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Descent: Journeys in the Dark - my review.
Why am I reviewing Descent: Journeys in the Dark?
There's no denying it, Descent is an expensive game in a HUGE box. Luckily, my gaming group decided to split the cost - but was it worth it? Here's my review of Descent: Journeys in the Dark.
I'm sure it's been said before - you get one hell of a lot of stuff in the Descent box! What sold it to us was an unboxing video on a French site - check out the link!
You get: modular board pieces (perfect for D&D dungeons too), over a dozen characters, each with their own card and miniature, skill cards, treasure cards, item cards, money tokens, heaps and heaps of monsters with info cards, cool custom dice..!
Bottom line: Treasure hoard! You get what you pay for.
Being from a D&D / RPG background, we wanted to know how it played. We were after quick & dirty dungeon crawling action, ridiculous magic items and all round fun. This game is not D&D, however. You see, in Descent the Overlord player is actually trying to kill the Hero players, as opposed to the delicate balance of tension/story/challenge maintained by a DM. Killing them all is a definite option!
The gameplay was a surprise - it took us a couple of games to get our heads round how we were supposed to be playing. The main surprise was the way the Heroes need to play to win - you gain treasure and magic items to kill monsters, as opposed to killing monsters to gain treasure and magic items that we were used to.
The Heroes need to move quickly, outpacing the Overlord's minions and quaffing fatigue potions with abandon. Heroes gain Conquest points for various things - activating portals to town (think of save/extraction points) and opening chests mostly. However, they lose them if they are killed or if the Overlord runs out of cards to draw - time is definitely on the side of the Overlord player.
As far as the Overlord's cards go, they can be used to spawn monsters, spring hidden traps (in the Heroes' turn!) and for special bonuses to make life that little bit easier for the forces of darkness.
For muclebound heroic types and evil overlords. Not kittens.
One of the best features of descent is the dice. They are custom-made and determine range and damage in a single roll - the numbers are range, hearts are damage. The black dice are "boost" dice, giving +1 range or damage, +1 power surge, or nothing. The power surges are the little lightning bolts, which activate the special abilities of your insanely powerful magic items. Nice.
Overall, whichever side you play, the game is fast moving and tense. The Heroes' conquest points seesaw up and down throughout, teetering on the brink of defeat and spurring them on to grab another chest or portal. This behaviour just encourages the Overlord to drop rocks on them, open spiked pits under their feet and explode the doors when they're opened - all while grinning insanely!
There are a few quests included, designed to be played in sequence. It may not seem like much, but the natural tendency is to keep retrying each one until the heroes win, video game style. So far we're on number 3, after a good half-dozen plays.
Bottom line: Fun, but can take a while to learn the game.
There are currently five expansions for Descent: Journeys in the Dark, adding quite heavily to its replayability:
- Well of Darkness adds new heroes, monsters, and overlord options with a new "treachery" system, as well as new quests.
- Altar of Despair adds yet more heroes and monsters, new traps, terrain and rules - as well as some extra quests that use them.
- Road to Legend rewrites the way Descent is played by transforming it into an RPG-style series of shorter encounters. Even more new terrain here (outdoors) as well as more custom dice!
- Tomb of Ice adds even more monsters and heroes to the mix, along with new mechanics, potions and treasures.
- Sea of Blood expands Road to Legend's campaign map in a nautical fashion, adding an ocean full of - you guessed it - new monsters and a ship to sail it in.
So, what's the catch?
Hopefully, you've got the impression that we quite like Descent. The major problems with Descent are:
- Balance. The game is not always fair, some scenarios are easier than others, some combinations of characters (and skills) work better together, and the scaling for different numbers of players is not great.
- Time. Descent takes ages. A game will take 2+ hours, we've often wound to a halt after 4 or 5 and decided who would have won - not that we haven't enjoyed those 4-5 hours, that is.
- Cost. It is expensive for an initial outlay, particularly for an individual.
Have you ever played Descent?
The last word:
+ Good quality components in abundance, enough quests to keep us busy
+ Different gameplay dynamic - not just a wannabe or tabletop RPG clone
- Takes a whole evening to play, and often some of the morning too!
- Some games are tough for one side or the other to win from the outset