Fantasy boardgame Darkest Night is no Mage Knight
I’m still working through the learning curve for Mage Knight, which I just bought this week. It’s a big ungainly fiddly game, sprawling across far more real estate than it really needs. It won’t even tell me how much table it needs. “Well, how far are you going to explore?” it asks, arms akimbo defiantly, “because that’s as much table as I need.”
It snorts imperiously as I flip the day/night board so I can, uh, get the same information I had on the other side, but this time in a different color? “Flip it,” Mage Knight demands. “How else are you going to know it’s night?” It is the epitome of Ameritrash with its busy bland artwork and painted plastic miniatures and those ridiculous WizKid clicking bases on its cities so that it costs easily ten dollars more than it should. I haven’t yet inflicted Mage Knight on someone else, and I might never do so. I’m hoping it’ll be a cool tabletop fantasy epic for solitaire play. Although it’s clearly not designed that way, with its emphasis on turn order and snatching mana from the pool before the other guy can get it and personal keeps and competitive scoring. Here I am, finally uncovering distant lands with a fireball in my deck. I could have played three games of Darkest Night by now.
After the jump, the anti-Mage Knight
Darkest Night, in contrast, sits somewhat curled up and modest. You can still have dinner on the table when a game of Darkest Night is set up. It’s not as flashy. The token for the main villain is so modest that I stopped using it because I couldn’t easily tell which were my guys and which was the bad guy (hence the penguin in the screenshot). The cards have simple colors and iconography that wouldn’t look out of place on a street sign. The theming is often half-hearted, almost obligatory. “What do we call this?” designer Jeremy Lennert must have pondered as he imagined a new magical effect. He decided to call it evil presence. Then he put it into the box next to unholy aura, curse, and taint. I can’t tell you which does what without looking it up, just like I can’t tell you whether the skeleton or the specter has combat 5 and elude 4. Whatever the case, the other one has combat 4 and elude 5. See? Theming.
But just as a lot of it isn’t very vivid, there’s nothing obnoxious or even very big about Darkest Night. It takes up exactly as much space as the board, the decks of cards, and the monster chits I arrange along the top in alphabetical order for easy retrieval: curse, evil presence, skeleton, specter, taint, unholy aura, in that order. I came up with this layout. The manual didn’t decree it. Darkest Night is polite and even a little deferential. It doesn’t even demand too much of my time. It knows I have other things to do. “I’ll have you out of here in an hour,” it promises.
Although Darkest Night is billed by publisher Victory Point Games as a co-op game, it’s a terrible co-op game. This is partly because a character will often have next to nothing to do on his turn. Draw a card, roll a die to see if you lose any health, move a space. There. Your turn is over in as much time as it took you to play your first movement card in Mage Knight. So if you’re playing co-op, now you get to wait for three other players to take their turns, which might involve fun stuff like using special abilities, drawing treasure tiles, or interacting with other characters. It’ll come around to you eventually, and at some point during the game, you’ll probably get your chance for some similarly fun moment. Maybe. Actually, why are you even here given that everything is always in the open? Characters don’t have a secret hand of cards or hidden treasures or face-down chits. Here is it, simple and sprawled out on the table for everyone to see. You can go do something else for a sec and just have someone else play your turn if you’re not back yet.
But when you let loose of the forced idea that Darkest Night should be played by four players because the game requires four characters, you’ll discover a quick and gratifying solitaire game with complex variations on a simple pattern. Again, it’s the opposite of Mage Knight, a game with simple variations on a complex pattern. Darkest Night is too small, too focused, too modest to sprawl among four players. It’s a decent lunch hour solitaire fantasy mini-epic. Well, it was until Lennert created two expansions for it. Now it’s a fantastic lunch hour solitaire fantasy mini-epic.
But before I explain how it went from decent to fantastic, let me explain the simple pattern. In every game, the four characters start on one side of a tiny map. I mean tiny. So tiny that it only has eight spaces. It’s barely even a map. The characters start at a monastery, which is their safehouse. On the other side of the map is the castle. You want to run the characters over there so they can learn new skills. Never mind the mountains, the forest, the ruins, or even the village. And certainly don’t fuss with the swamp yet. You might go many games over without fussing with the swamp. I mean, really, who goes into the swamp?
Once your characters have learned a few skills, you search the other spaces for three keys. Again, you can go to the swamp if you must, but why bother? Just go to the mountains or the forest. If you can get to the ruins, great. There are plenty of keys in the ruins. Get three keys, unearth a holy relic, and then fight the necromancer. Oh, I didn’t mention the necromancer, did I? He’s been running around the map dropping hazards, such as monsters or unholy auras, which aren’t the same things as taints, evil presences, or curses. If he drops too many hazards, you lose. If you successfully beat him with the holy relic, you win.
That’s how Darkest Night always plays out. It’s that small. The pattern is that simple. Castle, keys, relic, necromancer. Done. But in the context of that simple pattern, Darkest Night mixes everything up based on which four characters you play. That’s where the pattern has new variations. Each character is represented by a deck of ten cards. He or she begins with three cards, face up on the table. There are no hands, no draws, no deck management. Just those three cards representing the three things he or she can do. That’s why you go to the castle: to get more cards, drawn from among the seven you don’t get at the start. Those seven cards include some of the more powerful game-benders, and they more sharply define and shape the characters. They’re the heart of Darkest Night’s treasure chase. In fact, the actual treasure bits are so peripheral that you might never find them, and if you do find them — you went into the swamp, didn’t you? — you’re liable to forget you have them. The real prizes are being able to draw from a character’s deck to add to his or her abilities.
Within the framework of each character’s ten cards — most of which you won’t get in a given game — Darkest Night creates a gameplay narrative that plays out very differently based on who you’re playing and which skill cards you get. Some characters are good at fighting, some can hide, some can search, and some can flatout break the game. For instance, to win against the necromancer, you have to carry a holy relic into combat and then roll a six on a six-sided die. There is literally no other way to beat him. It all comes down to that roll. A simple pattern, see? Different characters can finesse the final battle by perhaps adding additional dice, or maybe getting a bonus to the roll, or rerolling a failed roll. But the seer, a support character if ever there was one, has a skill that lets her pre-roll dice. If she’s among your four characters, you can park her somewhere safe and use her turns to keeping rolling dice until you bank a six. Then make sure she fights the necromancer in the end and you’re golden.
The pattern reminds me a bit of the Pathfinder card game, where the characters move among a limited number of locations, drawing cards for treasure and ultimately trying to corner an elusive bad guy. Darkest Night has none of Pathfinder’s character persistence, of course. But it has that same sense of unique characters doing unique things to solve a familiar setup. How are we going to track down the bad guy this time?
Since it’s such a short and focused game, it all comes down to how the characters interact, with the board, with the necromancer’s hazards, with each other. These are the little narratives you build when you play Darkest Night. Remember the game where the prince spent all his time fleeing? Actually, that’s pretty much any game with the prince, a support character who can’t help but get chased around by the necromancer. Or the game where the scholar, some of whose powers modify the territory where he finds them, basically researched a fantastic killing zone in the ruins, of all places? Or the game where the acolyte, who has some of the best game-bending powers, got to re-roll a die at the cost of a point of darkness and he nearly plunged the world into darkest night during the final showdown with the necromancer? The marker stopped only two notches short of the end of the track. What about the game where the knight had three — three! — artifacts?
You can pick your heroes, but Darkest Night works best when you draw a random group and play the party you’re dealt. Since the actual objective is so focused, it just turns into a puzzle you can solve if you always use the same four characters. You’re already moving along a deep enough groove. No need to dig it any deeper.
But a significant problem with the initial release of Darkest Night was that even though there were a handful of interesting characters and abilities, that groove was still deep. So much of the map didn’t matter, which was a terrible thing to happen to such a small map. The necromancer would essentially lock down certain areas so you’d just hole up in your corner until he came to you. Or until he overran the map. The different character combos and skill cards added variety, but you were still rolling down that same groove, solving the same puzzle on your short trip to its single solution. Castle, keys, relic, necromancer. Castle, keys, relic, necromancer. Castle, keys, relic, necromancer. Castle, keys, relic, necromancer.
And here’s where Lennert really rose to the occasion, taking his simple pattern and re-working it in some important ways. Since the release of the base game, there have been two add-ons, currently available separately or as a bundle, called the Necromancer Bundle (you have to provide your own penguin). These add-ons do some truly wonderful things to the simple pattern, steering it in exciting new directions or throwing in unpredictable little twists.
For instance, the base game has artifacts, which are powerful magic items you can freely trade among your characters. Who wants a healing chalice, or a cloak to hide from monsters, or a bonus to stealth? The add-on throws more artifacts into the mix, and perhaps more importantly, it gives you more ways to find them, often directly in your control. When you search a territory, you draw a card that lists all the territories and what goodies you’ll find in each one. You just ignore everything on the card that isn’t your territory and then discard it. But the new shaman has a skill that lets her bank one of these cards and draw it whenever you want. See that artifact result on the card, over in the mountains? It’s time to make a beeline for the mountains. That never happened in the base game. You never had a specific reason to go to the mountains. Nothing so concrete at any rate. But now you know there’s an artifact waiting to be found! Of course, this only happens if you’re playing the shaman.
Many of the new characters pull you around the map in a way that never happened previously. The ranger, for instance, has a specific skill for each region of the map. In one game, your ranger might be suited for hiding in the forest to build up stealth. In another game, he might be a hermit in the swamp, able to heal up and search for magic items with impunity. That same swamp where you never used to go is now a home away from home for one of your characters. Who needs the monastery?
It gets even crazier. A character called the wayfarer has travel tricks. He can drop powerful bonuses in random locations that he’ll need to go fetch. He even gets boosts for the simple act of traveling. Once again, here’s a great reason to go to places on the map you might not otherwise go. Then there’s the scout, who has his own bag of travel tricks, but they benefit the other characters as well. Bypass difficult territories, hide from dangerous events, ignore monsters, dig up treasures more readily. The map that used to barely even be a map has suddenly come alive in new ways. Even some of the new monsters and hazards will all but force you to come get them. You can’t very well leave an insidious decay token out there in the ruins, because it shuts down items on the entire map. All those artifacts for naught! Time to head into the ruins to remove the decay.
With some of the new characters, Lennert shows an amazing capacity to wring gameplay out of a very small number of moving pieces. For all the frippery in Mage Knight — or maybe because of all the frippery in Mage Knight — I don’t have a solid handle on what sets the characters apart, and it’s blurred anyway by all the overlapping shared resources and vagaries of hand management. But with its broader strokes, simpler mechanics, and carefully character-focused gameplay, Darkest Night manages a vivid cast of unique characters.
A paragon, for instance, is a more combat oriented prince. The prince, a support character from the base game who can buff other characters, is often ineffectual because his stealth is so low. He’s constantly getting jumped and driven back to the monastery to hide. The paragon is similar as a low stealth support character, but his buffs tend to explode into supermoves when he uses his other powers. This isn’t your choice. It will just happen. You sometimes have to hold the paragon back until you’re ready. He’s a bit like a dog straining at his leash. A loud dog that attracts the necromancer’s attention. The new monk works similarly in that he can build up some useful powers, but as you might expect from a monk, he’s got more control over them. On the opposite end of the control spectrum is the wind dancer’s crazy dice tricks, which includes tricks piled onto the dice tricks, all of which are rolled for maximum randomness. Hence the five additional dice — blue dice, of course — that accompany her expansion. Playing a wind dancer is, well, nothing if not random.
One of the best new additions is a quest system. Before a character takes a turn, you draw from an event deck. Almost all of this was bad stuff. The add-on introduces new bad stuff and even new worse stuff, but it’s also not afraid to throw in a few helpful events. Not many, but they’re definitely in there. Also among the events are quest starters. When one of these pops up, you draw a quest and put it on a random spot on the map. If you don’t accomplish the quest’s task within the time limit, something bad happens. But if you do accomplish it, something good happens. This is sometimes a way to get those precious artifacts if you’re willing to go out of your way. Or it’s a way to get some of those magic items that you didn’t get previously because you never went into the swamp. Now that “castle, keys, relic, necromancer” pattern is thrown out of whack. Castle, quest, keys, relic, necromancer. Or castle, keys, relic, quest, necromancer. Or even castle, quest, quest, quest, keys, relic, quest, necromancer. Some of the new characters have special bonuses to help with quests, so you’ll sometimes peel off a crusader or monk to go grab a quick reward and/or avert a calamity. Again, it’s all about vivid character work.
And you can’t help but appreciate how Lennart isn’t afraid to bust his simple game wide open. For instance, an artifact called the Seeing Glass instructs you to turn every card on every deck face up. You can furthermore exhaust the Seeing Glass to search a deck for a specific card. I’ve never found the Seeing Glass in my games, but it sure is exciting knowing it’s somewhere in there. And it certainly means I’m keen to break out of the usual groove when there’s a Seeing Glass to be found. If there’s anything like a Seeing Glass in Mage Knight, I won’t find it for several more hours. In Darkest Night, it could be just around the corner, in this game I just started, or the next game. Which I can be playing in less than an hour.
Darkest Night, by designer Jeremy Lennert, is a cooperative game where players take on the role of a hero - each with a unique set of special abilities - as they embark on a quest that is the last hope for their land. But, really, you're better off playing it as a solitaire game.