Dice. They are the penultimate icon of luck, of chance, of the unpredictable. Dice are harbingers of chaos and the unknown, avatars of a randomized universe wherein only they truly know how events will unfold. Dice are willful, whimsical, and the antithesis of any organized system…
…except when you base your entire system around them, like in the case of certain legendary tabletop designers.
Or games like this one.
Welcome to Darkrock Ventures, a lightweight 2-5 player Worker Placement and luck mitigation game by Magic Meeple and Gamelyn Games. In this industrial sci-fi setting, a call has gone out from various corporations for contractors to do some off world mineral extraction. So long as you don’t worry about the intrinsic danger of the process, threats from nearby raiders, or the general notion of working on a floating rock in space, it’s a prime opportunity for some good money.
Yes, in this game, you have been recruited by a major agency to gather a stalwart crew, fly to an asteroid, drill on it, try to avoid calamity, and then make it back out again. Sound good? Good. So grab your jetpack and a drill, because we have work to do.
The standard setup for Darkrock Ventures has each player beginning with a little cash, three workers, and a single d6, called a Rig Die.
Each round follows the same process, starting with the round’s Leader, who is initially determined randomly but from then on is chosen by whoever takes the Leader action. Besides going first, the Leader also determines the general conditions for mining that round rolling a pair of d6s called Power Dice. These dice make up one half of what a player needs to extract resources from the game board.
There are five different resources in Darkrock Ventures. Three of them (the valuable ores, of course) are extracted from the center of the asteroid. These are finite resources, and given there are only so many pieces to go around, competition is to be expected. Tension can be on the lighter end with only two or three players, but with a compliment of four or five you certainly will be bumping heads over resources. Once three of these mining sites are empty, it triggers the final round of the game.
Then, players assign their crew members, one at a time. Like any typical worker placement board, there are numerous spaces you can strategically deploy your worker to, whether it’s expanding your cargo hold, selling said resources, buying & selling crew, manipulating your dice rolls, or, you know, the mining spaces themselves. Of all of them, these last two are central to the premise of the game.
One of the notable aspects to Darkrock’s gameplay, however, and how it sets itself apart from the standard worker placement model, is that you can assign more than one of your own worker to the same action space, potentially duplicating that effect each time upon resolution. Teamwork and all. With a couple exceptions, you normally can’t have one of your workers where another player’s units are, but if you’re feeling lucky and want to load up a bunch of your own crew on the 12 space and try your luck, you’re totally free to do that.
Once everyone is assigned, the Leader rolls a third die, called the Neutronium Die. This die counts as one of the other two Power Dice rolled, with the exception that a player can spend – wait for it – a Neutronium resource to reroll it on their turn.
The reason you would potentially want to reroll this die goes to the nature of how mining works. During a player’s resolution step, you first roll your Rig Dice before resolving all of your deployed units. You start with one Rig Die, but once certain cash / VP thresholds are met, you can unlock them. Then, if you have any workers on a mining space, you see if you can succeed at extracting resources from that space by pairing a Rig Die with any one of the three Power Dice to generate a sum total. If you have workers on a mining location that matches the total, then you succeed. Congrats on that hunk of metal!
Of course, since this is a dice-intensive game, getting the exact result you desire is easier said than done, hence the half dozen or so actions on the board to aid you in manipulating Rig Dice results. While it’s possible to blindly roll the results to mine a spot, these modification spaces give you a variety of tactical options that may be needed for an extraction. Change it. Flip it. Reroll it. Move to another spot.
In contrast to mining, you also have the Solar Array, which usually is a guaranteed payout but requires you commit a worker for several rounds before you see a return on investment. Even in the future, such is the nature of renewable energy…
In another nod to the game’s strategic flexibility, you’re also free resolve your workers in whatever order you wish. This highlights one of the two particularly impressive traits about this game: Darkrock Ventures is deceptively engaging.
At first glance Darkrock appears to be a simple dice-rolling exercise masquerading as a worker placement game. Place a dude, roll a die, see if you get a thing. Repeat until someone gets enough things. While Darkrock Ventures is hardly a heavyweight game in gateway clothing – and shouldn’t be seen as such – underneath the Neutronium cubes and Power Dice lies a short dice-based worker placement game that gives you a bigger run for your money than it first appears.
Which is good, because the whole point of the game is to get the most money.
You get your lucrative payouts mostly by selling your goods via Export actions, with each resource having a set value. However, once players start unloading their cargoes, it catches the attention of the local Therion Marauders who will attempt to raid various locations on the board each round from then on.
The Therions, who seem to be a mix between Space Goblins and Ferengi, are represented by a deck of cards, and they add another layer of unpredictability to the game. Each round, after players have assigned their workers but before things begin resolving, a Therion card is revealed, depicting which locations will be attacked. Any workers you have at those locations is affected, and you are presented with a choice: either spend a resource to keep them safe or pull them back to no effect. You can’t just let your workers get killed. Something about insurance premiums.
That said, just like the dice rolling nature of Darkrock’s mining, Therion cards can also be mitigated. Should the Power Dice roll at the beginning of the round come as doubles, the Therion card for the turn is revealed, giving everyone advanced notice where they’ll strike. Do you wisely avoid those spaces and change your focus for the round, or do you take advantage of the fact the no one will want to go there and proceed at your own peril? That’s up to you, brave capitalist.
The second particularly impressive part about the game is its artwork. Although still in prototype stages and having no mechanical bearing on the game, Darkrock Ventures does a wonderful job keeping its art interesting without pulling focus. This is a game with a light thematic touch, but the gritty look and darker tones paint a decent picture of the game’s setting. Of this, the player boards resonate the most:
Each player placard is tied to a different corporate mining venture, and beyond each company having optional starting condition variants for asymmetrical gameplay, they also convey their own distinct flavor through various outfits and color schemes. The signature aspect of these pictures, however, are that the people aren’t homogenous. Every member of a player’s five potential crew (four normal workers and a Captain, who counts as two workers) is diverse, not only in the case of the human-to-humanoid alien ratio, but also in the general makeup of the humans themselves. Several crews even have more females than males, which is a refreshing surprise for both a worker placement game and a game whose theme is about deep space drilling. There seems to have been a deliberate attempt with Darkrock Ventures to be inclusive in their worldbuilding, and it should be commended for that.
What is left once the drills have stopped and the crews have been paid is a solid 45 minute endeavor into deep space. Darkrock Ventures doesn’t try to reinvent the space wheel here. Instead, it offers a concise and lightweight worker placement system that revolving around about luck mitigation. What’s remarkable isn’t just that it successfully blends these two mechanics together, but it does so without becoming a full-fledged dice allocation game like Alien Frontiers or Euphoria. Rather, and quite fittingly, it carves out some design space of its own.
Darkrock Ventures possesses both strategic decision-making and the necessarily fluidity to change your strategy on the fly due to the capricious whim of Therions and dice alike. Yet you never feel completely stuck in Darkrock Ventures, giving you multiple avenues to be productive on any given turn and keeping the game quite accessible to those who may not be up for more traditional worker placement options. In a sense, Darkrock Ventures is a worker placement filler game, and not only does this approach work, it does so with ease.
If Darkrock Ventues sounds like your kind of employment opportunity, you can find the application form right over on its Kickstarter page. Therions need not apply.
Photo Credits: BopIt by Hasbro.