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Saturday, July 2, 2022

Review: Return to Dark Tower is a pricey yet fascinating sequel

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

DarkTower was a legend in its own time, its arrival heralded by the dulcet tones of none other than Orson Welles in a memorable televised ad campaign. It featured an iconic circular board that was dominated by a foreboding plastic citadel in its very center. The elaborate centerpiece crackled with ominous beeps, making for a fearsome and mesmerizing experience every time it was brought to the table.

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

Photo: Restoration Games

One of the most intriguing aspects of this new release is that it’s framed as a sequel, not a reimagining. The story of its predecessor is referenced in the opening pages of the manual, describing the tower lying in ruin for an age while great evil stirred within its depths. The challenge presented now is in the structure’s reawakening as evil literally spills from its every orifice to terrorize the land.

Players take on the role of keen heroes such as the Relic Hunter or Brutal Warlord. There are four options in the box and each boasts a unique ability and play style. Unlike its predecessor, Return to Dark Tower is now a fully cooperative design, with a secondary competitive mode being offered that mimics the original format. The asymmetry of characters supports a strong foundation for the collaborative structure as it incentivizes discussion and allows protagonists to leverage their niche.

Much of the session is spent traversing the kingdom and cleansing the land from little skulls ejected from the tower. You must balance this cleanup with visiting locations to gain resources such as fiery spirit to empower your growth or nameless warriors to join your retinue. You’re also burdened with the task of confronting lesser foes such as hostile brigands, terrorizing spiders, and a thunderous titan. Characters progress, unlocking new abilities and items, which helps to enrich the fantasy RPG identity. Ultimately you fulfill the conditions of the scenario and confront a boss that emerges from the central citadel.

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

Image: Restoration Games

The evolution of both the setting and the mechanics is splendid. First, the motif is dark and stylish, evoking a vaguely Lord of the Rings vibe that is delivered with an ominous nature yet never crosses the line into grim. Its world feels fantastic, yet it’s more crisp and evocative than the original.

The move to a cooperative format is also acutely modern. This style of board game has exploded in popularity with hit releases like pandemic other Gloomhaven leading the way. Moving the Dark Tower family into this fantastic shared experience is an excellent choice. It focuses the animus on the centerpiece that dominates the table, as opposed to the competitive race of scooping up keys found in its forebear.

My initial encounter with the monolithic tower was one of unease, however — and not in the intended thematic sense. The large mechanical piece features moving parts as well as electronic sensors with information feeding via Bluetooth to a free app you must download on your phone. My tower stuttered and locked up the first time I turned it on. It was a dud. After researching the issue, my particular problem seems to have only affected a small minority of consumers. Restoration Games was exceedingly quick to send out a replacement.

Once the tower started functioning correctly, I was quite shocked. It’s a showstopper in every sense of the word, dominating with its table presence and simply by having such a large silhouette. I adore that it’s somewhat obnoxious and too tall, obscuring vision to the opposite side of the board and causing you to crane your neck to catch glimpses of the shadowed surface at the edge of the kingdom. This is wonderful because the tower is imposing, imparting themes of suffocation and dominance coupled with an absolute and powerful immersion.

A batch of shaded miniatures in a plastic pack in.

Photo: Restoration Games

An oddity, however, is that the tower sits in a weird zone of being simultaneously a complicated slice of digital wizardry and an unintelligent automaton. It’s an illusion of sorts, able to hypnotize a willing participant but only one that doesn’t scrutinize its moment-to-moment activity too closely.

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

At its best, the tower is whirring and lighting up, keeping everyone on edge as new monsters are spawned and skulls are ejected to blight the land. During play you will also be instructed to remove seals — plastic doors blocking the exit points of the tower’s insides. Occasionally a glyph will stare you in the eye as opposed to one of those aforementioned egresses; these are suitably nasty as they force you to spend additional resources to perform basic actions in the game world. Then, just as you grow accustomed to this nuisance, the tower rotates and three skulls are spat in your face, crashing upon the forsaken game board below. It’s just a big chunk of plastic, but in my games certain players began to feel targeted by its malice, even as the behavior was clearly random and unintelligent.

If you really inspect what the tower is doing, you may come to the conclusion that it could offer more. A cynic might describe the citadel as a glorified dice tower, merely randomizing what the skulls chutes you drop in plop out of while providing some gnarly sound effects. I’m sympathetic to this critique, but the performance of the tower is indeed enchanting and provides for a fantastic backdrop to the ongoing battle. If you can immerse yourself in the story that is being told and commit to the experience, it’s a wonderful theatrical prop.

A wizard miniature, delicately highlighted with inks.

Photo: Restoration Games

A miniature dragon looms over a town, two white skulls filling its square.

Photo: Restoration Games

A spectral warlord, his many arms filled with weapons and lanterns.

Photo: Restoration Games

A grotesque giant holding a flaming wreath of skulls.

Photo: Restoration Games

Surprisingly, the required companion app does much more than simply drive the eponymous Dark Tower. It is the primary mechanism for combat, managing resource attrition and character influence. There are also dungeons that occasionally appear on the map, and you will use the app to explore them, choosing between multiple routes in a layout reminiscent of the original Legend of Zelda. As you enter new rooms you are hit with effects identical to outcomes of enemy attacks. It’s a very simple yet evocative system that presents a micro-level narrative to flesh out the grander story. They’re also not overly utilized, which keeps them alluring more.

Additionally, one of the app’s primary features is to randomize the game’s content. A beautiful aspect of this game is that it offers several different scenarios and many different foes of varying strength. You can manually select which options you wish to face, or have the application determine a combination for you. The choices here are strong, particularly the scenarios, as they vary from escorting caravans to unearthing treasure to exploring a trio of mysterious dungeons.

Return to Dark Tower is noteworthy because it’s so smooth in its harnessing of technology as well as its utilization of modern design principles. It’s a simple and streamlined game that I can play with my 8-year-old daughter, but it’s also strategically dynamic enough to stand up to a group of adults enjoying the hobby. The only drawback seems to be its price.

When the Kickstarter was launched way back in 2020, Return to Dark Tower costs a whopping $125. With the challenging economic conditions of the past few years, it has now risen to a cool $190. That is an enormous price point for a board game, and hard for many to swallow. It places the game as a collection centerpiece and restricts its wider appeal.

Perhaps due to that cost, some may be disappointed that this modernization did not commit wholly to a more lengthy and complex strategic design as opposed to the accessible current approach. But it’s really quite astounding how well it settles into a perfect position of appealing to newcomers as well as adults that enjoyed the previous entry in their youth. It does this with both narrative drama and physical awe. In this way, it’s quite an unparalleled adventure.

Return to Dark Tower is now fulfilling to backers of its crowdfunding campaign. A campaign for a second printing will launch on baking kit soon It was reviewed with a physical copy provided by Restoration Games. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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