Following on from the game overview, I thought I’d provide my initial reactions to Massive Darkness on the back of the tutorial and the first mission. Straight off the bat, this game scratches an itch for some high fantasy dungeon crawling, and is very simple and straightforward to learn. The models are great, as you’d expect from Cool Mini Or Not (more on this in a later post).
The first thing I spotted on reading the core rulebook was that there is no healer class in the base game. This was disappointing, as that’s usually the character I gravitate towards, backing up the team and keeping everyone fighting. I’m advised that there’s a healer in Zombicide Black Plague, all of which crosses over to Massive Darkness, but to have to buy a second game in to get access seems a bit much to me. Having said that, it does feel like a simple healing character isn’t entirely necessary, as heroes seem fairly survivable, most characters seemed to have access to some sort of self-healing, and we seemed to hit events that healed us throughout the game. For me personally, there seem to be characters with buffing abilities so I’ll probably choose one of those type of characters when we play, or I guess I could try something new…
The shadow mechanics were a little confusing to me (still are, to be truthful), and they feel a little tacked on. Unless I’ve misread, the story runs that the players are agents of the Lightbringer, fighting against the Darkness (which one assumes is Massive). Interestingly, though, our intrepid heroes all have shadow abilities which only activate when in darkness which makes it feel like the Lightbringer is the losing side as it can’t even provide abilities to heroes in the light. Would’ve felt thematically cooler if heroes benefited from being in the light and enemies in the darkness, but presumably there’s some second and third order balancing problems I’ve not thought through.
One cool mechanic was the use of Experience Points (“XP”). As you’d expect in a dungeon crawler, you generate XP from killing monsters and gathering certain treasure/tokens, which can then be used to buy ‘upgrades’ for your hero (additional health, better abilities, etc). The interesting option here is that each hero also has an ability which can be used via spending XP for immediate benefit. As an example, the character I ended up playing in mission one could ‘mark’ monsters for one XP, providing additional hits to other attackers. A very cool addition and something that let’s you get immediate benefit from XP rather than having to save up for the new ability.
On the XP front, the rapid progression through levels and skills in the normal game mode is quite fun. You feel like you’re hero is becoming significantly stronger as you progress, whilst the monsters also get more interesting and challenging as you level up the dungeon. I was initially excited by the fact that there was a story/progression mode as I’ve been looking for a new game with a campaign mode recently as it feels this is where we have the most fun as a group. It was pointed out to me however that the story mode is likely going to be a slower version of the base game and so possibly not that great. Thinking on it, applying the story mode XP for the tutorial game wouldn’t have even gotten me my first new skill, so this is perhaps the case. Despite that, given the relative simplicity of the game and the fact that you don’t need a player in the role of DM/GM, it could be a lighter entry to a role playing type experience.
We ran into a few enemies in the two games we played that seemed to be incredibly difficult to kill, having drawn a shield or armour card which saw us throwing against significantly more defence dice than we had attack dice (one fight was two or three yellow dice against three blues and a green – it took ages to kill that mob). I think this is mitigated somewhat by the fact that enemies take wounds (rather than being ‘all-or-nothing’ kills like in The Others) and so can be whittled down. Despite some challenging fights, in each mission we completed the objectives without dying (because I enjoy playing board games on hard, we chose not to use Lifebringer resurrections and so any death was a loss), albeit there were a couple of times where we were almost taken down.
The treasure feels very weirdly balanced, and we hit a few instances where we drew level four treasure which was objectively worse than level two treasure we were already using. It feels really bad when you progress through two levels, kill a monster and loot the room but end up with something that will be detrimental if you equip it. I feel that the transmute action is meant to offset this (you can discard three treasures for one of the next highest level of the lowest discarded), but when you’re hitting worse loot two levels on annoyance and disappointment ensues.
Massive Darkness is a cool game, with simple mechanics which include some neat ideas. I’m a little disappointed with some aspects of it, but overall it seems quite fun. The speed of progression in normal play is exciting and makes a session feel highly rewarding, but having to toss back all your loot and abilities and restart next session can be disappointing. Hopefully we’ll have a crack at story mode and see how that plays at some point, but certainly expecting to see this hit the table more.