A shadows gather at the edge of town, a band of monster hunters joins forces to defeat the banshees, werewolves, and vampires besieging them. In true deckbuilding fashion, you'll gather allies and equipment, battle monsters and try to be the champion monster hunter.
Dark Gothic is based on A Touch of Evil, a gothic-themed board game from Flying Frog Games. Although the game's name is a little on the nose, Dark Gothic is a deckbuilding game with thematic and strategic depth that builds on the genre's strengths without reinventing the wheel. It most closely resembles Ascension, but adds some interesting flair that fixes some of that game's problems (but not all of them).
Each player takes on the role of an individual monster hunter, using a starting deck of weak cards that only generate a single resource point when played. Dark Gothic uses three resources: combat, spirit, and cunning, plus a fourth type of resource, silver orbs which act like wild cards. The starting decks are asymmetrical, because different characters have a different mix of cards (some are better at combat, some spirit, etc.), and they each have a unique special ability.
From there, players acquire or defeat cards in a center row of face-up cards, which are then placed in that player's discard pile to eventually be shuffled into his or her deck. It will feel very familiar to deckbuilding fans — Flying Frog co-founder Scott Hill told me that was their intent, to simply create a good deckbuilding game set in the Touch of Evil world. That familiarity is especially nice since experienced gamers can pick up on the rules in minutes.
Seemingly minor differences keep this game feeling unique, though. The asymmetrical start and triple resources (plus wild resources) require more planning as you gradually design your deck. A dice mechanic, using a custom die, adds a touch of randomness to certain effects, and some cards force you to drop a Dark Secret into your deck. It turns up later and makes you draw a Shocking Discovery — one of your allies might be a werewolf, or something equally startling. One of the static cards (cards always available to acquire, no matter what's in the center line) include "The Hungry Dead," which allow you to remove weaker cards from your deck. Other games make deck thinning harder to accomplish, but in Dark Gothic you can successfully change strategies mid-game and completely shift your deck.
This is important because of the other major feature of Dark Gothic: villains. Each game you'll randomly select a series of three villainous boss monsters. These might have an overall effect on the game state, and you can only end the game by defeating all three. As each new one is revealed, they get progressively stronger. Defeating a villain requires a mix of resources, and if you're focused on the wrong ones, the villain becomes easy pickings for your opponents. That makes the ability to change strategic gears pretty important.
The villains are worth a lot of victory points to the player that defeats them, so the game often plays out as a race to acquire powerful cards from the center line as a means to defeat the villains, where the real points are. But we tested out a variety of strategies, and it is entirely possible to focus on the centerline and grab a ton of victory points that way (although if one player gets all three villains, that's a steep hill to climb for anyone else).
This is a competitive game, since you're working to get the highest victory point total (they call them investigation points but that's kind of a mouthful). But it's also a cooperative game. The villains and some other cards generate shadow cards, cards drawn off the main deck and placed face down to signify the growing power of the gothic monsters lurking in the woods. If the shadow pile hits ten cards, everyone loses and the villains win.
The only drawback to the villains is that, while they're a huge part of the game, there are only nine of them. Since they're divided into three tiers, you're going to run into the same villains pretty often. I'd have loved to see twice as many villains, or even an expansion that's just a ton of villain cards.
The other problem with Dark Gothic is one that's endemic to deckbuilding games: fishbowl syndrome. You tend to not interact directly with other players very much, so you'll wind up playing through your own turn in your own "fishbowl," then sit and wait or plan your next turn while the other players take theirs. This isn't a fatal flaw, a lot of games are like this. Dark Gothic even tries to reduce the problem with Minion cards. These are the monster in the center line that you defeat. Instead of just placing them to the side for later victory point scoring, they're added to your deck, and when played have a "Strike" effect that hinders your opponent. This doesn't entirely solve the fishbowl problem, but it helps.
I think I actually like Dark Gothic more than I like Ascension, partly because of the tweaks that spice up the deckbuilding formula, partly because Victorian gothic horror is way more my thing than Ascension's mythic cosmic fantasy. The deckbuilding genre is a puzzle that hasn't been entirely solved yet, but for all their humbleness about not reinventing the wheel, Flying Frog has advanced the state of the art with their innovations, even if just incrementally.