The Dark Knight Returns is one of the most iconic and influential comic books ever published. Its reinvention of Batman as a borderline psychopath, operating in a bleak, corrupt Gotham City rekindled interest in the character and proved a cornerstone of the current “dark age” of comic books. Batman’s popularity continues, but Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Board Game seeks to go to the root of that popularity and lets a solo player experience the story of that original adventure from the comfort of their tabletop.
What is it, and how does it work?
- Players: 1- 2
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Lasts: 90mins
- Ages: 14+
- Price: $60 / £49.99
Like so many board games these days, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Board Game comes in a big box with a big board. The deluxe edition, which has a tray of miniatures rather than comic book art standees, is even bigger. This is a bit of a problem because this is a solo game where the challenge is to win all four scenarios, linked to the four chapters of the graphic novel, in sequence. Everything on the board stays where it is at the end of each chapter. So you’ll need to find space to leave this table hog out somewhere while you try your luck and skill, or “save” your game by taking a photo and resetting the pieces when you’re ready to try again.
Each chapter consists of four rounds, split into four turns each. At the start of a turn, you’ll deal out some action cards and go through them in threes, deciding which to add to your hand and which will be used as negative event cards for each round. Then in the round proper you’ll flip a random event, suffer the consequences, and then move Batman and his allies across the map of Gotham City, searching for clues and battling foes. The board is dry-wipe and as you play you’ll add new routes to the map, destroy spaces and make various annotations.
Meanwhile, each space in the city is divided into three action segments which can hold a figure or an enemy such as cops, mutant gang members, or the press. If one fills up with enemy markers then a riot starts (which is difficult to clear), and if there are twelve on the map at once, you lose the game. More likely loss conditions are that Batman will drop to zero in his health, grit or sanity scores or that the doomsday clock, which increments at some events and between turns, will tick up to twelve and the government will intervene in Gotham.
You can try to gain some ground back through events or, more often, through the use of action segments which can boost these scores back toward the positive. But to use an action segment it’s got to be free of enemies. You can’t fight the press, although your ally Commissioner Gordon can clear them. Against cops and mutants, it’s a dice-off, rolling your pointless if charming, winged Batarang dice and trying to score hits and block incoming damage.
Each chapter has special rules and a story card indicating your overall objectives. It also has vehicles you can pick up from Wayne Manor and several smaller goals you can complete along the way for a bonus such as replacing a standard Batarang dice with a more powerful experimental version. Chapter objectives generally have you hunting enemies to pick up face-down clues which advance you toward a boss fight with the occasional nasty surprise. Beating the boss with your Batarangs wins the chapter.
Not that it has to be that way; the publisher’s website lists some variants. There’s a versus mode where a second player controls Batman’s foes, but this is a less interesting role than controlling the hero himself. Of more interest are chapter-by-chapter challenges, in normal or hard versions, which let you get a score for each without having to play the four scenarios back to back.
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns - The Game doesn’t break any new ground, borrowing freely from various cooperative and skirmish games to create its hodgepodge of mechanics. But the resulting blend makes for a compelling experience, nevertheless, by throwing a lot of comic-related stuff at the wall and finding that a lot of it is sticky.
Chapter one, where the board state and various tracks feel a long way from any of the loss conditions, starts out as a breeze. But when you claw back only a fraction of those precious resources in chapter two, the scale of the challenge becomes more apparent. The game is perhaps a little on the easy side: it’s possible to win through all four chapters in your first play so long as you pay close attention to what you’re doing and strategize well. But at least that demonstrates that the game rewards skilful play, using its random factors to keep you on your toes.
Its secret is the sheer mass of different things you have to juggle. You start out with Commissioner Gordon helping you disperse the press while you beat up mutants, looking for clues to bring Two-Face into the game. By the start of the next chapter, you could have access to the Batcopter, a remote control bat, some new Batarangs, and Robin as another ally. You’ll need to press all this into clearing the enemies built up on the board in your earlier game while searching out the vicious mutant leader, completing three optional goals and perhaps adding the Bat-Tank and Batcycle to your arsenal.
Combining all these options with the cards in your hand and the spaces on the board gives you a lot to work with in decision-making. It’s hard to pick the right priorities as the doomsday clock ticks up and your personal tracks tick down, especially when the rounds advance relentlessly as clues go begging. But you have lots of tools to utilize, and it’s engaging and fun to pore over the options, trying to make the right call while there’s an ever-present risk of the event cards or the dice punching you in the face.
The other thing that this smorgasbord of utilities does for the game is help bring the comic book to life. Narrative in games tends to come from either reams of text or emergent theme, where the mechanics mirror the game’s story. Neither is true of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns board game. Rather, everything in the comics is simply there on the board or on the cards. This unusual approach delivers quite well, giving the sense of tying into the story of the comics while very much being your own thing. You don’t get much in the way of detailed narrative, but there’s a particular joy in working alongside Robin or thumping Superman and letting your imagination fill in the gaps. The art lifted directly from the graphic novel helps a lot, too.
Should you buy Batman: The Dark Knight Returns - The Game?
While there’s a lot of fun to be had with this game, the biggest limiting factor hangs over it like a giant bat swooping down: it’s a big, long, demanding board game for adults that’s really only for solitaire play and has poor replay value. If you feel you have the time, space, and money to lavish on a tabletop game that you’ll likely only play a few times by yourself, then this is one of the very best solo titles on the market. But if you want to play with friends, you’ll need to get your Batman kicks elsewhere.