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Darkest Dungeon – How this digital game should inspire next-gen board games

I’ve been watching Darkest Dungeon very closely since it’s Kickstarter campaign two years ago.  I’ve put about 450 hours into the game itself and practically cyber-stalked the Red Hook team to understand their process and get a feeling for how a strong thematic game and world are created from the ground up.  To those of you un-familiar with the game, you owe it to yourself to check it out, it is currently on Steam.  You should play Darkest Dungeon, especially if you are a board gamer, and super-especially if you are going to be designing your own games.  Allow me to explain why:

In the team’s benevolence, I was given the opportunity to volunteer at the Red Hook booth for PAX Prime 2015.  Besides having a great time talking to other gamers about this awesome game, I received some advice on how to move forward on my own game-making adventures.  The team was incredibly accommodating with my starstruck demeanor, answering any question I had about their process of creation and the marathon of releasing a top-notch gaming title into the world.  Most of what I learned confirmed what I had guessed was the case:  This team was onto something big, they set goals for themselves and they were smashing them out.  It was fun for me to watch Darkest Dungeon’s path from a Kickstarter to a complete game, and here are the bullet points of what I have learned:

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1 — Assemble a team of experts and treat them well

I don’t know the specifics of how people were found or how they were hired, but I can definitely say that the Red Hook team is full of unbelievable people that have worked incredibly hard to get Darkest Dungeon to the place that it is.  They worked with Power Up Audio to construct a thematic set of sound effects and amazing music that you enjoy throughout the game.  (side note – Darkest Dungeon is one of the few video games I play with the music from the game actually ON.)  They’ve brought together a group of people that work well together, and the person ‘in charge’ doesn’t come off as the kind of person that throws that ‘boss’ weight around.

For me, this translated into “I’m not hiring employees, I’m recruiting allies” which I say often when asked what I see as the difficulties of managing a small team of people is for creating games.  I say that line and then immediately note that I am only one person on the Junk Spirit Games team, and I am lucky to be surrounded by such incredible talent.

2 — Stick to your vision – (ignore the naysayers)

Since Darkest Dungeon was in Early Access on Steam, many people including backers of the kickstarter were able to play the game in its unfinished state as changes were continually made to tweak the gaming experience.  The Red Hook team made many changes over time; some small and some that were game changing.  I won’t get into it specifics, some of their changes were not….popular…. with the customer base.  I admire them for sticking to their vision and telling those complainers that while they are listening to feedback, they are not going to just rollback any changes made due to a vocal minority.

While trying to create boardgames this helps me to remember that the vision that my team had for the game may not be liked by everyone that plays it.  We tend to make games that are very targeted, with set goals and a distinct player experience that we are shooting for.  I had heard that Red Hook treated their vision as a separate entity that was “at the table” for any discussion they had about changes to the game.  Are the changes you are making for your game made to enhance the experience?  What would your game, if it was a living breathing person, think about the changes you want to make to it?  If you think objectively this way you can remove the outside forces from the equation and stay closer to the amazing game that you originally envisioned with your team.

3 — Theme and atmosphere (art) is incredibly important

Darkest Dungeon’s theme is dark and unforgiving.  Nearly every aspect of the game reflects this, from the art to the music to the words spoken by the various characters. This plays off what I just said about treating the game as its own entity, but you can feel that Darkest Dungeon was made around the theme.   As a gamer, the whole package is just a great way to spend an afternoon, relaxing with a well made game that immerses you into the experience.  It’s hard to create the same levels of atmosphere seen here outside of digital gaming, but I think many of us in the board gaming world are seeing new games that are trying to hit their theme this hard, and it’s great.

4 — Create a high quality game

Darkest Dungeon has since released.  The product is now done and the Red Hook/Power Up Audio team(s) should be very proud.  If you are familiar with other indie games, go compare DD to other indie games.  It towers over others in quality.

With JunKing, we made sure to make quality a high priority.  Our intent was to make a game that could sit on a game shelf next to other awesome games in a game store.  When we finally got the game in hand, we knew we had achieved our quality goals, but something funny happened when we tried to get game stores to carry it.  I called up a store and I immediately got, “Oh, we don’t carry Kickstarted games.”  Now, there is a conversation around kickstarter hurting the ability for game stores to make money, and that is what I thought I was running into here.  But I was able to bring it into one store and demo it for the owners and the response I got was that JunKing looked like a proper, professional game.  (With me looking at them thinking, “Yeah…..I made it like that….”)  Well, after talking with them I found out that Kickstarted games are known for having low quality everything…..cheap components, rules with spelling errors all over it, flimsy boxes, and no support from a company that normally would care about its brand.  Don’t be one of those game designers…..

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5 — Strong variety increases replayability

Darkest Dungeon has enough variety with its components that you can seemingly play forever.  I always find the issue of replayability to me as an important part of any good boardgame.  Although we’ve seen some cool unique experiences in new games like Pandemic Legacy and T.I.M.E stories, it can sometimes be hard to enjoy them because by the time you think you understand what is going on you are finished with ‘the experience.’  (I own them both and love them both btw.)

Darkest Dungeon has multiple different characters, multiple different ways to play each character, a huge trinket system to further augment your characters, tons of monsters with their own unique AIs, a stress system that can not be ignored, and many other challenges that increase the replayability of the game.  Some of the best boardgames I own have qualities that are very similar.  Consider that some gamers have limited space for their game collection;  Having a variety of characters, victory conditions, enemies, and other components will make your game stay on their shelf for much longer than games with less replayability.

6 — Nearly every click of your mouse is important

Sometimes I can’t tell if Darkest Dungeon is an incredible strategy game, or if it is just incredibly mean.  Every choice I make down to the smallest detail seems so important.  Pick a team, select some trinkets, select a dungeon to explore, select which room to move towards, select which ability to use, etc.  At the time that you make your selection, it feels like the most important choice you’ve ever made in the game and you pause making sure you are doing the right thing.

As a board game designer, I would want the players to think this much about their choices in a strategy game.  I love it when I am able to think about what I will do on my turn, and by the time my turn comes around, my strategy has completely changed.  A game where my decisions are critical to a win or a lose makes those wins and loses feel earned.

7 — Game resources are thin, causing players to use everything wisely

In Darkest Dungeon, players are only given a limited amount of resources and essentially have to make the best of a bad situation.  Sometimes you will have to bring an under-leveled character into a dungeon, or you have to press forward without upgrading your character’s gear.  You just have to keep going and do the best you can.  Part of this could just be that the game is incredibly mean as I said before, but mostly I believe that this game is balanced.  Balanced in a way to put players into the exact position that Red Hook wants them to be in. (read above.)

That level of control of the player’s experience is something that I see some games forgetting.  It’s hard to describe how to do this right other than to tell you that you will want to take into account where you want the player of your game to be mentally, and playtest your game enough to make sure they get there no matter how they play.  If you are able to achieve this balance in your game, it should help your game be a hit with your targeted playerbase.

8 — Players are encouraged to press their luck as much as possible

This is one of my favorite parts of the player experience for Darkest Dungeon.  It beats you down and keeps you in this spot where you fear everything that you are about to encounter.  But every time you feel that you get any small amount of advantage, you immediately want to gamble it away to get an even bigger reward.  A number of times I have pressed on inside of a completed dungeon trying to find more loot only to stress out a character more or lose them altogether.  That won’t stop me from gambling though, I still do it, every time.

There are tons of great board games that have this mechanic in them.  Games where you take a small advantage over your opponent through some strong move and then you can gamble it away to lock them down into an impossible position.  And the other side of it is if you don’t gamble, then your opponent will certainly catch up to you faster.  I’d look to add this into any game that has head to head action in it, or give the AI of a cooperative boardgame an edge that makes gambling in this way an important part of the decisions made by the players.

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In Closing

Yeah, I’m a huge fan of Darkest Dungeon, it’s obvious.  This and X-com (another heavy turn based strategy game) take up a large portion of my video gaming hours.  What I’ve learned from playing games like DD will definitely influence Junk Spirit Games’ future titles.  I think that watching how great games are made in any medium can definitely help designers in the board game industry.  I hope that any of you hoping to make games will be able to create high quality games that are well tested and balanced with a strong team of friendly gamers, as Red Hook clearly has.

David Gerrard, @dagerr

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