17 September 2018
Prepare to be annoyed
Keen-eyed fans of From Software’s Dark Souls video game series and its tabletop spin-offs will be quick to identify the real-world inspiration for Black Souls, a board game about a design studio unimaginatively named Designer Inc. that has created the toughest video game ever made. All of that sounds a bit on the nose – and that is, of course, the point. However, those hoping for a humorous commentary on the Dark Souls franchise or on game design as a whole can look elsewhere. Except for the name, some in-game terminology and a very loose premise, Black Souls has nothing to do with the Dark Souls games, in gameplay or in spirit.
A cynic might suggest that the whole reason for the game’s name and references being so obvious is to attract some of the success of the series that has recently gained a wider following among tabletop gamers with Dark Souls: The Board Game and the recent Dark Souls: The Card Game.
The clear attempt to indulge Dark Souls fans would not be so irritating if Black Souls was a good game. Here we come to the most upsetting part about Black Souls: it might have been a decent board game if it was designed with more care and attention to detail – and even that’s putting it mildly.
The rulebook is filled with dense paragraphs and has page backgrounds made stylistic to a fault, leaving the text hard to read – something not helped by multiple typos. If that's possible to overlook, then the glaring mistakes in the game’s components are not.
It seems that, at some point, Black Souls went through a last-minute redesign and some of the components were not updated to suit. Throughout the game, players can pick up new party members, represented in-game with wooden cubes of four colours: blue, red, white and black. In order to determine exactly what type of fighters to recruit, the top card of the party deck is turned over, showing the colour of the cube and their quantity. Except that cards have blue, red, grey and green colours. While white indeed may be confused for grey due to printing qualities, green is not black. Following a bit of investigative work, it actually turned out that grey on the card corresponds to black cubes, while green on the cards corresponds to white cubes. Asking “So what colour is green again?” got old very quickly. After crossing that hurdle, game boards that warped immediately and tiles with sloppy print work and non-aligned pictures served only to further annoy.
As for the gameplay, Black Souls is divided into two parts: the design phase and the game phase. During the former, through a series of blind bidding, tile drafting and placement, players create a dungeon level. Bid cards determine the player order and provide bonus actions, out of which only two or three cards are really useful. The tiles come with varying difficulties – bosses being the most difficult – which signify how many party members will be killed off when entering that part of the level. Except the correlation between the printed difficulty and number of fighters being killed is inconsistent and does more to confuse than help. The tiles do not provide enough variety, and there is rarely a desperate need to get a particular tile first.
The game phase, completely unexpectedly, is breath of fresh air. In this section, players actually take their party through the dungeon level they have spent the 12 previous rounds creating. The aim is to kill as many party members as possible – that’s supposed to signify the toughness of the level – while still having a few of them alive after the last room to qualify for bonus scoring. Here, finally, the game becomes strategically exciting, with players deciding which party members to sacrifice and which to keep for future battles. If you happen to die in the last dungeon, you only have yourself to blame: you built it! There is a satisfaction in finally experiencing what you have spent the majority of the game creating. It really is a shame that the game phase is a relatively small part of Black Souls’ gameplay.
Black Souls, a board game about designing a Souls-like video game level, is in a dire need of a day one patch. While the tile-drafting section is far from flawless, the game phase demonstrates the true potential of what this game could have been. It is truly sad that the promise was buried under the amateurish level of presentation.
For a game about designing a video game, Black Souls should take a careful, attentive look at its own design first.
Designer: Dominic Michael H.
Artist: Len Peralta
Time: 45-60 minutes
This review originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here – or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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