Descent Second Edition: Board Game Review
Hey guys, I'm taking a look back at many of my board game reviews this week to see how they measure up a year or two later. Look for my Looking Back sections at the bottom of the page!
Journeys in the Dark
Descent: Journeys in the Dark earned a reputation as the quintessential dungeon crawl game when it was first released in 2005. It was created by Fantasy Flight games, publishers of great products like Cosmic Encounter, Mansions of Madness and many others. The original game was based somewhat on Fantasy Flight's DOOM: The Boardgame, which was released around the same time as Doom 3 on PC.
The basics of Descent are this: Each player controls a single hero with an array of weapons and spells as they crawl through a dungeon. The monsters and traps are controlled by another player, called the Overlord. His job is to terrorize the heroes with swarms of creepy-crawly creatures. It's semi-cooperative (as in, 4-vs-1) and makes for a good time.
This isn't D&D, this is a deathmatch.
Players select a quest from the guide and set up the map. Everyone selects a hero and a class (of which there are many). The Overlord selects his monsters and you're off to the races.
Each scenario has the heroes racing to complete various objectives before the Overlord completes his. Each quest has wildly different objectives which almost never boil down to "kill everything." Some of the missions I've played include:
• Trying find a door key to save a paladin before zombies eat him
• Finding and destroying the heart of a dragon before said dragon destroys a town
• Unmasking and rescuing party guests at a masquerade ball
And many, many others.
Wow, this game just sings with speed. I've never played the original Descent, but the second edition is smooth as butter. The information as it's presented is straightforward and easy to understand at a glance. It takes about two minutes to explain the rules, and the rest can be learned over the course of the first game.
Everything works the way it should. You might say it's intuitive. Heroes are conveniently supplied with cards that detail everything they can do in a turn. The same goes for the Overlord. In fact, great pains have been taken to ensure players feel very little "drag" from game mechanics, allowing players to do what they want: Play the game. You won't be consulting charts or adding modifiers to dice rolls. It's lovely.
The game also includes its own set of custom 6-sided dice that are used for just about everything. In our group, there were questions about what symbols meant for the first two or three rolls, then everybody just gets it. Hearts are healing and damage. Numbers are used for range. Lightning bolts are used to activate powers. Wham. Done.
Design and Production
Just like pretty graphics in a video game, modern board games are made or broken based on how good they look. Fortunately, Descent 2e excels in this category. Crisp, stylish art adorns every card and terrain tile. Important information is clearly laid out in a manner that makes everything fast and easy to understand. The fact that the Overlord can get all the pertinent information from glancing at monster card is astonishing. There's no need to keep the rulebook on the table after the first game or so. Everything else is either obvious or explained on the cards themselves.
The quality of the miniatures is surprisingly high; they're detailed and cast in a semisoft plastic. They're unlikely to break as they roll around in their included baggie. The heroes especially are extremely detailed.
I also enjoyed the fact that I didn't have to glue or snap anything together; the game was ready to play as soon as I opened the box.
To ensure gameplay is fast, most of the quests have some kind of baked-in time limit. Something like, stop five goblins from escaping, or save this bishop before zombies kill him. It succeeds at giving players urgent and immediate goals and keeps the pace of the game brisk, with most maps ending around turn five. It can be an intense experience for everyone involved.
I've found that many games result in everyone carefully planning their moves in total silence, particularly around crucial turns. It's not a bad thing, but this game can get pretty serious.
Finally, the game wasn't as mechanically "heavy" as I expected. The dice give the game a pleasant randomness that players can exert some control over with abilities and weapons. It's certainly heavier than Heroquest, but it's nothing close to a full-fledged RPG.
Pros and Cons
+ Tight, focused gameplay
+ A typical session is 45 minutes to two hours long
+ Superb production values, graphic design
+ Easy to learn
+ Children who like Heroica could (probably) get into this
- A thorough understanding of rules is recommended before playing
- Lots of little bits to sort through, external storage solution is recommended (especially if you plan to buy expansions)
- Setup can be lengthy
Looking Back One Year Later
I've played this game close to twenty or twenty-five times with an assortment of different players and groups this year. Here are some things to look out for.
• Setup still takes forever, there's just not a fast way to do it. You've got cards to sort, tiles to find and tokens to collect. I have a nice storage solution with Plano tackle boxes and it takes me ten to fifteen minutes to get everything ready. Also, this problem gets worse when you factor in all of the current expansions that add more of everything.
• Continuing campaigns can be a pain. I recommend getting campaign tracking sheets (just google around) to make sure all players keep the equipment they've earned between scenarios. Many times I've had to reset hero decks because another group wanted to play. Plan ahead.
• This game isn't fair. One way or another, things are going to get unbalanced. In my experience, the Overlord player is quickly outmatched by the heroes. Looking around online, I've found that many people have the exact opposite problem. Set your expectations accordingly.
• Women don't like it. I don't mean to sound sexist, but most women (at least the ones I know) just aren't into this game. Maybe it's the tactical nature of the gameplay, the theme or the apparently intimidating amount of stuff on the table, but don't expect to play this with wives or girlfriends. I'm speaking in general terms so of course there are exceptions to this, but this is just my observation.
I still agree with the score I gave the game. In fact, I might bump it up to 8.5/10 because I've played quite a few more games and now appreciate what Descent is and does. It's still my personal favorite dungeon crawl board game.