The players being the evil overlords is a compelling twist on the normal fantasy game theme.
Theme and What is it?
Dark Domains is a worker placement game. It brings VERY strong theme to the gameplay. Players are aspiring evil overlords operating out of the city of Harrows. They will start by acting innocent and building up a pleasant, peaceful domain near Harrows. This will cause the good people of the land to settle in the domains and even pay just to visit them. But these apprentice overlords are just biding their time and building their power so they can turn their realms into the darkest of domains. The one who can accrue the most evil will earn the favor of the Necromancer.
Dark Domains takes between 6 and 8 total rounds of play depending on where the end of game, “Death”, fortune card ends up during the setup. Each round has 8 phases, most of which are very short. During each phase, players have the opportunity to use elements they have collected to cast any qualifying spell cards they have.
The main core of the game comes in the minion phase where players put out their workers in Harrows to fulfill their master’s grand plans. Then in the resolution step, the minions take their planned actions in the order shown on the board. The rest of the round phases are game state maintenance and production for the players.
There are a few notable implications of planning actions before resolving them in a set order. The first is the need for having money already stockpiled or gained early in the resolution to afford what players want. The second, is that there are specific action spaces where a minion can pay to assassinate another players minions prior to them taking their planned actions. These assassinations are costly but when timed right can make a huge swing in the game taking out a critical minion, adventurer, or a henchman another overlord just should not be allowed to have.
The players being the evil overlords is a compelling twist on the normal fantasy game theme. Dark Domains even has bold adventuring parties that set forth to cleanse the land from evil or pay homage to the best shrines of civilization they can find. Convincing these adventurers to pay them early on and leading them into a devious trap later on is loads of fun. The adventurers combat involves rolling plenty of dice.
Dice are a mixed bag when it comes to games. Rolling them can be great fun. Trying to make sure the odds are stacked just enough in your favor is highly tactical. But they always have the chance that pure random bad luck will foil the best laid plans. The dice play such a small, albeit important, role (pun intended) to the game that no one gets frustrated regardless of the results. Everyone I play with watches the rolls very carefully and will groan or rejoice audibly after the dust settles.
Game Build Quality
Labratory H has made a wonderful product. The main board, player domains, and punchboard components quality are all top notch. The player meeples are not just custom colors but even custom shapes showing which race the minions represent. It might be a small thing, but being able to claim ownership of the pointy eared Elves or diminutive Dwarves is very satisfying. The number of building cards and monster tiles provided far exceed what even several plays can possibly experience fully.
The fortune card deck uses 15 cards in each play with 62 cards to randomly put in play. To further blow my mind, each fortune card has different abilities that trigger based on which other card type it is paired with when revealed. There are thousands of configurations available just in setup alone.
Jonathan Elliot deserves to be commended for the excellent art in Dark Domains. The monsters look like their classic tropes but with his own custom flair thrown in. The entire game has a very dark, Victorian feel to it thanks to the artwork. This makes it easy for players to immerse themselves in the thematic elements of trying to be the most vile lord ever.
I love depth of strategy in my games and find it exceptionally fun to come up with an early overall plan that takes the entire game to execute. Dark Domains offers this opportunity. Carefully choosing which buildings to make, which henchmen to hire, and making a production engine that can consume every last resource into points at the end is incredibly satisfying. That said, the real fun of the game doesn’t seem to lie in the evil producing engines but in the spell cards. Spells can do everything from provide the resources you need, to stealing opponents henchmen, or even forcibly removing a minion from its planned action spot.
NOTE: The spell cards that you play with should be considered based on the group playing. Encourage people NOT to grab from the attack deck unless there is a runaway leader who needs stopped. And feel free to do a “Carla special” to the Henchmen/spell decks to remove the most devious negative player interaction effects if that is the style of game you prefer to play.
Age Range & Weight
14+ is a totally fair rating. The game doesn’t have any gore or visually problematic content. But it does feature assassination as a game mechanic, adventurers hunting down and destroying corrupted buildings, and monsters gobbling up these would be heroes in a storm of vengeful arcane fire. Even without the theme, the gameplay has enough steps to be intimidating to too young of an audience.
Most of the steps are simple and fast but can be a bit intimidating when you first look through the rules. Especially how adventurers choose their targets can be a bit of a struggle to get everyone on the same page with. This is the only reason I would put Dark Domains as a higher weight game. The rest of it is nice and smooth. Once it starts to click, it becomes a fast, simple process to run through a game.
Dark Domains feels like it has a lot of inspiration from earlier worker placement games such as Lords of Waterdeep. It adds a much more thematic experience where the actions workers are taking are justified within the story of the game. Given the importance of spell casting and henchmen on the overall game state, Dark Domains puts a huge amount of power in the game on the things you do to augment your play.
It encourages players to have different powers than their opponents. No player ends up with similar buildings in the same sections of their domain. They don’t have similar henchmen abilities. They don’t have incentives to use the same minion spaces on the main city board. Everyone will have a very different play experience even from the very first round of the game.
Competing for the main board actions that are most beneficial and well timed will always be a staple of the worker placement genre and is not lacking in Dark Domains. It all but eliminates the careful resource gathering typical in a worker placement and instead makes it an exercise in putting all the resources gained to better use than your opponents. In fact, gaining the main building materials is a single space on the board where all players can visit in the same round to convert as much money as they want into as many resources as they desire.
Dark Domains has so many cool side elements of the game and such a great theme pervading every choice a player makes. This makes it an ideal choice for both veteran gamers and for drawing new players into an existing group and getting them to enjoy the world of worker placement games.
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