Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Review: Massive Darkness

Not so long ago, I gave my final verdict on  Mantic's Dungeon Saga. Not long afterwards, CMON's Massive Darkness arrived in the post - the second big, glossy dungeoneering board game I've backed over Kickstarter in the last couple of years.

So how do they match up?

Rules, Balance, Quests and Components, those are the four factors that Dungeon Saga scored an overall B in. Decent overall, but missed opportunities and dubious balance kept it from top marks. I'm going to consider Massive Darkness in the same way, but I'm going to accompany my scores with pictures of the Goblin Archers that I've just finished from the core game, because I can.

Rule of Law

Goblin Archers! One pose, sixteen models. Sigh. Bad Moon Night Goblin stylings for this lot.

So, like you'd expect, you've got a team of heroes delving into an underground labyrinth strewn with monsters. This here is a coop game, though, so there's no dungeon master, and the bad guys run on a strict AI system.

If this was buggy or unclear, the game would be a hopeless non-starter, so luckily it's simple and well-laid out in the book. The heroes get to take their turns, busting doors open and hacking apart the monsters guarding the loot, then the monsters move according to sensible patterns. They generally hit the closest thing they can, with more experienced heroes being more tempting as targets (idiots - take out the weakest first!).

The titular twist is the darkness rules. Some squares on the board are dark, and monsters can't target you if you're on a dark square and out of line of sight. If they can't detect anyone, they patrol towards the entrance and then back, and they're easily duped.

Levelling up is as simple as killing monsters, giving you XP to buy new skills that in turn lets you kill monsters faster. More importantly, loot is grabbed from chests to tool up your attacks, but the best loot is found carried by boss monsters. Who can sometimes use it to hit you back, which is fair enough, really.

Different heroes use different approaches. I like the Pit Fighter and Warrior Priests, both of whom can damage themselves to inflict more damage on their foes. You can often one-shot baddies with the right combo, but you'd better make sure you do, or you'll be nearly dead when they hit back.

Fighting is done with dice, matching swords to shields a la Heroquest. Diamonds and Bams are added to the mix to activate your special abilities, and there's always something to do, some extra fiddle, that makes it engaging to work out. All the skills, however, are written in different places, and it's a little slow to find all the right information sometimes.

Balancing Act

So far, so good. In practice, though, the AI is very easily fooled. Monsters spawn when you open doors or through event cards just after the monster's turn. Although you get a good supply of the big, nasty wandering monsters or the reinforcement-summoning Agents through the events, the rooms tend to be a little sparsely occupied.

This is fine in the very early game, when your heroes are pretty rubbish. The levelling curve is pretty forgiving, though, and the heroes get very tough very fast. This isn't helped by the importance of equipment cards, and how a lucky draw can put you ahead of the curve very fast. The Stun mechanic in particular is very powerful against monsters, and the heroes have quick and easy access to it.

Archer Boss - some kind of shaman, clearly, with a dead bird fascinator.

Generally, it's easy enough to wipe out a group of mobs, the minion gangs, if you work as a team. They do hit you back every time you attack, though, so you need to make sure you can flatten them fast, as otherwise the return hits stack up quickly. You get two free resurrects for each level, and it's easy to eat through them.

Mobs are a bit weird in some ways, as they basically exist as padding for their boss. Extra goblins in a pack just makes them slower to take down, they don't hit any harder. The board can be groaning with slightly pointless models as a result, the squares just aren't big enough to hold them all.

Minor niggle, though, as it's fun! And fast to play. Like Zombicide Lite, I'd say - not as tense or rewarding as that game can be, but with a similar vibe that I like.

Best of the Quests

Hmm. They're fine, I guess? There's reasonable variation in goals. Some levels are a race against time, some have specific guardians to slay or levers to pull before you can escape. There's very little fluff, so beyond a pretty generic 'an ancient evil has returned, you must stop it' thing, you wouldn't pick it out of a Fantasy game line-up easily.

Reversed colour scheme for the other eight.

Once you've played and beaten a level, returning to it seems a bit drab. Even taking new heroes, and there are many to choose from, as well as the choice of career to keep it interesting, doesn't really make it feel terribly different. Kick in doors, level up, mash the baddies or dodge them if they're scary. The instant death factor, that the heroes lose if you run out of your free resurrects, is more annoying than anything else. It's tedious to restart, especially late in a level run.

Most of our games so far have seen a knock-down or two in the early game, then a steady romp to victory against slowly increasing odds. This is fine, especially as the game is pretty quick to play, but it gets a bit unsatisfying with repetition. Even the optional campaign mode, where you level up much more slowly, doesn't really help with this. It's telling that the game system is a little loaded in favour of the heroes when your level 2 heroes can take down level 4 or 5 enemies without breaking too big a sweat.

Is this a bad thing, that victory is relatively easy to achieve? Yeah, I'd say so, if you're looking for value for money. Like Dungeon Saga, it can become tedious rather than a desperate battle for survival, which is not the stuff of epic legend. But it's good for an evening, and you're not going to regret playing it. And it's certainly better than Dungeon Saga in that regard, especially as nobody is trapped playing the hapless bad guys.

At the same time, though, it's not as good as Dungeon Saga, because it doesn't set the scene, the sense of story is largely absent and the campaign mechanics are amazingly less interesting. DS has broken, untested nonsense all over the place in their levelling and skills system, and MD knocks that into a cocked hat with simple, fast and roughly equal skill trees that still keep the heroes playing differently. But it's also shorter, has less choice and somehow just doesn't grab you that hard.

I'd have loved to see a random level generator. I mean, you can just slap boards down in whatever order, add doors to taste and get on with it, sure. But it would have been an easy feature to add for this system, and it's a shame there isn't one.

Vital Components

Ostara, another Paladin of Fury, from the Warrior Priests vs the Spearmaiden Cyclops box

Here is where the money is, though. A++ throughout! Amazing sculpts, top notch artwork and components, tough, compact boxes to store them all in. I've already raved about the doors, and if I can rave about the least interesting bits in the box, you can guess how good the rest is.

The Wandering Monster models are easily the best, some of the finest I own I'd say. I'm looking forward to painting them, even though it's a bit of a slog painting the minions. Too many identical poses gets a bit annoying. Even a single alternate pose for these archers, say, would have made it less better to paint. I can see that on a board covered in many different monster types, though, having a simple system makes it a bit easier to identify what's what.

The better quality models (better in terms of sculpt, the plastic used, the, well, the just everything really, compared to Mantic) do come with a higher price tag. But it's a better game, easier to play and so easier to justify shelling out for.

Massive Success?

You know what? No, it isn't.

When it first arrived, Kas and I played it solidly, every night for a week. Leofa joined us for a campaign over the next few weeks, and it was fun, but diminishingly so. We tried tweaking the rules to add to the challenge, to keep us on our toes. Yes, it was harder, but also slower - adding extra monsters in just bogs the game down more. Giving the enemies more wounds might work, or making sure the bosses could always use the treasure they carry (they often can't). And the Crystal and Lava campaign adds more environmental stuff that might also make it trickier.

But overall, it's a right Chinese Takeaway game. You can eat a ton of it very fast, but you're left unsatisfied overall. My initial enthusiasm has dulled fast, apart from the painterly appreciation of models still to do.

For my coin, Zombicide is much better (Black Plague, anyway, I haven't actually played the original). This, despite the excellent minis you get, is only just ahead of Dungeon Saga for me. B+, a valiant effort but could do better.

First rank, fire! Second rank, Fire!

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