Death To Sprues: Descent (Part 1)
In ongoing good Can’t Talk Media news, esteemed writer Anton brings us a series of board game reviews (fondly titled Death To Sprues)! Up first is his review of Descent: Journeys In The Dark. Stay tuned next week for part 2, where he reviews the newest expansion for Descent.
Descent: Journeys in the Dark
Player count: 2-5
Play time: 2-3 hours
Dungeon crawling in a board game is far from a new idea. It has been a recurring theme for decades. One name emerged as king of the genre when Fantasy Flight Games (FFG) released Descent: Journeys in the Dark in 2005. The game came in a massive box that was almost 60cm long and was filled to the brim with plastic miniatures to represent both heroes and fearsome monsters. If that wasn’t big enough, FFG released 5 or so expansions for Descent that added more monsters, heroes, maps, and epic campaign play that could span multiple play sessions with persistent hero stats and gear.
The Second coming
In 2012 FFG slapped a new coat of paint on the franchise, and rebooted it with Descent: Journeys in the Dark (Second Edition). The game comes in a standard size box, FFG has done away with the ‘coffin box’ packaging as they overhauled game mechanics.
At it’s core, Descent is an asymmetrical dungeon crawling combat game. 1-4 players control the heroes in the dungeon, and choose from a roster of melee fighters, healers, mages, and ranged fighters. The stable of heroes is pretty diverse, and represents a few different play styles that the heroes can work to synergize. The ratio of male to females is 1:1 and a few different fantasy races and complexions are represented. This is not a game of various musclebound white dudes, and then the one buxom token female in bikini armor. In fact, the more opportunities you give FFG to diversify the hero roster with expansions that add heroes, the better your selection gets.
Once you choose a hero, you’ve chosen your role. Each hero is tied to a roll, and then the base game gives you a choice of two classes within that role. As a ranged attacker, do you want to dart around the map looting and dodging as a Thief, or be a hard hitting archer as the Wildlander? Melee fighters can choose between dealing damage, or tanking damage by deflecting attacks to themselves. Each class has unique starting gear and a skill tree of cards to draw upon as they level up. In case you’re wondering, no, the healer classes are not boring to play, and you will be fighting just like everyone else foolhardy enough to go looking for trinkets in this dungeon.
The fifth player takes on the role of the Overlord. This player will control all of the monsters in the game, and generally work against the goals of the heroes. The Overlord has a few unique decks of cards that only they draw from, and can really sow misery about the board with adept use of resources. The Overlord is limited by a few game factors and cannot just spam massive dragons, but in general the master of evil will have a numbers advantage or save up resources to hit players with something fiery and guttural at a particularly inopportune moment for the heroes.
The first hurdle any group of players must overcome is whether they want to play a game that is only semi-cooperative. 1-4 of you will be working as a team, and then there’s the Overlord who is essentially there to make you fail at everything you try to do. Each map has defined objectives for each side, and they are usually in direct opposition to the other. If that’s a problem for your group, Descent can be expanded by one of the co-operative scenarios (not included). The game scales with the number of players, so the solo Overlord is given more resources and monsters if there are more heroes to contend with.
Assuming you’re okay with having a lone player laughing maniacally at one end of the table while everyone else is feverishly trying to overcome a hoard of monsters, you’re set. Descent is a combat and exploration focused game. Every player is managing things like exhaustion, health points, and items to keep their opponent(s) at a disadvantage. Any RPG fan will find themselves quite at home with the theme and ideas here.
The board is made up of interlocking puzzle pieces that form hallways, rooms, and doors. The rooms are all covered with a uniform movement grid that dictates things like distance, line of sight, and special spaces like lava (don’t tread on me!). The maps are all easy to assemble, and the instructions are presented with clear images of where to place monsters, and key features like the ever-important exit.
Clang! Biff! Spa-ding!
Once the dungeon is assembled and everyone has their various tokens in place, it’s time to hit them together and make custom battle sound effects! Combat in Descent is done entirely with unique, six-sided dice with various icons representing different effects. The attacking player generally roles 2-3 dice featuring icons for ‘hits’ and ‘surges’ that apply secondary effects like stuns or poison if the attack is successful. No one in Descent is a complete slouch. Players and monsters will get to roll defense dice to counter incoming attacks, usually 1-2 dice are rolled in response. The defense dice are peppered with their own shield icons, or the always disappointing blank side that means you bear the full brunt of whatever is hurtling at your face. Combat is extremely simple to interpret from the dice. Each heart icon on the attack dice is one point of damage, and every shield icon on the defense dice cancels a heart icon. If you know how many fingers you have, combat in Descent is virtually math-free.
Each map created in Descent is created from the included instructions, each map is called an “encounter”. Usually the goal is to wipe one team from the board, or to achieve a specific game state. Each encounter plays out like a tiny story, and ties to map features. An encounter might be a grassy field with a river in the middle. The Overlord is tasked with getting a certain number of minions across the river to an exit, while the heroes are trying to seal the holes the minions emerge from. Other times there may be neutral objectives that each side is trying to protect, move, or destroy.
Next time on Descent…
If you’ve got a regular group that likes to play Descent, one of the best ways to play is the Campaign mode. Campaigns link several escalating encounters together into a narrative that can span dozens of play sessions. Heroes and the Overlord keep some resources from session to session like gear or expendable points to use for their own ends. Campaigns will also reward the winning side with extra stuff for the next encounters, like gold to spend on better items, or a specific (and usually pretty nasty) card for the Overlord to have in their hand. The sense of meaning given to each encounter in Campaign mode really makes it more rewarding than the one-off experience provided otherwise.
Woven together, the easy-to-learn rules of Descent are a great play system. Nothing in Descent seems superfluous or convoluted. The production value of the components is incredible, as they usually are with FFG. The map tiles feature thematic locales, and are all double-sided with an alternate version on the reverse. The plastic minis are detailed and a sight to see themselves, and really help bring the scenes to life.
Descent (2e) has been expanded a few times by FFG, but there’s also a fairly dedicated community of players creating their own campaigns and encounters. If you blow through the included Campaign in the base game, there’s a good selection of things to move onto even if you don’t want to take the leap into one of FFG’s official expansions. I highly recommend Descent for those inclined to dungeon dive.