Review – Dark Gothic

Dark Gothic (or A Touch of Evil: Dark Gothic Deck Building Game, if you want to get all fancy about it) came into my possession because it looked interesting when I walked past it at GenCon and saw the art, I like deck building games, I got a very enthusiastic and friendly demo. Obviously, I liked it after playing it or else I wouldn’t have bought it, but that’s where I’m coming from on this one.

box

Dark Gothic is set in the same town as Flying Frog’s A Touch of Evil (which I have never played, so I cannot comment on whatever crossover there may be here), which is something like small town in New England at the start of the 1800s, except there’s a lot of supernatural hijinks afoot. Or, as it was explained to me, it’s like Sunnydale went back in time, and the players are competing to figure out who gets to be Buffy, and who’s stuck being Xander. The art and photographs on the cards did a really good job of setting the mood for the game.

My reviews tend to include a relatively straightforward rules overview, but I’m going to pass on that this time. Dark Gothic has a number of incremental differences from existing deck building games , but the basic structure will be familiar to those who have played a few, and I think that’s the easiest way to explain it:

  • 12 card starting deck, six card hands;
  • Cards are primarily acquired from an Ascension-style card row that refills whenever a card is acquired;
  • Some cards have effects when they are flipped up into the center row;
  • All cards that you acquire are worth points;
  • There are three different resources – Combat, Spirit, and Cunning (some cards produce “wild” resources and some cards don’t care what flavor of resource you use to buy them);
  • Your basic starting deck cards produce one of a particular resources;
  • There are four cards that are always available to “buy” – three “training” cards (one for each resources) that cost 3 (of any resource) and produce two of a particular resource; and one monster (the Hungry Dead) who takes one of each resource to beat and shreds a card from your deck;
  • You are a particular character, and have a particular custom deck, plus a power or two;
  • There are three villain (boss) cards that must be defeated successively, and the game ends when the last is defeated; these boss cards do not go into your deck when defeated, but are (like the character cards) super-size cards that just get placed off to the side.

villains

There is also a stack of copies of a card called Dark Secret, and to go with it a deck of Shocking Revelations. If at any time during your turn you have a Dark Secret in hand, you remove it from your hand, draw a Shocking Revelation, and resolve whatever (probably negative) effects it has.

The main deck of cards to be acquired has events, locations, allies, gear, and monsters, but none of these has any built-in mechanical significance. For example, monsters have a certain resource requirement to ‘defeat,’ and go in your deck afterwards, just like any other card. However, these cards can also be distinctive in the sort of effects they are likely to have. For example, monsters may have “Fight” text that means something happens to you when you acquire them, and they are relatively likely to have “Strike” text that means something bad happens to everyone else when you play the monster from your hand.

cards

Oh, and the game is technically semi-cooperative, in that the villains can accrue shadows cards and if they get enough, everyone loses. But I’ve only seen one card that, at high player counts, poses any serious threat of making that happen, so for most purposes it is a purely competitive game.

I don’t know how much of Dark Gothic is truly new (the Dark Secret/Shocking Revelation mechanic is something I haven’t seen in a deck building game before), but it does refine and combine some familiar elements in new ways. A big one to me is that it has “boss” cards, which is cool, but that these cards do not go into your deck when defeated. The default for these sorts of cards in deck building games is for the defeated boss to go into your deck as a super-powered cards, which can produce runaway leader problems. With Dark Gothic, you get your healthy stack of VP for defeating the super-werewolf, but you don’t get to use the werewolf to defeat another villain every time you draw it.

Having individualized decks and player powers is also a plus. Not new, but still good to see. I’m not sure if the powers are entirely balanced, but that doesn’t seem to be a big deal. What I would caution against, however, would be having too many players with decks that are heavily skewed towards a particular resource. If everyone is really good at one resource, and really bad at everything else, then the center row is likely going to end up clogged with cards that require other resources to buy, while everyone has to just buy training cards until they are a good enough at the other resources. And this sort of game is more fun when the center row is kept flowing.

The combination of the training cards and the free monster to attack work out well. Like in Ascension, the training cards mean you’ll generally have a failsafe way to increase your deck’s potency even if the center row isn’t working out. However, I like the repeat-kill monster better in Dark Gothic because deck building games generally benefit from a somewhat consistent way to strip the weaker cards (or negative cards) out of your deck, and that’s a more valuable function than handing out a VP or two.

On the insert front, for those who care about that sort of thing, the one here isn’t much to write home about. On the bright side, there is an actual insert, and if you put all of the cards together in one section, using some of the loose cardboard included, then they won’t flop all over the place in the box. But there aren’t dividers, and the slots in the bottom that feel like they were designed to keep separate stacks of cards in do no such thing.

So, like I said at the start, I like deck building games, and I continue to like this one. Will you? Well, if you just don’t like deck building games, or you have played a bunch and are only interested in one that’s a big innovation in the design space, then Dark Gothic and its incremental refinements are not going to do it for you. However, if you want more deck building, or if you just don’t already have Ascension and DC (and the other games that use the same system) and similar deck building games, I think there are good reasons to give this one a look. First, if the 19th century horror theme is appealing to you (as it was to me), then the art and the mechanics do a good job of conveying it. The art is great. The Shocking Discoveries add interesting moments (I recommend reading the titles out loud to the group with a dramatic flourish before reading the rules text). There are generic cards, but also specific characters (some of whom are related to each other), and we easily fell into referring to these characters by name (a good number of the named townsfolk have strong effects, but also come with a Dark Secret). On a direct comparison level, it’s got player powers and boss cards, which Ascension doesn’t. Unlike DC, its boss cards do not have the ability to create runaway leader problems. Its multiple resources create more depth than DC. Not that those games don’t have their upsides, but Dark Gothic is worth taking a look at.

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