‘Massive Darkness’ Is Gorgeous, Brutal, Dungeon Crawling Fun

Gaming GeekDad Approved Tabletop Games
The title describes a gameplay component AND the physical box (Image: Anthony Karcz)

CMON has made a name for itself in the past few years for Kickstarting tabletop games that contain gobs of gorgeously-sculpted minis. Massive Darkness is no exception. A dungeon crawler along the lines of the Dungeon & Dragon tabletop games or Fantasy Flight Games’ Descent, the game takes a band of adventurers through a series of dungeons to find what they need to conquer the creeping evil that has returned to their lands.

What Is Massive Darkness?

Massive Darkness is a cooperative dungeon crawler for 1-6 players based on the Zombicide system. Your band of adventurers will fight goblins, orcs, hellhounds, demons, and more as they work through a series of ever-more-difficult campaign adventures. It’s rated for kids 14 and up, but as long as your child is comfortable keeping track of stats and cards, there’s no reason someone younger couldn’t play (I would say they should be at least 10, though). Each campaign quest takes around an hour and a half to play through (including setup).

Massive Darkness Components

We’re gonna need a bigger table. (Image: Anthony Karcz)
  • 9 double-sided game tiles
  • 120 class sheets (20 copies for each class)
  • 6 hero minis, hero cards, hero boards, and color bases
  • 18 coordinating color pegs
  • 12 combat dice
  • 69 enemy miniatures
  • 106 tokens
  • 213 mini-cards (for treasure, events, etc.)
  • 50 guard cards (10 per level)
  • 12 roamining monster cards

Not surprisingly, the components are gorgeous. The artwork is expressive and fun and manages to toe the line between cartoon-ey and serious. For example, the dwarven miniatures in the game look like menacing garden gnomes; but one glance at their art dissuades any idea that they’re going to be pushovers. Oh, and just in case you weren’t sure, they take ridiculously well to being painted.

A little bit of paint and these guys are ready to rip into heroes. (Image: Anthony Karcz)

The miniatures are between the 35 and 42mm scale, a little larger than Imperial Assault or the D&D box games, which makes picking out the details an easy feat. Painting all 75 of the base box miniatures is a daunting task, though. A quick wash with Nuln Oil makes the plethora of sculpted details pop and will satisfy that desire to pretty up the minis before getting them to the table. At least for now.

Despite there being an appropriately massive amount of components (altogether the box weighs nearly 10lbs.), everything tucks back into the expertly designed box inserts. Every miniature, every game piece, every die, has its own spot in the box. It’s this kind of attention to detail that edges Massive Darkness ahead of similar dungeon-crawl-in-a-box games.

How to Play Massive Darkness

Playing Massive Darkness isn’t something to be approached lightly. Make sure you have at least double the amount of space as your chosen quest tiles. You’re going to need it all.


How your Hero Board will look as you start to delve deep. (Image: Anthony Karcz)

Whether you choose a one-off quest or full campaigns, whenever you have this many components to wrangle, setup is as much of a challenge as the game itself. Thankfully, the fantastic insert I mentioned above helps smooth setup. Set aside the box of minis and pull out the game tiles. That gives you access to the base components you’ll need to build your hero. Grab enough hero boards for all the heroes you’ll be playing (even if you’re playing solo, you’ll likely want at least two heroes in play, more on why in a bit). While you’re rifling around in the bottom of the box, grab class sheets for the hero you’ll be playing.

Wizard, Paladin, and Ranger (Image: Anthony Karcz)

The heroes all hew to pretty standard fantasy roles – you’ve got a barbarian (fighter), a berserker (which is a fighter with anger issues), a paladin (which is a fighter who took a First Aid class his freshman year), a wizard (a fighter with Magic! Pew, pew, pew!), a ranger (a long-distance fighter), and a rogue (a fighter that lurks quietly behind you). Generally, you’ll want a party that has a good balance of ranged and melee attacks, and enough defense to not die after the first round of fighting.

Rogue, Barbarian, Berserker. More female Heroes will be included in future expansions, thankfully. (Image: Anthony Karcz)

Oh, and grab the dice, you’ll need those too. There’s a lot of rolling involved.

Now it’s time to track down all the markers, tokens, and assorted cardboard bits that you had to punch out when you unpacked the game. I’d recommend that, at the very least, you grab a couple of bit holders for the health trackers and treasure tokens, there are a ton and, as you’ll soon see, you’re going to need a lot of them. After that, grab the dungeon start token, the Level tokens for each level of the dungeon you’ll be traversing in your quest, and any specific objective tokens required (the rulebook does do a good job of letting you know what you need, token-wise).

Sort through the cards and separate out the Lifebringer and place two health tokens on it (you can add more or less to skew the difficulty). Sift through the Starting Equipment cards and choose a weapon for each hero and give each one a set of Leather Armor. Equip them in the Hand and Body slots on your Hero Board. Take your color-coded tracker pegs and put one in the 5 HP and 0 XP slots on your Hero Boards.

Separate the rest of the cards into piles. Every game will need Event and Door cards. You will also need Artifact, Treasure, Guard, and Lesser/Greater Roaming Monster card piles, separated out by level. Depending on the minimum and maximum level of the boards in your chosen quest, you might not need every single Level.

Now that you’ve got the bits and bobs all sorted, it’s time to crack open the box of minis, grab the Hero figure that corresponds with your chosen hero, put the color-coordinated ring around the base, then place all Hero figures on the starting square of the dungeon. Set aside the other 69 enemy figures, for now, and prepare yourself.

The quiet before the storm. (Image: Anthony Karcz)

Your quest has begun.

Heroes’ Phase

On the hero’s turn, you can move, open doors, pick things up, trade with other characters, exchange treasure cards (three cards can be traded in for one treasure of a higher level), and attack. At the beginning of a dungeon, moving and opening doors are probably going to be the main thing you do. You’ll note that some tiles are lit, others are wreathed in shadow. That will come into play later.

When you open a door, grab the top Door card and dish out the rewards and punishments by room accordingly. A multi-square room will generally have a mix of treasure and monsters. For example, pull this card:

I kick in the door…

And you’ll need to put treasure tokens in all three squares, and a Guard Mob of the appropriate level in the second square. Guard Mobs consist of one Mob Boss mini (with a Level appropriate Treasure card equipped) and corresponding Minion figures (usually one per hero, but there can be multiples of enemies per player as well). Place a stack of wound tokens on the card corresponding to the number of minis times the HP number. This is the amount of damage the mob can soak up before being defeated. You get the Treasure card the Boss is using once he’s defeated (usually when the whole mob is dead, but some abilities allows you to attack the Boss directly).

A couple of things are gonna happen… (Image: Anthony Karcz)

If you’re in range of an enemy, you can perform an attack (in the same square for melee, 1-2 squares away for magic, and 1-within line of sight for ranged). Grab the number of yellow or red dice that correspond to the number next to your weapon. For the defender, grab a number of blue or green dice that corresponds to the number next to their shield (if they have one). Roll the die and see what happens! Shields cancel out swords, but diamonds and “bam” symbols can have extra damage or effects associated with them (it will say on your hero or equipment card or the hero class sheet if you do). Subtract life tokens from the mob and add any XP to your tracker if you killed an enemy (you must kill all minions before you can kill the boss). Then get ready to defend!

Yeah, you’re not surviving this roll… (Image: Anthony Karcz)

At the end of each Hero activation, the enemies they attacked get to counter-attack. The mechanics are the same for defending as for attacking. Roll the dice, this time hoping there are more shields than swords, and tick any lost HP off on your Hero Board by moving the peg. Enemies will usually go after whoever attacked them, but light and shadow zones matter when it comes to enemy AI. Say a ranged hero smacked them with an arrow attack and then moved back into a shadow square, they would no longer be visible to the mob, so the mob loses their counterattack.

Enemies’ Phase

After the players have all had their turns, each mob and roaming monster gets a chance to track down and take out the nearest hero. The enemy “AI” consists of four simple actions:

  1. Try to attack the closest visible hero with the highest XP in range of your attack.
  2. If there isn’t a hero in range, move one square closer.
  3. Try to attack again.
  4. If there still isn’t a hero in range, move one square closer and stop.

Just reading that priority tree, it seems like it would be fairly easy to stay out of combat. Except, the maps you’re playing on are twisty, claustrophobic affairs. Other than slipping into the shadows for concealment, there isn’t a way to avoid enemies for long. And once you start facing more advanced monsters with melee and ranged attack, it’s even harder for your heroes to make it out of enemy phases alive.

Roll the dice, pray they’re in your favor and that your heroes get to move on to the…

Experience Phase

If you killed anything in the previous phases, you’ll have XP points accumulated on your Hero Board. How much depends on what you’ve killed and accomplished. Minions will give a small amount of individual XP, while achieving quest goals and killing bosses, monsters, and agents give XP to the whole party. If you’re playing a campaign, character XP gain is a little slower, since you have to fill up a “Micro XP” counter before gaining 1 XP point.

If you have enough XP, you can unlock new feats, skills, and traits. Each level you progress forward in the dungeon, you’ll gain access to even better ways to upgrade your heroes. You can also stockpile XP and use it to activate your heroes’ special ability. Several allow you to reroll blank dice (or the successful dice of your enemies) and are helpful to have available at all times.

Event Phase

In case your heroes aren’t dead yet, you get to press your luck with the Event Phase. Pull a card and spawn a Roaming Monster, Agent, or Guard Mob. They’ll get to act on the next enemy phase.

Left-to-right: horrible awful things that want to kill you dead. (Image: Anthony Karcz)

Roaming Monsters are large, nasty and have a ridiculous amount of hit points and action dice. There are Hellhounds, Giant Spiders, and more and it will take a coordinated effort from your party to take them down. The good news, if there is any, is that they’re all unique, so you can only have one on the board at a time.

Massive Darkness
Agents are here to mess up your day and throw enemies in your path. Take them out! (Image: Anthony Karcz)

If you’re really unlucky and draw an Agent, you’ll need to act fast. They call down Guard Mobs to throw at you every round until you can hunt them down and take them out.

Or maybe, if you get lucky, you’ll draw one of the rare benefit cards that can heal or help your heroes. Whatever card you pull, the Event Phase is there to make sure you’re pulling in XP and grinding through the quest.

End Phase/Winning the Game

Ranged AND Melee attacks? That’s just not fair. (Image: Anthony Karcz)

The First Player token is passed to the left and a new round begins. If any heroes fell in the previous phases, you revive them by taking a token off the Lifebringer (if there aren’t any left on the card, and your hero is down, it’s game over for everyone). Then you repeat, progressing through the phases, until the objectives are met – usually involving your heroes escaping the dungeon with some special item or defeating a certain boss.

Massive Darkness is GeekDad Approved!

Why You Should Play Massive Darkness

While the setup can be daunting and the card management a little bit fiddly, there’s no doubt that Massive Darkness captures that brutal, old-school Dungeons & Dragons dungeon crawl feel. If you tried the D&D dungeon crawl board games, but didn’t find them engaging enough, or you bought FFG’s Descent but found it way too complex, Massive Darkness manages to walk that ultra-thin line between them. You won’t need an app to keep tabs on what’s going on, but there’s enough to keep track of that you’re constantly shifting around, trying to stay ahead of the enemies flooding the dungeon.

There’s a nice amount of teamwork involved, as you and your fellow heroes have to strategize your moves in order to survive. No one class has everything – defenders don’t deal enough damage to take out enemies, ranged characters are glass cannons, and front-line fighters will run out of HP if they don’t have backup.

I particularly like the chance to level my character immediately, in-between rounds. Even with the gobs of treasure and equipment upgrades the game throws at you, you need to use every single one of your skills if you want to stay alive.

All of that customizability is Massive Darkness’ strength and weakness. Inevitably, there was a combat where I frowned at the dice rolls, took my hero down to his last peg, and moved on to another character…only to see halfway through the next round that an ability could have saved me (or at least given me another chance) if I’d used it. There are a lot of moving parts to keep track of. Even if you do manage to stay on top of it all, you’re going to die, at least once.

This is what we call a bad situation… (Image: Anthony Karcz)

But at least you’re going to make a good looking corpse. Massive Darkness oozes character. The minis are some of the best sculpts I’ve seen in a tabletop game. They’re large, with exceedingly crisp detail; easily on par with Games Workshop. If you’re a fan of painting fantasy minis, this game (and all of its expansions) are going to keep you busy for a while (keep your eyes peeled for a future “GeekDad Paints!” focusing on object-source-lighting lighting techniques, the Hellhound calls to me). It also helps that CMON has taken the time to include a truly useful box insert, with a place for everything. Without the insert, setup would be a painful affair.

A dedicated gaming group will be able to burn through the campaign included in the base box in a few weeks, but CMON has over half a dozen expansions ready to drop next month, all with new minis and new quests (including something called a Hellephant – I’m already sold). You can find them listed for pre-order on Amazon, but detailed info on the expansions can be found on the game’s old Kickstarter page.

Massive Darkness is a challenging, visually engaging, and addictively fun dungeon crawler that will thrill tabletop fans and RPG players alike. It retails for around $99, but you can buy it right now on Amazon for nearly $20 off.

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Disclosure: GeekDad received a copy of this game for review purposes.

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6 thoughts on “‘Massive Darkness’ Is Gorgeous, Brutal, Dungeon Crawling Fun

  1. Great overview! Having played a few games, just wanted to point out a couple of rules errors I noticed:

    1. Lifebringer. In a standard setup, you put two tokens on Lifebringer. More or less can be placed to adjust the difficulty (p.9)

    2. Counter-attack works a little differently from the enemies phase in that an enemy will ONLY counter-attack the hero who attacked them. If a hero attacks an enemy and manages to then get out of range of the enemy or move past another hero(who then blocks the enemy) then the enemy loses their counter-attack. (P. 27)

  2. Ooh… nice! I love “Zombicide.” You say it’s based off the “Zombicide” engine, and the mechanics look very similar, but do you know from the rules if characters or monsters from “Zombicide” are compatible with ‘Massive Darkness?”

    1. The two games are very different. Combat, equipment, magic, etc are completely different. Movement is broadly similar. Gaining XP is similar, but what you do with it is different.

      The rules are completely incompatible.

      There are, however, crossover packs designed to use the models from one game in the other. IIRC the pack from the MD Kickstarter had cards to use zombies and a few of the survivors (the ones from Black Plague, Wulfsburg and Hero Box 1, I think) in MD, and cards to use the heroes from MD and its expansions in Zombicide. The pack from the Green Horde KS has cards for using all the new zombies, dragons, etc in MD.

      There’s also some fan-made rules for using MD monsters in Zcide that you can find in the BGG forums.

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