Massive Darkness was a smash-hit Kickstarter success for Cool Mini Or Not, a cooperative Fantasy Dungeon Crawler made by the people who brought you Zombicide. It has a lot of cool miniatures, but can the gameplay live up to the hype? Let’s find out.
Massive Darkness: What’s in the Box?
Massive Darkness comes in a big box, one that’s noticeably larger than previous CMON titles like Zombicide or Arcadia Quest. Inside you’ll find a whole load of miniatures, as well as plenty of other game components.
Aside from the miniatures, there are plastic dashboards to keep track of your character’s experience and equipment, pads of class sheets which record their abilities, and loads of cards. There are cards for heroes, cards for enemies, MANY equipment cards, as well as decks of end-of-round events and cards for opening doors. There are 9 double-sided terrain boards, and cardboard tokens to represent treasure chests, doors, and pillars, as well as keeping track of game states. Lastly there are a dozen custom plastic dice.
Overall the component quality is good. The miniatures will be the main draw of Massive Darkness for lots of people, and they are fairly nice: the 6 heroes in particular all look pretty good.
Monster-wise, you get 6 Bosses and Minions for 6 different “Mobs” (gangs of Monsters), 6 larger Wandering Monsters, and 3 Agents who will summon reinforcements for the forces of darkness. The mobs are the bread-and-butter of Massive Darkness, and generally the enemies you’ll be seeing the most of, but Wandering Monsters are definitely the stars of the show, and should look really nice once painted up.
Sounds Good, how does it play?
Players in Massive Darkness take on the role of 1 or more Heroes known as “Lightbringers” and will work their way through one of 10 different missions. You might need to kill a specific monster, find an objective, or simply make it out of the Dungeon Alive.
Whatever your overall task, you will have 3 actions per turn which you can use to move, open doors, pick up loot, or fight monsters – when all Heroes have taken their turn, the Monsters get a phase of their own, in which they all attack, looking to wreak havoc on the players.
Each game of Massive Darkness always have a “level” of somewhere between 1 and 5, determined by the most advanced tile that players have entered. At level 1, you will have weak equipment, with which you’ll need to fight fairly weak enemies, and only be able to purchase a limited selection of your skills, but each new level will increase the toughness of enemies, the quality of loot, and the skills available.
Do you have the power? Or just class?
Every hero has a unique ability, but most of the tricks they get to use are determined by their class. The six Heroes that come with Massive Darkness each have a recommended class, but you can mix-and-match them according to preference. Heroes can spend the XP they get for killing enemies on taking new skills – at Level 1, most skills will only cost 5XP, which is what you get for killing a boss and 2 minions, but as the effects become more powerful at higher levels, the costs grow accordingly.
Character skills are tracked on the paper class pads that come with the game, and this was one of the biggest disappointments about Massive Darkness for me – in Zombicide, the character dashboards will happily track all of your abilities for you, but the Massive Darkness dashboards are only counting health and XP – instead, you are supposed to tick off boxes on a sheet for each game you play, quickly exhausting the pads, and having to download and print new ones. There are various ways around this, and I opted for a pack of clear card sleeves and dry-wipe board marker pens, but I’d definitely recommend having some kind of strategy for not burning through the pads in your first week.
Bring on the Orcs, Goblins and… Dwarves?
The enemies you get to fight are spawned by guard cards, revealed every time you open a new room, or occasionally by end-of-round event cards. The “Guard Card” tells you which enemy to spawn, how many Minions per player to put out, and what dice they roll in combat – each mob (and Wandering Monster or Agent) also spawns with an equipment card which can make them more deadly when attacking you, or harder to take down.
The mix of enemies is slightly odd – Orcs and Goblins are obvious Fantasy staples, and you get 2 types of each, but Dwarves seemed a strange choice for the 3rd. Still, the figures are good, and 6 distinct types of mob offers a good level of variety.
Let’s get down to fighting
At the heart of any Dungeon Crawl is combat, and Massive Darkness is no exception. In any fight, the attack will roll up to 6 dice (max 3 red, 3 yellow) and so will the defender (max 3 blue, 3 green). Once the dice have been rolled you add up the number of swords and compare them to the number of shields, with the difference being how much damage the defender takes.
Massive Darkness spices up combat with skills and enchantments. Some die-faces will have “Bams” (little explosion symbols) or Diamonds on them, which can be spent on abilities. Other powers will remove, re-roll or flip dice, allowing you to influence the combat. Learning how you balance these abilities, and which ones to take first is where a lot of the fun and the decision-making in Massive Darkness comes.
Heroes can attack up to 3 times during their turn, once for each of their 3 actions. After they’re done though, any surviving enemies who were attacked will get to counter-attack unless the hero is out of line-of-sight and in shadow. (more on Shadow below) this adds another key decision towards the end of the turn – do you try to finish them off? Or retreat to safety?
Enemies will only counter-attack Heroes who attacked them, but at the end of the round, they will make for the Hero with the most XP. Like Hero Weapons, different enemies have different combinations of Magic or Ranged attack capabilities, but all enemies can make some kind of melee attack, meaning that if they get stuck in your hero’s space they will always be able to muster some kind of attack.
Fittingly for a game called Massive Darkness, you need to pay careful attention to whether you are in the light or the dark. Many characters/classes/weapons produce additional benefits when you are in “Shadow Mode” (i.e. in a space that’s dark), and if Heroes are both out of line-of-sight of enemies and in Shadow, then the enemy will not attack or try to move toward them, but instead move towards the Dungeon’s Entrance. Again, this was a fun addition to the game which increases the decision-making and makes you consider how you position yourself, without really adding too much in the way of book-keeping.
Give me things. Give me all of the things!
There’s plenty of loot in here…
Every time you open a new door in Massive Darkness, or kill a major monster, then you get loot. When you pick up loot tokens you get to draw an equal number of treasure cards from the matching deck and, especially in low player-counts, you’ll soon be swimming in loot.
Any equipment that lets you attack will specify a number of dice, and whether the action will be Melee (your space only), Magic (1 or 2 spaces away), or Ranged (any space except your own [with Line of Sight]) – many class powers will only trigger in relation to specific types of attack, so a Sword for your Ranger (for example) may not be all that much use.
Which is more important: healing yourself or hurting the enemy?
Fortunately though, you can “Transmute” – essentially trade in 3 cards of 1 level, for a card of the next level up. This allows you to get rid of stuff you don’t need, keep cycling the deck and, most notably give you another shot at the really powerful weapon you were hoping for.
I love the amount of loot you get in Massive Darkness – it would be nice if the available stuff scaled based on hero-count, but ultimately it’s like Diablo in board-game form: Expect to get lots and lots of stuff – don’t expect it all to be useful, but that’s ok, because soon you’ll be getting more stuff!
This is going well – oops!
Once you’ve survived the first few rounds and managed to get some decent gear, it’s often easy to feel like you’re in control of a game of Massive Darkness, especially if you’re playing a quest that doesn’t have a timer element. That said, the dice do have a very high element of variance, so every now and then a fully-healthy hero will get 1-shotted by a Roaming Monster.
The fact that Massive Darkness can be quite so swingy is a bit of a disappointment: the ability to roll 0-15 hits with a single attack, and 0-15 defence against a single attack can leave you doing anything from no damage whatsoever to 15 (enough to kill more-or-less-anything in one go), and it is frustrating to lose a hero to something you never had a chance to fight. However, the game does have built-in hero resurrection, and the extreme cases really don’t come up that often, certainly not often enough to deter me from playing a game that’s otherwise great fun.
Linking things together? Keep it separate!
There are (officially) 2 ways to play Massive Darkness – as a standalone, where your character starts each scenario, with no purchased skills, no XP, and starting equipment only, or in “campaign” mode, where experience is gained more slowly but equipment and abilities can be carried over to the next game.
Campaign mode has got a lot of criticism, and there are plenty of people out there who really don’t like it. It’s certainly very difficult to begin with *quick spoiler alert* (Scenario 2 is one of the hardest anyway, and not being able to level up rapidly before facing down a giant spider can be a pain), then after a while, you’ll reach a tipping point, where you are powered-up and geared up, ready to take any threat that the Dungeon can throw at you. Personally, I’ve got about 2/3 through a 2-character campaign, and am still enjoying it, even if the difficulty has dropped off a little bit, but I think that stand-alone mode is probably where Massive Darkness really shines.
Massive Darkness: Final Thoughts
As I said at the start, Massive Darkness is brought to you by the people who created Zombicide, and you can feel that in every session – this is a light game where you chuck lots of dice, kill lots of things, and have lots of fun.
Although advertised as being suitable for 1-6 players, it’s probably at its best with 2-4 characters (although there’s no reason you can’t control 2 characters each), and both the solo and the very high player-count experiences have balance issues.
Some people have criticised Massive Darkness for being too random and swingy, or for not being deep enough but, for me, that’s misunderstanding what the game is. If you want detailed, long-term character development, go play Gloomhaven, if you want to have some fun, play Massive Darkness. There are certainly plenty of real decisions to make, and things that you need to balance, even if some of the scenarios could use some polish.
Overall I’d give this 7/10 – there’s plenty of fun to be had here, but I suspect that we’ll see a second season that tidies up some of the edges.
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I'm an avid board and card-gamer, still trying to figure out where Board Gaming fits into life as the dad of a very grabby toddler.
I enjoy thematic games (Fantasy, Cthulhu, etc) and play a lot of cooperative games, along with a bit of competitive gaming (currently Legend of the Five Rings) when I can make it out of the house.
When not playing games, I can be found doing a mundane office job, or working on my own Blog, Fistful of Meeples.