Darkest Night, designed by Jeremy Lennert and published by lovable underdogs Victory Point Games, doesn’t sound terribly interesting at first pass. I’m almost reticent to lay out the objective facts about the game regarding its process and mechanics out of fear that they’ll put you to sleep. But stick with me. It’s worth it.
Darkest Night is a one to four player co-op adventure game that draws inspiration from Arkham Horror and similar titles. Players represent various fantasy character types with special powers that they will have to employ to combat various monsters, events and other threats that pop up on the board by rolling dice. The storyline is that there is an Evil Necromancer up to some necromancer-ly hijinks, represented in the game by a simple automation process whereby he moves from location to location on the board and spawns Blights – both physical enemies and more abstract adversarial forces representing themes such as despair, confusion and presences.
The goal is to find Holy Relics. Each requires that the heroes search for and locate three keys. Each one makes the Necromancer easier to battle, but if the good guys find four of the Holy Relics they win the game automatically. But the heroes lose if the Monastery, their base of operations and the last bastion of all that is good and sacred in the world, becomes overrun with Blights.
Bored yet? Sleepy? Wondering why I’m bothering with this game? Hang in there, we’re getting to the good stuff.
With all that is hackneyed about the game out of the way, I’ll tell you that Darkest Night is one of the best games in its class even though it isn’t nearly as novel or compelling in terms of setting as VPG’s classic Nemo’s War or as maverick as something like Shadows of Malice. There a couple of things that this game does that are novel and compelling and really quite unique, even though you might be lead to believe otherwise at a first impression. I’ve come to love this scrappy little game- especially as a solitaire outing where I can really dig into it at my own pace.
First and foremost, the way this game handles characters- and there are a TON of them across the base game and four expansions as of this writing- is bold, brilliant and their diversity generates a wildly different strategic matrix for players every game. There is more to the characters than the usual D&D-derived character classes thanks to unique Power card decks that drive the actions each player can take. Coming from games such as Talisman, these classes are well beyond what you might expect in terms of delineating the difference between a Rogue and a Druid. Because each one plays very differently and due to the random nature of how the Necromancer spawns blights, this results in a tremendously variable game where characters may or may not have certain utility based on these powers.
I love it the crazy variety in how these all play out, and even in a game with the same character you played last time you might wind up with different powers, resulting in a fresh experience. I think it’s thrilling to sit down with four random characters and see what happens in terms of how their powers interact with the game. More than that, I love that some classes are literally useless in some aspects (which means you’ve sometimes got to be creative) while others serve functions that are very unique (which means that you’ve got to work out how to use them effectively). The Prince for example, is really kind of a lousy fighter. He’s much better at hiding, inspiring your other characters and operating almost like a monarch in exile. The magic users all vary greatly, most have specific rules and card types unique to their practice. Some characters are great at supporting others, some are your go-to members when battle calls, some are best suited to searching for treasures and others do crazy things like teleport other characters around, summon beast companions and sing songs.
There is quite a lot of satisfying complexity that comes with all of these characters, but the basic process of the game is super simple. If you’re not at the Monastery and the Necromancer isn’t in your space, you draw an event card. These are usually bad, and many have a die roll check to determine their effect. If the Necromancer is in your space, it could be worse as he may find and fight you. And then you take just one action, barring any free actions afforded by your powers or other assets. You can travel, hide, attack a blight, search the area or use a power. At the Monastery, you can pray. If you have three keys, you can take a Holy Relic.
There are some interesting things going on here with the strictures. Moving to another location (there are only six) is exclusive from attacking, which is how you get rid of the Blights. And most Blights have either an area effect that impacts the location or they automatically attack your character at the end of your turn, and it’s a defensive kind of battle. You don’t clear them off the board if you win. You have to choose an attack action to vanquish them. This creates some tough choices in terms of movement, staying in safer areas or marshaling a Knight or a Paragon over there to take care of the problem. And, interestingly, there are situations where some characters actually do better by staying put for virtually the entire game. For example, a character with powers that affect searches might contribute the most by staying in areas where keys are more likely to turn up when the Map cards indicating search results are drawn.
Avoiding Blights altogether is also an unexpected element. Players may just completely stay away from battles at all, opting to move in the shadows and not directly confront the creeping evil. And it turns out that this is actually indicative of the game’s biggest concept both in terms of theme and in its fiction- you aren’t fighting the Necromancer head on, you’re waging a kind of guerilla war from hiding. It’s obviously inspired by Lord of the Rings, where the Fellowship spends much of the journey trying to stay out of Sauron’s sight, and it works very effectively in Darkest Night. Almost every encounter allows you to choose combat or evasion, and it’s often better to just run away.
Players have two trackers on their character sheets- Grace and Secrecy. You lose Secrecy by doing things like choosing to fight Blights, encountering Spies and carrying Holy Relics- all things that attract attention. But they can gain it by traveling, hiding and generally staying on the down-low. Secrecy is how the Necromancer’s awareness of each character is tracked, and maintaining this secrecy is critical to winning the game. This is also how the Necromancer’s movement is triaged. A die roll over a character’s Secrecy means that he comes that way, and all players that start their turn in the Necromancer’s area lose a Secrecy. If player has zero, the Necromancer fights him in a battle pretty much unwinnable without at least one Holy Relic. The game has a way of creating a sense that characters with low Secrecy are being tracked down, hunted and overcome.
And eventually, you will be overcome because this can be a pretty tough game. There’s a lovely little bit of unexpected nomenclature in the game. There are no hit points or lives. Instead, players have Grace. The rulebook describes this as being an almost mysterious ability for heroes to preserve in life-or-death situations, to be given another chance. Lose a battle, you are defeated. But you may have the Grace to carry on. It’s a minor thing, but I like the tone it generates.
I appreciate how the game strikes a favorable balance between mechanical economy and a multilayered, compellingly diverse range of powers and effects. These, in conjunction with the stealth concept and some unexpected mechanics, make for a great narrative line every game. The last time I played, I had a Scholar posted up in the castle, doing research to learn new powers and find artifacts that he could share with the other three heroes. But his secrecy gradually ran out, because the Necromancer moved that way and posted up some of his spies there. Eventually, the Scholar had to flee to get his Secrecy back because he was exposed. I’ve had characters partner up because of synergies in their powers. I’ve had games where the party did best sticking together and groups that were just doomed from the start.
Some games have been naturally harder than others that were almost too easy. Some have been anticlimactic, and others have been down-to-the-wire nailbiters that ended with do-or-die turns. Some will not appreciate the volatility. There is a lot of die-rolling, card-flipping and general randomness on top of the variety introduced by the characters. And it is possible for a player to wind up feeling like there’s nothing effective that they can do given a particular game state. But frankly, after playing this game with two groups of three and four, I’ve found that the solo game is really the best experience here.
I wanted this game for a long time before finally capitulating to an irresistible sale of the Necromancer Bundle, which includes the first three expansions. I was interested mainly because I like Victory Point Games and I wanted to see their take on the big, epic fantasy co-op. But I did kind of feel put off by the ho-hum setting and concept. It turns out, as is often the case with VPG titles, that there’s more here than you might expect. It says so right on their box- “The gameplay’s the thing” and that’s what distinguishes this fine game from its peers. The gameplay is top notch, driven by a uniquely diversified range of player characters and subtle twists on the usual formulas.
And the expansions just improve it. (To be continued)