There are so many board games that ask you, as a player, to prevent Armageddon. Sometimes you’re teaming up with friends against a relentless deck of cards, other times another person is in control of the evil entity trying to destroy the world and you have to stop them. But there aren’t many games I’ve played that ask you to save the world after it’s already been lost. Darkest Night – a dark (har har) fantasy themed co-op gauntlet of horrors for one to four players, from designer Jeremy Lennert (Gem Rush, For The Crown) and publisher Victory Point Games – does just that. And it’s pretty much as bleak as it sounds.
You’re not trying to save the world in Darkest Night, because an evil necromancer has already taken over and all but the tiniest bit of hope is lost. You (and potentially up to three other players) are that hope. But wow do you ever have your work cut out for you. Aside from a single monastery that’s miraculously been left untouched by all the corruption, every single place you can visit is full of people (and things) that don’t seem to like you very much. And it only gets worse the longer you hold out.
You’re not completely powerless against the darkness, though – just horribly outmatched, really. Each of the seven playable characters in the base game comes with their own deck of special abilities and skills, which will allow them to beef up their arsenal as things progress. Some cards are more useful than others, such as the Seer’s Dowsing ability that lets her automatically search a location without having to roll any dice or the Druid’s ability to ignore an Event card drawn on his turn, but pretty much all of them can come in handy under the right circumstances.
Cooperation is also absolutely essential, of course. There are only two ways to win Darkest Night: by finding three different holy relics and returning them to the Monastery or by slaying the necromancer outright (yeah, good luck with that). While you’re trying to accomplish either goal the necromancer is wandering around the world, spreading corruption and trying to sniff out your heroes in order to put an end to the (admittedly minor) threat they pose to his accomplishments. Naturally, the more corruption there is the more difficult is can be to get anything done in a given location. And if it spreads too much then you just lose outright.
What’s interesting about all of this is the idea that, since the world is already pretty much lost, the heroes are all trying to keep a low profile. They know the odds are severely stacked against them, so they have to sneak around and try to build up their strength without drawing too much attention. This is tracked by way of a Secrecy meter that the necromancer has to roll against at the end of each round, and preforming more noticeable actions such as fighting against corruption will reduce it. You can do things like move or hide to bring this number back up, thankfully, and you should do them every chance you get. It adds a pretty cool risk/reward strategy to some of the choices you have to make.
So what is it you actually have to do in this game? Well, the main goal is to acquire holy relics, which are available in four different locations and can only be taken if a hero spends an action (i.e. their turn) using three keys to unlock the chest they’re tucked away in. Which means the secondary goal is to find keys. Each of the five locations, minus the Monastery, can be searched and will yield different potential results – as indicated by the icons next to each area’s search roll requirements. If you’re lucky you’ll find a key, but you can also find other cool stuff like Waystones that allow you to travel to any location on the board without having to worry about adjacency, or artifacts that can give a hero all sorts of cool perks.
But you also have to worry about corruption, as I’ve mentioned, so sometimes you’ll need to forego searching in favor of trying to get rid of some pesky spies that reduce your Secrecy each turn. Or even worse, a Desecration, which will make the Darkness track go up by +1 each round for as long as it’s in play. Consider, though, that dealing with corruption is also a pretty sizable risk since there can be some nasty consequences for failure. Plus the mere act of trying to get rid of it will make it easier for the necromancer to find you.
Aside from the typical grievances that come with Victory Point Games’ stuff (namely the slip-cover box and the sooty components), my one big gripe with Darkest Night is that there are a lot of little fiddly rules to remember. Much of this can be managed if you take each turn a bit more methodically, and of course getting experience with everything helps as well, but it’s fairly easy to forget one or two things every few turns, or to have to consult the manual for something.
A smaller issue that’s really only a problem if you play solo is how you always have to use four heroes, no matter what. Splitting your attention between four different characters, each with their own specialities and eventually unique items can become a pretty involved juggling act. Using the sun/moon tokens to indicate who’s taken a turn definitely helps but it’s still kind of awkward to have to constantly remember who’s doing what/can do what/needs to do what/etc.
Even with those gripes, Darkest Night is pretty great. It strikes a really nice balance between being involved enough to keep you absorbed and being straightforward enough (for the most part) to make setting it up and playing it feel worthwhile – even when it’s just you. I’m pretty excited about messing around with the expansions, whenever I’m able to get my hands on them.