Descent: Journeys in the Dark Second Edition Review

Descent Journeys in the Dark Second Edition board game review
Why would anyone want to go dungeon crawling? Its dark, it’s going to be damp and all that mould and fungus is going to mess with your allergies. And that’s forgetting about the Dungeon’s residents, if someone broke into your home to steal money, you’d be pulling out a flame thrower to take them down but when a dragon does it he’s the villain. It may seem a stupid idea in reality but we all love a good dungeon crawler and the second edition of Descent: Journeys in the Dark may be more than just a good dungeon crawler, it may just be the best.

Yes, Descent is back and we’re going to completely ignore its history because it was big, cost a Dragon’s haul worth of gold coins and because the second version is here, slimmer, more toned and more handsome. Descent is your typical Tolkie-esque fantasy adventure as a group of players take on a single overlord as they smite goblins, steal treasure and generally ruin the day of any creature living underground. One to four heroes take on a single overlord on a variety of quests and the first thing for the heroes to do is pick their character.

Straight away Descent reveals its opening gambit; choice. You get the choice of eight heroes and each hero can pick one of two character classes, so straight out of the gate you have the choice of 16 different characters. You then gets to choose the quest, unless you’re playing the campaign, then you start on a special introductory quest.

At the heart of Descent is the quest system. Decent isn’t a randomly generated dungeon full of monsters, instead it utilises a book full of scenarios with a story and objectives. Descent’s real beauty and spark of genius is that each quest has different objectives for the heroes and the overlord. Some quests have objectives that are intrinsically linked, the overlord wins if he can get his lieutenant off the map and the heroes win if they kill said lieutenant, but the best quests are those where the heroes and overlord’s objectives differ drastically. For example the very first quest has the heroes having to defeat a giant ettin but the overlord wins if they get enough goblins off the map. These quests are where Descent really shines, and gives both sides of the game options about whether they want to spend effort completing their quest or hindering their opponent’s quest. The other beautiful things about Descent’s quest is that these objective are rarely as simple as kill everything that moves, the heroes may be trying to rescue guests from a masquerade ball but some are the overlords minions in disguise, the overlord may be attempting to steal a farmers crops, or it may be as simple as getting out of the dungeon before the overlord swamps the area with monsters. These objectives not only keep the game interesting but also turn most games into a race; it no longer becomes who is the hardest and most equipped character but actual tactics and strategy on part of the players.

Descent Journeys in the Dark Second Edition board game review
Those ettins are mean and hard but beautiful miniatures.

Each quest is usually split into two section, usually an above ground section and dungeon section. How the players perform on the first half always has an effect on the second half meaning there’s always an incentive to succeed. This process breaks the game into bite sized junks and means that you can easily slot one half-quest into an hour gaming slot. These quests can be played as one off games, but Descent’s true strength comes when you play these as part of an on-going campaign. Its takes a bit of time commitment to complete, we estimated about 2 hours per quest and 8 quests, but it is worth the time investment. Not only does the story piece together into an on-going narrative but it also means that your adventurers and the overlord level up between quests.

Decent is a complicated game but at time it can be rather elegant, this complexity is required though, as options lead to tactics and tactics lead to meaningful decisions and meaningful decisions are at the heart of every good game. Melee combat is one such elegant mechanic, colour coded dice are rolled for your attack, the defender rolls their shield dice, shields cancel out hearts the rest is damage. Simple, yet there’s more. Some sides of the dice have surges that allow heroes and monsters alike to activate special powers and bonuses. Ranged combat is slightly more complicated with a number on the dice representing the range of the shot, if you don’t role a number higher than your distance to the target you miss. It’s a nice mechanic that encourages you to stick close to the combat. The line of sight rules however are not elegant. Line of sight is worked out from the corner of tiles. This means there comes points where you are adamant your hero would be hiding behind a wall but the rules mean they can be hit. And then there’s the stun effect, it’s a simple card that means your hero or monster is stunned but I’ve never seen so many arguments over the wording of a single rule. It may be one rule in a many but it has caused no end of bother for my gaming group.

Descent Journeys in the Dark Second Edition leoric
Each character gives plenty of options

Descent is full of choices, which character, which class to take, what skills and weapons to buy and as you level up your character there’s always more tantalising things with which to pimp out your character. As long as you’re one of the heroes, for the overlord things seem very restricted. You get the choice of which monsters to bring to the quests but your choices are very limited and in some cases you have no choice at all. If you have one of the many expansions or the luxury of the original game and the conversion kit, then these options open up but with just the base game your selection of minions is limited. Then there are the overlord cards, split into three different themes you can slowly build up your deck quest by quest. To get some of the juicier cards though means saving some your precious XP up and even then your choice of cards can be decided by the group and their play style. This is made worse if your heroes then find a way to overcome your favourite cards meaning you’re now stuck with them for the whole campaign. In short, it’s just not as much fun being the overlord.

Descent Journeys in the Dark Second Edition board game review

Descent’s main issue though is that the balance of the games teeters on a knife edge. With fewer players the Overlord can easily overwhelm the heroes with more players the issue of four minds against one means the heroes can outthink the overlord and via careful planning and manoeuvring win the day. Because Descent is so reliant on its quest system that balance ultimately falls down to the goals in the quests. This balance is unfortunately all over the place as I’ve played games where the Overlord marches over the heroes and those where the heroes win the game in less time than it took to set up the map. With such a huge amount of options available for all players I think this issue of balance is inevitable but there is a solution that, as an Overlord, I started to implement. Rather than play the game competitively the Descent works better when the Overlord acts more as a games master than an adversary. The Overlord has the power to tone down the monsters or throw everything in their arsenal at the heroes and I believe Descent works best when he Overlord adjusts the difficulty based on their players’ enjoyment of the game.

Descent Journeys in the Dark Second Edition board game review
Having major characters represented by cardboard counters is a bit odd.

Descent can best be described as luscious, there is something very luxurious about the quality of its components, and from the colourful double sided board pieces to the finely detailed miniatures everything has an air of exuberance. The problem is there’s not quite enough of it. I’ve already touched on the issue of the Overlord not having much choice in the way of monsters at their disposal but there is also a lack of minis for some of the key elements in the quests. Many quests include lieutenants who are powerful minions at the overlords command, there may also be villagers or soldiers, as well as key characters in the story and last of all are the necromancer’s companion, who we called Godfrey. All of these extra characters are represented by cardboard tokens and though I can understand that the cost in putting together such a huge boardgame means something has got to give but it does feel a bit odd having such outstandingly crafted miniatures interacting with little cardboard discs.

Descent Journeys in the Dark Second Edition board game review
The introductory quest all ready to go.

Descent is actually a thing of beauty, whether it’s the physical beauty in the components or the sublime beauty of the questing system everything just oozes quality and style. There are some minor issues with the rules and the lack of upgrades for the overlord can leave that player feeling a little left out. However, it’s the balance issues that are Descent’s biggest flaw and the fact that I’ve seen different player’s campaign from both side of the balance issue mean that it really is on a knife edge. It is unfortunately a factor that can ruin a player’s enjoyment of the game, too easy and the some players can feel like they’re not challenged enough, too difficult and players feel like they’re being picked on and that the game is unfair. It seems a massive shame to miss out on Descent when this balance issue actually sits in the hands of the Overlord, the Overlord has the opportunity to level the playing field and hold back or push forward  depending on the groups progress and this needs to be done otherwise you’re missing out on a fantastic dungeon crawler.
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