A challenge for any video-game-turned-board-game is to not only stay true to the source material but to also maintain the look and feel of it. Part of the reason MOBAs and first-person shooters are so popular is that they require a lot of skill to do well at them and they play very rapidly. This doesn’t translate so well to board games. Whereas everything in a video game is handled for you behind the scenes by the computer, the pieces and components in board games require a more hands-on approach. The amount of piece shuffling required is sometimes referred to as the game’s “fiddliness”. In a game that is attempting to emulate a video game style that is action packed and rapid fire, it is essential to eliminate as much of the board game’s inherent fiddliness as you possibly can. ELO Darkness has managed to do this… for the most part.
There are a few aspects of the game that just seem superfluous and unnecessary; for instance, consider the hero leveling system. Just because a person might have spent decades of their life training in martial arts doesn’t make them invulnerable. It just means that they’re better suited to respond in certain situations. This is thematically translated in most video games by allowing characters to learn new abilities and gain access to new gear and equipment as they increase in levels. At the hero’s core, though, they’re still vulnerable; without their gear, they’re still relatively weak. Leveling your hero in ELO Darkness doesn’t unlock any new abilities or give access to any new equipment. It just adds a single digit modifier to your base combat. This just feels flat and unexciting. I wish that the hero cards had multiple effects to choose from the higher your hero’s level was. That would present the gamer with interesting options as well as an impetus to want to level their heroes as fast as possible. The system as it is now just doesn't feel like it’s really needed.
Another component that feels unnecessary is the turn track events. For instance, at the beginning of the 4th and 7th turns, a monster card is revealed. When this happens, the players count up the number of cards that they currently have in their hands and take one monster token per card. Then the players secretly bet a number of tokens. The player that bets the most gets to add the monster card to their deck, but they have to discard a number of cards equal to whatever they bet. This just doesn’t feel like it fits into the game thematically. A MOBA is all about constantly being on the attack and trying to overcome your opponent’s defenses in order to storm their base. A gambling mini-game dropped into the middle of an action-packed battle just doesn’t make any sense.
Something else that I worry about as far as this game is concerned is the concept of pre-constructed deck building. This kind of thing works for games like Magic: the Gathering because the people that play those types of games typically play ONLY those particular games. A Magic: the Gathering player won’t bat an eye at having to constantly build and rebuild their deck. Fine-tuning your deck in order to be more competitive is half the fun of that game. When you sit down to play a game of Magic, you’re usually going to find yourself sitting across from another seasoned veteran of the game. This is not usually the case with board gaming. The reason that the board gaming 10 x 10 challenge (that is a challenge wherein gamers will create a list of 10 games and challenge themselves to play each of them at least 10 times over the course of the next year) is challenging is that board gamers very rarely play the games in their collections 10 times. I can look at my collection of several hundred games and point to just a handful that have seen that many plays.
ELO Darkness is asking players to dedicate a lot of their gaming time solely to this game. You are expected to custom build a deck and test it out over and over again until it’s a fine-tuned machine. For me, personally, this is an unrealistic expectation. I doubt that I would ever get the game to the table often enough to ever custom build a deck and make it any good and I also doubt that I would ever get the game to the table with another single person that is just as dedicated to the game as I am. But that’s just me. I recognize that not everybody out there has a massive collection of games to choose from. And that isn’t me bragging. I’ve been playing board games for quite some time now and I’ve accumulated quite a few over the years. If ELO Darkness is your very first board game or just one of very few, then it’s an excellent game to add to your collection. I know that you might not believe it judging by my previous comments, but it’s actually a pretty good game. So, let’s talk about the positives.
For starters, the game looks amazing. The bright and vivid colors of the cards really pop against the dark and moody backdrop of the game board. The illustrations are bold and action-packed and definitely engender a sense of excitement and anticipation. Even the rulebook is eye-catching. As far as looks and presentation go, there’s nothing to dislike about this game.
Despite the few unnecessary elements that I spoke about earlier, the game actually moves at a well-paced clip. The turns happen fairly quickly and there’s a good back and forth between the players which always has you feeling engaged in the actual goings on of the game. ELO Darkness also emulates the constant struggle that you experience when playing an actual MOBA as the minion tokens are pushed back and forth up and down the various lanes. One moment you’re trying to stave off an invasion from the desert lane and the next you’re having to fend off an invasion from the forest lane. Inevitably the momentum will eventually become too much for one player to fend off and they will get overrun bringing the game to an end. It’s actually pretty fun to play and I have enjoyed playing it.
However, I don’t see it finding a permanent home in my collection. I like games where I have a lot of options and a lot of interesting choices to make. ELO Darkness, though, basically comes down to luck of the draw. If you’ve got a decent hand of cards this round, you’re going to do well most likely. If not, then you’re going to lose some ground and there isn’t much to be done for it. If you like a little chaos and unpredictability in your games, then ELO Darkness might be right up your alley. Regardless of how I personally feel about the presence of or lack of chaos in my games, I will say this: ELO Darkness is definitely a game worth checking out.
FOR THE FULL REVIEW IN WHICH I DISCUSS THE COMPONENTS AND GAMEPLAY, CLICK HERE: http://www.meeplemountain.com/reviews/elo-darkness-review/
Thanks for the thoughtful review David.
Being called a Moba gives the game a lot of expectations and that seems in part to be reasons for the subtracting points you make.
My perspective with regards to the chaos, is this is more evident with initial plays, such that this is a game which matures with more attempts from individuals. Because of the small deck size and only two cards types per hero, card counting and statistical play become a major part of an overarching strategy vs turn by turn tactics. A poor hand for that turn becomes the setup for a better play in subsequent turns (knowing what both you and your opponent have discarded/played so far).
This perhaps echos the comment you make about skill of the player in actual mobas and the point about repeated plays to identify synergies. This is very typical of online skill games and often results in a barrier to entry. I suspect then this will be no different for ELO darkness, in that player experience of the game will give a distinct advantage, making it difficult for new players that play a more seasoned opponent. What is needed perhaps is a handicap system?
This perhaps moves into your comment about hero levels and a +1 feeling a little flat. The mechanics of combat make single point swings very powerful, and a cautious setup 'farming' can result in a dominant hero, but at the expense of discarding that same heroes cards to do so. I really like this interplay, and it makes for the player chew on the best combo for their turn and subsequent turns. The choice of leveling needs to be made against defending a lane, saving cards for ganks or perhaps postponing plays to build bigger combos for a 'team fight'. It might not be the first choice to discard just for the levelling effect, but at least it is a slight bonus for discarding a valuable hero card. At first I really disliked this mechanic as it seemed to limit turn by turn combos for the same hero, but there are enough ways of reusing discarded cards (but not too many) that levelling system becomes more interesting and viable. An effective handicap system may be as simple as certain heroes starting at a slightly higher level for less experienced players.
Regarding the monster events, these again lean more to strategic planning, just as choosing whether to use a card to level or defend, a pending monster spawn can give distinct advantages but discarding too many cards (especially without levelling a hero!) just to gain the monster could really hamstring subsequent turns. I like this. While the combat is not direct, heroes cards are still being tied up to 'defeat' the monster, yet not distracting too much from the actual lane combat, which I appreciate. It is also very direct bluffing and bidding, where you really eye up your opponent directly - how much are they really willing to sacrifice at this stage of the game. So I'd probably disagree that it doesn't fit the game in relation to being a Moba, or the mechanics.
All of these thoughts really do support your view about the necessity of repeated plays, experience in deck building, player dedication and the actual likelihood (or lack of) that players will be sitting down to play enough games to build that skill. With a frankly insane amount of heroes in the kickstarter box (50), this leaves an even more insane number of heroes combinations per player (100,000 solo and 81,000 for player 1 in standard two player game*). No gamer is going to see that all and no game will ever play out the same (due to the variations in card draw, item choice, action card choice and monster events). With all the will in the world, no deck building for ELO darkness will be enough to make a 'fine tuned machine', and no number of plays will be 'enough'.
But then of course this level of variation is what pulls players toward mobas, with more knowledge about the game more interactions become evident, more 'good plays' become exploitable plays in subsequent games and new strategies form. Mobas always feels 'fresh' for this reason but also potentially overwhelming. Elo darkness feels no different on this front so I totally agree it will probably not be played enough by most players to build up to such mastery, but then that is likely the point. As such it is vital that people interested in this game realise the rabbit hole it could represent.
So overall I do share some of your thoughts. I probably disagree on the luck of the draw driving the game, as well as the chaos and unpredictability. I think I've played enough to feel that luck of the draw does not dictate this game, rather it sets the tone for the tactics that turn - do I need to be cautious or aggressive, should I level or save some cards to get the monster on my side, which lane do I really want to push or should I retreat to gain more options? There is more than enough player agency to keep it engaging, turns move quickly even with potential analysis paralysis, and there is an overarching strategy that is accessible after I feel only 2 or 3 plays.
It is however certainly not a dip-in-dip-out game.
One aspect that keeps me interested and hopeful regardless of the above detracting points is the solo play introduced in the kickstarter; which could build up player skill level and allow the option of more plays. My fear is solo will be much weaker and less interesting than a vs game but of course time will tell.
*Back of envelop/spreadsheet breakdown of possible hero combos with 50 heroes in 5 classes: Solo = 10x10x10x10x10, Vs standard draft player 1 = 10x9x10x9x10. For completeness; standard draft player 2 = 9*10*9*10*9 = 72,900 vs ban draft at best = 9*9*9*8*9 = 52,488 but likely less