Alone on a Dark Night
Darkest Night was one of the first games I ever played solo. It arrived with a tiny board with jigsaw-puzzle connectors, smoky laser-charred wooden standees, and a napkin for wiping the soot off your fingers when you were done punching everything out. For months it retained that campfire reek, like summers up the canyon, like burning villages, like a necromancer’s grip tightening around a fantasy kingdom’s throat.
It got its grip around my throat as well. With its thickly despairing gameplay, religion-gone-literal subtext, and smoke filling my nostrils, I defeated the necromancer time after time. More often, it was him who did the defeating.
Sadly, Darkest Night was a flawed game, and it fizzled from my table as abruptly as it had flickered to life in the first place. Its central notion — that your heroes were waging a guerrilla resistance and would spend more time hiding than fighting — was undercut by the fact that it was relatively easy to defend a single hero chilling in the corner. This hero could spend every turn searching for keys, which would unlock relics, which in turn would slay evil once and for all. A to B to C to Dead Necromancer, all without leaving the comfort of a single space. So much for guerrilla warriors. More like renegade metal detectorists.
But here’s the twist: while Darkest Night was designer Jeremy Lennert’s first published design, it has also become his latest, at least four times by my count. One expansion after the other continued to tweak the way the game worked. First came quests. Now, in addition to all that scrabbling around in the dirt for keys, your band of heroes could also follow up on various problems plaguing the kingdom, or treat them like distractions and ignore as they rotted the kingdom from within. Then came darkness cards, which bestowed new abilities on the necromancer and kept the later game from feeling stale. And, of course, in the meantime there were also new heroes, new events, new artifacts, all making Darkest Night’s original roster of heroes and terrible occurrences all the deeper.
Like its necromancer ministering to a corpse, all these additions kept giving Darkest Night a few extra shambling steps of life. It was still possible to have a searcher sit in the mountains all game, but at least there was more going on elsewhere.
But here’s what I missed by eventually ditching Darkest Night and its wood smoke stench right before the release of its fourth expansion — the game that not only fixes Darkest Night, but also transforms it into one of the finest solo offerings on the market. Even better, instead of picking up all those expansions and polishing the soot off their bits, everything has been compiled, polished, fleshed out, and thrown into Darkest Night’s immense second edition box.
Solo gamers (and cooperative players too, if you must), listen up. This set is nothing short of a marvel.
For those who don’t know the first thing about Darkest Night, here’s the gist. A necromancer most foul has intruded into a fantasy kingdom, ousting the good folk, besieging the ancestral castle, and seeding blights all over the dang place. Blights are one of the central focuses of the game, little cardboard rectangles that gradually fill a region with monsters, status effects, and immunity for the necromancer when the time comes to stick a sharpened crucifix through his eye socket. Let too many of these blights pile up in a single spot and they’ll eventually flood over into the monastery, where it’s game over if you don’t set to pruning them back.
So far so humdrum, right? Well, Darkest Night has two things going for it right out of the gate.
The first is that your characters would be a better fit for the Fellowship than Diablo. Rather than chopping their way to the necromancer’s front door and dropping a giant bell on his head, they’re frail, fragile things. The necromancer is constantly on their heels, making a beeline for the nearest hero whose good deeds — or dundering failures — have exposed them to the baddie’s spies. Thus, an effective hero will spend a lot of time hiding, or traveling to distant locations, or performing other actions to help manage their dwindling supply of secrecy. If they don’t, it’s entirely possible to find themselves facing down a necromancer they have no real hope of escaping.
Because of its willingness to force your heroes underground, the whole game quickly becomes one of managed odds and daring risks. Because each hero can normally only take a single action per day, fleeing the necromancer often feels like a waste compared to slaying a bunch of reanimated skeletons or unlocking new abilities at the castle. Sometimes you’ll need to stick around in dangerous territory longer than you’d prefer, or march in circles to keep the necromancer yipping at your heels rather than pursuing an injured comrade, or plunge straight into the heart of darkness for a chance of resolving a particular quest.
Speaking of quests, they’re timed, uniformly terrible when failed, and offer benefits upon completion, so it’s often a good idea to journey off the beaten path to chase them down. They’re also one of the expanded ideas that transforms Darkest Night entirely. The second are mysteries, which were added in that fourth expansion I missed out on. And if quests are a nice thing to do when you aren’t trying to wrap up something more pressing, mysteries are a total rehabilitation of the game.
As I’ve mentioned, the original game had you searching for keys. With mysteries, the initial steps are familiar in that you’ll have someone perform some searches. But this time, rather than simply digging up what they were looking for, your hero will hear a rumor that there’s an ancient riddle down in the swamps, or learn that the villagers will assist those who help defend their homes, or discover some encoded journals. Whatever the particular mystery, they’ll spin the story in a new direction — studying the necromancer by hanging out in his region, breaking into the castle vaults, following mysterious tracks at midnight. Completing a mystery earns you clues, which can eventually be swapped for the relics you need to destroy the necromancer.
It’s a total game-changer, feeling both more focused and less geographically restrictive than the original game’s keys. Rather than grubbing around in the same spot, you’re gathering information, following up on leads, and gradually gaining traction in the fight against the kingdom’s occupation. In this light, your characters behave almost like actual resistance fighters, probing for weaknesses while dealing with setbacks, distractions, and counter-attacks.
And it’s still only Darkest Night’s second-best feature.
The primary focus of Darkest Night has always landed squarely on its heroes — or, more accurately, the way four of its heroes complement each other in their quest to vanquish evil.
There are twenty-nine of these guys, each with their own strengths, blind spots, and modes of interaction with their fellow adventurers. While they’re all distinct, their rules are entirely contained on their thirteen power cards, which means there’s very little overhead before you start playing. Just grab their deck, pick their starting powers, and you’re off. The way they gain new abilities is vaguely wonky, earned via searches, or sometimes by having a friend graciously hand over the treasure they looted during a search of their own, but it’s functional and easy enough to parse that I’m inclined to forgive it for not rewarding every activity the game has to offer.
Crucially, every hero brings their own style to the table. There’s the heretical Acolyte, who can manipulate blights but isn’t usually welcome in the monastery. Directly opposite him stands the Crusader, whose powerful abilities cost grace, the heavenly unit of currency that acts as your hit points. The Druid can shift into different forms to escape danger or gain new abilities, the Exorcist bides his time waiting for random boons to come into effect, the Knight swears oaths that she can fulfill or break for massive benefits or penalties, and the Prince is a total pushover who nonetheless somehow inspires the locals to great deeds.
More than that, you’re never playing with only a single hero. In Darkest Night, the most important facet of each game is how your selection of four adventurers work together. A party composed of a Monk, Ranger, Shaman, and Mercenary will be chasing down blights all over the place, while a Mesmer, Valkyrie, Paragon, and Priest may meet up for pep talks, blessings, and to overwrite their memories. With each combination performing according to their own rhythm, it’s the sort of game that’s best played with four heroes selected at random rather than a stable of favorites.
Darkest Night functions somewhat less coherently as a cooperative game, largely because each hero can only undertake a single act each turn, adding a sort of meta-reason to avoid filler actions like traveling to a new location or meditating to improve future rolls. Speaking of rolls, those averse to throwing dice or the game’s original incarnation probably won’t be brought around. And as a solo gamer, the one thing I missed most was the ability to score myself, a feature that was present in Victory Point Games’ other recent second edition, Nemo’s War.
But those niggles aside, Darkest Night has quickly reestablished itself as a premier example of the form. It’s bigger, more polished, and functionally reincarnated. The only thing they forgot to add to the box was the aroma of wood smoke.