Saturday, January 9, 2010

Descent: Journeys In The Dark

Being somewhat of a gaming creature-of-habit, one of my new years resolutions was to try some new games. Therefore, when the opportunity to try Descent: Journeys in the Dark with a couple of friends presented itself, we took the chance.

Descent is highly rated on boardgamegeek, ranking as the 56th best boardgame on that website, and a perennial fixture on their list of hottest games. There are a lot of folks who enjoy this type of game, with at least 5 expansion sets (Well of Darkness, Altar of Despair, Tomb of Ice, Road to Legend, Sea of Blood) released since 2005. And Descent has spawned several copy-cat adventure board-games, like Doom, World of Warcraft, Battlelore and Runebound, and is arguably in the same genre as Talisman.

The game itself comes in a huge box, easily 30” by 12” by 8”. The contents include monster and character miniatures, an infinitely re-configurable interconnecting set of dungeon tiles, full-color treasure, monster, character and skill cards, and assorted bits a-plenty. The artwork is excellent. The rules come in 12” by 12” booklets, of perhaps 30 or so pages in length. The game costs $80-90, but considering the art-work and the quality of the game contents, it is probably good value for the money.

There is a significant amount of pre-game preparation involved in playing this game. The Dungeon-Master (called the Overlord) and the players must spend some time, before the game begins, sorting and organizing the various items and game-bits. That process took the five of us about a half-hour, but set-up may be faster for those who are more familiar with the game and its mechanics.

Once the bits, miniatures, cards and dungeon tiles were sorted and the prepared, each of the players selected from sixteen different pre-defined characters, each with their own strengths and special abilities. In addition, each player received three extra abilities and a certain amount of gold to purchase their starting equipment.

Descent, as far as I can tell, is pure dungeon-crawl. The two games we played were strictly of the “kill the monsters and take their stuff” variety. We didn’t do any trap-searching, puzzle-solving, negotiating, clue-synthesizing, or role-playing. But considering the stripped-down nature of this dungeon-crawl adventure game, we spent a lot of time referring back to the rules. In fairness however, the friend who brought the game had only played it a couple of times before, and the rest of us had never played it.

We never finished either game of Descent. The first game started at about 9 pm, and we finally stopped (just short of the last encounter) at around 3 am. A week later we tried Descent again. That game started at 8 pm, and we finally called it quits at around 2:30 am, having reached, but not completed, the final monster encounter.

Ironically, the Descent adventures we were playing were only 5 rooms each, with a handful of monsters in each room. Whether it was due to our inexperience, or the nature of the game itself, combat seemed to take much longer than I would have expected. After we packed up the game for the second time, my wife remarked “That was a fun game, but we could have played three games of Settlers of Catan in the same amount of time.”

Perhaps our experience with Descent was atypical. But while I can appreciate the quality of this game, between the beautiful artwork, top-notch contents, and simplified rules, I did discover that I am not a fan of simple dungeon-crawling. I missed all of the other elements of a role-playing game, such as mapping, exploring, interacting with dungeon features and inhabitants, solving puzzles and enigmas, synthesizing and drawing conclusions from in-game clues, negotiating, and so on.

Would I play Descent again? Sure. For me, playing “the game” is only part of the fun: getting together with friends, the out-of-game jokes and conversations, the food and drink, those are often what make the evening truly memorable. But would I pay $90 for my own copy of Descent? Unlikely. After all, how many old-school game accessories could I buy for $90? I could probably get several of Urutsk, Cursed Chateau, Dungeon Alphabet, Majestic Wilderlands, B/X Companion, Dungeoneer RPG, Legends of Steel, Warriors of the Red Planet, Stonehell, Swords & Wizardry White Box, Savage Swords of Athanor, and The Grinding Gear (to name just a few!) for what I would pay for Descent.

And putting it in that context makes my purchase decisions very easy!

11 comments:

Narmer said...

Thanks for talking about this. This type of game is really attractive but your comments have put in context for me also. I wouldn't have the time (or energy) to play it and $90 would get alot of other things.

The Rusty Battle Axe said...

Yes, thanks. I agree with Narmer on this one.

Jay said...

Paladin, thanks for the review! I've been looking at Descent for along time as I have a group of board gamers that I've been wanting to get more involved with RPGs. This always appeared to be a good candidate as a transition (or more likely, a compromise for those who are more gun-shy) to rules-light RPGs.

That said, the length of the game seems to be somewhat of a deterrent. The search for the perfect dungeon crawl, board-game/RPG hybrid continues....

labsenpai said...

I've played both the normal DESCENT game and its "campaign" version, which includes a world map and more bells and whistles. Like a miniatures wargame that tries to pass for an RPG, DESCENT is a tactical boardgame that wants to attain that party-in-a-dungeon flavor. Once a group learns the rules, you could easily add lore and such to a customized dungeon. The tiles and figures are as nice as WotC products, and there are online resources like "blank" character cards.

A Paladin In Citadel said...

I whole-heartedly agree with everything you say. Descent has very high production values, some could argue they rivals WOTC's.

Descent could certainly be augmented to give it a "living campaign" feel, where your character grows from game to game.

It's just a little too combat-centric for my tastes.

labsenpai said...

As you know, leveling up in DESCENT is represented by victory points, which earn you a new "metal level" of treasure/ability dice. In the campaign version, there are random encounters outside the dungeons, varied cities, quests to resolve, and an antagonist "boss" on the field at all times. To my knowledge, the fantasy board games that aren't combat-centric are usually resource management oriented instead.

Andrew said...

"And Descent has spawned several copy-cat adventure board-games, like Doom, World of Warcraft, Battlelore and Runebound, and is arguably in the same genre as Talisman."

Doom, World of Warcraft and Runebound were all made before Descent (2005).

A Paladin In Citadel said...

@Andrew: Thanks. I presumed the table-top version of those games were inspired by Descent. So, which of those was the inspiration for the others?

Dhampir-Han said...

I believe for certain that the Doom board game preceded Descent. All of the titles you listed in comparison are actually also Fantasy Flight Games products. The combat system in Descent has been said to be an improvement/alteration upon the similar system used in the Doom game. Runebound is actually set within the same fictional universe as Descent, and many of the heroes (if not all) appear in both titles.

While the game does lack true role playing elements (RPG is a term that is too loosely thrown around these days for games that involve heroes, leveling up and monsters anyways), for those that are looking for a competitive player verse player challenge the game can be rewarding. There can be a lot of strategy involved with the overlord against the hero party when both have a firm grasp on the game play mechanics.

The overlord is definitely not a DM in the traditional sense, who tends to have unlimited power and acts as more of a referee of the game play and plot development. In Descent he/she acts as a true opponent playing within their own set of rules to win the game for themselves.

My girlfriend absolutely loves tactical combat based strategy games. Video game titles like Final Fantasy Tactics and Vandal Hearts are some of her all time favorites. Competitive play against another live person is something most of those games have always lacked with only a few exceptions. For that very reason she absolutely adores playing Descent with me and some friends.

I don't yet have the Road to Legend expansion. However as I understand it, it opens up the game into more of a long term campaign. While role playing elements are still lacking there is far more character development and you can have a bit more attachment to your character than just playing him through a 1 shot dungeon crawl.

I'd definitely say the game is more of a wargamer's thing than a roleplayer's. It wouldn't be impossible to make personalized adaptations if you like to get creative with that sort of thing though.

Nick said...

Great review! I love descent, it's a wonderful game.

When me and my buddies play descent, we can complete a quest in 2-3hrs. Once everyone understand the rules and the overlord(i.e me) realizes it's about the enjoyment of playing the game and not so much about winning.

You as the overlord can really move it along at any pace you like. You can make it harder or easier on the heroes. As an example; You dont always have to spawn monsters each round.

I have also noticed some people dont understand the rule for spawning monsters in a dungeon. Heroes have 360 degree Line of Sight. The overlord cannot spawn monsters in any square a heroes has LoS. meaning your choices are a little limited.

Descent is also a game best played with 4 heroes and an overlord. The games difficulty scaling isn't very balanced.

Thanks for the great review!

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