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  • Reviews
  • Dark Domains Review: Well-Designed Worker Placement with Conflict

Dark Domains Review: Well-Designed Worker Placement with Conflict

KK Updated August 27, 2019
 
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Dark Domains Review: Well-Designed Worker Placement with Conflict

Game Information

Game Name
Publisher
There Will Be Games

Dark Domains, from Laboratory H, is a worker placement game with a few other mechanics layered on, including means of disrupting other players’ plans. This makes for an intriguing game if you like a lot of player interaction and rules that promote a changing game environment—and I do. But it could make Dark Domains a frustrating experience for players who prefer a more peaceful and stable game setting.

Players take on the role of secretly evil followers of a local necromancer. The backstory is that the town of Harrows is growing, and the players are leading the settlement of nearby frontiers. So they develop areas with castles, fortresses, libraries, and numerous other attractive buildings and monuments. Their real goal, however, is to corrupt those buildings once completed and populate the countryside with monsters. Along the way, players collect evil points (VP), with the most evil player winning the game.

The core mechanic is worker placement following the standard model. Spaces allow the acquisition of resources, buildings to construct with said resources, spell elements, money, extra workers, monsters for hire, a better spot in the turn order, and cards of various types, including spells and henchmen. One distinguishing feature of Dark Domains is free-flowing resources. Dark Domains is not a tight-money game, and it is usually not very difficult to acquire the necessary components for your strategy.

board

Acquired buildings are placed in a player’s region, generally light-side up. Buildings generate resources, cash or other benefits while still on their light sides. Later placement of a worker, or “minion,” on a building flips it to the dark side. A darkly twisted building generates evil points or magic elements, usually more valuable ones than the light side produces.

buildings

You can also hire monsters to frighten the peasants in your countryside or nest in one of your evil buildings like a hulking, brooding security guard. Monsters make evil buildings stronger and also produce evil points. Some even provide resources or spell elements—a fire elemental produces one fire per turn.

But the creation of your corrupt countryside will not go unhindered. Players have several methods of interfering in others’ efforts to gain the necromancer’s respect. These include henchmen with dirty tricks, destructive spells, and thuggery up to and including assassination, all of which are acquired by placing minions in the right spots.

(I must point out that hindering other players is not how one wins Dark Domains. Attacking another player costs resources and time while earning exactly zero VP. If you spend too much time slowing other players down, your own board development is brought to an agonizing halt—and that’s before other players retaliate. An exquisitely timed strike, on the other hand…)

Henchmen are represented by cards—each turn a new set of henchmen appears on the board for player acquisition. Henchmen give you special abilities to buy, sell, or trade for goods, slay a monster, hire an extra minion, or assassinate other henchmen or adventurers.

There are four decks of spell cards—one each providing spells of production, control (manipulating the board or pieces), attack and defense. Magic is paid for via resources called “elements” (earth, air, fire, and water) and can be quite powerful. A production spell may net you a lot of goods or prevent others from acquiring some. Attack spells can utterly destroy another player’s building or kill a monster.

Both cards and a couple of worker placement spots on the board enable assassination. Does an opponent have too many henchmen, or a very powerful one? Eliminate it. There’s a cost in gold, but it’s only money, and you’ve got evil plans to advance without pesky interference.

There are also good guys in play. Each turn, two parties of non-player adventurers go looking for evil to smite. Dark Domains includes a mechanism for determining whose buildings or monsters will be targeted by each party, each turn. Once they’ve picked their targets, the parties attack by rolling a number of dice of various types—d6, d8, d10, d12—and trying to exceed a defense number belonging to a building, a monster, or both. If the party succeeds, the building, monster, or combination of the two is destroyed. This mechanism requires planning by the players—you can tell what the parties’ next targets are likely to be, such as the most evil building in a mountain area, or the most evil monster in anyone’s region. So players shouldn’t put their most valuable buildings there, unless the buildings are very well defended, and should shelter high-evil monsters in lairs. Players also have opportunities to mess with (or assassinate) adventurers likely to target them.

In a nice touch, if the good guys can’t find any evil worth their while, they go on a pilgrimage and reward the player who owns their favored blessed building instead.

Finally, the Fortune Cards deserve mention. They function as the game clock—you build a deck of them during setup. Dark Domains includes a larger deck of cards from which you randomly choose a smaller number for each game. Two cards come out each turn and add special rules or change the game state. For instance, one fortune card might make players pay gold to place minions or prevent the corruption of buildings for a turn. One Fortune Card—Death—signals the game’s end, and players do not know whether Death will appear on turn 6, 7, or 8 to trigger the last turn.

All of this means that Dark Domains is a fairly chaotic, swingy game that invites thorough planning, but can easily delay or shatter your plans with a sudden change in the environment or an unexpected attack. This, along with the direct conflict baked into the player interaction, should give you an idea how you’ll feel about the game. Everyone I’ve played with so far has enjoyed it and would happily play again. They like casting an earthquake spell to collapse an opponent’s key fortress and are comfortable with random dice/events (or being the victim of that earthquake spell). If that sounds like you, then I really recommend giving Dark Domains a try.

I know a lot of players, however, who prefer games without attacks between players or with mechanics for which they can plan with reasonable reliability. Some just do not care for the roll of a few dice determining key outcomes. If this paragraph describes you, another game might be a better fit.

A few other points:

  • Dark Domains comes with a lot of components, and they are nice. I like the graphic style, even if it appears that the printing may have been a bit darker than intended—hard to say, given the game’s title. You get plenty of quality cards and cardboard for the price.

Components

  • Lots of components can mean a long set-up time. If you buy Dark Domains, you will probably want something more than baggies for storage. It helps to have several cups or some kind of counter tray on hand. Otherwise the piles of counters can spread way across the table.
  • The rule book is a mixed bag. I learned to play from it, but it isn’t always clear. Fortunately, there is an excellent video explaining the rules in about 15 minutes, and you can look up the details as you play. - Dark Domains How to Play in Under 15 Minutes
  • There is a rather important omission in the rule book—a key rule about moving a monster after it has been placed. The rule book makes it seem as though you cannot move a monster once placed. There is, however, an exception. When you turn a building evil, a monster without a lair can move there immediately. This rule is mentioned in the video above, and the publishers have confirmed it.
  • I think Dark Domains is better with more players—four or five. I haven’t played with two, but with three the board feels too wide open. The game’s direct conflict also brings into play the traditional three-player problem. While one player is using resources to attack, and another to defend, the third player is blissfully executing their plan. It is possible that the adventuring parties will disrupt them, but certainly not guaranteed. And then there is the possibility of two-on-one (or three-on-one, if the good guys pile on).
  • I have heard of groups who play by simply agreeing not to attack each other. It would seem easier to play a different worker placement game. I’ve been thinking about whether you could take most of the conflict out of Dark Domains, but I don’t think so. You could remove the attack spell deck, but it seems to be the primary catch-up mechanism in the game, as it is the best way to slow down a runaway leader. Even so, there are henchmen with attack abilities. Even if you also removed the henchmen, there are worker placement spots on the board that allow assassination (or at least attempts). Besides, thuggery is an inherent part of the game’s theme. Whoever heard of bad guys competing politely for the top spot?

Dark Domains plays like a well-designed worker placement game—with magic, monsters, and assassins thrown in. The mechanics consistently implement the theme of evildoers diligently corrupting their little corners of the world. Dark Domains has a lot to offer players who appreciate more player interaction with their Euro mechanics, and who still appreciate some “gotcha” in their games.


Editor review

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Board Game Reviews 
 
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KK
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Kevin Klemme (He/Him)
Associate Writer

Kevin Klemme is a transplanted Midwesterner who has played board games for as long as he can remember. Wargames and RPGs became staples in high school 40 years ago. Wargames remain Kevin’s preferred game type, especially card-driven games like For the People and Paths of Glory. Kevin also enjoys other board and card games with lots of player interaction, as well as the occasional game of Crokinole. His favorite game, though, is backgammon, which is better than chess because of the dice.

Articles by Kevin

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ubarose's Avatar
ubarose replied the topic: #301119 27 Aug 2019 10:52
This game totally flew under my radar. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. It sounds like a game I might like.

Also, I really enjoyed reading this. Although it didn't make me laugh out loud, it did make me cackle evilly to myself a few times.
Josh Look's Avatar
Josh Look replied the topic: #301127 27 Aug 2019 13:02
Yeah, this sounds like it’s totally in my wheelhouse. I need to try it.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #301130 27 Aug 2019 13:33
I generally dislike worker placement games, because they tend to focus on artificial economies built around victory point generation, and the only interaction is passive-aggressive blocking. Dark Domains looks a little better, but I think that I would rather play Sons of Anarchy, which features very direction interaction and conflict.
Scott_F's Avatar
Scott_F replied the topic: #301143 27 Aug 2019 19:36
I backed this on KS and was excited to get it. Components, map, theme everything looks great. I set up a solo game with 3 players to learn it and halfway through I quit and immediately sold the game.

It isn't a normal worker placement game where players fight over tight resource spots. I don't honestly know where the tension in the game is. Resources are easy to acquire thanks to the spells that are random but often just better than the resource gathering spots on the board. The 4 decks are all very powerful and early you can grab from the resource and defense decks and just get free stuff. Or grab from the mean decks and fuck over an opponents pricey building/monster. In my solo play the best spots every turn were draw more spells, and from what I remember there is no significant hand limit either. The henchmen that provide upgrades are kinda fun in a generic "get more resources" way. The concept of generating resources for a while and then flipping a building dark for evil is cool. The adventurers semi randomly will try and destroy a dark building, which often costs a decent amount of effort to build. Their success and whether they will target you is based on dice rolling. Or again play a card to just destroy a building if you're lucky enough to draw one.

Again I couldn't even get through a full solo game of this so maybe I'm missing something. But there was nothing here, simply hope you get better spell card draws and that the adventurers roll low or attack someone else based on a dice roll. This was the most disappointing KS game I've ever receieved by a wide margin.
Kevin Klemme's Avatar
Kevin Klemme replied the topic: #301147 27 Aug 2019 21:39
@Scott_F, to each his own. I'm not surprised the game doesn't work solo, as it seems to be designed for player interaction.
Scott_F's Avatar
Scott_F replied the topic: #301148 27 Aug 2019 21:50
Oh no, I don't play games solo. I setup new games solo to learn the rules before I teach other people.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #301151 27 Aug 2019 23:25
Sometimes the most elusive component for a game is the fun.
Josh Look's Avatar
Josh Look replied the topic: #301160 28 Aug 2019 09:52
Well, I think I’ll do something at least halfway constructive here and actually thank Kevin for bringing this game to my attention. I’d never heard of it but like I said before, this looks to be exactly the kind of thing I’m into.

“I haven’t played this, but I think I’d rather play old game X instead” and “Euros/abstraction bad” is really killing this site for me and get closer and closer to seeing myself out everyday because of it. If there were any real, meaningful contributions to the discussion because of it, it might not be so tiring, but that’s not the case. It’s like trolling, only worse, there’s no punchline, just miserable, useless BS.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #301161 28 Aug 2019 10:24

Josh Look wrote: Well, I think I’ll do something at least halfway constructive here and actually thank Kevin for bringing this game to my attention. I’d never heard of it but like I said before, this looks to be exactly the kind of thing I’m into.

“I haven’t played this, but I think I’d rather play old game X instead” and “Euros/abstraction bad” is really killing this site for me and get closer and closer to seeing myself out everyday because of it. If there were any real, meaningful contributions to the discussion because of it, it might not be so tiring, but that’s not the case. It’s like trolling, only worse, there’s no punchline, just miserable, useless BS.


According to a quick search at BGG, over 1,300 worker placement games have been published in the last five years. I'm interested in reading about new games, but also quick to dismiss anything that looks like more of the same.
ubarose's Avatar
ubarose replied the topic: #301169 28 Aug 2019 14:34
Yeah, but this sounds different.

I know Kevin has not written enough here to have established his taste in games, but if you read his bio, you know that he is a wargamer and likes games that have a lot of player interaction. Based on knowing that about him and his review, it sounds to me that the heart of this game is NOT in the economic engine building, but rather in the player interaction and generally screwing with each other. It seems like it has an Argent the Consortium type vibe.

So I am pretty curious about it. I'd definitely play it if the opportunity presented itself.
Space Ghost's Avatar
Space Ghost replied the topic: #301181 28 Aug 2019 17:34

Scott_F wrote: Oh no, I don't play games solo. I setup new games solo to learn the rules before I teach other people.


Your entire other post was about running through it solo (which sounds like enhanced rulebook reading -- which isn't meant derogatory, just descriptive).

The author of the piece is saying that you need to play it with other people. I would just say that sometimes a game will show more than can be seen by just understanding the mechanics (the whole "emergent gameplay" thing, I guess); it's not that different with other things where people have "aha" moments once they start doing it than when they just learn from a textbook or lecture.
Space Ghost's Avatar
Space Ghost replied the topic: #301183 28 Aug 2019 17:37

Shellhead wrote:

Josh Look wrote: Well, I think I’ll do something at least halfway constructive here and actually thank Kevin for bringing this game to my attention. I’d never heard of it but like I said before, this looks to be exactly the kind of thing I’m into.

“I haven’t played this, but I think I’d rather play old game X instead” and “Euros/abstraction bad” is really killing this site for me and get closer and closer to seeing myself out everyday because of it. If there were any real, meaningful contributions to the discussion because of it, it might not be so tiring, but that’s not the case. It’s like trolling, only worse, there’s no punchline, just miserable, useless BS.


According to a quick search at BGG, over 1,300 worker placement games have been published in the last five years. I'm interested in reading about new games, but also quick to dismiss anything that looks like more of the same.


The entire review is about how it isn't the same as other worker placement games. Just because a lot of alternatives exist (that is an absurd amount of worker placement games), doesn't mean this is "more of the same".

At the same time, you are pretty biased against worker placement, so you are quick to lump everything into the general category of "stay away". As it turns out, I am biased as well -- it is probably my least favorite type of game because so many of the restrictions are arbitrary -- that being said, this sounded interesting and different than the others.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #301184 28 Aug 2019 17:40

Space Ghost wrote:

Scott_F wrote: Oh no, I don't play games solo. I setup new games solo to learn the rules before I teach other people.


Your entire other post was about running through it solo (which sounds like enhanced rulebook reading -- which isn't meant derogatory, just descriptive).

The author of the piece is saying that you need to play it with other people. I would just say that sometimes a game will show more than can be seen by just understanding the mechanics (the whole "emergent gameplay" thing, I guess); it's not that different with other things where people have "aha" moments once they start doing it than when they just learn from a textbook or lecture.


I think that you make a good point about games in general. But the specific issues that Scott identified with Dark Domains don't seem connected to live interaction and emergent gameplay, they seem like valid observations about how certain design choices reduce potential conflict and interaction because the game economy is overly generous.
Space Ghost's Avatar
Space Ghost replied the topic: #301185 28 Aug 2019 17:50

Shellhead wrote:

Space Ghost wrote:

Scott_F wrote: Oh no, I don't play games solo. I setup new games solo to learn the rules before I teach other people.


Your entire other post was about running through it solo (which sounds like enhanced rulebook reading -- which isn't meant derogatory, just descriptive).

The author of the piece is saying that you need to play it with other people. I would just say that sometimes a game will show more than can be seen by just understanding the mechanics (the whole "emergent gameplay" thing, I guess); it's not that different with other things where people have "aha" moments once they start doing it than when they just learn from a textbook or lecture.


I think that you make a good point about games in general. But the specific issues that Scott identified with Dark Domains don't seem connected to live interaction and emergent gameplay, they seem like valid observations about how certain design choices reduce potential conflict and interaction because the game economy is overly generous.


Perhaps. But, it could also be that when one person is trying to "simulate" three players, they simulate how they play each player the same way -- we are very bad about playing entirely different strategies, both in how we would theoretically interact and how we would respond to someone else's style. This is why AI opponents are so hard to build in coops -- because we have a hard time building an appropriate amount of plausible unpredictability into the automated response.

From my reading, it sounds like this could be highly interactive with the spells used to aggressively attack other players throughout. Scott's conclusion was then that nothing was better than getting spells, watering down the standard economic engine that is built in worker placement games. The question is whether there is a balanced response to that kind of game play -- I would be surprised if someone could discover that on their own in one half of a simulated three player game. Maybe Scott doesn't think it is worth the time to find out -- that is perfectly fine, but I doubt the "interaction doesn't matter" is the correct conclusion, especially given the points made by the person who has played the game (probably more than once).

Another point in its favor is that Jeff Horger is one of the designers and he did a great job with Thunder Alley in making it very thematic for a NASCAR game (I know Josh disagrees from a podcast, but I think he is wrong in a lot of ways on that particular point).
Kevin Klemme's Avatar
Kevin Klemme replied the topic: #301189 28 Aug 2019 19:26
Yes, you can win the game with strategies other than spells. The last game I played--coincidentally a three-player game--the winner barely used spells at all, winning by building a really efficient economic engine. He was producing so much that even after an earthquake leveled his fortress, he went on to win.
Kevin Klemme's Avatar
Kevin Klemme replied the topic: #301190 28 Aug 2019 19:28
The problem with "spells are best" is that spells can't be cast in a vacuum. You have to have elements, and other players want those, too.
Scott_F's Avatar
Scott_F replied the topic: #301218 29 Aug 2019 15:56
I'm not trying to write a review here or state that the initial review is wrong. I came into Dark Domains with very high expectations and knowing that this is a game from the designer of Thunder Alley, a game I liked a lot but ultimately sold for other reasons. I love the theme of being evil and the production of the game was excellent.

Yes I tried it solo, like I do with every game I buy before I ask my friends to play this game over dozens of other games that they know and are excited to play. I've done the same with Rising Sun, Food Chain Magnate, Argent, etc to get an idea of whether it is worth our time. I didn't enjoy the game and felt that the random draws from the spelldeck were too powerful compared to the other decisions in the game and the henchman were similarly swingy. It is an extremely interactive take that style of game. I'm sure some people will like it. I love Fate of the Elder Gods and Charlie recently mentioned the game fell flat for him. Shrug.

boardgamegeek.com/video/228521/dark-doma...-through-round-table

This came out after I bought the game already. Their comments start around 2:45 and do a way better job of addressing why I had a problem with the game. Typically I like aggressive interactive games, but this one didn't work from the start.