Alone Time: Keep It Secret, Keep It Safe
Remember that scene in the second The Lord of the Rings movie where Frodo, Sam, and Gollum ran out from under their marsh-bush to shoot arrows at the passing Nazgûl and its fell steed so they could do battle? Yeah, me neither. Because instead, they cowered under that bush and shat their britches and hoped they wouldn’t have to do any fighting at all.
Most fantasy games don’t operate that way. Instead of sneaking about, their heroes barrel in with nocked arrows and raised swords, even though any halfway decent dark lord would seize the opportunity to fit them for some shallow graves. Not so in Darkest Night from Victory Point Games. The theme of this one-to-four-player co-op is familiar in one sense — a necromancer is polluting the kingdom, etc., etc. — but this time, your valiant heroes are going to be creeping around on their bellies and praying they don’t attract too much attention, because if they do, the necromancer is going to mosey over and put some serious hurt on their noble bottoms.
Spies in the Castle, a Lich at the Village Gates…
Even though every game of Darkest Night is a unique and randomized experience, all of them kick off with roughly the same emotional gut-punch. With four heroes selected from a pool of nine and squirreled away in the holy sanctuary of the monastery, and the necromancer poised to move out from the ruins into the kingdom, you flip the first map card and start adding blights to each location. This game might begin with a zombie horde in the mountains — “No big deal,” you say to yourself, because you’re playing solo and you like to hear the reassuring sound of your voice when nobody else is at home, and also because you’re right, zombies are pretty easy to run away from — and then the next blight shows that spies have infiltrated the castle, and will undoubtedly report your position to their dark master. No problem, you weren’t planning on stopping by the castle anytime soon anyway. Uh oh, and there’s a Lich plaguing the village, the crossroads of the kingdom, and you were hoping to pass through there on the route between the forest, which by the way is protected by an evil magic shroud, and the swamp, which has been completely desecrated by evil and is therefore one of your highest priorities; you suppose you could travel through the ruins, though they’re haunted with a foul presence and the necromancer will have to move away lest he detects your heroes prematurely…
And just like that, the board of Darkest Night presents a completely fresh jigsaw of threats, dangers, and opportunities, an experience unlike any other, no matter how many times you’ve played. Sometimes you’ll be trapped in the monastery and fighting to break out past an army of skeletons; other times you’ll travel far and wide in your guerrilla war against the necromancer’s ever-growing forces — for war with the dead yields more dead and not many more living. And sometimes you’ll keep your merry band secret, and therefore safe, and other times… well, you’ll tip your hand too soon and get chased around the board Keystone Cops-style, except in this case your pursuer is a necromancer with a magic staff that turns people inside out.
Select Your Fellowship Wisely
There are nine heroes to choose from, each different enough from the others that picking one feels like you’re actually choosing a class instead of a set of vaguely-differentiated digits. And none are helpless, though a couple can sure seem that way until you figure out what makes them tick.
Each hero has two sets of numbers to worry about. Both are essentially life points, though they have different meanings and you can sometimes get away with a deficit of one or the other. First up is grace, mostly run-of-the-mill life points, except you restore them by heading back to the monastery for confession instead of chugging red potions. Losing all your grace means your hero will die upon getting hit, and although you get a new hero at that point, new heroes kind of suck, so tending to matters of the spirit is going to pay off in the long run.
The second type is secrecy, which measures how aware the necromancer is of your activities. High secrecy often means kinder event cards; for instance, running across a “Shambling Horror” while hidden means you have to fight (or flee from) a regular old zombie, while an exposed hero would have to face a much deadlier opponent. Also, the necromancer occasionally detects and pursues heroes that don’t manage to escape his gaze, and since the necromancer’s presence usually means a whole bunch of extra blights, less secrecy for everyone at his location, and sometimes a really tough battle, you usually want to steer clear of the old bastard until you’re good and ready to end his reign of terror for good.
Heroes also come with their own deck, rounding out their abilities with all sorts of powers. So, for instance, you have heroes like the Acolyte, a necromancer-in-training who probably wants to overthrow the dark lord more so he can take his place than because he’s mean to peasants. This guy doesn’t have much grace (because he’s a necromancer, duh), but he’s great at avoiding the dark lord, and he’s got all sorts of questionable arts that make him unwelcome at the monastery but subvert the necromancer’s plans. Or the Prince, a brash dweeb who isn’t much good at anything and crashes through the underbrush with enough aplomb to announce his position to every vampire within a hundred leagues, but thanks to his noble birthright he’s great at telling others what to do or ordering peasants to hide him in their cellar while they get chewed on by skeletons. Or you might play as a stud like the Priest, whose superb grace and secrecy are probably the product of having killed a half-dozen necromancers back in the day, uphill and in the snow both ways young man, and whose mission is to travel around encouraging other heroes to pray. Each and every one of the heroes is awesome, in their own way.
Not That It’ll Be Enough to Defeat Evil
Winning Darkest Night is tough, largely because the necromancer’s corruption of the kingdom is relentless. As soon as you think you’ve kept the pot from boiling over, the necromancer bounds into the kitchen and throws a handful of starchy pasta into the mix. See, every turn sees him moving to a new location and adding yet another blight (and more than one later in the game), making your job all the more difficult and, worse, eventually filling locations so full of evil that it spills over to the monastery instead. Then you’re in real trouble, because too many blights on the monastery and it’s game over.
In order to end the necromancer’s reign, you’ll have to search for keys to unlock holy relics. These will let you beat the necromancer in one of two ways, either facing him in combat and striking him down — difficult because the necromancer is absurdly tough and a successful hit usually kills a blight instead of his old bones — or by gathering three of the four relics to the monastery for a purging ritual.
Of course, it’s never as easy as just running out to the nearest location and searching for a bunch of keys. Darkest Night excels at forcing you to divide your party’s attention: all at once, you’ll want to upgrade your characters by finding treasure chests and other items, end some blights that are threatening to overrun into the monastery, run from the encroach of the necromancer, and spend time hiding to restore your secrecy or trek back to the monastery for some one-on-one time with a rosary. There are so many options at any given time that it’s rarely clear what the ideal solution is.
Darkest Night is fabulous, whether cooperative or solo, though be warned it’s hard. As in, Ghost Stories hard. This is one of those co-op games built around the design philosophy that you should die two times out of three, and the occasional win ought to make you feel like a genius because you sometimes have to be in order to pick your way through all the threats the board will throw your way. Add the fact that combat, evasion, and the necromancer’s hunt for revealed heroes are determined by rolls of the dice, and that even the weakest enemies and blights can potentially kill you as surely as the necromancer himself, and you’ve got a stew on. A stew that’s as likely to burn your tongue as it is to fill your stomach with, um, stew. Still, if you’re tough enough to get it down, it’s a good stew.
That’s my final score: Darkest Night is good stew.
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The Necromancer wouldn’t want you to support Space-Biff! by buying Darkest Night from Amazon using this special encoded link. So think about it: are you going to do what the Necromancer wants? Or are you going to RESIST him? DEFY him? Support Space-Biff! It’s the only way.