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Designer Diary: Dark Darker Darkest, or Dipping into the Dark...A Beginner's Guide

David Ausloos
Belgium
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Board Game: Dark Darker Darkest
The Birth of an Idea

"How does an idea for a board game actually start?" someone asked me out of the blue. We were sitting at a table playing a game described on the box as an "exotic adventure", but which instead played like a spreadsheet with meeples on top.

"Exactly like this", I replied, referring to the fact that while playing the game something had triggered in my head – a tiny, fragile idea that popped up as I was thinking about a gaming itch that somehow has not yet been scratched in the current market. Usually such ideas start with a list of things the game should do, closely followed by a list of things it shouldn't do – but most importantly it is often one specific question that triggers the whole process.

At that time I had already played countless horror games that just didn't feel like horror. This unsatisfying feeling was echoed in a 2007 article by the notorious Michael Barnes entitled "The Horror in the Game Box", an analytical piece about the impossible task of turning something made out of cardboard pieces into something truly "scary". It haunted me for days. And so the idea to create a game that would simulate fear started. While I was aware actual fear can't be simulated by board games, I desperately wanted to venture deeper into the idea as to what aspects of horror could be simulated through mechanical processes.

And thus Dark Darker Darkest was born.

For me the essence of horror is "the fear of death", which implies two things:

-----1) Players should at certain points risk dying (without the need of player elimination or un-thematic respawning).

-----2) Players should care for their character so that they desperately want to avoid the character getting into a life-threatening situation.

This core concept formed the basis for a game system that offers characters a unique set of abilities, activated one by one as the game progresses and the players successfully overcome challenges. At one point this system was so detailed that a specific wound could alter the performance of a specific anatomical part of an urban hero. Soon, however, I realized that a sixty-page rulebook was not going to make it easy to find an audience beyond those two bearded Advanced Squad Leader players at my local gaming club, so I decided to find a balance between depth and the amount of rules needed to generate this. It was my first major lesson in game design.

From the outset I wanted to create a co-operative experience. It was my goal with Dark Darker Darkest (or "triple D" as my gaming buddies like to call it) to portray a group facing overwhelming opposition, with each member feeling a degree of fragility and isolation.

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Let us now look at a character card in detail:

The entrap rate is a value that represents how smoothly a character can escape from entrapment. Creatures can potentially entrap characters if they engage in combat. Entrapped characters have a serious handicap as they become immobile and have (unless freed) a limited action point pool. This aspect is one of the countless mechanisms in the game that encourages teamwork as other team members can help to free a character from entrapment.

The energy track needs to be managed carefully. This, unlike in most other games, is not a solo decision, but a group-related one as players must carefully and optimally divide wounds over an attacked team, while taking the current energy level into account as dropping one value means one action point less for the unit of characters in their constant struggles against the darkness.

Each player starts with an ability that is immediately available and that defines his personality in the game. Lucy Chang, for example, is a college wiz who is very good in handling technical stuff. Therefore, she has the ability to manipulate the security lock system of the house.

The progression track is a key mechanism in the development of your character over the course of the game. With each survivor point gained on the tracker, a potential activation could be done of one of the unique abilities on the progression track.

This set of abilities differs for each character and further defines this team member in the group. Players need to carefully plan which ability they want to activate at which point in the game. But beware: When a character gets infected by the dreaded zombie virus, a timer triggers which removes one gained ability each turn until the marker reaches the first slot...turning the character into a member of the undead. You better make sure you find that antidote in time!

The Team Tracker System

I knew that I needed to develop a core system that would stimulate intense group planning and discourage the alpha-male syndrome many co-ops suffer from. It was at this point that the first rough outlines of the Team Tracking System took shape.

Basically, this mechanism keeps track of the current position of all characters on the board, or more specifically, the formation of smaller groups. The idea is that creatures would react according to these temporarily formed groups. They would act more aggressively as groups scatter; something that is at times crucial.

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The tracker (as depicted above) contains five "boxes" that can hold a cube of each player's color. At the start of each turn, depending on the current situation on the board, the positioning of the players and the formation of "groups" (a number of characters sharing the same room) is
translated on the Team Tracker by placing the cubes of these characters in the same box. As a result, one or more boxes will hold cubes as more or fewer groups are formed.

Forming a group creates a dynamic action system that is far more organic than the classical turn-based system in most dungeon crawlers and miniature boardgames. Instead of players performing their actions in order, a group forms an organic entity in which players can spend actions in the order they like, switching from player to player whenever needed. This enables such a group to carefully plan as a unit how to spend their actions, closely synchronizing each character's advantages.

Once a character has performed all his actions the cube of this player is moved to the bottom box, visually showing on the tracker that this character can no longer act this turn. Once all the cubes are positioned in the bottom box, the group is done and as a result the reaction phase of the nearby creatures is triggered. The triggered creatures will move closer and, if possible, attack. As a result, the more groups are formed, the more aggressive the game system will react.

That said, not spreading out enough will result in players running out of time to unlock the security system, the ultimate goal to reach the dramatic finale. It is very much a careful balancing act that will confront the vulnerable team with various time pressure elements and a lot of deadly challenges.

Creature A.I. and Icon-Driven Combat

This brings us to the development of A.I. for the creatures. I must have written the system countless times over and over, adding elements only to remove them at a later point, realizing I was heading again towards ASL territory. At one point the system was so dense that every single action a character performed triggered specific behavior from a nearby creature. It was a breathtakingly intense experience to play. You could almost cut the tension into pieces when walking in a room with people playing the game.

But it was again a step in the wrong direction, lengthening the game to the degree it could be played only by retired middle-aged men who normally would play... well... Advanced Squad Leader. So again it was a matter of finding the right balance.

Klaus Teuber once said he liked randomness in games because it generates uncertainty. It has been my design mantra ever since, and I see it as a challenge to allow elements like dice to enter into a system without turning it into a luck-driven affair. This whole idea lead to the icon-driven dice system used in Dark Darker Darkest to resolve confrontations between the team of survivors and the ever-increasing darkness that surrounds them.

(enter some truly terrifying thematic music)

I specifically don't use the term "combat" because for me these confrontations are so much more. They are not only about defeating the creatures that surround the team, but they are about crucial choices players make to "survive". This does not always mean going for an offensive approach, but just as often trying to out-sneak their opponents (stealth element) and downright trying to keep their beloved character alive and out of the trigger zones that activate a creature's movement.

In its current form, the dice system has a good balance of offering players some significant choices during their travels across the modular rooms forming the board, but at the same time it resolves these complex choices quickly and smoothly. It ensures the team always feels it stands a chance against the overwhelming odds, never allowing the feeling that the dice are manipulating them into decisions. Let us now take a look at the different icons from left to right:

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-----1) This first icon symbolizes a successful Hit on a creature. Players can apply the hits with a lot of freedom. They can tactically make decisions such as which creature in range will receive the hit and, in the case of larger creatures, decide which anatomical part will be damaged (advanced target system).

-----2) Knockback allows players to push a creature back, and as a result keep it at a safe distance. This could be crucial since it allows players to move not only the creature but also its trigger zone away from the group, which will lower the chances of the creature being activated during the reaction phase.

-----3) Counter Move allows for both tactical positioning and the ability to move fragile team members to a safe location if the current one is under attack. Players may move characters one room further for each Counter Move.

-----4) Fail represents an unsuccessful element of the action radius for the attacking character. Now the player has a dilemma since he must remove one positive icon part of the roll.

-----5) An Aim result modifies one or more hit results by extending the range of the attack with a +1 modifier that works cumulatively. This enables the attacker to hit targets further away.

Combat is fast-resolving but constantly forces groups of isolated players to make meaningful decisions. One false move could have disastrous results as non-optimal spending of actions and sloppy positioning of individual members could trigger the attention of nearby zombie hordes or even worse, larger menacing creatures. This is all controlled by trigger zones that determine whether creatures will stay put or move closer to the nearest group of team members.

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Each of the larger creatures has a unique set of targets that represent the different anatomical parts of the critter. As a result, during combat, players can specifically aim for certain body parts of the creature in order to weaken the attached ability of the creature. Once a target receives enough hit cubes, the target is destroyed and the creature's stats and powers are modified, reflecting the wounds applied. Again, this is an unlimited pool of tough decissions for the team as they need to plan whether they want to slow down that fast-approaching zombie dog or rather eliminate its ability to infect team members through a bite. Careful planning is crucial here as a sloppy plan could mean a seriously weakened group of characters, trapped in a room through entrapment.

Item Management and Code Breaking

The setting of the game is the dark and brooding mansion of Doctor Mortimer, a wicked scientist who conducted gene experiments on lab animals and who is whispered to be the source of the fast-spreading, mutating virus that is turning the Western civilization into armies of undead creatures. While the clock keeps ticking in the form of a progressing "Darkness Track" (the main time pressure element of the game system), the team must cover as many rooms as possible, searching for valuable equipment and breaking locks as they explore the mansion further.

Doors in the house are secured with a code that the team must break in order to unlock new areas. This is done by combining the right items characters have gathered. Each item (card) found in the game lists a color code. As players optimally gather items that are scattered in the mansion and place them in their personal inventories, they will be able to form code combinations that enable them to unlock the doors by breaking the codes.

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This makes item management crucial in the game and forces the team to optimally equip characters with the right tools that both interlock with the character's specialized abilities – some characters are better at handling specific tools/weapons – and for the correct codes in order to progress. Again, it is a careful process of group planning and tactical searches as searching with larger groups creates a higher risk of triggering bad events in the mansion.

As the team collects a series of door tokens containing color codes, they slowly reach the main goal of the game: Unlocking the security system itself. As team members enter the corner rooms of the house, they will be able to enter the gathered door tokens into the main security panel, with each color present being removed from the main color code that was placed on the panel during setup.

Again, careful planning is crucial as each remaining code will translate into a penalty for the endgame. It is a race against time as the darkness track reaches its final positions and the team will find themselves battling hordes of undead, infected lab animals ranging from a menacing zombie dog to a violent gorilla, and even a fast-spreading fire that will destroy the house room by room in the final act. When the team manages to unlock the lab in time, they will meet up with the biggest challenge of the game in its dramatic final chapter: the battle with their nemesis.

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Dark Darker Darkest comes with three different opponents, each with a different way to challenge the team in the end battle. For this grand finale, the Team Tracker is turned to its other side, creating an intense co-op system in which the team forms one organic entity in which players carefully group-plan who will perform which action at which time and in what order.

Again, the typical downtime of tactical games is removed in favor of dynamic group combat that actually feels like battling as a group, carefully synchronizing actions. As players perform actions, they place their action cubes in the first box of the tracker. When it should fill up with six cubes, the content shifts to the middle box and the game system will react in the form of the nemesis resolving his walk through the house, destroying the corner rooms and attacking the team members who are within his reach.

The challenge for the team is considerable: They must destroy the nemesis in time before he has reached the final room, battle the remaining hordes of undead, and confront a destructive fire that destroys the mansion and threatens to block vital paths through the different areas. It is a hectic finale that puts the team to the test and forces them to optimize their group planning and make use of their individual strengths to weaken their opposing menace.

•••

So this is a brief overview of some of the core mechanisms that push the game experience forward. Of course there are many more, interlocking into a modular system that ensures a unique experience with each play. Every engine ensures that new challenges pop up at different times and interlock with different events, forcing players to keep adapting to the ever-changing hostile environment.

Dark Darker Darkest offers players a full-cooperative experience with high drama and action-packed momentum, without the need of a player controlling the game system. So the only question that remains is: Dare you enter the darkness of Dr. Mortimer's mansion?

David Ausloos
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