Editor’s Note: Dark Gothic is the newest Rundown Review, a new subset of reviews that allows us to provide an Archetype breakdown on games when a normal comprehensive review isn’t possible or necessary. You can read more here for details.
Evil runs rampant across the land, threating to engulf everything in a permanent shroud of darkness and despair. Only through the bravery and tenacity of players, acting as various monster-hunting Heroes, does anyone stand a chance in Dark Gothic. In this semi-cooperative deckbuilder, players form a loose alliance to stave off evil while trying to prove they are the greatest hunter.
Each player begins with a Hero card, providing them with a unique trait as well as stipulating the makeup of their 12-card starter deck. Players also randomly select three Villains of increasing difficulty to face off against, with each Villain negatively affecting players in some way.
Dark Gothic plays out over a series of turns, revolving primarily around a core deck of cards, the top six of which are revealed at all times; this is the Center Line. On a player’s turn, they may play any number of cards from their hand in order to acquire new cards and / or remove existing ones. Most cards attained are positive, though some cause negative effects when revealed or played, such as discarding cards, having negative VP, or adding cards to the game’s Shadows pile.
Nearly every card provides at least one of the game’s three resources, being Combat (Red), Cunning (Green), and Spirit (Blue), as well as Silver, which acts as a wild resource. Most cards are also worth VP. These are used to purchase cards from the Center Line or from a handful of improved basic resource stacks. Additionally, if a player has the needed resources to defeat the current Villain, they may do so, claiming it for its VP value.
Once their turn is complete, the player discards their hand, draws six new cards, and the next player proceeds in the same way.
Dark Gothic continues until either all three Villains have been defeated, or until there are ten cards in the Shadows. If the game ends by Shadows, then darkness reigns supreme and everyone loses.
If, however, all three Villains are slain, then the world is saved – but only one may claim victory. Players add up the VP value of their cards plus any Villains they killed. The Hero with the highest VP is the winner, having been deemed the most skillful slayer in all the land.
Architects: One of the most appealing features to Dark Gothic is the way it conveys a tangible sense of progression as each player advances their Hero from inept beginner to storied monster slayer. The game skillfully reflects your character’s development and incremental improvements through the acquisition of item, ally, and fortuitous event cards, and it accomplishes this feat rather effortlessly. What’s more, you’re able to do this largely free from the interference of competing Heroes, letting each player focus on their own deck. With a straightforward sense of advancement and a victory condition tied directly into how effective you are at leveling up your deck’s arsenal, this is one murky town Architects should enjoy saving.
Tacticians: Two things Tacticians adore are long-term strategy and the ability to assemble the pieces needed to accomplish it. They will find neither in abundance here. With a constantly changing and unpredictable Center Line (especially at higher player counts), it’s nearly impossible to plan more than a turn ahead. At the same time, Dark Gothic offers surprisingly minimal card combo potential, which doesn’t leave much depth for crafting creative or powerful deck engines. Instead the emphasis is primarily on streamlining and upgrading one’s deck solely to draw a valuable enough hand to defeat the Villains. Dark Gothic possesses a respectable degree of turn-based decision-making to this end, but its low degree of complexity simply won’t hold the attention of this group for long.
Socializers: Although the game’s short rulebook makes it initially seem like a complicated affair thanks to the explanations of the numerous card subtypes, Dark Gothic is remarkably accessible and easy to learn. Turns effectively consist of dropping your hand of cards on the table, using resources to buy new cards, and if possible, slaying one of the Villains. All of which will appeal to this group.
On the other hand, even with its semi-co-op billing, there is little in-game interaction beyond an occasional card reveal or Strike card played. With little to focus on outside of your turn, maintaining the game’s monster-slaying excitement can be mildly problematic with two players, and downtime between turns is especially problematic with five or six. So long as Socializers stick to 3-4 players, they should find Dark Gothic to be an enjoyably lightweight deckbuilder. Else it’s best they head for sunnier destinations.
Daredevils: Just because a game has a high degree of chance doesn’t automatically mean it’s ideal for Daredevils. Dark Gothic is a prime example of that. Despite drawing six cards a turn and the ability to thin your deck regularly due to the always-present Hungry Dead monster, the effectiveness of your turns can swing wildly. Between the normal luck-of-the-draw unpredictability of deckbuilders, the emphasis on a central card row, the use of three different resources, and even occasional die rolls from certain cards, Dark Gothic has an abundance of deterministic luck to overcome. While this gives the game much of its replayability, the fact that there’s such limited control over facing what’s going bump in the night is enough to give even this group pause.
Immersionists: Dark Gothic accomplishes something typically difficult to do with basic deckbuilders: provide a successful thematic motif to an otherwise mechanics-driven game. Many cards in the game reflect its gloomy and foreboding setting, from haunted houses, to arcane events, to the unpredictability of when monsters suddenly appear from the deck. Even the game’s Villains, while abstracted to a point where they’re a mere background effect, actually works to a fair degree, signifying a malevolent presence lurking in the darkness until confronted.
Yet the most clever contribution rests with the Dark Secret cards, representing some less-than-upstanding hidden trait of the Heroes and their allies. Not only do these cards provide no resources and are worth negative VP, but if you start your turn with one, they’re destroyed, forcing you to draw a Shocking Discovery card instead – the effects of which are almost always worse.
For all of its outward thematic promise, however, Dark Gothic struggles to fully deliver on its potential. This is largely due to the game’s particularly divisive artwork. For one, Dark Gothic utilizes two vastly different art styles. The Villains are illustrated using a wispy pencil sketch style, reminiscent of classic RPG manuals, whereas the rest of the game uses altered images of staged cosplay, creating clashing art styles that don’t mix well together.
While the latter form is a common visual trait of Flying Frog titles, whether or not you find its oft-campy picture work appealing is highly subjective. In the case of Dark Gothic though, their trademark approach is misused here. It doesn’t let the game’s flavor permeate much beyond its glossy surface level, pulling too much attention onto itself and preventing players from fully enjoying the immersive setting it strives so hard to otherwise convey.
Strikers: Dark Gothic may technically be a semi co-op game, but it’s cooperative only insomuch as everyone shares the same mutual loss condition. Indeed, the vast majority of the game’s agency resides with competition between players for points and glory more than the fear of defeat. To that end, many Strikers will like pitting their deckbuilding capabilities against the other players to determine who the most capable slayer is, and they’ll appreciate the game’s conveniently-named Strike abilities as an effective tool at mildly disrupting their opponents.
That said, although there are numerous aspects for them to enjoy, that all may be outweighed by Dark Gothic’s high degree of randomization. This group’s excitement could wane heavily – or entirely – if they feel stuck too often due to unlucky card draws or new card reveals. Because of this, it’s equally plausible that many Strikers find Dark Gothic too frustrating for their goal-oriented tastes.
Some games are notable for being more than the sum of their parts. Dark Gothic unfortunately is the opposite. It has a number of appealing and even commendable individual attributes, but the overall package is much less thrilling. For a game about trying to stave off otherworldly evil, the whole thing comes off rather tepid.
Dark Gothic is easy to learn, adds a few clever twists to the deckbuilder genre, and turns flow decently enough – at least at lower player counts. The need to balance three different resources while you construct the most effective monster-hunting deck also adds its own challenges to overcome. Yet its most noticeable feature also happens to be its biggest detriment. Much like a movie with too much CGI pulls you out of the scene, so too does Dark Gothic’s photo work keep most players from reaching the game’s full thematic potential. When paired with its high degree of randomness and lack of engine-building depth, Dark Gothic regrettably comes off as a washed out experience that feels bland, rote, and lacks staying power.
Dark Gothic is a product of Flying Frog Productions.
Cardboard Republic Snapshot Scoring (Based on scale of 5):
Rules Clarity: 4
Replay Value: 3
Physical Quality: 4
Overall Score: 3