Quick Look: Return to Dark Tower
Designers: Tim Burrell-Saward, Isaac Childres, Noah Cohen, Rob Daviau
Artists: JJ Ariosa, James Bousema, Tim Burrell-Saward, Lindsay Daviau
Publisher: Restoration Games
Year Published: 2022
For an age, the tower lay in ruins. Unbeknownst to the people of the realm, a great evil stirred in its bowels. It started with strange sightings: a flock of crows flying in circles until they dropped from the sky, the lake frozen solid in the height of summer. In time, they could not deny that which they most feared.
The evil had not been vanquished. The darkness would soon fall again. The tower will rise.
A “sequel” to the 1981 grail game, Return to Dark Tower is a game for 1-4 players who take the role of heroes. Together, they gather resources, cleanse buildings, defeat monsters, and undertake quests to build up their strength and discern what foe ultimately awaits them. When the heroes face the tower, the game shifts into its dramatic second act, where the players have one chance to defeat the enemy once and for all.
The game features both cooperative and competitive modes of play.
The game features traditional game mechanisms, such as engine building and resource management, paired with a technological interface unlike any seen before in games, including the titular tower, which holds more than a few secrets.
I really try to do my best to make sure that I am not influenced and deceived by flash and flair. Superficiality is very much an anathema to me in just about every venue of life, whether it is with pop stars constantly flouting themselves or college professors who can’t seem to stop talking about themselves.
So it should come as no surprise that another personal pet peeve of mine is also with board game designs that shower themselves with needless extravagance while being just as shallow as the aforementioned pop stars when it comes to what matters most : gameplay.
Return to Dark Tower was one of those Kickstarters that I immediately ignored because of such flair. With its fancy, hulking, light-infused, multi-chamber tower dominating the game board, it really begged me to immediately disregard it as a serious contender for my time. This was, in my mind, just yet another company playing off of nostalgia hoping to get the better of our pocket books for merely having lived in the 80’s.
Having also recently canceled my pledge for Edge of Darkness for an equally obtrusive tower that seemed just as gimmicky, I was definitely not in the mood for purchasing Return to Dark Tower. I would rather let the game pass the test of time and see if people were still talking about it positively after its release before giving it consideration.
So here we are, and people have had their things to say about the game. I recently had the opportunity to get the game and its expansions at a reasonable price, so I figured it would be worth the venture. Are you?
Return to Dark Tower brings back a classic 80’s game that also used an electronic tower and brings it into the 21st Century, highlighting a more cooperative focus than its original competitive design (although it also sports a competitive mode). I cannot claim to have played the original game , so I cannot make any comparisons to the original, but I will definitely see how the game holds up against its modern contemporaries.
Okay, so first lets talk about production quality issues :
There are none. All is superlative from the storage to token and card quality.
They could have kept the minis and skulls that come with the game just as mere plastic for functionality, but the fact that they added a black wash on them to make details pop is a small extra step that makes a very nice aesthetic improvement. The board is a visual feast. While I also own the full Dark Tower minis expansion for enemies , we actually prefer the cardboard tokens for monsters!
Players can choose one of 4 characters, each with their own sprawling player board and skills to unlock. Most pleasantly, each of these player boards clearly denote the phases of the game.
Each character also has a few unique abilities.
I won’t detail every aspect of the gameplay, but I will say that the rulebook is clear and concise, leaving little or no room for confusion, which unfortunately has not been my experience with other games I have reviewed lately. It was nice being able to swiftly page through the rules and find that I was easily able to play within a short time of opening the box, which is surprising considering that I find this to be more of a “middle weight” game that would normally require at least one or two more read throughs for me to feel confident walking into the game.
You start the game by powering up the tower with 3 AA batteries and connecting it via Bluetooth to an app on your iPhone or Android device. The tower then calibrates itself and instructs you how to set up the game, telling you where to place an initial skulls on various kingdoms belonging to each character : North, South, East and West, appropriately.
Foes (basic enemies) and an Adversary (the big bad boss) are then chosen either by players or randomly by the app, and placed, and a default companion with special abilities is assigned to the first player (though others may be obtained later through dungeoning and side-quests.
The main goal is of course to beat the big boss Adversary. Simply defeat them to win.
3 things will cause you to lose the game to the darkness that emits from the tower :
Running out of skulls to place into the tower at the end of player turns
Having a player take a 3rd corruption card
Running out of time (6 months of game time, a month passes after about 6-7 turns, but this is random and can be shorter or longer depending on various circumstances).
So players trot along the board on their merry way.
Their primary resources are Warriors (for fighting monsters) and Spirit, which is for buying treasures mostly, or generating extended movement actions or fueling other special abilities based on character selection or items in your possession. Spirit may also be used to unlock other abilities on your character.
On their turn , players start by :
—Taking a Banner Action. This is a unique ability per each character. Some get free warriors, others get free spirit, movement or potions.
Taking “middle” actions.
You can move.
You can choose to Cleanse (removing Skulls from buildings ; having 4 on a location causes a player in that Kingdom to gain a corruption card), Quest or Enter a Dungeon (just one).
You may also choose to Fortify at a location (at the Bazaar, Citadel, Sanctuary, or Village), which allows you to generally bolster yourself by gaining more items, spirit, warriors, potions or cleansing Corruptions that are on your character. Again, you can only choose one Fortify location per turn.
Best of all, while Questing, Cleansing and Fortifying, you can break these actions up while on the move. Move on Space, enter a village, get solders, move on to a Bazaar and then proceed to Cleanse that area of Skulls.
—End their Turn. This happens by dropping one of 24 skulls into the tower. This triggers game events such as spawning more monsters, generating side quests, or dropping accumulated skulls onto a player’s buildings!
The Tower itself may also change its inner orientation a bit to throw havoc into your game. Sometimes it will cause Glyphs to appear facing a specific Kingdom, meaning that the player facing the Glyph faces a penalty if taking certain actions, other times you will need to manually remove doors from the tower that are glowing, making perhaps more accumulated Skulls come tumbling out—you never know exactly what will happen when you open a door!
Side quests generally involve gaining new companions to help you, that usually give you a bonus in production, Advantages, or some such as the Assassin will even kill enemies before the Tower even generates them!
Other side quests can involve Dungeons, which will instruct characters to use the App to traverse an overhead dungeon map to find some sort of item that will be of help in your quest to defeat the evil from the Tower.
Both regular foes and the final adversary have a level. Weak Enemies are Level 2, and the strongest is the Boss Adversary which is a Level 5 enemy. Whenever you battle one of these you randomly pick a number of cards equal to level of the enemy you are facing and try to withstand the consequences of each card. Most cards force you to lose Spirit and Warriors, and if you ever lose more of a resource than you currently possess, you take a corruption card, making a Game Over screen much more inevitable. Thankfully you can retreat in between cards if things are going poorly.
Thankfully, you can gain “Advantages” in traversing the game board to make these battles go more smoothly. If you are fighting a Zombie for example and have a 2 items that give you and Advantage against Undead, you may use as many advantages as you want to reduce the consequences of a Battle Card employed by an enemy.
For example, if a card tells you to lose 40 warriors or take a Corruption, you may press a button in the app to use one of your two advantages and perhaps it will reduce the consequence to only losing 20 warriors (though the exact reduction is never going to be the same). If that is still too much of a hit for you, you may use your second advantage to try to further reconcile this loss or simply suffer the depletion of Warriors and try to take on the enemies’ second battle card, while still retaining your second unused Advantage to use if needed.
If you survive the effects of all of the enemy cards without accumulating more than 2 corruptions you win the battle, or in the case that you were fighting your Level 5 Adversary you win the game.
This is the the most concise description I can put forth with regards to gameplay.
With that being said, let’s analyze my group’s collective experience with Return to Dark Tower.
We did play this game a lot over the course of a few weeks. And we did find that much as with their previous restoration, Downforce, the greatest strength of the game is perhaps its accessible nature. Being roughly a middle-weight game in complexity, it is a breeze to setup and understand, and the mechanics strike a good balance between being fundamentally simple and overtly complex. It is a happy middle ground, and can bridge gaps between casual and hardcore gamers as well.
However, there are nevertheless some criticisms we have. And we do feel that the game is “good”, but a few things hold it back and prevent it from being “Game of the Year” material (at least from a perspective of just gameplay) for us.
Firstly, while we found that this is a game where there is a decent enough challenge (some might say is too easy in normal mode), and you can nevertheless win the game often enough, we find that we only succeed at this so often because of the very obvious need for one, singular and optimal path that needs to be taken at all times.
If we digress from this path, we fail. If we follow this formula we are pretty much guaranteed victory. It was a pattern that really stood out to us.
And it would appear that the fault for this observance resides in the character design.
While I would not say that they have a huge difference in abilities (they feel sort of similar in many respects, even with their different unlockable abilities), each character generally has one particular strength that cannot be overlooked.
Players may never utilize their resources the way they want to precisely because of the role they have been shoehorned into — the characters are so good at one thing it makes it hard to do anything else.
Consequently , players find themselves getting fixated and type cast into certain roles. The Scion for example you will always want focusing in Cleansing, the Brutal Warlord will be better at building up armies.
We often found that while we would often personally accumulate great numbers certain resources and wanted to put them to use on our turn, we kind of just sat there and let other players take on a fight or use their resources only because we felt their characters were better suited for that role. We would often even relinquish our most or all of our goods to another player because it was, as mentioned, the only reasonable means to success.
This leads to a kind of left a sense of emptiness and lack of fulfillment when playing our own characters. We often had the feeling that we could not do everything we wanted to with our character within a single play of the game.
And for us, that really put a damper on us after a while. While I can appreciate the nature of coop games requiring teamwork, Dark Tower just felt like it was robbing us of personal choices. While other coops I have played lately (Such as Arena : The Contest ) gave a wide berth of options, all of them nevertheless equally lent themselves a viable path to victory. Return to Dark Tower, on the other hand, with its focus on making only optimal choices, makes individual decisions feel a bit more impossible. Virtually everything needs to be done with the group in mind.
Which lends itself to our second criticism. The game can unfortunately make it a stomping ground for Alpha Gamers.
I personally do not like being in the position of being a “Team Leader” of sorts, but unfortunately, after getting a lot of game time in with Dark Tower, I did find myself in that awkward position of pointing out what “needed” to be done to win to other players, and rather defensively have to explain the logic of why certain actions needed to be performed “right now” as opposed to later.
And my reasoning was often counter-intuitive to newer players, but once I fully explained things, people started agreeing with me after we had seen a few losses.
Now I in now way fault the other players for wanting to take their turns individually, that is a bit of a natural desire. But if players start to tire of feeling the sting of loss, it can really empower a more experienced gamer to take the reins and dominate the experience. And from a personal note, I did everything I possibly could to make sure I didn’t step on any toes in my use of assertion, but on the inside, I sure felt more than uncomfortable.
So I do feel that the game needs a bit more in viability of options for players to take during their turn while still retaining a shot at victory.
Only having 4 characters available does seem a bit too much of a limitation in this day and age. Yes, they do have new characters available in expansions, but I do feel the base game needed at least 2 more.
As for the gameplay itself, it really does feel like exercise in mitigation more than anything else. You are not so much fighting winning battles as much as you are working to minimize loss and reduce the consequences of inevitable ill-fated Tower Events. For some people this may work, but I think a lot of people like the sense of dealing big damage rather than simply minimizing the damage taken to yourself.
Using the app had some moments that were a bit uninspiring and/or frustrating.
I love dungeon crawls, and unfortunately when the game app directs you to enter a dungeon, it is a bit of a flat experience, quite literally. Simply put, the dungeon aspect is largely forgettable.
It simply involves treading through a rather binary map, choosing branching a path, and losing Warriors or Spirit after every choice (employing your Advantages as able) until you “find” the item you are looking for. It is a bit unfulfilling, though it is admittedly nice as a novelty.
We did also get frustrated that you cannot go back and Undo advantages spent in the App when in battle. This is unfortunate because there were a few times when new players accidentally tapped a button twice, and we could not backtrack to see how many resources we were supposed to lose. Presumably the devs don’t allow us to go back in the selection process to eliminate the possibility of “cheating” to see what might happen if you were to “theoretically” spend your advantages, but I do feel that the dev team needs to rectify this and give the benefit of the doubt to the players who in all likelihood aren’t going to cheat and are just occasionally suffering an instance of butterfingers.
It can also be hard to see what is going on in the other side of the Dark Tower world due to the tower itself often obstructing your view.
We feel that while we love the number and variability in the level 5 enemies and companions you get, the level 2-4 enemies are too few in numbers and get old quickly
Other concerns I have with the game are more “long term”, and are identical to the concerns I had when I opted not to buy into the Kickstarter.
How long will it be for the technology and mechanics of the Tower fail?
How long before the app gets discontinued? What if Bluetooth suddenly becomes an absolute standard that no one possesses any more at some point in the future, and renders playing the game impossible?
So the tech aspect of Dark Tower is something that weighs on my mind. It may not be today, but the thought remains with me that someday this game will not function and I really do like to have my investments protected.
And then there is the rapid depletion of batteries. The game can be long, easily 3 plus hours, so not quite as likely to come to the table as Restoration’s Downforce in a pinch, but this extensive use of time means your batteries will be depleted after just a game or two sometimes (not to mention your phone!). So I was constantly charging my rechargeable AA’s for the past few weeks! I am not looking forward to buying new pairs of those any time soon, but it seems I have forced myself into this dilemma!
And we did note that allure and charm of the much-hyped tower aspect does fade over time. It makes a great first impression for sure, but after a while, the novelty does wear off, and you do quickly realize that the Tower is pretty much a glorified randomizer. For all intents and purposes it IS a gimmick.
But it is a GOOD gimmick (as opposed to some of the bad ones that are out there). It serves a purpose of immersing you into its world, and at that it excels. At least that was our mutual impression as players.
But it does eventually become apparent that the randomization could have been handled via other means such as cards, dice. The Tower just provides the flashiest means possible of doing so, and the fact that it means less cards to setup and shuffle is not a bad thing.
At the end of the day, we find ourselves rhetorically asking “is it a good game?” Like Downforce, its strength lies in its accessibility. Return to Dark Tower does have a great advantage of being a magnet for new players given the sheer dominance of the Tower and spectacular presentation, but after a time (I even talked to a few other game devs who felt the same way), the allure does begin to fade. What starts as a feeling that you have found the most “awesome” game of the year did in fact diminish for each player in our group, and as we started to focus on the game play, the game itself started to feel a bit more “average” than we initially gave it credit for. Once you get over the bells and whistles, you may find that while you still “like” the game, your feelings may have more to do with the presentation than anything else.
Our group rates this between 7.25 and 7.75 for a final score.
Find out more at BGG.
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Jazz Paladin- Reviewer
Jazz Paladin is an eccentric at heart — When he is not learning to make exotic new foods at home, such as Queso Fresco cheese and Oaxacan molé, he is busy collecting vintage saxophones, harps, and other music-related paraphernalia. An avid music enthusiast, when he is not pining over the latest board games that are yet-to-be-released, his is probably hard at work making jazzy renditions of classic/retro video game music tunes as Jazz Paladin on Spotify and other digital music services.