Darrington Press, the publishing arm of the Critical Role media empire, got off to a tumultuous start. The debut board game, Uk’otoa, collided and made no impression. I approached this new release with a fair amount of skepticism and feared the worst. Discover that this approach was unfounded: Until the last gasp is not an uninspired board game with a coat of paint from the Mighty Nein brand. Rather, it’s a story-infused tabletop design that crosses genres and blends extremely well together. It’s a design that appeals to the publisher’s strengths and more effectively appeals to the brand’s target demographic: fans of impromptu stories. In short, it is a smashing success.
Until the last gasp is on the borderline between board game and role-playing game. There is a central map of a location with point-to-point spaces that represent interactive possibilities, such as a throne room or animal pen. Players do not move individual pawns, but shuffle over a token that indicates where both combatants are currently fighting. Each character is represented by an individual player board that contains dice pools and organizes information to facilitate gameplay. All of this is in the service of structured combat as the basis for free-form storytelling.
The duel is called through a clever action point system. It feels most like a board game when players play with their dice pools and generate action points for the round. These are spent on discrete options such as wounding an enemy, pushing them to a new location, or interacting with the terrain. The environment itself offers several possibilities, such as ringing a bell tower or grabbing an improvised weapon from a scrap yard. These are contextually based on the setting you chose with a solid offering.
What’s compelling is how the design transitions into more free-form improvisational theatre. For example, a wound is not mechanically tracked with health or tokens. Instead, your opponent simply describes the hit and how it changes or informs the story. The same if you spend an action to have a drink at the bar or accuse your enemy of treason in the throne room. There is an overall sense of freedom and confidence for the players that is refreshing and new in this format.
However, that approach is fragile. When played with someone who is not comfortable with the general concept of role play and narrative improvisation, it can be dull and lifeless. Often mechanical effects accompany the results of actions, such as changing your opponent’s stance and changing his options on the next turn, but the real spark of Until the last gasp is in constructing the shared story. Those expecting a traditional board game will struggle here. There is strong guidance and advice made clear, but there simply isn’t enough tactical meat on the bones to satisfy such desires. Traditional board game players will quickly push to reach their target card, quickly check their boxes, and then go for the kill. However, the spirit of the game wants more. It wants you to enjoy every moment and hold on to every word. It wants you to be less concerned with winning and more focused on the resulting story.
This focus on role-playing and shared storytelling is evident throughout the design. The game begins with an abbreviated “session zero”, in which both players discuss the environment they want to explore and then create characters. Motivations, weaknesses, and concise backstory are all conjured up before the battle begins. The relationship between the fighters is also agreed upon as this is a core tenet of the game’s story and arc. For those who want a more lively or effortless experience, you can use one of the pre-generated characters or roll up your background on the included graphics. This is, of course, the less satisfying approach, but it’s nice to have the option to just jump into the conflict and complete the entire session in less than an hour.
Once the violence begins, the story continues to permeate at opportune moments. Often one of the protagonists will be forced to draw a drama card. These prompt questions and jokes, including effects such as “compliment your enemy, to annoy or enrage him.” Sometimes they explore each other’s backstories and secrets, uncovering additional character development and enriching the game. But that game is the story, and those looking for mechanical crunch may find that disappointing.
Leaning in, however, it’s obvious Until the last gaspThe sense of narrative exploration and collaboration is expertly handled. Those who are comfortable embracing this direction will dig into their role and create something special. The format is also flexible. You can reuse characters, maybe meet again and again throughout their lives to continue an eternal duel. Or maybe one of the players returns as the child of a previously fallen character, seeking vengeance against their parents’ murderer. You could even take on the role of iconic heroes of established intellectual property. With a little creativity, you could recreate Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker’s magnificent lightsaber duel on the second Death Star – just with a narrative envelope that encompasses everything you know about the prequels, sequels, and everything in between. Such a duel can easily go from drama to high-level comedy, and players are firmly in control.
Despite a modest box and only a handful of parts, Until the last gasp bleeding potential. This is a unique design that offers a structured yet story-focused tabletop experience that draws from both traditional board games and indie RPGs. It is captivating yet light, allowing for complex stories or concise poetic duels shrouded in mystery. After the misstep of Uk’otoaI’m honestly shocked at how effective and moving this game manages to be.
Until the last gasp was released online and at local retailers on March 14. The game was reviewed using a retail copy from Darrington Press. Vox Media has partnerships. These do not affect editorial content, although Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased through affiliate links. You can find additional information on Polygon’s Ethics Policy here.