When a reboot of the hit 1981 board game Dark Tower (no relation to the books or movie) was announced in 2018, the big question was how developer Restoration Games would handle the iconic electronic tower that sat at the center of its game board. Well, that big question has a big answer.
Ahead of Return to Dark Tower’s Kickstarter launch on January 14, designer Rob Daviau (who joined us previously for a look at Betrayal Legacy and has partnered with Gloomhaven creator Isaac Childres for this) came by to give us a look inside this spiritual successor’s box. That includes its massive, one-foot tall plastic tower with Bluetooth, spinning chambers, lights, and ominous sound effects galore.
Watch the video above to see me and Daviau show it off, and read on to hear my thoughts after playing Return to Dark Tower myself:
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Starting with the basics, Return to Dark Tower is a cooperative board game for 1-4 players. You and your allies have to fight monsters, grab loot, and complete quests to eventually lure out and defeat a powerful adversary hiding in the looming tower at the center of the map.
And, boy, does that tower loom. This thing is truly enormous, almost entirely blocking the opposite half of the map opposite from your view – actually a net positive, as it encouraged me and my allies to talk more and prevented anyone player from effectively quarterbacking the whole experience.
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This big hunk of plastic is, of course, important to actually playing the game, but it’s also just a presence in itself. A showpiece meant to wow and intimidate as it continuously threatens the success of your mission. Also, it’s got Bluetooth, so that’s neat.
You’ll move your hero minis around Return to Dark Tower’s lovely circular board while managing item cards, plastic skulls, and other physical pieces, but many other aspects of the game are handled by a mobile app. Quest tracking, turn counters, and combat to name a few, but the digital and physical sides are balanced in a way that never makes the other feel superfluous.
And, perhaps most important of all, the tower itself feels as important as it should. Daviau told me they wanted to make sure players couldn’t just leave it in the box, and the suite of showy actions it can perform is full of both flavor and substance. Its built-in Bluetooth connects to your phone, essentially acting as a gamemaster for your adventure when paired.
A player ends their turn by dropping a tiny plastic skull into the top of the tower. A sensor detects the skull, signals to the app that a turn is over, and triggers all sorts of dastardly events depending on the combination of quests, monsters, and main villain you are using for that session. The inner chambers of the tower shift and turn, sigils appear and light up to impose penalties on whoever they are facing, and occasionally you’ll need to open trap doors on its foreboding exterior.
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That last bit is often the scariest. When a skull is dropped into the tower it will usually roll out of one of its many openings at random. The player it rolls toward then has to place that skull on one of the buildings in their section of the map, which makes gathering the benefits of that building more expensive. That’s rough on its own, but it’s even more terrifying when a skull doesn’t appear at all, instead gathering in some unknown nook or behind a door yet to be opened within the tower itself.
As the game goes on and more openings are unlocked, it not only makes getting skulls or sigils more likely, it also increases the odds that you’ll stumble upon a latent cache of doom waiting to roll out. At one point during our playthrough, the tower instructed us to open a door and four skulls clattered onto a single player’s kingdom, throwing all their plans into chaos. It’s delightfully devilish and makes interacting with this evil monolith wonderfully tense.
Return to Dark Tower is split into six “months,” each of which begins by giving you two quests: one that will help you complete your overall quest of luring out and defeating your adversary more easily when finished, and another that will instead empower your enemies if you don’t complete it.
Since you only have that month to complete them (each month is generally between seven and nine turns long), the puzzle here is in figuring out how best to divide tasks and time between each player – and to determine what will likely have to fall under the umbrella of “acceptable losses.” This makes each month a little mini-game inside of your final quest, full of tough choices and tiny victories of their own.
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Many of those choices involve the monsters that inevitably fill the map, and specifically whether you’re going to fight them or spend your time elsewhere while quietly praying they don’t find you cowering in the corner… which they will. See, killing an enemy is as easy as using the combat action on them (apart from some special big bads), but be ready to take massive losses alongside your victory if you aren’t properly prepared.
Combat is handled entirely through Return to Dark Tower’s app, which we were using a prototype version of. Instead of rolling dice or pitting combat power against one another, you instead draw a set number of digital cards from that monster’s deck while using “advantages” you gather through items and character abilities to make those cards less awful.
For example, many enemy cards cause you to lose a resource called warriors, and you could use an advantage on one that makes you lose four warrior tokens to reduce it to two, and then another to make it zero. Go even further and you’ll actually start getting resources back as a reward, but don’t have enough to sacrifice and you’ll gather debuffs called corruptions that will lose you the game once you reach three.
If you don’t have many advantages to spend you’ll still be able to win the fight, just not mitigate the damage you take as a result, and having only a few advantages forces you to pick which poisons you most want to neutralize. Some advantages are only effective against certain enemy types too, like beasts or the undead, encouraging players to specialize and prepare the right tool for the right job.
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It’s a unique and strategically interesting system, if one that felt just a little bit odd thematically in practice. Most enemies – whether it’s a wolf or an ogre – can be killed in a single combat, and it seems odd that you amass warrior not to improve your combat power but instead to have them be taken away to avoid real damage. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a system I enjoyed using and planning around, but one that’s likely in need of a finished app with actual card graphics and more clear flavor to really click for me.
That said, it’s one of the few parts of Return to Dark Tower that didn’t so far. The slight variations between each character are significant enough to give each player a distinct role without making everyone learn a whole new ruleset, the items and treasures offer significant effects that my group was constantly getting excited about, and the prospect of replayability as you (and the app) swap between sets of quests, adversaries, and more is highly appealing for a box as big as this.
Return to Dark Tower is launching a Kickstarter on Tuesday, January 14 at 9am ET. It’s by no means a cheap or small game, and there’s still lots of questions left unanswered after my one (nearly victorious) prototype playthrough, but the unique spectacle and interesting puzzle it offered already left me wanting to have another go right away.
If you’re looking for more great board games, you can watch our spoiler-free unboxing of Betrayal Legacy with Daviau, or check out our list of the best cooperative board games. We’ve also rounded up some of the best fantasy board games around, and if you’re new to the hobby, here’s our picks for the best board games for beginners.
Tom Marks is IGN’s Deputy Reviews Editor and resident pie maker. You can follow him on Twitter.