One of the greatest advantages that the tabletop gaming hobby has over other prevalent entertainment mediums such as cinema or videogames is that of scale. In a world reigned over and mercilessly throttled by design-by-committee thinking, focus group testing and lowest-common-denominator economy as ambition – the world of chit and card remains a place where the singular vision of wilful auteurs stubbornly continues to thrive.
It’s a word where driven individuals and small teams can still see a project from conception through to market without all the idiosyncrasies, rough edges and homespun charm being sanded away and discarded to appease a cabal of faceless shareholders.
There is perhaps no better example of this approach – and all its attendant benefits and follies – than Gilded Skull Game’s debut offering Dark Venture.
The work of one Rob Lemon, Dark Venture is an experience that exists despite notions of convention or return on investment, striding resolutely to its own rhythm, even as it occasionally stumbles under the weight of its ambitions. It’s also one that defies all expectations predicated on size, for within its diminutive box lies an experience that sprawls Tardis-like to engulf both your imagination and tablespace, yet with an economy of components that other more corpulent offerings could do well to emulate.
Hearkening back to a more hobbyists-era approach, Dark Venture recalls a time when the RPG and Boardgame spaces were cross-pollinating in an experimental flirtatious dance, as creators sought the best way to marry mechanics to storytelling in the still nascent days of the medium. By dint of this reverence for a bygone era, Dark Venture is firmly what you might describe as a ‘Gamer’s Game’. It’s demanding, it’s complex, it’s fiddly as hell. And for an audience of a certain vintage-it will beckon like a homecoming hearth.
Ostensibly an overland adventure game, this odd cosmic duck eschews the cooperative focus one might expect of more contemporary thinking and instead hearkens back to the likes of Talisman or Runebound in its cutthroat competitive structure. This is a narrative based, choose-your-own-adventure-infused, RPG lite with victory points. You won’t be gaining them by building structures or accumulating trading routes, however. Instead, as befits the grim psychedelic world of heroic science fantasy into which you’ll be flung- your path to victory is paved with the winding arc of quests.
And what a world it is. By far the most appealing aspect of the game is the universe that Lemon has created here. I reiterate- it’s the world of an auteur. A singular vision, and one that emerges through the cracked lysergic lens of equal parts genre fiction and wild prismatic colour sprays. The journey begins before you even open the box as Rob’s art assaults your eyeballs. This is the most assured, colourful and imaginative inkwork since Dungeon Degenerates, and like that bad trip bon mot – is wildly enticing to the point of near intoxication.
It sears as it beguiles, and best of all- it casually vaults tired tropes to instead plumb less trafficked byways of a psychedelic science fantasy milieu in a way that commands your attention anew. In its commitment to grotesquery and distortion it achieves a rare beauty that captivates and compels, even as it is merged with mechanics that can often try their damnedest to rip you screaming from untethered blacklight fantasies back into the turgid world of mathematics.
There is a lot to keep track of here gang.
Hurling mechanics into the pot with an apothecary’s relish -Dark Venture is simultaneously a tile based overland crawl/deck building/hand and inventory management/choose-your-own-adventure/dice rolling/combat heavy/asymmetric player power/take that/exploration based/RPG infused experience – where players compete to complete quests both heroic and mundane all within the space of one turbulent day in a seismically upended post-cataclysmic world.
To state that its mechanics are as randomly assigned as its aesthetics are focussed would not be an unkind assessment. And yet- when all of its shards lock together, it can achieve a strange coherence- even as its more fastidious insistences consistently threaten to stall its momentum.
At the outset, between one and four players will select a hero from a wildly inventive ensemble of characters. From ossified warlocks to cowardly princes and paranoid androids- each possesses a character that is indicative of the game as a whole, doing a lot of heavy lifting to sell the experience. From there they’ll largely be drawing from three decks of items, characters and locations with which to populate the world, ensuring a different experience each play and enabling the completion of the heroic quests that comprise the road to victory.
Commencing at the crossroads, the world and play area will unfurl as each location card is placed in turn, the art on the cards supplemented by four pamphlet-sized booklets detailing each location revealed and the encounters that transpire therein. Stuffed with brief though evocative scenarios – these narrative snippets are wont to be wild and gonzo narrative beats that frame the experience and comprise the choose-your-own-adventure portion of play. When read with the proper theatrical gusto- they go a long way towards deepening the immersion and stakes at play.
In addition to location cards, players can also deploy items to their hands or inventory, as well as populate the world with Creatures, NPC’s and even fellow heroes with which to interact, duel and beset their rivals. This unique twist on seeding encounters is just one of the ways Dark Venture confounds expectations and is a system I have yet to encounter in any other title of its ilk.
Rather than drawing from a communal or even location-based deck of encounters, players instead marshal their hand to deploy both promise and peril- be it boons for their backpack, companions for their party, or creatures to confound their rivals. Crucially- each and every NPC, companion and monster in the game is as fully fleshed out as the player characters themselves- replete with the same array of stats, items and abilities. The effects of this are manifold – Characters feel whole, combat is brutal, and holy shit there’s a lot to keep track of.
This is where Dark Venture – draped in all of its cosmic finery, stumbles ungainly.
Each encounter-of which there may be several in a single turn- will see you tasked with fishing through a generous deck of character cards to locate the friend or foe in question, delving into the even more voluminous item deck to locate their precise array of equipment, setting up a character board to keep track of their stats and health points, assigning them a standee, and then finding somewhere on the table to fit all this shit where it can be readily parsed whilst not cluttering proceedings in a claustrophobic melange of information.
At its best-its fiddly. At its worst, it becomes an utterly maddening ordeal. The game, your emergent narrative and any momentum gathered comes sputtering to a grinding halt while you painstakingly set up for an encounter that is just as likely to be peripheral as it is crucial to proceedings. You’ll be enduring the same process for your NPC followers and creatures spawned from your hand, and in our experience this often tilted our actions in favour of maintaining momentum at the cost of what might be the most strategic option.
Anecdotally- It also behoves me to let you know that in a session we had planned for four players, one of our quartet tapped out midway through the initial set-up and rules explanation. He was on the wrong side of the third cone for this level of book-keeping and knew it, mercifully withdrawing to admire the art from afar. Which also brings me to the maths.
Whether in combat or in calculating completion of your quests, there’s a certain percentage of us that may grow to wish the game had shipped with a cool thematically draped calculator. Combat will see you rolling 2d6 for initiative and then calculating modifiers for stats and items. Players then alternate taking swings at one another using the same 2d6 plus buff and debuff routine until one of them falls. It’s not calculus but it’s far from kinetic either, and I can’t help but feel that the addition of a cool proprietary dice system would have worked wonders for the impact and engagement levels here.
Throughout all of this, many of your quests, both minor and major also rely on the tracking of stats and milestones, placing cubes, doing sums, keeping track of myriad variables. It can often feel a bit like a heroic version of accounting, and like the combat, suffers for its veneration of old school thinking borne of the pen-and-paper conventions from which the hobby emerged.
Admittedly- there is a certain mindset that thrives on this shit. The min-maxing, the stat-tracking, the organisational aspect. It just seems to sit at odds with the kind of mindset that also goes “oh shit- rocket straddling arcane space wizards! Awesome! Pass that fattie!”
But despite the hoops it insists you contort to navigate, at its best Dark Venture succeeds in offering a fantastic story-generation engine and a deep font of player agency. At two players- where the attendant book-keeping is less of a hurdle and one can focus more closely on cunningly spindling their opponent’s best laid plans, it rises at points to offer a near transformative joy. Turns tick by swiftly enough, there is an engaging decision space to indulge in, and the storytelling elements are wont to retain a coherence that can un-knit into fuzziness at larger player counts. At three players it crested the very limits of outstaying its welcome and at four it became a slog. A beautiful slog full of quality components, gorgeous art and some still memorable moments, but not an experience I’d leap to repeat.
If you have a fondness for the sprawling, ambitious and sometimes unwieldy days of yore, if your experience is likely to be lifted by wild imagination and shit-hot art, and if you stick to a one vs one framework, there is certainly much to recommend in taking this particular venture. Despite my misgivings, I’m all-in for Rob’s next game in this universe- the more strategically tilted but equally beautiful ‘Battle of the Ancients’, and anyone with a predilection for the wild, the obtuse, and the singular should keep a keen eye trained on Gilded Skull. I expect great things to come.
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