There has been a recent trend of pop culture IP (intellectual property) being used as themes for board and card games – and not just the usual re-skins of classic games. (I will admit to being intrigued by the Minions/Despicable Me version of Operation… but we all have our weaknesses, right?) Prospero Hall recently finished running a Kickstarter for a legacy Jurassic World game while Ravensburger published a Princess Bride storybook game (“Inconceivable!”). One of my favorite new (to me!) games of 2021 was Dune: Imperium from Dire Wolf… and Funko is set to publish a game based on one of my favorite movies of all time, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. (I’d be the first kid in line for a high-quality Singin’ in the Rain game while you’re at it, folks.)
Of course, there’s a long tradition of superhero games as well – while I’m a fan of the Marvel Champions LCG, my younger son is an avid collector/player of Heroclix in the Marvel universe… and the whole family enjoys the DC Comics Deckbuilding game. But making a game about one of the seminal graphic novels of the last 40 years? Could it be done?
Well, it has. And over the next 1000 words or so, I’m going to tell you about my experience with this solo campaign game from Cryptozoic and designers Daryl Andrews and Morgan Dontanville.
“Sherman, set the wayback machine for the spring of 1986.” (I must note that large numbers of you who are reading this probably have no idea who Peabody and his boy Sherman are – and you’re poorer for it.)
It was the final semester of my undergraduate career as an English major (whose specialties were Steinbeck and Chaucer) and my first experience with collecting comics. I’d read about The Dark Knight Returns in a magazine and decided to splurge a bit of my limited resources on it. Reading The Dark Knight Returns led to collecting Watchmen…and I was hooked.
For the next 3+ years, I collected DC Comics religiously (which is funny, because I was a seminary student at the time.) Telling comic book collector moment: I used money from selling off my copies of Batman: A Death in the Family to buy my wife’s engagement ring. (Still married 32 years later. Still amazed I got so much money for a pretty sub-standard stunt to goose sales.)
I sold the collection almost 20 years ago – but I’m currently enjoying a walk down memory lane courtesy of DC Infinite Universe and my iPad. It’s been fun to read those comics over again… some definitely hold up better than others.
OK, so the last few paragraphs were about my love of comics… which may have seemed like a digression but were actually an important part of this preview/review. You see, I have a theory – the best audience for this game are folks who (a) have read and enjoyed The Dark Knight Returns, AND (b) enjoy learning and playing relatively complex board games.
Because – let’s be clear – this game is designed to evoke the story beats of the graphic novel in addition to using the iconic artwork to aid in that process. In order to accomplish that, the designers have created a game with multiple phases, event cards, a wide variety of characters and items to track, and an involved procedure for setting up each game in the campaign.
And Batarang dice. Really.
I’d put The Dark Knight Returns in the same complexity range as the Pandemic Legacy games – while the rules are clear and filled with examples to make learning easier (particularly with the combat system), there are a lot of plates to keep spinning as you play – a Doomsday Clock that ticks toward Armageddon; Batman’s Grit, Health, and Sanity; the number of riots that have broken out in Gotham; and successfully finding and defeating the villain in each game (Two-Face, Mutant Leader, the Joker, and – spoiler alert – Superman) before time runs out.
Now, because some of you will complain (you know who you are) if I don’t give at least a cursory description of how the game works, here’s a quickie gameplay overview.
The game is divided into 4 rounds of 4 turns each. At the beginning of each round, the player does the following things in order:
- turns over 3 action cards and chooses one card to go to the Event deck for this round and two cards to go into the Fight deck or the player’s hand (Detective cards)
- in other words, you are pre-seeding the Event deck with badness and/or choosing proactively what powers you really need in your decks to fight off the bad guys
- chooses the number of new enemies (Mutants, Cops, and Press) that show up each turn in this round
- what part of Gotham they appear in is already randomly determined
- shuffles the Event & Fight deck to get them ready for play
Each turn, the player gets down into the nitty-gritty of fighting crime in an increasingly unhinged Gotham:
- The top card of the Event deck is flipped and resolved.
- Batman is moved.
- One ally can be moved or have an action activated.
- Batman either fights the enemy he’s engaged with – or sneaks past them.
- Batman is able to use the action printed on his space.
- New adversaries are added to the map.
- And the next turn begins…
At the end of the round, the following things are resolved
- Any location that has all three sections covered by Mutants, Cops, and/or Press) devolves into a Riot.
- The played can draw a new pathway between two locations.
- The Doomsday Clock is advanced one hour toward midnight.
In some rounds (depending on the rules of the individual game/book being played) other actions occur at the beginning or end of a round.
Each game ends in if…
- You manage to defeat the Boss.
- This works differently for each of the four books in the game.
- This also means you win!
- Any of your damage tracks (grit, health, or sanity) reach zero.
- You lose.
- The Doomsday Clock reaches 12.
- You also lose.
- A 12th riot would be placed on the map.
- The city dissolves into chaos and, you guessed it, you lose.
- The Boss is still undefeated at the end of 4 rounds.
- You can’t win without defeating the bad guy… so, you lose.
That bare bones outline doesn’t begin to cover all of The Dark Knight Returns game… in this next section, I’ll take a stab at trying to highlight four different key areas of the game. Please note: the specific rules change depending on game situation and which book you’re playing – I’m relying on the Core Game rules here to describe the various elements.
When you decide to fight a Mutant or a Cop (you can’t fight the Press – which is some kind of metaphor for our current timeline), you draw the top card of the Fight deck and add it to your hand. Fight cards give you a one-time special power applicable only during combat. Good news: if you don’t use the Fight card during this donnybrook, you can keep it for a later battle.
Next, you determine how many dice are in your enemy pool – typically 1 for each Mutant or Cop in your location or any adjacent location plus 1 if the Boss is in this location as well. Thankfully, there’s a maximum of six dice in their pool. (Riots have 2 Cop dice and 2 Mutant dice.)
With the fight parameters established, you begin by choosing up to 3 Batman dice from your utility belt – and this may also include possible ally dice (depending on your allies and what they are up to). After rolling them, you roll the enemy pool and start resolving the fight. There are a variety of dice manipulation possibilities – Rerolls, Flips, and Blocks – in addition to Pow (removes one enemy die from the pool) and Ram (removes one enemy die from the pool AND causes you one damage). The enemy does the same to you.
Any Batman dice that meet the cooldown requirement must be set aside and cannot be used again in this fight. (The rules for cooldown vary depending on which book you are playing – at the beginning of the game, any die with Pow or Pow x2 has to go to cooldown.)
If the enemy pool has dice left, you may choose to continue the combat. Regardless, if you remove a die from their pool, you get to remove a Mutant or Cop involved in the fight from the board for each die removed.
Not every location is connected on the map – and in the process of gameplay, you’ll be drawing lines (which cannot cross printed connections and/or each other) to create new ways for Batman and his allies to get around the city. You’ll also destroy spaces and bonus spaces (see the picture below).
And not only are there bridges (as any self-respecting Bat fan knows, the bridges play a big part in a number of Bat stories) but they lead to Wayne Manor, where Batman can heal up and gain the use of one of his fleet of…
Yes, that’s right. He’s got a Batcopter. And a Batwing. And a Bat Tank (see the background of the picture above).
And all you have to do to get them is visit Wayne Manor. Of course, they are one-use items that return to Wayne Manor after being used… where an industrious Batman with time on his hands can get them again. On the other hand, you could spend some time getting 2 or 3 of them loaded up over the first couple of books so you have them available for your later battles with the Joker and Superman.
One of the keys to success in the game is completing Batman’s various goals, which give you access to better dice and special powers. Some are location-based (visit these 3 or 4 locations), some are clearing based (get rid of all the Press in one region, etc.), and some are triggered by specific decisions over time. There are no “bad’ goals… all of them have value, though some are easier to achieve and have a greater impact on gameplay over time.
Each boss must be located (whoa! a Batman game where there is actual investigating!) and engaged… but how that works varies with each book. (In my two full playthroughs, I found the process of dealing with the Mutant Leader to be the most fraught with danger. Of course, your mileage may vary.)
My Personal Reaction
Some personal reactions/thoughts/musings about The Dark Knight Returns game:
While I love the miniature figures in my deluxe Kickstarter copy of the game, they are not necessary for gameplay. The good folks at Cryptozoic did a great job in creating standees using Frank Miller’s artwork that are evocative of the novel and work just fine. (You can see some comparisons in the pictures in this section.)
It’s important to note a couple of things about the setup of the game (and the first book in particular). First, the choices you make in that process can really affect your game experience so I’d strongly suggest that you play the first book through and then start over. With a full game under your belt, you’ll have a better idea how best to scatter/assign the various adversaries. Second, setup is involved and is best done using each rulebook so you don’t miss anything.
A key tactical element is the correct timing for using your Detective and Fight cards. All book numbered cards can remain in your hand for the next book… while all Standard cards go back to the action deck. This means that you should play out the Standard cards in your hand to get the maximum advantage from them before they disappear.
The dry erase board is a fantastic idea – it allows for creating new pathways (who hasn’t played a game and wished they could connect two territories together?!) as well as changing the landscape through bonuses and destruction. It has one drawback, though – it’s very easy to erase lines drawn with the marker and that makes putting the board away between games a bit trickier. I simply leave it out and keep playing – but if you don’t have that option, I’d take a picture of the board before you put it away to make sure everything is reconnected before the next book.
I haven’t had the opportunity to play the competitive version… nor have I tried the set scenarios in the final rulebook. (I hope to get to both of those later this year.)
This Will Be A Good Life… Good Enough
After 7 plays – one trial run at Two-Face, one two book run that ended at the hands of the Mutant Leader, and one four book epic in which I actually managed to beat back the Doomsday Clock and stumble to the end of the game (with a win!) – I’d call myself a fan.
Like I said earlier, it captures the look and feel of the graphic novels perfectly… and the game design does the same with some creative touches and an expansive set of options for the solo player.
I’m a bit concerned for non-gamers picking this up – it’s got a lot of moving parts in the design – but I think that the rulebooks are complete and help walk players through the game.
I’m really looking forward to my next run at completing the story soon… and you can’t ask for more than that.