Almost any game player can get behind the idea of a good dungeon crawl. Twisting corridors hide lurking monsters. The doors of an ancient ruin could reveal a cache of treasure or a nest of spiders. It’s the simplest and most accessible version of the fantasy adventure, with examples stretching back to the earliest genre fiction from the likes of Tolkien and Howard. Dozens of board games over the years have tried to emulate the allure of the concept, but CMON’s latest is certainly one of my favorites; Massive Darkness is an action-packed, rollicking cooperative adventure that can be played by as many as six players at once. Straightforward rules, attractive high-quality components, strong pacing, and the variable player count make this an excellent choice when you have a mix of experience levels among the players coming to your table, and everyone is down for some unadulterated hacking and slashing.
In the world of Massive Darkness, you take on the role of Lightbringers – weapon and spell wielders united against the resurgent forces of Darkness – with whom you’ll descend into the depths of underground lairs to root out the monsters and claim ancient legendary artifacts and weapons. If you’re looking for a lot more story, you may be missing the point; go kill that goblin!
While the fiction behind Massive Darkness is enough to prop up your adventures, the real focus is on fierce combat, and an interesting twist on gameplay brought on by areas of light and darkness. Combat is resolved through a series of rolls of the included custom dice. Each distinct character has an array of powers that are often triggered by special results on the dice. As your arsenal grows, the fun lies in choosing which one of those abilities to trigger with your result. On top of your standard abilities, many bonuses only proc when your character is currently in a darkness space on the board; these heroes are meant to fight and dwell in the darkest places, after all. Lit and unlit spots are clearly recognizable on the board tiles, letting you strategize your upcoming moves and desired locations.
The character class and upgrade system are the real meat that will keep you coming back to the game. Your named hero has a few features and abilities of his or her own, but you can choose to pair that hero with any of the included classes. Want your pointy-hat, robe-wearing old man to actually be a pit fighter berserker? Sure! Give it a try. Recommended class pairings are included, but you’re free to do what you want. With your hero paired to a class, you can start the leveling process. Almost everything gets you XP, from killing monsters to picking up quest objectives, and every turn offers the chance to spend that XP on new powers. Alternately, slow your leveling a bit and expend XP to complete powerful signature moves for your battling dungeon explorer. As the bountiful supplies of loot pile up in your inventory, and more powers unlock on your character sheet, the options for ridiculous destructive attacks multiplies. Any given dungeon levels up as you move through it; arrive at spaces further away from the starting point, and the level of both the treasure and monsters moves up to match your growing capabilities.
Massive Darkness plays out on a modular board of tiles, and every game session is a specific quest with concise setup instructions and objectives. I appreciate the clear layouts and explanations for these quests, which do a good job of showing the scenario in ways that are easily interpreted. Like a lot of modular games, there’s a good bit of fiddling with tiny door tokens and other cardboard pieces, and it means setup can take a little while. Once the distraction of setup is done, I’m consistently impressed by the flexibility of the tiles to present compelling and varied layouts for battles.
New baddies pop up all over the place as the adventurers open doors, trigger events, or complete objectives. In both the way they appear, and how they fight and move, the game has consistent and understandable rules that govern enemy actions. And while these trolls and hellhounds aren’t going to win any awards for intelligence in their automated approaches to murdering you, they still pose compelling threats. That’s in part because many of the bad guys wield the very treasure you’re seeking; before you can use that ice sword, you’re going to have to pry it from the cold dead hands of the ogre mage who was just using it against you. As powerful enemies come into play, they’re paired with a treasure card that stacks with their natural attack and defense abilities, lending variety to fights that might otherwise be lacking.
CMON’s bread and butter is its intricate miniature work, and that trait is on full display in Massive Darkness. The unpainted minis offer incredible detail, from the sharpened claws of the abyssal demon to the raised spear-like legs of the giant spider. I’ve found that new players are especially delighted by the number of minis that end up swarming the board in any given quest. Monsters often appear in mobs that scramble through the darkness toward your group. A big part of gameplay involves deciding which teeming mass of enemies to cut down first. The size of these enemy groups and the hit points of more powerful enemies vacillates to match the size of your player group, keeping everything well balanced; the insanity is especially potent with five or six players.
I’m also a big fan of the game’s approach to character management through smart component usage. Every player gets a hard plastic dashboard, into which you can slot currently equipped weapons and armor, and insertable pegs track your XP as it moves up and down. Class progression is tracked on included paper class sheets, torn from pads that come with the game; your Paladin of Fury might look very different from your friend’s after you’ve spent all that XP.
Massive Darkness works just fine for a one-off evening of gaming; pick a quest and get to looting. But consistent play groups will want to use the included story mode rules. Here, XP progression is slowed down, and in-dungeon events are adjusted to match your party level. Between quests, players head to town, selling off extraneous treasure and equipment for additional XP or other gear. It all works well, if you’re in for the long haul; like any game of this type, it’s exciting to have that slow crawl toward the best abilities. However, I suggest that you stick with the standard mode of play unless you feel relatively confident you’ll be playing with the same group a bunch of times. It’s simply more exciting to blast through and level up fast in a single session, especially if you’re only going to have that same group of players there to complete a couple of quests.
The ten quests included in the base game are repeatable and should keep you busy for a good while. But as you might expect, Massive Darkness is also expandable, and there are already several sets of additional content you can snag to further expand the game’s potential. A few of these packs (like the Troglodyte and Reptisaurians boxes) add a ton of great new minis to the fight, while other packs (like the Warrior Priests Vs. the Spearmaiden Cyclops set) have fewer minis, but add new heroes, classes, artifacts, and more. There’s even additional tiles and quests to go along with an entirely new campaign in the A Quest of Crystal & Lava set.
With or without expansions, experienced play groups will quickly realize they can make their own quests with ease. Perhaps you want to run a party of all battle wizards, and attack the ogre mage who holds a particularly powerful magic artifact? Or create a wild run through corridors where endless goblin mobs spawn from every direction as you try to reach the exit. The game’s systems are easy to grasp and mod at whim, shaping the play session you’d most enjoy.
There are dungeon crawlers out there with deeper stories, more intricate leveling systems, complex diceless strategic combat, or more established or licensed fictional universes. Massive Darkness doesn’t attempt to compete on those scores, but instead opts for fast play, mad dice-fueled throwdowns against dozens of enemy monsters, and a freewheeling trope-driven aesthetic that is easy to embrace. This is fantasy role-playing battles stripped of the need for role-playing. While the game is not simplistic, the pace of play once things get going is easy to understand and appreciate. And the incredible quality of the components make the table view a treat. Massive Darkness isn’t likely to wow you with innovation, but you’re going to be having too much fun taking out orcs to care.
If Massive Darkness sounds like it’s up your alley, I’ll also briefly point you toward the game franchise from which it draws inspiration and many of its rules systems. The long-running Zombicide series has a similar vibe, but shifts the focus to hordes of undead. Zombicide has game entries in both modern and medieval fantasy milieus, whichever is your preference, and offers a similar style of fun, frantic combat encounters utilizing great miniatures.
If dungeon crawling isn’t your thing, I’m confident there’s something else that might be more your speed if you head over into the Top of the Table hub, which you can reach by clicking on the banner below or on this link. For more personalized recommendations, I’m always happy to field your questions via email or Twitter. Drop me a line, and I’ll help you find the game that’s right for your family
the author Matt Miller