All it's missing is a license.
In a perverse way, Diablo is kind of a Eurogame. Beneath the action-RPG veneer, it is a game about incrementally increasing efficiencies. Sure, those efficiencies have to do with improving damage output and survivability as you wade through endless swarms of demons, but it’s really a game of shifting numbers around for maximal effect. It’s also a game where, essentially, you click on monsters until they dispense random loot that may impact those efficiencies. That rewarding feedback loop, along with mechanisms that allow the player to explore various combinatory abilities and effects, are what have made it a classic video game. And, if you are anything like me, you’ve likely had it in the back of your mind that there could be a great tabletop game in there somewhere.
Filiip Neduk, working under the venerated Czech Games Edition brand, apparently had a similar thought and his 2019 design Sanctum is an unabashed, ersatz Diablo board game from its boxtop image of a massively horned demon to its loot-and-level loop. Two to four players compete along a linear track, drafting sets of demons to personally battle to unlock class-specific skills and advance gems into a pool that are spent to equip the weapons, armor, and gear on the backs of each demon card. Unlike many tabletop adventure designs, the board is just a single path– geography doesn’t matter, just the monsters you smashed along the way. The final act finds the players assailing the Walls of Sanctum, calling forth the Demon Lord. From there, the game shifts gears and becomes a rather brutal gauntlet where each player’s character and their relative advancement is put to the test with a sequence of Fury Cards that represent the epic boss fight.
This is all very, very cool. The concept totally works, and I think there are some really smart pieces of design work that Mr. Neduk presents in Sanctum. The skill advancement is quite brilliant: there are three colors of demons and defeating one means that you get to advance a gem of the corresponding color up your character’s chart of skill cards and tiles. When a skill has no gems on it, you gain it. This is really where a lot of the key decisions of the game lie, as the idea is that you are more or less training for that big battle at the end and identifying which skills could lead to combinations in concert with your equipment to generate more Stamina, Focus, or damage reduction.
I also like the Stamina and Focus economy. These pools are spent to power gear effects and skills, and managing these pools is critical to success. Deciding when to Rest can be a crucial decision as you might find yourself really wanting to pick up a set of demon cards to fight based on the gems you need to move up or for the kinds of gear they might have, but do you want to risk a battle with low resources? It’s not quite a race game, but there is an incentive to keep moving and to keep ahead of the competition, such as first pick from a treasure chest at the end of each board. There are also bonuses from Achievements to be earned, if you are the first to qualify.
Now, I’ve not yet mentioned how we are actually going to go about squishing all these demons yet because I’ve reserved that for the “I like this game, but…” part of the review. It’s strange, because I like about half of this design but the other half I do not. Some have decried the last act change-up, but I think that’s great in concept. Rather, my problem lies in the core action of the game- all the fighting.
Santcum is, for all of its puddles of demon gore and kick ass swords, is a game about drafting cards and rolling dice at them. Each demon card requires 1-3 D6 results to defeat or they bite you for a proscribed amount of damage which you mitigate with skills and equipment. That’s all fine, but this is one of those dice games where the dice rolling lacks a sense of drama, risk, or surprise. Many pieces of equipment and skill choices allow you to modify your die rolls so that it’s not often enough where a player is really in danger. There’s usually a fix. There is some risk in which demon sets you choose to put on your player board – for example, if you take on several demon cards with the same number on them then you are more likely to face damage.
And later in the game, the tougher demons require more fussing around with the dice and your assets. The Demon Lord battle really ups the tension dramatically as it designed to exhaust your resources. All the drama and risk is back-loaded into the las act. The finale really forces you to earn the win, but there again that work is in the fussing around with dice and assets.
But you know what, in a board game I don’t really want to fuss around with dice and assets to improve the result, even if that is frankly a fundamental thing that you are really doing in Diablo. At the table, I want to sweat the die rolls, I want the stakes to feel high every time I have dice in hand, and I want to deal with the bad results while cheering the good ones. I am absolutely not a fan of games where you roll dice and spend a few minutes fixing it in the name of generating depth and strategy at the cost of excitement and risk. And unfortunately, Sanctum is exactly that kind of game.
But Euro-style dice games are built on that very concept and there are plenty of popular examples of this kind of design- Kingsburg and To Court The King, for example. All things considered, Sanctum is a good game in this design space, regardless of my distaste for the “strategic” dice mechanics, and I’d choose it over just about any of its closest peers if only because the Diablo concept actually works. And the reality of it is that maybe that is the best way to represent a Diablo-style game on the tabletop as it is simply not possible to reproduce the action aspects of the video game, that awesome sense of an encounter escalating into a ridiculous melee before it reaches a seat-of-the-pants turnaround and you are left with mountain of treasure to sort through. But here, you get to think about it for a minute and make some adjustments before the slaughter commences.