Designer: Evan Derrick
Publisher: Lucky Duck Games / Van Ryder Games
Coming to crowdfunding in April 2022
What is New Orleans? From a national perspective, the face of Louisiana is the food, fun, and frivolity found in the Crescent City. Anytime a board game comes out that has even a tenuous connection to Louisiana, and especially, New Orleans, I’m instantly interested in covering it.
So when I saw the announcement from Lucky Duck Games that they would be working with Evan Derrick and Van Ryder Games to produce a game in the Destinies system that would be set in The Big Easy, I emailed them right away to join the list of previewers. We were hoping to get a preview copy of The Dark Quarter in time for Southern Board Game Fest – we love featuring local designers and/or locally themed designs in our showcases at the festival – but alas, the app was not ready yet, so our play had to wait until after SoBo ended.
I’m getting a little bit ahead of myself, so let’s take a slow carriage ride over to the French Quarter for a quick look at the background of the game. In The Dark Quarter, it’s 1981, when Foreigner and Toto were riding high with albums both named “4”, parachute pants were a blight in every mall food court, and Happy Days was still in the top twenty television shows. But 1981 in this version of New Orleans isn’t the same 1981 that I remember very well, thankfully. No, this is NOLA in an alternative universe where voodoo and vampires are real, and murder lurks on every corner.
Our excitement for playing The Dark Quarter was off the charts, not only because we love the Destinies system but also because Evan Derrick’s Detective: City of Angels was one of our top games played at BGG Con in 2019 and our game of that year. Evan’s the main designer of The Dark Quarter (with writing and cultural consulting from NOLA native, Omari Akili (Rap Godz, Hoop Godz).) If The Dark Quarter has half the immersive experience in the prototype box as any of the scenarios in City of Angels, we were going to be as happy as a Lucky Dog vendor on Mardi Gras weekend.
As a side note, we took the box home, and even before the app was ready, we did an unboxing live on our Twitch Tuesdays channel. You’ll see our unfiltered reactions to what is inside, because this was the first time we had opened up the box. Since this is a Kickstarter blog post, where the graphic, materials, art, and production are all in flux until the project is delivered, I’ll steer you to the video for more details about what is inside, and instead, focus on gameplay and story.
The choice of using the Destinies system intrigued us right away. In Destinies, players play semi-cooperatively to explore a dark vaguely fantasy world, with each character having a unique back story that interacts with the milieu. The choices you make during the game will not only level up your character in terms of equipment, experience, and skills, but will also drive you forward along your own storyline. Completing the final quest before anyone else nets you the win and celebratory drinks down on Frenchman’s Street, but frankly, we found that each game was really about following and engaging in the story, winner be damned.
In The Dark Quarter, no longer are you competing against the other people around your tabletop. Instead, you and your fellow NOLA detectives from The Beaumont Agency are cooperating to the fullest extent to solve a gruesome murder. Something terrible has happened in the City, and it’s up to us to get to the bottom of it. And quickly.
A quick note here before we move on to the storyline and its implementation. This is not a game for the faint of heart or young of age. The box has an “M” rating for mature content for good reason. I saw some comments on BGG that suggested this was just for marketing, or for toy safety, but in our experience, that is just not true. That “M” rating is definitely for content – the language, situations, descriptions, and events within the prototype (again, things could change as the project moves along) are probably not appropriate for all ages, at least in most households. As adults, we did not find the languages and stories to be any worse than what you’d hear on Bourbon Street any Saturday night, but there’s definitely a bit of shock value going on here. In fact, if we had one complaint, it would be that the language use seemed a little gratuitous – back it off a couple of notches, maintaining the salty language that makes it feel like a hard-boiled detective story, and you still have a winning story.
Back to our experience, and a bit more background on the gameplay. Players choose to play one of four unique characters. They are cool twists on the regular tropes we find in dungeon crawlers – sure, there’s an angry brute, and a magic user is present, too – but each of the characters have nuances to them that make them seem more like complete but flawed builds. And at least in the first scenario, there’s a hint of development in each character as they wind themselves through various arcs in the story. Is the vampire really just a tank, or is there more than meets the eye? We’ll have to explore more to find out, won’t we? If nothing else, it will make for some good conversation and speculation around a blackened redfish entree at The Creole House on Canal, I’m sure.
Veterans of Destinies will find that The Dark Quarter feels familiar but with a couple of twists. Yes, each character has a set of discs on their character traits representing the numbers you need from your dice rolls to successfully meet the goals and challenges that pop up. But now, there are four tracks (instead of three) all tied to elements in this fictional world.
And you can’t just bump tracks up and down at your pleasure – the discs will upgrade or degrade but only from the highest side. To move the other discs, and make meeting the challenges easier as the numbers get smaller, discs will have to “bump” into each other causing the others to move leftward.
Another twist is that experience is shared, instead of hoarded, too. (Yes, Bradley, sharing is caring and it’s right there in the rulebook!) Players will have to make some pretty hard choices as to whose skills will be upgraded early in the game. Other players may have to wait a turn or three to get any upgrades at all.
Luckily, experience points were granted pretty frequently during our play of the first scenario, so that means the decisions will be made very often. This may have been one of the hidden gem aspects of The Dark Quarter. Perusing the cards that you are given at the start of the game, and thinking through how you wanted your skill tree to progress gave me something to do even when it wasn’t my turn.
The set up is a little bit different this time, also. Picture a large top down look at New Orleans and all of its gritty, grimy, music filled streets.
It’s dark out there, but you recognize some familiar sights right away like The Cabildo over in Jackson Square. The game gives each player an easily identifiable miniature, and you’ll be moving your figures around the board to explore the areas and interact with the denizens.
Just like in Destinies, the app comes into play on every turn, telling players whose turn it is, and going through the actions you can take. Want to question the Mayor’s assistant? You can – just sashay over to City Hall and click on the buttons to ask your questions. Think that drunk on the corner isn’t telling the truth? Well, persuade him one way or the other to come clean. All of your actions have meaning, however. Rough up the wrong person, and it just might make it harder for other players to get the answers they seek.
Even though we were chasing our own path through the story, there were times when it behooved us to team up. The Dark Quarter allows free trade of items found, and sharing of dice in the pool needed to overcome challenges, but only if the detectives are in the same location. So, at times, we ran after hints or people that would further our own semi-private quests, but for most of the second half of that first scenario, we had to work together to get past the obstacles.
Obviously, I am being a bit obtuse here, because I don’t want to spoil the story. Let’s just say that cooperation is key, but that you should also work on your own character’s development, too. I especially liked how the story crafters built in some tension right there in the first reel of the first scenario, tension that seemed to build and swell for most characters by the time we hit the third reel of that scenario. It’s not often you see a professional build of tension like that in our hobby; seeing the arc of some of the characters has given me the envie to find out the rest of the story.
So, should you check out The Dark Quarter when it hits crowdfunding? If you are a fan of the Detective: City of Angels game, or a fan of any choose your own adventure style story like Destinies, this should be on your must-see list. Just be warned that the subjects and language are pretty adult in nature, and also that the time taken to run through that first scenario was three hours. If you are okay with those provisos, and you like a good story to go with good gameplay, you should definitely check out The Dark Quarter.
And of course, it’s got that lagniappe – it’s a dark tale of the underbelly of one of the most iconic Europe-meets-America cities, New Orleans. The writing in the first scenario is top notch, and makes New Orleans another character in and of itself. Kudos to the writing team for capturing the feel of the city circa 1981. I could almost smell the beignets and fried shrimp po’boys coming out of the box while we played.
Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!
— BJ from Board Game Gumbo