Massive Darkness
Publisher: CMON/Guillotine Games
Release Date: October 2017
Price: $119.99
Game Designer(s): Raphael Guiton, Jean-Baptiste Lullien, and Nicolas Raoult
Artists: Edouard Guiton, Antonio Mainez, Nicolas Fructus, Eric Nouhaut, Mathieu Chow Cheuk, and Giovanna Guimaraes
Format: Board Game
Playing Time: 2 hours (or more)
Product #: MD001
Age Rating: 14 and up
ICv2 Rating: 3.5 Stars out of 5

Years before my first experience with role playing games, I discovered something that was, in hindsight, probably better suited to my juvenile mind of the time:  Dungeon—one of the very earliest “dungeon crawl” style board games.  I was hooked from the start, and dungeon crawl games continue to be one of my favorites still today.  Needless to say, when I heard that CMON was going to produce Massive Darkness, I was intrigued.  But is this a heroic adventure, or just another dreary slog through a dank dungeon?

Summary:  As so often before, an ancient evil has risen again and the heroic players are the only ones smart enough to do something about it.  Teaming up, they head off to face “The Darkness” through a series of adventures, hacking and slashing their way through wave after wave of horrible monsters, gathering more and more spectacular treasure, and ultimately saving the day (we hope).  The base game includes 10 quests (11 if you count the tutorial) that can be played on their own, or combined into a continuous campaign.

The action is played out on a modular game board that shows your traditional dungeon rooms and corridors, using an enormous army of plastic miniatures.  Combat is simple:  roll dice for attacker and defender, compare swords to shields to see if damage is done, use special symbols to activate special abilities.  Each round, the heroes act, then the monsters, then a random event occurs (good or bad).  If the heroes can complete their goals, they win the game.  If any of them die (and can’t be brought back), they lose.

Originality:  Despite the familiar theme and mechanics, the designers have managed to introduce some interesting concepts to the genre.  One in particular jumps out:  in this game, being the dark is good for the heroes, an amusing and interesting reversal of the traditional dungeon exploration tropes.  Characters are created by combining a base with a “class,” offering a lot of variability in character skills and abilities compared to the fixed characters in most dungeon crawlers.  And it’s nice that this game does not require an “overlord” player:  everyone works together as a team or you can play solo.

The way equipment and loot is handled is also interesting:  During each quest, the heroes will improve their gear along the way, as expected.  But between adventures they must give away much of what they gained, often starting the next quest with gear that is only slightly better than what they started the last one with, and almost certainly worse than what they brought home!  I guess the tax rates in the Kingdom of Massive are pretty high!  Oddly, gold doesn’t appear in this game at all.  These heroes are motivated solely by duty (and maybe a bit by glory), completely rejecting any gain of wealth.

Presentation:  The title of this game is perfectly appropriate, because this game is most definitely massive, weighing in at nearly 7 pounds before adding in any of the game’s eight expansion sets.  The packaging strains the limits of the square box format, measuring a full 5 inches tall.  It’s dark, too, with muted hues and dark shadows pressing in on the heroes illustrated on the cover.  The box back does a good job of highlighting the game components as well as providing a brief but enticing description of the game.  The components are very well illustrated, with lots of little details on the game boards, attractive art on the cards, and—of course—75 beautiful plastic miniatures.

Quality:  Overall, the quality is quite good.  The boards are thick double-sided tiles, the cards are excellent quality, the miniatures are top notch, the dice are excellent, and the rules are 56 pages of full color glossy goodness, lavishly illustrated with examples and artwork.  Would that the rules themselves and the text on the cards had received as thorough of a treatment.  The rules are not organized very well, which makes it difficult to look up rules during play (though the game system is streamlined enough that after a few quests this shouldn’t be an issue).  Some of the cards and character abilities are a little ambiguous also, which will force players to make some interpretations on their own.

Marketability:  The sheer massiveness of this game is at once its strongest attribute and its biggest weakness.  $120 is a lot of money to throw down on a game.  Admittedly, 75 miniatures is a lot, and the price is not unreasonable for a small army of toy soldiers.  But it’s still a pretty steep up front cost for new players—and that’s before considering the expansions.  The game also faces some pretty stiff competition in an increasingly crowded field of dungeon crawl games, which could also present a challenge.

Overall:  I very much enjoyed playing Massive Darkness.  It offers all of the things that delight me in a dungeon crawler, with enough new concepts to make it feel fresh and interesting.  The tactical challenges were rarely obvious, and serious teamwork is needed to overcome many of the challenges.  The potential for solo play is also a big plus.  Struggling with the rules was a bit of a chore, and I’m not sure how many times I would want to play through the one campaign in the rulebook, particularly against the same foes every time.  Fortunately, the game really starts to sing once you add in the expansions, providing a much richer variety of foes to fight and the promise of new quests to undertake (and lots of really cool minis I can’t wait to paint…).

Massive Darkness offers a fresh and interesting take on a tried-and-true genre, but its steep entry price, problematic text, and hunger for expansions force me to give it only 3.5 out of 5.

-- William Niebling