Note: This preview uses pre-release components and rules. What you see here may be different from the final, published game.
Welcome to New Orleans, circa 1980. It’s a city of music, magic, and delicious food. Award-winning publishers Lucky Duck Games and Van Ryder Games have teamed up to bring us The Dark Quarter. It’s a mature investigative game of murder, mystery, and dark magic. Designed by Evan Derrick, this cooperative game uses Lucky Duck’s app-assisted QR code technology first seen in Chronicles of Crime. We had a chance to play through the first scenario in the game and are ready to give you some spoiler free details.
To play The Dark Quarter, each player gets to control one of four unique investigators as you tackle the chosen scenario. The game is handled via rotating turns between players, and uses a hidden timer to track the player’s progress. Take too long and the game will end in a failure.
On a player’s turn, they first refresh an effort die, these are spent to aid in skill challenges. They can also purchase a skill card if they have enough experience points. The player can also scan any items in their possession using the app and a QR code if they want to look at it in more detail. These are all kind of preliminary actions though. The main thing players will do on their turn is visit a location.
The map is a bit abstract (although wonderfully illustrated by Damien Mammoliti) as points of interest are placed on it in various spots as discovered. But characters can move to any location on their turn without regard to travel time.
Interacting with a location is all handled through the app. These will be searching points of interest or talking with non-player characters (NPCs). Most of these interactions are handled via skill checks, a system we found to be pretty interesting. Each player has 4 skills, with 3 cubes each in a numbered slot. To make a check, you roll the two main dice and any desired effort dice. You compare the total of your roll to your skill track. Any cube in a slot equal to or lower than your roll grants you a success. The total number of successes are inputed into the app, which will let you know the results. More successes usually leads to better results in the app, such as more questions to ask the NPC.
Usually, you can take actions on your turn until either you fail a skill check or you’ve exhausted your location. Players continue turns in this manner—investigating locations, searching for clues, scanning items with the app—until they’ve progressed far enough to unlock the finale. Once the finale is entered, there is no going back and the game takes a bit more cinematic approach to things.
I know app-assisted games can be somewhat divisive in the tabletop gaming space. I’m in the camp of they are great and usually only enhance the game. But if you happen to be in the other group, then I’ll just let you know that The Dark Quarter leans heavily into the app. I mean, you could probably play the game without minis or even the game board. The only specifically required components are basically the player boards, dice, cubes, and cards.
That being said, for gamers that love to sink their teeth into a game that’s overflowing with flavor, The Dark Quarter has that in spades. From the music, to the writing, to even the art, everything screams with a dark New Orleans vibe. And while this game is set in the 80s, there is no trace of that 1980s camp that could easily derail the seriousness of your mission. I loved what the designers did here to really tie everything together in regards to its location and time periods.
Diving more into the mechanics, the skill system is really interesting. I liked how you had multiple cubes on a track that would improve (or regress) over the course of the game depending on your actions. Want to talk to that receptionist? Hope you are a good linguist. More successes will grant you extra questions to ask her, but a bad roll could have her on edge at the start of the conversation or shut her down altogether.
The other interesting thing is that your decisions have consequences. After getting a bit of info from a NPC, you have the option of coaxing or intimidating them for more info (or just walking away). What you choose there can alter how the NPC sees you. Intimidate the wrong person and they might clam up and end the conversation, on the other hand, that punch to the gut might be just what you need to get them talking in detail. The other thing to know is that there are times when players have to make decisions on the direction their character will go. The app warns you, and then gives you 45 seconds to read the question and choose a decision. It adds a nice bit of tension to the game that we thought was a great idea.
The prototype we tried out only had one scenario and it was a developmental build that didn’t seem quite final. So we couldn’t fully get to put the game through its paces like we would with the final copy. But I was left with a few lingering questions. One is how replayable the game is. The scenario definitely has a one-and-done feel to it, as knowing how things unfold would make subsequent plays lackluster at best.
My other question is if the game is probably better suited to solo or the two-player count. We played our game with three players, but even then there was a bit of downtime. The reason is that if you take your turn and immediately fail a skill check, you are done. This led to some players having quite a few 10-second turns as the dice didn’t roll their way. I could imagine at four-player counts it could get kind of boring if you have a quick turn and someone else is doing much better. On the other hand, this is a cooperative investigation game, so there is some benefit for all players being engaged with the story even during your off turns.
Lucky Duck and Van Ryder Games have built a really nice, narrative game here. The theming comes through in flying colors, and the mechanics seem to work well with the game. The game does lean very heavily on the app, so expect to be interacting with your tablet and phone quite a bit. But overall we had fun with our one mission in The Dark Quarter and I look forward to venturing out into gritty New Orleans again sometime in the future.
The Dark Quarter is currently in funding on Kickstarter. If you’d like to become a backer, or find out more information, head over to their campaign page.