It begins with a trip to your local board game store, just a regular check of new releases and impulse temptations. You pass a large game box with a name that seems familiar, “Oh! I think I remember hearing good things about this game!” After a few deliberations you decide to shell out the cash for the new game, but as you are about to leave the store you see another game you had your eye on after reading a great review. You pause momentarily, but then shrug off the thought of returning your purchase and head home. You open your new game once in the comfort of your private space and decide to peruse the rulebook. You immediately realize that you have made a horrible mistake.
I’m sure this has happened to many of us at some point in our board gaming lives. For me this game was Dark Darker Darkest (or Derp Derper, Derpest according to the gaming group I subjected this to).
An aside on Rulebooks
Rulebooks can be the players first impression of a game and can send a variety of messages. Cheap paper? Probably a cheaply made game, maybe independently produced. A quarter of an inch thick? This is going to be a long and heavy game. Some games have brilliantly simple rule books (e.g. Alien Frontiers) or devilishly complicated but highly organized rules (e.g. Twilight Struggle). Then there are rulebooks that you get about halfway through a paragraph and go ‘What? Who wrote this?’, then have to spend the next hour trying to decipher what the author meant. It is true that some rulebooks can be terrible, with a very interesting game behind it (e.g. Level 7) but if you are unable to decode how to play the game you are unlikely to ever reach that point.
Dark Darker Darkest
Dark Darker Darkest is yet another zombie apocalypse survival game. You and your friends play a group of survivors that have tracked down the evil mad scientist (and his family) responsible for the outbreak and are determined to make your way to his secret lab to find the antidote. On the way you’ll avoid the zombie hoard that followed you, security cameras that will alert the houses defenses (usually more zombies), unlock the doors to find the passcodes to the lab, and fight or avoid the inexplicable fire that keeps starting and threatening to burn down the house.
On its surface Dark Darker Darkest sounds quite interesting. There is a unique mechanic that increases the danger of splitting the group (even though at times it will be inevitable) creating more danger for the entire group. Unlocking doors involves the tough decision of giving up very usefull items and weapons. It also has a set of nicely carved custom dice (which I am always a sucker for).
The problems start almost immediately upon reading the rulebook. It is full of run around sentences as well as redundant and vague explanations. Even the setup section is a full block paragraph rather than a list of steps to be followed. After almost an hour trying to wrap my head around the rules, I gave up and did what any other experienced board gamer would do, I went to BoardGameGeek.com (BGG) to see if someone has a simplified version of the rules. Apparently even the creator of the game had given up on his rulebook and published a brand new set of rules in the BGG archives. It is never a good sign when even the creator has to admit something is so bad it needs to be redone, however I tip my hat to him for backing up his game and supporting it even with some pretty heated negative criticism directed his way. The new rulebook finally made some sense of the rules, though it still had a few logical errors and vaguities that were left for the game group to agree on.
Once we got going we immediately noticed one thing, Dark Darker Darkest is hard, punishingly hard. Unfortunately a lot of what makes the game hard is the pure chance behind events with nothing you can do about it. If the fire happens to start in the lab and destroys it by the third round, then it’s game over and your team never stood a chance to begin with. Admittedly some people really enjoy these kind of realist challenges, however, I for one think realism is for the real world and cooperative board games should be winnable at least 80% of the time with good decisions.
The game lasts for 15 rounds at most as actions you perform can result in advancing the games clock early. Every round you resolve the public event which rotates from new zombies to fire progression to the darkness tracker advancing. Then you form parties; every player in a room with another is part of a group and will act as such, those on their own are their own group. As a team the players decide which groups will act in what order. Then all players use all their actions when their group comes up. After each group acts the zombies react if they were able to hear the explorers and the fire spreads. Players spend actions moving, searching, fighting, and unlocking doors. Players must attempt to collect items not just for their own survival, but to unlock doors. Every Item has a symbol which may or may not match one listed on a lock. To unlock a door a player must discard an item matching each of the lock symbols. Once you collect enough of these locks you may have the combination code to unlock the laboratory from which point the final showdown with one of the evil villains will begin. At any time if the lab is destroyed or the darkness must advance and cannot, all players lose.
Putting aside the terrible rules, Dark Darker Darkest is not a bad game. However it is not a good one either. Simply put, it is a game. There is a strong disconnect in theme and mechanics. Players often have little to no choice in what they have to do. It can be game over very suddenly to no fault of the players. One of my strongest complaints is that there is very little story theme outside of generic zombie apocalypse. Yes this game functions and has some interesting mechanics, but there are many games out there that provide the same experiences only better; Betrayal at House on the Hill for story, Zombicide for pure action, Last Night on Earth for a balanced diet. If you have none of these games and happen to receive a copy of Dark Darker Darkest, then you might be happy with an interesting board game. For the rest of us, I recommend looking elsewhere so satiate your Zombie genre appetite.