Dark Gothic Review
on Oct 29, 2015
These days, you can't toss a d20 in a game store without hitting a deck-building game. The genre has its doomsday prophets, but it's popular for a reason: it provides a palpable sense of growth and acceleration, the idea that every turn adds another brick to your unique creation. This is just instinctually satisfying. The overexposure has led to burnout for some, but I'm nearly always up for another deck-builder. That's why I was excited to try Dark Gothic, Flying Frog Productions' attempt at turning their competitive/cooperative colonial-era gothic horror adventure game A Touch of Evil into a competitive/cooperative colonial-era gothic horror deck-building game.
Released simultaneously with Shadows of Brimstone at Gen Con 2014, the game almost feels like it was abandoned before it came out. The release saw little fanfare and a tepid overall reception, which makes it doubly surprising that FFP has just released a standalone expansion (doubly surprising because the expansion itself was announced just days before it went on sale). I can only hope this bodes well for the future of one of the most unusual deck-builders of this decade.
What makes Dark Gothic unique even among such an over-represented genre? Where do I even start? First, it includes not one, not two, not even three, but four unique resources with which to purchase new cards and defeat evil. Red represents Combat, green is Cunning, blue is Spirit, and silver is a wild card resource with a twist, in that each source of silver can only represent one resource type, so a card that provides 3 silver can be 3 Spirit, 3 Cunning or 3 Combat, but never a mix of the 3. The same applies to costs: if a card requires 5 silver to purchase, you can do it with 5 of any one thing.
Point of difference #2: each player's starting deck is a unique mix of the above resources, determined by the character they've chosen. For example, Revolutionary War veteran Karl Harrison excels in Combat and comes pre-equipped with an Honor (1 silver resource and draw a card), but he lacks Cunning and Spirit, while the conniving noblewoman Isabella von Took packs her deck with Cunning and a decent amount of Combat but falters on matters of the soul. This is the first hint of what makes Dark Gothic truly special: it puts atmosphere and immersion above all else. From the characters' special abilities to the effects on the cards, it's abundantly clear that all game design decisions hinged on what made sense thematically, not what would produce the most balanced game. A perfect example is the card "Disturbing Reflection," which lets you repeat the effect of another card you've played this turn...but doesn't work on vampires. On a similar note, few of the Town Elders have abilities that I would consider a fair tradeoff for the Dark Secret you must gain when you acquire them, but I understand that it's a longstanding Shadowbrook tradition. (In yet another unusual mechanic, these Dark Secrets, when drawn, trigger a random Shocking Discovery effect...the best one is "It's a Werewolf!" which turns an ally card in your deck into a monster that immediately ambushes you.)
Most cards require some combination of the 4 resources to acquire or defeat, rewarding flexibility in your deck building; silver is worth its weight in gold. This is especially true when it comes to the 3 increasingly challenging villains the players must defeat. The base set includes 9 villains at 3 difficulty levels, with a random baddy from each tier playing for the opposition each game. In the standard competitive mode of play, you're racing the other players for Renown, a VP value shown in the corner of each card you buy or beat. While any additions to your deck help, the villains offer the biggest bounty, and defeating the third one ends the game. However, they tend to require massive quantities of a specific resource, not necessarily the same one that'll work against the next big bad. If you build an uber-Cunning deck to defeat the Dreaded Scarecrow, what are you going to do about the Spectral Horseman, who only cares about combat and spirit?
Unlike A Touch of Evil, these villains don't fight backâthey're more like Dominion's Provinces, a deck-building goal and a game timer. They do sometimes come with deleterious passive effects, like the Ferrian Bog Fiend, who makes locations extra difficult to acquire (presumably by sinking their foundations into the peat), but again, this is more about the genre flavor than anything, especially when you consider the vast range of effects given to similarly ranked villains: some are mere nuisances, while others are a major threat in the "all players lose" endgame condition, and some villains actually help the player who defeats them.
Where the game does push back is in the form of the Shadows. As play progresses, certain effects will cause a card to be added to the Shadows. When the Shadows has 10 cards, all players lose. This is another unusual and mood-setting mechanic; unfortunately, it's completely busted. Depending on the shuffle of the deck, the Shadows can be a non-threat one game and an impossible obstacle the next. More importantly, there's rarely a chance for players to remove cards from the Shadows or stop them from being added. The effects that cause the Shadows to spread are mostly triggered by a new card entering the offer, such as the "Murder!" event, rather than any actions of the players. To pile on more randomness, many of these Shadow-oriented effects make use of the game's special Omen Die. (Yes, a deck-builder with a d6.) It works well enough in the competitive mode, where it's like a game timer encouraging players to take out the villains at the first opportunity, but if you're considering buying Dark Gothic for cooperative play, don't. It's not worth it.
As a moody, old-fashioned horror game, though? Great stuff. Who needs a board?