In the fantasy world of Dark Forest, mankind lives alongside the serpentine monsters known as Gruds. Violent, dumb, and frighteningly fertile, the Gruds have long harassed the people and occupy much of the land. You are put in command of a castle with surrounding territories and must wage a campaign to retake the kingdoms from this scaley threat.
Dark Forest plays out a turn-based strategy game not unlike Risk. You choose a starting castle and can fill up the surrounding lands with troops, after which you begin invading enemy provinces while fending off attacks on your own. What immediately surprised me is just how easy Dark Forest is to learn. Each zone is clearly labeled with a letter or number and the game very effectively runs you through its phases with easy instructions.
Invading the enemy is as easy as telling the game you want to move from R to U, and the same goes for reinforcing zones or choosing where you want a special effect to apply. Every action in the game only ever requires one button-press to perform and it’s always clear what your options are. It’s shockingly efficient and this allows the gameplay to be as accessible and unhindered as possible
The goal of the game is to push the Gruds back and retake all the castles. During each turn you receive reinforcements (based on how much land you hold) and can attempt an attack. The Gruds then do the same once every other player has completed their actions.
However, the lands of Dark Forest are unsafe and that can have unpredictable effects on the turns. Wandering wizards can decide to help out whoever they please and may be beseeched for aid, which usually comes in the shape of additional armies being summoned. However, the wizards may also randomly decide to kill you or hand entire castles over to your enemies. Flying serpents will swoop down to eat whatever crosses their path, sea monsters will harass your boats, trolls may impede armies marching across their bridges, or a castle you’ve taken may reveal itself to be filled with treasure.
This unpredictability can, admittedly, go a little too far and Dark Forest does have some other shortcomings to cope with. My first complaint would be that any zone you don’t have at least 1 man in will automatically be given to the Gruds, even if it’s deep behind your frontlines. This means that even leaving a garrison force of 1 or 2 men may not be enough, as a random serpent attack may kill those.
This is not the only favoritism the game affords toward the Gruds. I recommend to always play this game in multiplayer mode, whether you actually have friends available or take control of the additional “players” yourself. I say this because each player can only make 1 attack per turn, which makes each session drag on as you slowly carve your way to victory, even when it’s overwhelmingly clear that you’ll be winning. And it’s not like this is a technical issue, because the Gruds have no such restriction and will use cheap tactics to utilize that advantage.
In the picture below, Gruds from zone K stormed over the bridge to attack zone F and lost, forcing me to occupy K with my surviving men from F. Gruds from zone L then immediately attacked zone K in the same turn, overruning my army and rendering the victory pointless. Gruds from zone G then also attacked zone C, but retreated after suffering losses. In my opinion, the number of actions the player has should either be based on the number of castles they own or the difficulty level that was chosen, which would still give the Gruds an early-game advantage that they lose as the player(s) start tipping the scales.
Dark Forest is not ideal and has some fundamental design problems, but it stands as an example of strategy games on old home computers being made accessible and, dare I say, fun to play. Many of its contemporaries suffered from overcomplicated controls and boring presentation, whereas Dark Forest’s colorful map, cute icons, and clearly-labeled territories made it a game I could effortlessly pick up and play without even reading the manual. In fact, it made me want to read the manual just to see what the heck a Grud was even supposed to be.