REVIEW: Darkness

Designer: Taylor Hayward
Publisher: Green Meadow Games
2-5 players, 25-40mins
Price: £20-25 approx
(also available as a Print’n’Play)

Rather grandly billed as “a strategy card game of Ancient Mysticism”, in truth Darkness is little more than a compact set-collection game with a few knobs on, but also with a subtle but clever bidding-style gameplay mechanic that actually works rather well in practice.

This is yet another one of those Kickstarter thingies I backed ages ago almost as an afterthought, and pretty much forgot all about until shortly before it was due to be delivered (approx. 6 months late it should be said), at which point the usual assortment of reminders informed me it would be arriving soon.

I won’t pretend I was somehow madly looking forward to receiving this or any other such nonsense, but I think I knew vaguely what to expect, and having put little thought into my original pledge other than I’d quite like to support the creator of this, I guess I was initially a little underwhelmed — it’s a tiny package, to be sure — but it pretty much does exactly what it says on the tin, and does so neatly, quietly, with little fanfare, in about half hour or so, and yeh, it all fits into a teeny, tiny box, too.

The box for Darkness is only a wee bit thicker than that used for holding a standard deck of 54 playing cards, and is probably more like a mini-slipcase, really. It holds 150+ small size cards (63mm x 44mm) and a 24-page easy-to-follow rulebook packed with play examples, and even has a neat little tag on the side allowing you to slide the inner box out of the case – it really is a very neat little package, and ridiculously compact to boot.

Tiny components. Compact box.

This game has players taking on the role of a mystic summoning animal spirits in a bid to become the most powerful… erm… mystical artifact person and relic-collector. You do this by playing coloured cards (Animal Spirits) in a bid to claim mystical Artifacts, valuable Gems and Ancient Relics that are laid out on the table mystic-circle stylee, all the while trying to prevent Darkness from falling upon the world.

So much for theme, then, surely this is just another set-collecting game with a bit of a twist, then? Err… yup.

Artifact cards are laid out in a circle (the no. of stacks dependent on player numbers), and each card has a Main Colour and Secondary Colour shown on it – this is the key to who claims and collects which cards at the end of each round. Artifact cards incl. Altars, Henges, Idols, etc. and the more of each type you can collect, the more points you’ll score at the end of the game.

Also available each round are 3-4 Relic cards, and these are also up for grabs but slightly harder to obtain, yet they can provide a couple of benefits like additional points at the end of the game or the ability to change your bids when all bids are revealed, etc.

All players start with the same set of 15 coloured Animal Spirit cards (three each in Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, and Blue) and will use these throughout the game to bid for the available Artifacts and Relics on display, returning them to their hand after each round. After six rounds, the game ends, points are tallied, etc.

Mystic circles abound in this…

There are two main phases each round: a Bidding Phase and a Resolve Phase.

In the Bidding Phase, players are playing cards to bid for the available Artifacts and Relics on display. The bidding system is simplicity itself: players simultaneously choose and then reveal three cards from their hand, then do the same with two cards, and then all simultaneously reveal a single card, thus each player will have six coloured cards in front of them at the end of the round. It should be immediately obvious that you can take an educated guess at what your opponents might be trying to do during each of these reveal stages, but will never have the full picture until the end of the round.

Once all players bids have been revealed (and after any special abilities from Relics have been used), players claim the relevant Artifacts depending on whether they played the most of each Main Colour indicated on those cards. So, for example, the player with the most Orange cards in front of them (out of the six they played) will claim all the Artifacts with Orange as the Main Colour, ditto the player with the most Reds, Blues, etc. will claim those cards. Things get a bit more interesting if two or more players have both played the most cards in one Main Colour, however, because that’s when the Secondary Colour becomes significant: the tied players that played the most cards of the Secondary Colour will get to claim those cards instead. If there’s still a tie (two players bid 3 x Red and 2 x Blue for a Red/Blue Artifact, say), then nobody gets that card and it’s removed from the game.

After the Artifact cards have been claimed and/or discarded, the colour cards each player has in front of them are then checked against the Relic cards, and this time it’s basic pattern-matching. Each Relic card needs the correct combination of five cards (out of the six each player has played) in order to be claimed. Similarly, if two players have both played the relevant cards to claim a Relic, neither player will get to claim it, and it will remain in play for the next round (unlike the Artifact cards which are discarded when players are tied).

It should be immediately obvious where some of the subtlety of the design comes in, and where some of the strategic choices players can make come into play, and in this sense the 3-stage reveal system used for bidding is actually quite a clever twist on the norm, often leading to a nail-biting choice of final card if another player has played similar colours to those you’ve chosen at each stage.

Another twist which helps to mix things up a bit are the Darkness cards (and of course, this is where the game gets its title) — there are 8 x Darkness cards in the Artifact deck, and these follow similar rules to the Relic cards: players need to play the correct combination of four cards in order to dispel these from the game. And if they’re not dispelled, they start forming “the Veil”…

When or if there are at least three Darkness cards in the Veil at the end of a round, the game takes an even darker turn (excuse the pun), because this will effectively reset the game by having players discard collected Artifacts until they have the same number of Artifacts as that of the player with the least Artifacts so far collected.

I personally am not a fan of the ‘catch-up’ mechanism with all this Darkness cards and Veil nonsense, because it effectively strangles the choices of those players who have managed to forge ahead early in the game (they have to focus on dispelling the Darkness instead of grabbing new Artifact cards), but I can also understand why some players might appreciate having this in place.

Component-wise, the cards are relatively hard-wearing, but there are also some obvious variations in the quality and brightness of the colours printed on the back of the Animal Spirit cards used by each player, and because these have their own image printed on the back (one for each player deck), it is certainly possible to learn the colours of some of the cards for those with a keen eye and good memory. In truth, I don’t think the game would get played enough for this to be an issue long-term, but thought it worth mentioning regardless.

Overall, I do like the basic principles of the game: it’s quick and easy to set-up and explain, doesn’t outstay its welcome, and makes for a pleasant change of pace, albeit occasionally. It’s fair to say that Darkness isn’t the kind of game I’d play more than once during a gaming session, but as a break from the norm it’s by no means a bad game. Unfortunately, that probably won’t cut the mustard with many gamers nowadays.

Nice and compact.

Evidently this is a passion project through and through, and I’m happy to have helped support it. If you’re more interested in just trying the game, there is a totally FREE Print’n’Play version available direct from their website (and a couple of videos):

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