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 were keeping an eye on Kickstarter earlier this year, 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 video games.
“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 video game 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.”
Capturing the essence of Dark Souls wasn’t just about aping the original gameplay mechanics, though. To convince the videogame series’ fan community, Hart, Loxam and their fellow designers needed to carefully replicate the lore, style and tone of the series. As a result, Steamforged was given full access to the resources behind the series. Yet while having the keys to FromSoftware’s castle certainly helped, Hart believes that delivering the game world in another format came from an intimate understanding of the process of working with another company’s properties.
“During my video game career I worked with other people’s IP often,” he explains. “During that time I developed a very healthy respect for the care and custodianship you should have when working on somebody else’s IP.” It’s a more complex issue than simply handling pre-existing assets, Hart asserts: game designers in his position must also keep in mind that they’re working with an existing community that belongs to someone else.
“In everything we do, we’re custodians for a community and we’re custodians for IP. So with Dark Souls, we’re not just serving FromSoftware or Bandai Namco – to an extent, they’re just the names on the contract. We’re really serving the millions of people who bought Dark Souls. We have to, for it to be a success. I guess that’s a bit cheesy, but that’s it. That’s what guides us there.”
Having access to the Dark Souls archives also presented Steamforged with the sort of problem most game designers would kill for. “The biggest issue was the sheer amount of content we had access to,” Loxam explains. “It’s very hard to choose the bosses we wanted to include from launch, and fit in all of the iconic parts of the universe. With Dark Souls 3 releasing, we were conscious of not spoiling that experience for gamers too much, so we focused on bringing a lot of the iconic Dark Souls 1 and 2 bosses and grunts to life – with a splash of Dark Souls 3.”
There were also more practical considerations in capturing FromSoftware’s universe. Dark Souls – The Board Game is centred on miniatures: its box will contain a collection of models, each based on famed protagonists and enemies, albeit not always to scale (Dark Souls’ Gaping Dragon may not have made it into the box otherwise). In 2016, it’s easy to imagine Steamforged pulling character models out of FromSoftware’s library and simply 3D-printing them in order to create an appropriate range of miniatures. It must be easy nowadays, right?
“I wish,” Hart laughs. “We had to think of really boring things, like how much of an underhang a miniature might have on an edge. If it’s too deep, it might not come out of the mould. Also, too thin a piece might snap or bend, even if obviously it holds up in the video game. So we needed to make the tweaks to the in-game geometry as subtle as we could, to know that it would match the look of the world, but also work as an actual, physical piece.”
In spite of such challenges, it took only five months from that fortuitous meeting with Bandai Namco for the board game designers to have their vision ready for the battlegrounds of Kickstarter. The April 2017 release for the final boxed product is still a long way off, but feedback from consumer playtesters who’ve sampled prototypes on the floors of tabletop gaming shows has been positive, partly thanks to the production quality of Steamforged’s early models, which feel detailed and authentic.
The game will be finessed further in the months leading up to it production. Until we get it in our hands, we can’t be certain quite how faithful it will be to its revered source material, but even with dice in the box, relying on brute force and luck alone seems unlikely to result in anyone besting Steamforged and FromSoftware’s most imposing boss battles.
This feature originally appeared in Edge issue 295, featuring Watch Dogs 2. Issue 297, featuring Destiny: Rise of Iron, is available now. To try a free two-issue Edge subscription, click here for iOS or here for Google Play Newsstand.