Review: Massive Darkness for kids

So some years back I was looking for a HeroQuest style game to try out with the kids. Something that would sit on the line between dungeon crawl and board game. We’d already played Mice and Mystics a few times, the kids liked it, and I thought it might be nice to look for another game in the genre.

And then the Massive Darkness kickstarter came along, promising a great big dungeon crawl game with a *ton* of plastic miniatures. So I backed the game thinking that it might provide…

  • Beer and pretzels gaming for my regular group
  • An introduction to dungeon crawl style games for the kids
  • Loads of minis for the kids and I to paint
  • A great collection of minis if we were ever to try something like D&D with models

So how did Massive Darkness do?

The components

The components are good. The tiles are nice and thick, the cards are well illustrated, the minis are great. They’re all single pieces or pre-glued and the sculpts look good. The game’s artwork has a somewhat cartoonish look and this is carried through to the minis, who are clearly based on the artwork.

One complaint that came in as the kickstarter landed was that some of the minis had been presented as looking larger than they were. It’s true that the Ogre Mage doesn’t stand much taller than a human, but he’s a chunky model, and the Abyssal Demon and High Troll monsters are genuinely big.

The book comes with cardboard counters for things like treasure chests and health markers. I opted to spring for the plastic alternatives as part of the Kickstarter. The plastic pieces are great, but the cardboard ones look just fine.

One nice touch, which players of Zombicide will recognise is the provision of a plastic tray to hold your character information and equipment, and pegs to keep track of your health and experience. That’s nice for grown ups, and even better for kids since it makes everything tangible.

The game

Massive Darkness is a straightforward dungeon-crawling boardgame. Your heroes plunge into a dungeon, and as they explore monsters appear and have to be defeated. The scenarios in the book provide some structure in the form of objectives that have to be met, or complications. One has the players pursuing a giant spider that flees through the dungeon, thus imposing a time limit. Another requires them to manipulate their enemy into standing in just the right place when a bridge collapses, and so on.

The game has a few interesting touches. One is shadow. The map tiles are clearly divided into illuminated areas and dark ones. Aside from letting you hide all the heroes have powers that trigger only when they are in the shadows, and so do a number of items. Indeed sometimes it feels like the route to victory is to get the word ‘shadow’ into a sentence as many times as possible

“I’m in the shadows and my shadow assassin is using her shadow power and the shadow orbs to attack the orc”

is something that happened in one of our games, and ended badly for the orc.

Another feature is the use of custom dice. Massive Darkness comes with twelve dice, three each of red, yellow, blue and green. Blue and green dice are defensive and are marked with shields, red and yellow ones are offensive and marked with swords. In addition some faces on the dice feature stars and diamonds which trigger special powers.

Combat – whether ranged, melee or magical consists of rolling a handful of attack dice and defence dice together, adding up the relative swords and shields, adjusting for any special effects and turning the result into a straightforward number of hit-points lost. For instance three swords versus one shield is two points of damage to the monsters, a star might be good for an extra point of damage.

While the basic mechanic is simple enough keeping track of all the options available to you when it comes to spending stars and diamonds can get tricky. By the middle of the game your hero will likely have three items of equipment in play, each with its own options to trigger. Working out which to use can be a headache. Our first few games frequently lost momentum when it came to working this stuff out, but now we’ve got three or four sessions behind us the kids are getting the hang of this.

One thing that definitely helps is literacy. Massive Darkness revolves around special abilities, skills and equipment, all of which are succinctly explained on cards or character sheets, which only works if your players are old enough to read the information.

So how does massive darkness stack up?

As a beer and pretzels game?

For grown ups it does the job, but there is plenty of competition in this space and I’m not sure it’s the best of breed. Once you’ve min-maxed your character there’s not really much more to think about, and once your team get on top of the dungeon with good equipment selections the sense of challenge starts to fade rapidly.

Dungeon Crawling for kids?

Massive Darkness does this pretty well, although the volume of text and rules means its better left for kids who can read well. So I’d say that it really kicks in from the age of nine or so.

What I would have liked to have seen was more effort put into the fiction and scenarios. The text explaining who your characters are and what they’re doing is terrible. “You are heroes. You fight evil. There’s some evil in that cave. Go!” is basically what it boils down to. Sure that’s all you need, but having seen how much extra enjoyment the story in Mice and Mystics added to the game this feels like a huge missed opportunity.

The available heroes are also a collection of cliches, again not bad but also a missed opportunity to do something interesting.

Loads of minis for the kids to paint?

Yes. Job done. We have a huge box of plastic minis of varying degrees of complexity. The big minis are good for kids who aren’t yet up to painting a 28mm mini, and the smaller pieces are nice and cartoony, in line with the games artwork.

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