Descent : Journeys in the Dark is a board game of dungeon delving adventure. If you’ve played HeroQuest, you’ll know what we mean. The basic idea is that players take on the role of adventurers, journeying through a dungeon to fight monsters to complete their quest – most commonly to kill something. One player, the Overlord will attempt to thwart them. You could almost call it a game of Dungeons and Dragons without all the roleplaying but all the combat.
In that sense, Descent definitely does well. It’s certainly more complicated than HeroQuest, yet it keeps things relatively simple without making things too hard to get into. Overall, I find it a good balance of monster bashing and strategy.
Appearance: Graphics and art and the miniature models are all of good quality. The models, especially of the monsters, are well done and if not individualized, at least distinctive. The adventurers, since they are unpainted, are a bit more difficult to tell apart. Definitely would be improved with a lick of paint (by someone other than me. My last painting attempt turned gray to brown).
The box itself is just that a big box filled with the contents. No plastic inserts at all. With so many punch-outs and different types of tiles, you need a LOT of ziplock bags. I definitely would have thought putting a plastic insert in there to keep the items inside, especially for the cost of the game, would be minimal.
Also, did I mention there are a ton of punch-outs and tiles? There are tiles for rockfalls, for water, for pits, for potions, for poison markers, for stun markers, for actions, for the different familiars, for gold, for chests, for… you get the idea.
Rules / Ease of Learning: Rules for Descent are well laid out in a well written book. The only problem is that they can get a tad pedantic in there, but then again, I would rather have a rulebook written for the lowest common denominator than for experienced gamers. It leaves less to questions later on.
The gameplay is actually easy enough to learn, with rules split into two sections for the players and the overseer in the beginning. Interesting things that jump out of the rules:
- Adventurers take their turn by decision, not in a pre-set manner
- players can move, take and action, and continue moving
- conquest tokens (a.k.a. ‘why won’t you just die’ tokens)
- coloured dice that dictate damage, range and additional options via ‘power surges’
- threat tokens that power the Overlord
Actual Gameplay: First thing that comes to mind about Descent – setup can take a long, long time. Putting the board together, setting the various tile that are needed aside, getting player to purchase all their items and get ready, etc. Without proper plastic bags for all the tiles, it can take at least 10-20 minutes to set up the game.
Gameplay itself actually flows well. Each turn, the adventurers go first, taking up to two actions (which can be any combination of move, attack or guard) each. After they are all done, it’s the Overlord who gets threat tokens and new cards and then plays 1 monster spawn card before unleashing his legions. It’s easy enough for one hero to kill a monster, so players go through monsters pretty fast with each action in larger games.
In a 2 hero game though, it almost seems as though the Overlord has the option of too many monsters with the ability to continually spawn them. If he spawns 3 monsters a turn, and there are 3 monsters already present in the room, the heroes can at most kill 4 monsters leaving 2 behind. That is 5 monsters the next turn… and so on, so forth.
Players die. A lot. One of the major comments about the game is that the penalty for dying (for the individual player) is very little. So players almost do not care about dying and it can be beneficial (removing fatigue counters, allowing players to shop straight away, etc.).
Another point that comes to mind is the fact that the Overlord really needs to be merciless in the beginning. By the end of the game, the players are steam-rollering over even the really tough monsters.
Lastly, gameplay balance seems slightly off. Certain characters seem to be much more useful than others, with the balance of power definitely leaning towards pure specialists (melee, ranged or magic). In fact, the range/magic specialists at the end game with the right skills and equipment can be greatly overpowered.
Conclusion: Descent is definitely my favourite dungeon crawl board game at the moment. There’s a lot of variation and tactical decision making, both on the Overlord perspective and the adventurers. While there are issues with game balance and looks, they are not major and the game can definitely be tense and interesting, even towards the end. You do definitely need an Overlord that is mean though, and it certainly lacks a campaign option which would make it interesting. Still, definitely the best dungeon crawl game thus far.