16 June 2018

Board Game Review: Jim Henson's The Dark Crystal

The cover of the game. The title is displayed superimposed over the titular crystal, with the castle of the crystal visible in the background. Along the left side are the four main characters, each in a circular portrait. Along the bottom is a window covered with clear plastic allowing the four miniatures that are the game's playing pieces to be seen.

If you've been paying much attention to this blog at all, you know that I am a major fan of The Dark Crystal. I have been ever since I was a young boy and I saw it when it first released in 1982. So it's no surprise at all that I had to pre-order a copy of the board game the moment I heard it was being released.

Of course, the time has come to review that game. Mount up on your landstrider; we're adventuring in the world of Thra!

Warning: This game (and thus, probably this review as well) contains spoilers for the film. If you haven't watched the movie, you might want to do that before you read this review.

Of course, if you haven't watched the movie, why on earth not? Go watch this amazing film right now! This review assumes that you are familiar with the story and the setting, so if you don't know what skeksis, mystics, garthim, Aughra, or podlings are, this review probably won't make a whole lot of sense.

So, with that said, shall we start with the numbers? Of course we shall!
Strategy and Randomness are rated from 0 to 6. A 0 means the rated aspect plays no part in determining the game's outcome; and a 6 means that it is the only factor that determines the game's outcome. Complexity is also rated from 0 to 6; a 0 means that it's so simple a six-year-old can play it, a 3 means any adult should have no trouble playing, and a 6 means that you'll need to refer to the rulebook frequently. Humour can be rated as 'None,' meaning the game is not meant to be funny, or it may have one or more of the following: Derivative (meaning the humour is based on an outside source, such as a game based on a comedy film), Implicit (meaning that the game's components are funny, such as humourous card text), or Inherent (meaning that the actions the players take are funny). Attractiveness has nine possible ratings. Ideal: the game is beautiful and makes game play easier. Pretty: The design is beautiful and neither eases nor impedes game play. Nice: The design is beautiful but makes game play harder than necessary. Useful: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but eases gameplay. Average: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Useless: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but makes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Utilitarian: The design is ugly, but eases gameplay. Ugly: The design is ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Worthless: The design is ugly, and makes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Average Length of Game Play describes how long an average game will probably last, give or take. Gamer Profile Ratings measures how strongly a game will appeal to players based on their interest in one of four areas. These areas are measured as High, Medium, or Low. Strategy describes how much a game involves cognitive challenges, thinking and planning, and making sound decisions. Conflict describes how much direct hostile action there is between players, from destroying units to stealing resources. Social Manipulation describes how much bluffing, deceiving, and persuading there is between players. Fantasy describes how much a game immerses players in another world, another time.
Strategy: 1
Randomness: 5
Complexity: 0
Humour: None
Attractiveness: Pretty
Average Length of Game Play: 1 Hour
Gamer Profile Ratings:
  Strategy: Low
  Conflict: Medium
  Social Manipulation: Low 
  Fantasy: High

Overview of The Dark Crystal

This game is modelled after the Jim Henson film that was released in 1982. Just as the film follows the adventures of the last two gelflings, Jen and Kira, as they quest to find the lost shard of the dark crystal and return it to the castle of the crystal, healing the crystal and restoring balance to their wounded world, so too does this game pit the gelflings against the evil skeksis, who want to prevent the crystal from being healed so that they may rule Thra forever.

The game can accommodate up to four players, but in my opinion, it works best if you have exactly four. In the three player version, one player controls both gelflings, and in the two player version, one player controls both gelflings whilst the other player controls both of the skeksis characters. This detracts from the appeal of the game somewhat, as the two gelfling players are on a team working together to achieve a joint victory, but both of the skeksis characters must win individually. This asymmetry in the teams is a nice touch, and preserves the feel of the film.

The game consists of a board that shows the crystal palace with a ring of spaces around it, and shows six chambers within the palace. Additionally, in the upper left corner, there is a space that represents the Valley of the Stones. Each character has a very well-sculpted miniature and a card the displays that character's attributes (Speed, Wit, Brawn, and Willpower). There are special ability cards (one per character), as well as World Cards, Mystic Cards, Skeksis Cards, and Minion Cards. Tokens with standing bases represent the Garthim, as well as SkekAyuk, SkekNa, and a group of essence-drained podlings. There is a token for the emperor's scepter, one for the crystal shard, one for Fizzgig, and one displaying an Uru that serves as the turn token. There are six dice of various types, and finally, a turn counter made to resemble Aughra's orrery.

The board laid out with the various components arranged around it to display a game in progress.

The gelflings start out on their home spaces (the Valley of Stones for Jen, and the Podling Village for Kira). The two skeksis start out in the castle, but before the game begins, they must engage in a round of combat. The winner is granted the position of emperor, which grants certain bonuses; the loser is banished from the castle and starts at the moat of the castle.

Players take turns rolling their Speed die (they can choose to roll a smaller die if they want to move more slowly) and moving that number of spaces around the board. Skeksis players draw a Minion Card before moving, which allows them to move a Garthim or otherwise cause difficulty for the gelfling characters. If a character lands on a space with an enemy, they must battle that enemy. Failure results in the loss of a Willpower token; if a character runs out of tokens, they fall unconscious and are taken to the Valley of Stones (the gelflings) or the Throne Room (the skeksis) to recover. If the gelflings land on an empty space, they must draw a World Card and resolve its effects. Sometimes, a World Card must be left on the space where it was encountered; thus, if a gelfling lands on a space with a World Card already on it, they must encounter that card. Skeksis characters ignore World Cards.

Eventually, the gelflings will encounter the Aughra's Observatory card. If they pass the test on that card, they acquire the Shard token. Once they have this, they may enter the crystal palace and face the essence-drained podlings, as well as the skeksis characters SkekAyuk and SkekNa. Once they pass these obstacles, they may face a final test to try and replace the shard into the dark crystal, healing it and saving the world.

As this is occurring, the two skeksis characters (SkekUng the Garthim Master and SkekSil the Chamberlain) are not only trying to prevent the gelflings from healing the crystal, but are competing with each other to gain and hold the title of emperor. 


There are a lot of little rules that help to preserve the feel of the game, such as Kira not being able to enter the Valley of the Stones until she's taken there by Jen or one of the Mystics, or Fizzgig granting a Brawn bonus to the gelfling who possesses him. I haven't described how to use special ability cards, or the role of Mystic or Skeksis cards. And there are a lot of other little details at which I haven't even hinted.

But you get the general idea of how the game works.

Winning The Dark Crystal

If one or both of the Gelflings find the shard and heal the crystal before the turn counter reaches zero, they share the victory. If the skeksis are able to capture the crystal shard from the gelflings, or delay them from healing the crystal before the turn counter reaches zero, then whichever skeksis character has the emperor scepter (and thus holds the rank of emperor) when the game ends is declared the winner.

Final Thoughts on The Dark Crystal

This game was definitely not designed for hardcore gamers. It was meant to appeal to fans of the movie. And in that regard, it does very well. The components are well designed, showcasing the visual style of the film excellently, either through stills captured from the movie or through original illustrations. It follows the general story of the film quite well, and in particular, I was very impressed with the miniatures. The sculptor did an excellent job of capturing the appearance of the characters in those little chunks of plastic.

the four miniatures from the game, modelled in simple grey plastic.

However, there's not a lot of strategy involved. It's a simple roll-and-move game. So, if you're not a fan of Jim Henson's masterpiece, you may want to give this game a pass.

But if you, like me, love the film, then you might just like this game. Just to be sure, let's look at the six characteristics of a good game:
  • It's quite simple.
  • It ends decisively.
  • It has no player elimination.
  • It may or may not be fun to lose, depending on your attitude.
  • It doesn't have a lot in the way of player agency.
  • It doesn't really allow for upsets.
Well, that doesn't look great, does it? Three and a half out of six...

I rated the 'fun to lose' aspect as a 'maybe,' because it might be enjoyable to lose a game if you're seriously into the franchise as I am. For others, losing can easily be more frustrating (I speak from experience; the first game I played, one player decided she did not like the game at all because she lost so badly. She insisted that the game was stacked unfairly against the gelflings, although I still maintain that she was not playing them correctly). At any rate, the question of whether to buy this game (or, honestly, to play it at all) comes down, ultimately in my opinion, to whether you love this movie. If so, then yes. Absolutely. Buy it, play it, love it. 

If you're not a fan though? You should probably give it a pass.

So there you have it: my rating of Jim Henson's The Dark Crystal: Board Game. I hope that it was at least informative. Join me here again next week for another installment, and until then,

Game on!

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