Against the Eggmen
I’m going to preface this review of Gilded Skull Games’ Dark Venture with a dire warning. Odds are, this game is not for you. Many will play this game and furrow their brow at how messy and fussy it can be, at how you wind up managing all of these characters, monsters, and NPCs. Others will be overly concerned about the replay value since there are only two paragraph books. Some won’t even get through the occasionally vague rulebook. And there is undoubtedly a contingent out there who very, very wrongly will decry the artwork, which is destined to be among the best we will see in games this year.
But maybe this game is for you. Do you like whole vintage first edition Gygaxian D&D thing? How about all that Appendix N, Jack Vance science fantasy stuff? Do you miss Gamma World? Do you wish that Magic Realm was actually playable in 2020? Most importantly, do you prefer a slightly disheveled game with a ramshackle, punk sense of anarchic energy and a wild heart over an overdeveloped fascist timepiece of a design with perfect balance and impeccable rules?
Dark Venture is mostly definitely for me and I knew it was when I saw the incredible, grotesque, psychedelic artwork that I recognized from an IOS RPG that Gilded Skull put out years ago called Galactic Keep. But it’s also the kind of design where when someone enumerates its “flaws” and deficiencies I can’t really disagree. I just don’t really care about them, because I like the setting, the atmosphere, and the action so much. Sometimes critical comparisons and value barometers break down and you just love a game for what it is, not what you think it should be based on critical standards. Dark Venture is one of those for me.
This is an adventure card game, which is normally a pretty boring concept seeing as I’ve played like a hundred and fifty of those in the past five years. You have a character, they flip cards, you use cards as a map, you roll dice at cards that have monsters on them, and occasionally you add a card to your holdings as equipment or weapons, et cetera ad infinitum. Guess what, your character has STATS. And, drumroll please, SPECIAL ABILITIES. Don’t get overly excited, but it’s an ACTION POINT SYSTEM. And you have to complete QUESTS to earn points to win. This is all the most boring, redundant stuff ever in the history of ever.
However, something special starts emerge from these mundane elements. As your plant man, bow-wielding robot, whatever Haglor the Ghostly is, or princess wander the location cards, an emergent narrative forms. Each of the sites has a corresponding entry in the zine-sized Location Guide that you read and react to – it’s like a paragraph game. Some of the entries branch off into skill checks, battles, spawning enemies or followers, treasure, and other unexpected consequences. So exploring the crashed spaceship or a castle might lead to a little adventure scenario in miniature.
But that’s not where the story ends, because players also have Character cards in their hands that can be played, which spawns all kinds of potential enemies or possible allies into the world. You can play a Character to mess with someone – like, for example, dropping an aggressive Rhorgonkrul on someone heading to complete a quest. Or, you might play a Character with the intent of partying up with them and taking them. The game world comes alive with persistent, weird NPCs all over the card- based map, and not all are monsters to be fought. I love this because it is unexpected and makes for some fun storytelling.
In the best session I’ve played of the game, which I call “Against the Eggmen”, I started out with a Quest that required me to kill some, well, Eggmen. I wound up with a sword that gave a bonus against Eggman armor and a Ghostly Kid sidekick. We wound up by luck at the Eggman King’s castle, where he was apparently dangling Princess Britta over the wall. We saved her and she joined the fight and after a too-long, confusing battle we beat them all and I ended up with the best solo score I’ve ever had. Narratively, it all worked together and was fun, memorable, and awesome.
When this game hits the mark – creating these old school RPG-style storylines on the fly out of strange enemies, stranger friends, mysterious locations, and a giant deck of mostly awesome items – it’s wonderful. But it can just as easily descend into a sloggy morass of digging through card decks, juggling a few too many die roll modifiers, making on-the-fly RAW rulings, and cycling through Quests that just aren’t all that interesting or are occasionally impossible. Playing solo, it’s no big deal to just pack it in and try again later. But entertaining a group with this game can be a perilous undertaking because it’s so touchy, volatile, and may not live up to many gamers’ expectations.
As for the replayability concerns – take a hike. Most board gamers today don’t play games more than 2-3 times before their next shipment shows up anyway. There’s plenty of game here and if you are a fucking mental marvel and can memorize the encounters in the location guide, why are you wasting that talent on board games? The game comes with TWO location books so you can mix it up, and there is an expansion (Vile Invaders) that adds even more, included a kind of goofy but fun resource gathering and crafting element. Gilded Skull provided me with the base game and the expansion, and I’m glad to have played the game with the additional material. More is better here.
So here’s the deal. Dark Venture is a risky design despite its foundation in trope-y, standardized concepts. It doesn’t require the commitment or study that Magic Realm does, but like that masterpiece it creates a fantasy world at the table. Not just a scenario, not just a setting. The NPC mechanisms, the location descriptions with CYOA elements, and the gonzo artwork combine to create a sense that each session is building this “Darkgrange” setting each time. This is absolutely fantastic, ambitious, and sometimes it’s mind blowing. Other times, the sloppier elements derail it and make you wish that there was a second edition already available. Regardless, I absolutely love the way this game creates a unique environment, and it is a welcome change from games that strain so hard to create a very specific, stable, and familiar setting without anything wild or unexpected going on from game to game.
But to get there, you’ve got to put up with a rulebook that ain’t great in any sense of the word, a fairly arcane sense of information design, and more vagaries than some gamers are going to be comfortable with adjudicating. I’m willing to do this because in exchange Dark Venture is offering me a unique, bespoke world every time I play it. Even though its format is bog standard, there’s nothing conventional about its fantasy and I’m fine with shrugging at some of the foibles that might sink a game with a lesser agenda.