Occasionally, you will play something that reminds you why gaming is so important. It’ll tap into feelings that you won’t get anywhere else, and Through the Darkest of Times just happens to be one of those games.
It’s a remarkable achievement, as the game takes place in a period that’s been well covered, not least in many a GCSE History class. Through the Darkest of Times charts the rise and fall of Nazi Germany from 1932 to 1945 from the perspective of a small resistance group in Berlin. That means the horrors of the Reichstag Fire, the Hindenburg, the 1936 Olympics, concentration camps and the breadth of World War II, all at the closest magnification. These are vital, necessary moments of our past to learn from and, on the whole as a society, we have done a decent job of doing so. So, how does Through the Darkest of Times manage to feel so fresh and necessary?
A large part is down to the microscopic approach. The game chucks you onto the frontline of the resistance as a lone German, and then expects you to experience it on a week to week, month to month basis. Events stack on top of each other, the German people slowly bubble and froth, and the walls very palpably close in. I thought I had a handle on the events of this period, but – in truth – I never realised that the nation fell to fascism because everything happened in increments. Eventually, outrages stacked on more minor outrages and everything felt like it was unstoppable – at least, that is how Through the Darkest of Times makes it feel.
The greatest genius of the game, however, is exploring all of this in a worker-placement game. You may not have played many, if any, worker placement games, as they are more popular in board games than they are video games (Imperial Settlers and Raiders of the North Sea are semi-popular on mobile), but they boil down to the following: you have a limited number of ‘worker’ pieces, and a board with a slightly larger number of spaces where these workers can be placed. You must choose where you place your workers carefully, as where you place them triggers a different effect. In the case of Through the Darkest of Times, different spaces might trigger the generation of funding, finding another member for your core team, or gaining morale, and more. But, as with any good worker placement game, it never feels like you have enough workers: time runs down, resources run out, and the enemy closes in.
Choosing the worker-placement genre for the game is just so, so perfect. The genre is all about managing limited resources and scraping together what you can, and that fits the revolutionary theme like a glove. The theme and game also amplify each other: it isn’t just about generating funds when I place one of my workers, it is about making enough money so that I can pay for false papers for a close relative. It isn’t just about building up a morale stat, it is about keeping the peace well enough in my group that a resistance member isn’t thrown out for being homosexual.
The theming means that your worker pieces are so much more than just pieces. By building a team, investing in their progression (stats can be improved over time) and making you care for them over their personalised missions, the game manages to put you on edge at all times, as each placement of a worker only gives a chance of success, and failure can mean a step closer to detection, capture or even death. I’ve never played a worker-placement game where losing a worker feels as sombre as this.
The game also manages to feel suffocating. Red ‘threat areas’ encircle a lot of the board, meaning that you’re increasingly likely to get caught if you place your piece there. Each of your team gains little red pegs next to their headshot when they are detected, and more than five pegs means a stint in jail, or worse. Events occur between missions that can throw your team into chaos, just as you thought you were getting on top of things. Considering the game is mostly played on a game board, it’s fascinating how well it manages to convey a creeping threat.
That’s not to say that there aren’t issues. The randomness will be off-putting for a lot of people, as – similar to turn-based RPGs like X-Com 2 – you can give yourself a massive chance of success in a mission, but still fail. In some instances that chance of success is invisible, which can feel like a leap of faith. It’s to the game’s credit that it rarely punishes failure dramatically, but it still happens.
The presentation of the game is below-par, and will probably stop Through the Darkest of Times from reaching a large audience, which is a real shame. While I was playing, someone looked over my shoulder and asked if a character was Frank Sidebottom. If you’re of a certain age, you will know that’s not a good thing. The writing also has a frustrating knack of being too on-the-nose: it’s clear that there are real-world parallels with the events of this period, so there is no need to spell it out with “drain the swamp” and “make Germany great again”. It drew me out of the immersion and made me audibly sigh.
These moments were reasonably rare, however, and events will creep up to distract you. Soon enough, you will be in the front row of a book-burning, or searching for families willing to hole up Jewish children. There is a sense of a branching narrative throughout, and I wanted to immediately replay to see how much the game changed, and how fresh the experience would feel on a second run.
A lot of whether Through the Darkest of Times will work for you will be down to preference. It’s not fast-paced or overflowing with action: it’s a board game with some events and random moments that couldn’t have been packed into a box. It’s not funny or colourful: this is unrelentingly grim and serious, but it’s also not quite a history lesson either – it’s too engaging and strategic to be a piece of edutainment (although, I can’t think of many better ways of teaching someone about the period). It’s not pretty to play, but your mileage may vary in terms of whether that matters.
Through the Darkest of Times attempts to bring life in the Third Reich into focus, and is absorbingly successful. It’s a shame that its limp presentation will put people off, as there’s a wonderful and strategic board game here, and an even better evocation of what it was to be a member of the resistance.
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version. Game provided by the publisher.Want to keep up to date with the latest Xt reviews, Xt opinions and Xt content? Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.