Prepare To Dice
How a team of board game designers turned From Software’s Dark Souls series into a Kickstarter smash
How a small team of board game designers turned FromSoftware’s Dark Souls into a Kickstarter smash
Button mashing won’t get you far in Dark Souls, where relying on a lucky strike is rarely a strategy that stacks up. FromSoftware’s series is notorious for the exacting demands it makes on players, requiring them to learn the intricacies of attacks, positioning and counters, so why would it make a good candidate for a board game reimagining? Tabletop realms are places where rules and mathematical systems are the game, realised in cardboard and plastic, and played with an orderly, methodical approach. Aside from the dexterity sub-category of board games, where flicking and throwing pieces is the norm, typically tabletop experiences include little to no ‘action’, and capturing a sense of nuanced twitch combat in these contexts is simply unworkable in most cases. If you’ve been keeping an eye on Kickstarter recently, however, you probably noticed that an officially licensed Dark Souls board game confounded expectations and did rather well for itself. The team behind the campaign, Steamforged Games, sought £50,000 to make its spin on Dark Souls a commercial reality. That target was reached in some three minutes. Funding eventually cleared £3.7 million, with late pledges continuing to trickle over the line at the time of writing.
And it was possible, the Steamforged team believes, because Dark Souls is not a button masher’s pursuit. To understand that logic, we need to look back to the beginning.
Seven or so months before Dark Souls – The Board Game emerged as the Steamforged team’s day job, a handful of the team were already looking at tabletop gaming’s own version of ‘button mashing’ – that is, an over-reliance on handfuls of dice as a luck mechanic that might just get players through if they persist for long enough. At that time, Steamforged designer Mat
Hart, a co-founder of the UK-based company,
had been toying with a prototype that he happily refers to today as a “generic dungeon crawler”. It was an exercise in innovating within the genre, and although he might not have realised it at the time, he was working on something that would share many parallels with the Dark Souls videogames.
“I’d played a few of the other games of the dungeon-crawler type out on the market today, and I’d started to become a little frustrated by them,” he explains. “I wasn’t finding them as interesting as I felt they could be, or that I wanted them to be. They certainly weren’t feeling as interesting as classic games of that type, like HeroQuest back in the day.”
The tabletop games that so disappointed Hart were often repetitive, too reliant on luck, and commonly boiled down to the fall of the dice – ‘dice mashing games’, if you like. So the designer did all he could to reverse those shortcomings, never quite sure how the game might end up.
And then Hart met with an old friend from his many years working in production on videogame projects (his CV includes stints at Kuju Entertainment and Ninja Theory). That acquaintance happened to be employed at Namco Bandai, which itself was keen to find a board game designer to explore the world of Dark Souls in a new format.
“That could have been the end of the story,” Hart reflects. “If I’d have just pitched the game idea I was working on then, as it was, I’m not sure it would have gone anywhere. So what we actually did for the pitch was stop and analyse what makes Dark Souls the game it is. We had to consider which elements from
Dark Souls could make the transition from electronic media into physical media, before going back to Bandai Namco.”
It didn’t take Hart very long to realise that he might have a perfect match. Here was a videogame series that demanded its players do more than mash buttons, and a fledgling dungeon-crawler design exploring ways to escape the monotony of the dice roll.
“We realised our board game could ask players to think, to be clever, to learn, because that’s what Dark Souls is, in a way,” Hart says. “You can’t just go rushing in to
Dark Souls. We’ve tried to make a board game equivalent of a thinking man’s fighting game. We didn’t want players ‘button mashing’ [our board game], I guess, because Dark Souls won’t let you do that.”
With its starting point set, the Steamforged designers could strip back Hart’s prototype and rebuild it as a Dark Souls property, plundering FromSoftware’s beloved series for suitable mechanics and all of the aesthetic elements they could possibly need. The designers had character types to replicate as miniatures, combat systems to rework, and a backstory to use as their foundation.
But they also had gameplay difficulty to consider. Steamforged knew it wanted to deliver a co-operative miniatures-based exploration board game, but how to translate
Dark Souls’ infamous degree of challenge? A tough board game that is still pleasant to play is a considerably different beast to a demanding virtual experience.
“That was probably the hardest thing here, if I’m honest,” Hart says. “The game needs to be challenging, but it needs to be a challenging game you enjoy – that you can beat with skill and experience, and maybe a tiny bit of luck.”
Hart and his colleagues also wanted to avoid what he calls the “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? syndrome”, where something is “easy if you know it”. Steamforged needed to shape an experience that didn’t risk becoming a walkover because of a win-all strategy nestled at its heart.
“The difficulty [in our game] comes from decision-making,” explains Richard Loxam, another Steamforged co-founder and designer, on zeroing in on how to make Dark Souls appropriately taxing when rendered in cardboard and plastic. “We looked at how learning behaviours – and understanding how to win – is essentially the core of why Dark
Souls is hard, and we’ve tried to focus on translating that. We’ve introduced Boss Behaviour decks that replicate learning the move sets, alongside positioning via our node system on the board being crucial choices between life and inevitable death.”
“WE’VE TRIED TO MAKE A BOARD GAME EQUIVALENT OF A THINKING MAN’S FIGHTING GAME”
The game’s generous piece-count made the most affordable pledge level £75. It wasn’t so pricey as to dissuade over 31,000 backers