When Darkness Comes
When we first played Zombies!, reactions at the table were mixed. Some, like me, enjoyed the game but were a little unsettled about the endgame. Others loved it, while still others disliked it. I combined the rules with Frag! and found a happy medium between the two games, but still realized that it was a “campy” sort of game, and one that only a select group of people would play. So when I pulled out When Darkness Comes: The Awakening (Twilight Creations, 2002 – Todd Breitenstein), I had this in mind, and was prepared mentally for the same thing.
But When Darkness Comes was not quite the same thing. For one thing, it transcended campy, and the themes, while on the same lines, where much darker and grittier. Also, the game invoked remembrances of Heroquest, a pseudo dungeon crawler I had played as a teenager. I found some of the game quite fascinating, such as the unique skills system, and was impressed with the amount of game that came in the small box. I enjoyed the game more than I thought I would, even though I still found two big problems – the theme, which was too dark for my taste, and the rulebook, which is one of the worst written rulebooks I have dealt with. Despite these hang-ups, there is a lot of value here for the money, and if the theme doesn’t bother one, and one doesn’t mind finding errata on the internet, this might please a RPG board game fanatic.
There are two ways to play When Darkness Comes, as a campaign game, where one player acts as the GM and the game is handled as a dungeon crawl, or with scenarios, where the players play against one another (or cooperatively, their choice). There are a lot of rules in the rulebook, so I’ll just go over some of the more interesting ones. Characters can be chosen from six regenerated individuals, or can be custom built according to rules in the book. They have seven different attributes: speed – dealing with movement, attack – used to fight monsters and do other feats of strength, dexterity/initiative – used to open locked doors, see who strikes first in combat, intelligence – used to search for items, persuasion – for talking to others, medical – for healing oneself, and defense/health – for defending oneself in battle and how many hit points a character will have. Character’s stats can be improved from game to game. Each character also has a variety of skills that help them fight, threaten others, etc.
The game takes place on a variable tile system, which uses large tiles that have a grid of thirty-six squares on them. Each tile shows a building in a town, and the streets surrounding it. These tiles can be connected to each other to form a town that fits pretty much every scenario in the book. Each tile has a number of spaces that are marked with a “?”, on which random discs are placed. These disc range from horrifying monsters, to items that help the player’s character, to guards, to security cameras, to people who will help the player (if coerced). Players find out what these discs are by moving onto them, or using intelligence, etc.
On a turn, players can move, using dice and their movement points. One red die must always be used when moving – if a “1” is rolled, the player must then roll on the “Oh, Crap” table – leading to all kinds of horrible things, however if a “6” is rolled, the player gets to roll on the “Woohoo” table, giving them benefits. After moving, the player can do a variety of things (fight, break into buildings, etc.). Each time a player does one of these things, they must make a skill check, and roll a certain amount of dice. Each skill has a certain target level, which a player must roll equal to or higher. The skill level is (from lowest to highest): a six high, one pair, three straight, three of a kind, four straight, four of a kind, five straight, and five of a kind. Each time one of these skill checks is successfully accomplished, the player earns victory points (which can be spent to reroll dice, or are sometimes the goal of a mission). Players can help each other, or hinder one another. It’s their choice, but most scenarios can only be won by one person. Each scenario starts with some specific rules and guidelines, but much of it is still random. The goal is outlined, and the first person to reach that goal is the winner!
The Game Master Rules use the same basic system, except that a GM runs the game, instead of it being randomly generated. A book provided with the game gives the beginning of a campaign, but players are free to generate any scenario they want.
Some comments on the game…
1.) Components: One thing that is very striking about this game is how much you get in such a small box! There are fifteen of the large interchangeable city tiles, which are good quality, and have nice artwork on them, as if the players are looking down inside the buildings that their characters are traversing. There are seventy disks included with the game, and they are fairly easy to tell apart, even though a lot of information is included on each one. There are six regenerated character cards, which are fairly thin, but I doubt that they’d see much play anyway. Six pewter figures are included with the game, which is bad for non-painters such as myself but a treat for those who like to paint. Ten dice are included with the game (are you listening, Steve Jackson?), as well as 32 character sheets for building your own characters. A rulebook, and a fairly thick sourcebook of scenarios and campaigns are all included. Everything fits pretty tightly into a small, sturdy box, and everything is covered with descriptive, dark artwork.
2.) Rules: Here the praises aren’t so many. I will grant that there are a lot of rules in a game like this. But some things were not clear, and indeed the game did not provide a step-by-step turn example, something that was sorely lacking. One thing I did not understand from the rules, for example, was what a “6 high” meant. Maybe others familiar with the system would understand, but I had to search the internet until I found this answer and several others. Once I knew the game, I was able to easily teach it to others, but the skill check system, while unique and excellent, takes a bit to get used to. And I still think that you shouldn’t have to check the internet to figure out how to play the game.
3.) Sourcebook: When Darkness Comes is obviously modeling itself after RPGs, and therefore the sourcebook is fairly detailed, with stories, drawings, and a lot of information. I found it very useful when playing the game, but I wouldn’t have minded if they had combined the sourcebook and rulebook.
4.) Expansions: There are at least four expansions for the game on the market currently. The praise for these, while coming from fans of the game, is high, and they say that the expansions make the game a lot better. I haven’t played any of these expansions, but if you are the type of person who wants to have EVERYTHING from a game, realize that you’ll be buying a lot, and will have a lot of material to choose from.
5.) Game, or GM?: We enjoyed the game, but it felt a little too random to us. Also, many of the skills used in the basic game translate to the same thing. For example, the skills Threaten, Bargain, Bribe, Beg, Bluff, Flirt, and Leadership are all almost identical in their benefits. In a GM run game, the game master can change them and make some of them better in certain situations. In the regular game, a bit of the flavor is lost. I prefer the GM game, because it feels like the whole system runs a little better that way.
6.) Theme: The theme is very, very dark. Not as dark as other RPGs I have heard about, but it certainly doesn’t have much of a lighthearted feel to it, like Zombies! did. Some people revel in dark themes such as this. I prefer lighter, fantasy or space-themed games like Space Hulk or Heroquest.
7.) Fun Factor: The skill system adds a lot of fun to the game. Also, in the regular game, the uncertainty when flipping over a disk adds a lot of tension and fun. Combat is very difficult, so when a monster is killed, players get a lot of satisfaction, and the whole experience is quite enjoyable.
I will recommend this game, but only if you are an RPG fan, especially those of the horror genre. I find RPGs fun, and really enjoyed the system included in this game. And, the value of what you get in the box is incredible, as the components are worth the price alone. Alas, if only the rules were better written, and the theme a little lighter, this game could become a classic. As it stands now, the game will become a classic, but only with a select group, and I don’t think it will be pulled out at my gaming night – mostly because the theme is too dark.