The Descent of Man

ShadowDragonDescent: Journeys In The Dark has pretty much become the defacto dungeon crawl, usurping Games Workshop “classics” such as HeroQuest when gamers think of the genre. I’m a self confessed dungeon crawl nut. I can’t point to a single thing about the genre that causes me to be drawn to it, however a lot of the attraction lies in the modular boards, the plethora of minis, the replayable quest like structure and the idea of condensing the Dungeon & Dragons experience into a few hours of playing a board game. I own a lot of these types of games, so much so I get teased by gaming friends for my minor obsession, so it’s only natural I’d want to play Descent: Journeys In The Dark 

I picked up Descent 1st Edition a few years back, it’s a beast of a game, it comes in the giant sized “coffin” box that Fantasy Flight reserved for only a few games, and had 80 minis, 60 map tiles, 180 cards and over 500 tokens and bits. Even when I bought it, news of the 2nd edition was leaking out, but I really fancied getting the original if only for the “they’ll never make another game like this again” factor. I’ve managed to get it to the table once, and I’m sure I blogged about it here, but obviously I imagined that, as no record of such a post exists. No matter. It’s a brilliant game, but quite ponderous, a single game can last about 4-5 hours. The other problem was, despite coming with a nice book stuffed with quests there was no way to link them and carry over your character to another game. Not without hunting down a copy of the impossible to find, out of print, brutally expensive Road To Legend expansion.

Descent 2nd Edition BoxSo… right, Descent 2nd Edition that’s what I wanted to talk about. Well being the dungeon whore I am, I’ve bought that as well. Why own both editions? Well did I mention I really, really like dungeon crawl games? I think I did, now you might be getting an idea of just how much. There’s been a few changes – smaller box, less stuff inside (boo!), swanky new art (1st edition was butt ugly) streamlined rules, shorter playtime and a campaign system out of the box. See? more than enough to justify a purchase. Stop looking at me like that. I also picked up the Conversion Kit which allows you to reuse the models from 1st Edition, in your games of 2nd Edition, so the old game is not going to gather dust entirely. Descent is set in Fantasy Flight’s fantasy universe of Terrinoth, which could also be called ‘”Generic Fantasy World #3406″. I own several games set in this Universe and couldn’t tell you a single interesting or notable thing about it, which in turn probably tells you an awful lot. It’s not bad in any way, but the setting doesn’t add anything to the game.

I recently managed to rustle up and cajole a party of adventurers to play a game of 2nd Edition. It’s maybe worth mentioning that Descent requires one player to act as the “Overlord”, basically the DM controlling the monsters, and generally running the game, while the other players are the heroes playing cooperatively as the good guys. I played as the Overlord

Play begins

Play all set-up, lets begin!

I familiarised myself with the rules a few days before and even had a brief solo test run, this isn’t the sort of game you just tear off the cellophane, open the box and play. Fantasy Flight rulebooks are notoriously poorly written, however they must have taken steps to improve things recently, as I found the rulebook clear, concise and easy to understand. A very nice surprise. The game takes quite a bit of setting up and a decent amount of table space, so my advice is be prepared if you can. We had a full party of four heroes – characters and classes were picked, I did my usual breakneck and muddled explanation of the rules and we kicked off the intro quest – ‘First Blood’.

The game flows surprisingly well, the rules are logical, with little complication. It might appear to be a horribly complex & fiddly game but it’s deceptively easy to play. It probably helped that all of us were familiar with this style of game and two players had joined me previously when I played 1st Edition. None the less, I was pleasantly surprised by the lack of rulebook searching and ambiguous situations. Mechanically it is a standard dungeon crawl affair, models have 2 actions per turn, used to move, attack or carry our special abilities. There’s a mixture of ranged and melee combat, and a host of equipment, skills and spells to affect the outcome of things. Heroes have a large card unique to their particular hero with their stats and core information on, plus a series of smaller cards that reflect their equipment & abilities which are unique to the class they have picked. I like the way classes overlay onto the base hero, giving effectively a choice of “builds” for each hero.

The Overlord controls the monsters which are either in place when the quest is set-up or come in as reinforcements. The Overlord draws special Overlord Cards to play in addition to just using his monsters. These card represent traps, one-off effects or other nasty surprises to spring on the heroes. Combat and other checks are resolved with a pool of special colored D6; split into attack, power and defence. diceThese work very well as a easy to understand core-mechanic and you can tell Fantasy Flight have done a lot of fine-tuning on the results of each die. However I do wish there was slightly more variety in the dice types (there’s just 6 types in the base game) to give more variation in the feel of things, especially given these dice are used for almost everything. Ranged combat requires some of the weirdest line-of-sight rules I’ve seen in any tabletop game, they are very easy to understand and unambiguous however they lead to some dubious results. I won’t bog down this post with the details, but it feels like an abstraction pushed a little too far. In end we just went with it, followed the rules to the letter and ignored the fact that sometimes it felt wrong getting a shot in when it looked like you couldn’t see the target.

The first quest was a clear victory to the heroes, I desperately tried to scuttle my goblins off the board (which was my victory condition) while they battered my giant Ettins into lumps by repeatedly stunning them. I probably should have been a bit more tactical in my monster placement trying to block the heroes, in the end my Ettin toppled to the ground and I had failed to get the necessary 5 goblins away to safety

Etin aren't quite as scary as they look

Etin aren’t quite as scary as they look

Onwards we cried! Well it was more of a mutual agreement to play the next quest, but you get the idea. Where 2nd Edition shines is in its campaign system, this lets you play a series of games with the heroes carrying over XP and gold, leveling up, buying gear and traveling to the next quest. Even the Overlord gets a chance to level-up his deck of nasty surprises. The campaign is played over 2 acts, each with a different series of quests, the winner of the quests in the first act determines which quests are played in the 2nd act, oohh branching paths. Neat. So, loot was bought & traded, XP spent on new skills, and the players picked ‘The Cardinals Plight’ for their next adventure.

Quests in 2nd Edition are played over two short encounters (well mostly, the intro quest is an exception to this). The first encounter of this quest consists of angry bad guy ‘Lord Merick Farrow’ trying to raise the dead from their graves while the heroes search for a ‘rune key’ to get through to stop him. If the Overlord manages to get Lord Farrow to raise four zombies & move them off the board the Overlord wins, if Farrow is killed, the heroes win. Once again I was victim to the heroes stunning the shit out of my monsters and generally making a mockery of my plans. My Flesh Molders were pretty hopeless at managing to hold the heroes up while Lord Farrow suffered some absolutely shocking dice rolls in his piss poor attempts to raise the dead. I think he was using the Fisher Price ‘My First Necromancy’ book as a reference

The second encounter begins

The second encounter begins

Before I knew it the heroes had the rune key and were bashing him hard in the face while he fumbled about attempted to raise more zombies from the ground. From then it was just a matter of time before they won. Once notable thing about 2nd Edition is it’s not possible to kill a hero outright, you can knock them down, and they just pop back up. OK not quite, pop back up, they’ll suffer fatigue and heal back just a handful of wounds, oh and the Overlord gets to draw an extra card – but that’s about it. This means most quests are time or event based affairs, this is more interesting than “kill the heroes” for sure, but a few times I wondered – what’s the actual point of hitting this guy.

We called it day after the first encounter. Normally you only stop play in-between quests, not encounters, this is because things like hit points, skills, fatigue and other things are not reset between encounters. However this is real life and people needed to leave. We made a frantic note of everything we could so we could pick up play again next time. Yes, a next time, everyone enjoyed the game and we definitely want to try and make a go of playing through the campaign.

It was in the post game tidy up I decided to double check the rules on stunning, which had been the bane of my game – with the heroes having two ways to stun my monsters, resulting in them in a seemingly endless state of inaction. “Oh hang on, the stun effect means that model has to skip 1 action per turn not their entire turn?! Arrrgh!” Well that’s one I’ll be remembering next time we play. Despite this hiccup, I like the system – it’s slick, flows well, and just clicks. You might recall I said Descent was “standard dungeon crawl” well that’s probably unfair, as I don’t recall any other game in the genre having this amount of polish or being this refined. It’s probably as close as you’ll get to the pinnacle of the dungeon crawl game, Descent condenses 30 odd years and countless other games into one ultimate orc-bashing, loot-finding, spell-zapping, map-exploring, trap-triggering, demon-slaying package. Is it perfect? No of course not – but what game is, I’m certainly looking forward to our next descent into Descent.

Author: Ben Coleman

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2 Comments

  1. Great piece! After a couple of plays I struggle to see Descent as the pinnacle of the genre – Warhammer Quest (and Heroquest) beat it on theme/setting, Ashardalon is tougher and funnier, AHQ more mod friendly, and so on – but it could be the best all rounder.

  2. Cheers. Hmmmm I think I have to disagree on a couple of those points, sorry! There’s a lot of misty eyed nostalgia when it comes to AHQ and HeroQuest. I looked over the AHQ rules recently and it’s terrible. Bloated 1990s GW design with masses & masses of tables and little thought into playability, and as a game out of the box is all-but unplayable (do you want to fight Skaven or Skaven?) Bizarrely HeroQuest fares slightly better but it’s always going to be dungeon-crawl-lite for me. I’d agree they have better settings, the Warhammer world is infinitely more interesting than Terrinoth, but HeroQuest certainly isn’t big on setting IMO. You could make a decent game out of the AHQ ruleset with a lot of extra work and house rules, extra minis, etc etc. If was going to do that I’d play Pathfinder.

    Ashardalon is a weird one. It’s too simple & too hard to have fun with. Lay tile, spawn monster, kill monster, draw event card, everyone takes 3HP of damage. Repeat until everyone is dead. Your options are so limited it doesn’t feel like an adventure at all, you’re just walking randomly down corridors popping monsters.
    These are the reasons I think Descent comes out on top, could it be better? Sure. Is it better than other dungeon crawlers, I believe so.

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