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Review: Return to Dark Tower is an expensive but intriguing sequel

Return to the Dark Tower, arguably the most ambitious product Restoration Games has ever created, is a board game with a legacy – in more ways than one. This high-concept hybrid electronic board game attempts to honor the cult classic Dark Tower, which was first published in 1981. It was also funded on Kickstarter in February 2020, less than a month before the COVID-19 pandemic changed our world forever. Now, almost a year and a half after the promised delivery date, copies have finally been delivered to supporters. Despite the hurdles that hampered its development and production, Return to the Dark Tower is nonetheless an exceptional board game. And just like the original, at its center is a towering chunk of black plastic that’s every bit as novel and unique as the original.

Dark Tower was a legend in his day, his arrival heralded by the soothing tones of none other than Orson Welles in a memorable television ad campaign. It featured an iconic circular panel dominated by a foreboding plastic citadel at its center. The intricate centerpiece cackled with ominous beeps, making for a frightening and mesmerizing experience every time it was brought to the table.

A purple player character stands between a fortress and a town, each plagued with colored skulls being dropped from the tower.

Photo: Recovery Games

One of the most intriguing aspects of this new release is that it’s designed as a sequel, not a reimagining. The story of its predecessor is mentioned on the first few pages of the manual, describing the tower that lay in ruins for an eternity while great evil stirred within its depths. The challenge now is the structure’s reawakening, as evil pours out from literally every opening to terrorize the land.

Players take on the role of eager heroes like the Relic Hunter or the Brutal Warlord. There are four options in the box, and each comes with a unique ability and playstyle. Unlike its predecessor Return to the Dark Tower is now a fully cooperative design, offering a secondary competitive mode that mimics the original format. The asymmetry of the characters supports a strong foundation for the collaborative structure as it stimulates discussion and allows the protagonists to capitalize on their niche.

Much of the session is spent traversing the kingdom and clearing the land of small skulls that have been flung from the tower. You’ll need to balance this purge with visiting locations to gain resources like fiery spirit to fuel your growth, or nameless warriors to join your retinue. You will also be charged with the task of confronting smaller enemies such as hostile raiders, terrorizing spiders, and a thundering titan. Characters evolve and unlock new skills and items, helping to enrich the fantasy RPG’s identity. Ultimately, you fulfill the scenario’s conditions and face a boss that emerges from the central citadel.

A player character on his sideboard, colored yellow to match a ring on the miniatures.

Image: Recovery Games

The development of both the setting and the mechanics is great. First, the motif is dark and classy, ​​reminiscent of a vaguely Lord of the Rings vibe that comes with an ominous nature but never crosses the line of Grimm. Its world feels fantastic but is clearer and more immersive than the original.

The change to a cooperative format is also extremely modern. This type of board game has exploded with hit releases Pandemic and Gloomhaven pioneering. Moving the Dark Tower family to this amazing shared experience is an excellent choice. It focuses the animus on the heart that dominates the table, as opposed to the competitive race collecting keys found in its ancestor.

However, my first encounter with the monolithic tower was one of uneasiness – and not in the thematic sense intended. The large mechanical piece has moving parts, as well as electronic sensors with information sent via Bluetooth to a free app that you need to download to your phone. My tower stuttered and stalled when I first turned it on. It was a dud. After researching the issue, my particular issue seems to have affected only a small minority of consumers. Restoration Games shipped replacements very quickly.

When the tower started working properly I was quite shocked. It is a head turner in every sense of the word, dominated by its tabletop presence and simply by its large silhouette. I love that it’s a bit obnoxious and too high, obscuring the view of the opposite side of the board and making you crane your neck to catch a glimpse of the shadowy surface at the edge of the kingdom. This is wonderful as the tower is imposing and conveys themes of suffocation and dominance coupled with an absolute and powerful immersion.

A batch of shaded miniatures in a plastic packaging.

Photo: Recovery Games

One oddity, however, is that the rook sits in a weird zone where it’s simultaneously an intricate piece of digital wizardry and an unintelligent automaton. It is a kind of illusion capable of hypnotizing a willing participant, but only one who does not examine their moment-to-moment activity too closely.

The magic occurs primarily between player actions. At the end of each round, players drop a plastic skull into the top of the tower, which can trigger an event. This is an elegant way to randomize feedback and avoid cluttering up the table with extra decks. It also induces a moment of subdued tension as you await your fate.

At its best, the tower buzzes and glows, keeping everyone on their toes as new monsters are spawned and skulls are ejected to corrupt the land. During gameplay, you will also be instructed to remove seals – plastic doors blocking exits inside the tower. Occasionally a glyph will stare you in the eye, in contrast to one of the exits above; These are suitably awkward as they force you to spend additional resources to perform basic actions in the game world. Then, just as you get used to this annoyance, the tower spins and three skulls are spat in your face, crashing onto the abandoned game board below. It’s just a big piece of plastic, but in my games, certain players were offended by its malice, despite the behavior being clearly random and unintelligent.

If you look closely at what the tower does, you might come to the conclusion that it could offer more. A cynic might describe the Citadel as a glorified dice tower that merely randomizes which chutes the skulls you fall from, while offering some gnarly sound effects. I understand this criticism, but the turret’s performance is indeed adorable and provides a fantastic backdrop to the ongoing combat. If you can immerse yourself in the story being told and engage in the experience, this is a wonderful theatrical prop.

A wizard miniature delicately highlighted in ink.

Photo: Recovery Games

A dragon miniature rises above a city, two white skulls fill its place.

Photo: Recovery Games

A ghostly warlord, his many arms full of weapons and lanterns.

Photo: Recovery Games

A grotesque giant holding a flaming wreath of skulls.

Photo: Recovery Games

Surprisingly, the required companion app can do a lot more than just drive the Dark Tower of the same name. It is the primary mechanism for combat, resource depletion management, and character influence. There are also dungeons that occasionally appear on the map, and you’ll use the app to explore them, choosing between multiple routes in a layout reminiscent of the original Legend of Zelda. When entering new rooms, you will be hit with effects identical to the results of enemy attacks. It’s a very simple yet powerful system that presents a micro-level narrative to flesh out the larger story. They are also not overused, which makes them more attractive.

In addition, one of the main functions of the app is to randomize the content of the game. A nice aspect of this game is that it offers several different scenarios and many different enemies of different strengths. You can manually choose which options you want to face, or let the application choose a combination for you. There’s plenty to choose from here, especially the scenarios, as they range from escorting caravans to unearthing treasure and exploring a trio of mysterious dungeons.

Return to the Dark Tower is notable for using both technology and modern design principles so smoothly. It’s a simple and streamlined game to play with my 8-year-old daughter, but it’s also strategically dynamic enough to hold its own against a group of adults who enjoy the hobby. The only drawback seems to be the price.

When Kickstarter launched way back in 2020, Return to the Dark Tower costs a whopping $125. With the challenging economic conditions of the past few years, it has now surged to a cool $190. That’s a huge price to pay for a board game and hard for many to swallow. It puts the game at the center of a collection and limits its broader appeal.

Perhaps because of this expense, some are disappointed that this modernization has not been fully committed to a more lengthy and complex strategic design, unlike the accessible current approach. But it’s really amazing how well it fits in a perfect position to appeal to both newcomers and adults who enjoyed the previous entry in their youth. It does so with both narrative drama and physical awe. In that way, it’s quite an unprecedented adventure.

Return to the Dark Tower now meets supporters of his crowdfunding campaign. A campaign for a second print starts on baking kit soon. It has been verified against a physical copy provided by Restoration Games. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not affect editorial content, although Vox Media may earn commissions on products purchased through affiliate links. You can find For more information on Polygon’s Ethics Policy, click here.

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