Two Minds about Darkest Night
Today on Two Minds About…, Dan Thurot and Brock Poulsen are absolutely going to disagree about the sublime cooperative and solo game Darkest Night. Total disagreement. Friendship-shaking disagreement.
Dan: Wow, that sounds rough. Been good knowing you, Brock.
Brock: Our friendship had a good run, but this is the one! This game will sunder our fraternal bond forever.
Dan: But before we break up, why don’t you tell us what Darkest Night is all about anyway?
Brock: The world of Darkest Night is bleak. Evil has largely triumphed, and the living are on the brink of collapse beneath the crushing grip of an evil undead sorcerer. Death lurks everywhere, and hope comes only in rare glimmers. Victories are short-lived and minor.
Dan: Are you talking about Darkest Night or the current state of American politics? Bah-dum-tss!
Brock: A very good joke. The only possible salvation will be in locating an ancient holy relic, and using it to strike the Necromancer down, ending his reign forever. To this end, you’ll first assemble a group of heroes with varying powers. But you won’t find overly muscled behemoths carving bloody paths through the forces of evil. Instead, these heroes are trying to stay hidden, gathering precious supplies, fighting to buy time against the flood of undead.
Dan: That’s colorful stuff, Brock. It also stabs right at the heart of one of my favorite things about Darkest Night.
I’ll give you some context. Remember in The Fellowship of the Ring, how the heroes spent most of the movie creeping around the backwoods and staying off the beaten path? Well, near the end a bunch of orcs catch up to them. And rather than run away, Aragorn leaps to the rescue! Waving his sword wildly, he runs up some stairs! He kicks an orc! He jumps into a pile of orcs and crowd-surfs them like riding a bull, bucking and braying, until they collapse in an exhausted jumble!
For me, Darkest Night is less of that and more of the first part, where you’re hungry and scared and desperate enough to journey through a haunted diamond mine in order to keep out of sight.
Brock: It’s the tension and fear of knowing a Ringwraith is circling overhead, searching the forests for your brave heroes. They are competent but out of their depth, and it’s a feeling that permeates every play. You may be clever, but the game is actively working against your success.
This may seem like an obvious thing to say about a purely cooperative game, but it bears stating: the game’s job is to beat you, and virtually every component is devoted to this singular purpose.
Dan: That’s true, isn’t it? Pretty much everything you do either threatens your heroes’ health or burns precious midnight oil before the Necromancer can raise more blights. Want to cleanse the land by purging a blight? There’s a good chance you’ll get harmed in some way if you fail.
Brock: The mere act of attacking brings you closer to being found out. Secrecy becomes a sort of currency that you spend to prevent threats from overwhelming you.
Dan: Traveling helps restore some of that secrecy, but because each hero normally only gets one action per turn, the game’s timer is absolutely merciless. A single failure often means you’re stuck doing whatever heroes do after they’ve been trounced. Whittling, I would guess.
It doesn’t help that everyone feels so fragile. Even tougher heroes can start looking pretty frail if you aren’t careful. It’s definitely a game of managing risk and “wagering” your heroes at the most effective moments.
Brock: “Wagering” is exactly the right word, I think. Even beyond the luck of dice and cards, there’s such a satisfying feeling of risk in every round of Darkest Night. These aren’t your muscle-bound son of Arathorn heroes. Most of them aren’t even Boromir.
And in the world of Darkest Night, I get the sense that those other types of heroes kicked the bucket a long time ago. The “barbarian” type, if one had existed, would have charged into a vampire coven and become a perforated snack before you could say “Nosferatu.”
What’s left are the wily heroes. The survivors, those who were smart enough not to call attention to themselves, and the salvation of the world is now on their shoulders.
Dan: Other than the Prince, anyway. His whole gig is calling as much attention to himself as possible.
Brock: He’s a real diva, it’s true. In terms of mechanisms, there are no big surprises here. You’ll select a team of four heroes, with each one bringing a deck of cards matching their particular thing. The Monk likes to meditate and can use his chi to improve other actions, the Druid spends a great deal of time both with and as an animal. That sort of thing.
Dan: Okay, two questions for you. First, how do you pick your heroes? When the game first came out, I would focus on the new heroes for a while. Now that I have the huge second edition, I assemble random parties more or less exclusively. Four personalities, whose abilities may or may not complement one another, who maybe don’t even get along that well, but are thrown together by fate or fortune to save the kingdom. Seems like the perfect way for Darkest Night to begin.
And second, do you have any favorites?
Brock: My first few games I was picking heroes I wanted to try, but the last few I’ve used the random method and it has been a real delight. It fits the theme of a group of heroes being thrown together. They might not be the ideal team, but they’re the best we’ve got.
As for favorites, I’ve been surprised by heroes like the Tinker, who can set up powerful combinations with his gadgets, and really enjoyed the way the Crusader and Mercenary get to add more card abilities and get better at fighting. What about you? Among the cast of 29 heroes (!), do you have any favorite combos or individuals?
Dan: Lately I’ve been loving the Acolyte, whose abilities sort of “go along” with the Necromancer but result in him being corrupted and locked out of the Monastery unless he spends some time repenting. And I’ve always had a soft spot for the Exorcist. He sets up “boons,” which may or may not give him benefits in coming rounds, but when you get lucky they can be rather powerful.
Speaking of the expansion, though, you’re still playing the original edition, right? Since you’ve recently gone through the game’s evolution — the original win conditions, then the addition of quests, and eventually the entire goal transforming thanks to mysteries — why don’t you give us a rundown of how that whole process works?
Brock: Yes, I’m playing the first edition, with all the expansions added in. In the base game, to obtain the relics required collecting three keys. There was seldom a reason to move around much; searching the forest or mountains was usually your best bet until you could secure a relic, at which point you’d try to land a killing blow to the Necromancer.
Then came the quests, added to locations on the board. They break up the pattern of camping and searching, and offer some tantalizing rewards when completed — or dire penalties if you let the clock run out.
Dan: I remember when those were introduced. At the time, they were almost revolutionary. They gave you a reason to move around some more, but weren’t strictly mandatory. Their main accomplishment, I think, was that they made the board feel that much more alive — over here there’s an opportunity, over in the village there’s a siege, that sort of thing.
Brock: The ultimate change came in the form of mysteries. Instead of taking a key token, mystery cards rewrite the game’s main goal. Similar to quests, they show up in particular spots on the board, holding clues to the obtaining of the coveted relics. Gaining clues is done in myriad ways, from defeating blights to being especially good at praying. In a recent game, my Enchanter found clues in the forest that led her to uncover an obelisk carved with strange writings in the village. The obelisk then led my heroes to a defiled shrine in the swamp, and more chances for clues.
It’s another layer of theme and variety, an exceptional addition to an already great game.
Dan: It’s also what transforms Darkest Night from a pretty good solo game into a great one. They’re little threads you can pull. Your heroes will be over here doing one thing, only to learn that there’s an ancient riddle down in the swamps, or discover that a righteous hero can gain great power, or find a clue about a multi-part manuscript. Then you’re off, digging through the muck or chasing the pieces of that manuscript across the map. Where the original game felt relatively straightforward, now it feels more like a saga, with a new chapter beginning whenever you head off to complete a quest or pursue a mystery.
Brock: Since you’re playing the beautiful second edition, what are some improvements that have been made? Is there anything you miss from the first edition, like these lovely wooden tokens?
Dan: I do miss the wood. Especially that smoky laser-cut scent. Since I owned the first edition for years, I came to associate Darkest Night with wood smoke. You know, from a burning village. The second edition has a sort of unappealing sour smell. Rotting flesh, perhaps, except it’s sort of plasticky.
Also, while it’s on my mind, the miniatures expansion is so unnecessary.
Brock: Having seen all the options, I think the second edition’s larger standees are just right. The minis do seem like overkill, and the first edition’s wooden standees smell great, but can sometimes be a little too dark and small.
All of this, though, is ancillary to the fact that Darkest Night is an exceptional, tense solo game with rich, efficient storytelling. Puzzling over your heroes’ options is a pleasure, and simple things unfold into a larger story arc. In the midst of trying to defeat the Necromancer, maybe you will be tasked with defeating a revenant, or hunting down whatever thing has been stealing children from the village.
With more than one player, the experience can become somewhat diluted—
Dan: When you’re only controlling one hero and your turn gets skipped by some bullcrap event, yeah, that fact jumps into stark focus.
Brock: —but that being said, I have enjoyed having my eight-year-old son take a seat next to me, and letting him help me survey the board and plot my next moves. It’s a fun little collaboration that lets him marvel at the emerging story, and also leads to discussions of the depiction of deity in fantasy fiction.
Dan: I’m curious what those discussions have entailed. One of the things that sets Darkest Night apart from its high fantasy peers is its literalist expression of Gothic fiction and Christian cosmology. For instance, every hero in the game dies in one hit — except when you expend “grace” with an off-table deity to miraculously return from the brink of death. Your heroes often need to take a break to pray, the monastery is protected from the Necromancer’s blights, and some of the game’s “heretic” characters are less able to accumulate grace. What’s your take on that?
Brock: It’s sort of an odd presence in the game: it’s a lot more overtly Christian than a lot of fantasy games. I read that it was dialed back a bit for the second edition, but it’s hard to ignore the presence of things like the Priest and Exorcist, and the literal crosses on the relics.
What was it that we were going to disagree about, again?
Dan: If I’m really stretching, I don’t think it’s an awful cooperative game, though it’s better with two players each controlling two heroes. Uh, any other hot takes?
Brock: My takes are warm at best. But I am curious if your thoughts on the end game match mine. When one of my heroes is defeated (going below zero on their Grace or Secrecy), I don’t follow the rulebook’s suggestion to replace them with a new hero. Instead, I either let the remaining team carry on, or I call the game a loss. Thematically I think the game should end with a sort of culmination of the persistent theme. Either the heroes make a desperate last stand and strike the final blow, or the fellowship is crushed.
How have you handled the end game? Do you find your heroes get several chances to defeat the Necromancer?
Dan: No. If you die, you die.
Brock: I can’t argue with Ivan Dragonian logic like that.
Dan: Sounds like we’re agreed on pretty much everything, then. Anything else you’d like to add?
Brock: The way that liches are depicted in this game is completely specious. Can we at least disagree on that?
Dan: All right, friendship over.
(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign. Only with your help can we stop the plague of ill-defined liches.)