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!