer. Darkest Night does a superb job of both making the heroes feel heroic by giving them cool powers and abilities and making them feel helpless and afraid by pitting them up against a foe that is far too strong for them to defeat at the outset of the game.
Winning the game can be accomplished in one of two ways. Players can either gather three Holy Relics at the Monastery, or they can attempt to fight and defeat the Necromancer in combat, using one of the Holy Relics as a weapon. The game can be lost in only one way. If the Monastery ever becomes overrun with Blights, the heroes have failed in their mission, and the world is engulfed in darkness. While two ways to win versus only one way to lose may seem like decent odds, the likelihood of the Necromancer defeating the heroes is by far the most likely outcome, especially if the heroes don't work together as a team or if the fickle dice gods deign to turn their back on the unfortunate players.
Send Your Hero On A Crusade
The players will need to race out into the kingdom in an effort to search and discover keys that will unlock the coveted Holy Relics needed to destroy the Necromancer. In their search for keys, players may also come across powerful Artifacts, magical potions, and new skills and abilities. The players have to balance searching for keys and items of power against keeping the Blights that the Necromancer spreads around the kingdom in check. All the while, the darkness, represented by a track at the bottom of the board, grows. As the darkness grows stronger and stronger, the Necromancer is able to spread more Blights around the kingdom, and the Blights themselves become more difficult for the heroes to defeat. As each turn of the game passes, defeat looms ever closer.
Darkest Night takes an interesting approach to heroes that differentiates it from many games on the market. First, the player's stats are Grace and Secrecy. Grace is most closely akin to hit points in other games. Various game effects will outright kill players unless they spend a point of Grace. If a player is ever required to spend a point of Grace or chooses not to spend one when they would die, that character is killed permanently and removed from the game. This thematic spin on character life is interesting and just different enough and fit perfectly with the theme of the game. The second stat, Secrecy, is a bit more enigmatic. Secrecy represents how well each character is hidden from the notice of the Necromancer, in addition to how difficult many Events are to overcome.
Subtly and Grimdark Don't Always Mix
Attempting to stay hidden, at first, seems counterintuitive. The entire point of the game is to power up and then beat down the Necromancer, so skulking around in the shadows and attempting to avoid him feels somewhat silly until you actually come face-to-face with him for the first time. Once characters are sent scurrying away with their tail between their legs after a failed confrontation with the Necromancer, it becomes very apparent why staying hidden from his sight for as long as possible is the best course of action. Accomplishing objectives and successfully searching requires careful planning and keeping the Necromancer away. At the very least, being able to elude him as long as possible is an absolute necessity. If a player doesn't carefully manage their Secrecy, they cannot escape the Necromaner's notice and will find him hunting them across the kingdom.
Another interesting thing about Darkest Night is that it limits each character to a single action per round. On my first play of the game, it felt somewhat frustrating to be limited to a single action. Upon further play, it became apparent that the entire balance of the game rested on this limitation. The single action limitation means that players will need to plan ahead in order to be successful, and they will need to be careful to work as a team. Mistakes can spell disaster in Darkest Night, especially considering the dice-heavy nature of the game, making efficient use of the actions you have imperative.
One big bonus to limiting player turns to a single action is that it also limits downtime. The player turns to tend to speed by, and the wait between turns is short. Darkest Night's biggest strength is its theme. Every aspect of the game, the art, the mechanics, and the gameplay are thematic to a fault. The game absolutely nails dark fantasy and manages to, amazingly, make the players simultaneously feel like powerful heroes and terrified weaklings. Darkest Night places the players on the ropes from the beginning and escalates the tension through the very end.
A Few Notes on Darkest Night
A Note On Solo Play
Darkest Night is an excellent game for solo play. The game is always played with four hero characters, independent of the number of players, and thus it plays well with 1, 2, 3, and 4 players. There are also five and 6-player variants included, although they do change the gameplay up, and the balance isn't as well maintained as it is when played with four heroes. The big thing to consider, as with nearly all cooperative games, when playing with multiple players is that the game can encourage "alpha-gamer syndrome," in which one player may try to dictate everyone's moves.
A Note On Game Length
Darkest Night clocks in at around the 2 to 2.5-hour mark fairly consistently, regardless of player count. It can end more quickly if players have extremely bad luck with dice rolls, make mistakes or plan poorly, but for the most part, win or lose, it ends within a fairly consistent window. This makes it a great game to schedule a game night around.
A Note On “Chrome”
Nearly all of the art in Darkest Night is awesome, and it all works in concert to strongly convey the game's theme. Even the art on the character power cards, which is minimalist, fits the theme wonderfully. The cardboard that the chits are printed on is very thick, and the cards, while not the sturdiest, are of decent quality. I highly recommend putting all of the cards in sleeves, as they are shuffled many times during each play. Most of the chits and game pieces, while thick, are small, although this is really only a negative because the art would look so good on bigger components and is actually a positive for people who have smaller tables.
The one negative to the game components is just how difficult it is to actually punch them out of the component boards that they come on. I had to use a hobby knife to keep the top layer of cardboard with the art printed on it from pulling away from the rest of the cardboard as I was punching the chits out. A quick application of white glue fixed the chits that I did have this issue with. The components also have a fine layer of soot around the edges. This is due to the thickness of the cardboard and the laser-cutting process that Victory Point Games use. Conveniently and somewhat endearingly, Victory Point Games includes a cocktail napkin that they've dubbed a Wipes-A-Lot in the game box specifically to wipe the edges of the components with once they have been punched.
The Bottom Line
Darkest Night is wonderful. It's difficult, it's thematic, it's frustrating, and it's great fun. If you are a fan of cooperative or solo games, I highly recommend picking Darkest Night up. The thematic elements of Darkest Night are rich and engrossing, and the game somehow manages to make you feel like a powerful hero and a terrified weakling at the same time. Teamwork is absolutely vital in the game, and mistakes or poor coordination can spell disaster. Even though it's difficult and nearly every situation is resolved via dice rolling, it never feels unfair or takes you by surprise. When things do go as planned, managing to snatch victory from the jaws of nigh-inevitable defeat, the game provides a jump-up-from-the-table-and-shout level of excitement.
Rules for Darkest Night can be found here. Darkest Night can be purchased from Amazon here or directly from Victory Point Games here. The copy of Darkest Night used for this review was provided by Victory Point Games.