If you are considering jumping into Descent then it’s likely you are looking for the epic adventure-quest experience promised by the prospect of dungeon crawling and miniature monster slaying. It’s no secret this game is my #1 and it wouldn’t help you to hear me drag out all the loves I have for it. So instead, I will provide you with why I continue to choose Descent for my table over other similar ‘crawlers (despite some of its hangups).

THEME

Descent takes place in the rich fantasy world of Terrinoth, which is the setting for other Fantasy Flight labels in the Runebound universe. While there’s not a novelization written about the world in which these games take place, there is the sense of a larger history and an expanse that goes beyond the frame of the game. It is not necessary to dig into the mythos of Terrinoth to enjoy playing the game, but there is enough meta-story available to suspend disbelief while pretending to be little hero models made of plastic.

COMPONENTS AND ART

Speaking of the models, they’re super cool and probably the most addictive part for collectors. If you are prone to this kind of habit (like me) then know that as a completionist you will probably not stop with buying the base set. Graphic design is simple enough to follow and cards, tokens, and board pieces maintain the high level of quality you would expect from Fantasy Flight.

MECHANISMS

Now to the meat. The heart of Descent is a turn-based, action point system. A hero team of 1 – 4 players work together to complete their victory conditions before a single player controlling the minions of evil completes his/hers. Grid movement, combat dice rolling, and action management encompass the activities involved on any given turn. A quest guide is necessary to provide a scenario for each game. Quests can be played as single encounters or strung together for a multi-sessioned campaign.

But is this game for you?  Let’s start by clarifying what this game is not:

This brought me back to my Hero Quest days of yore, but with a more engaging experience that I can now enjoy as an adult.

  • Descent is not a Roleplaying System: While our encounters tend to engage in the spirit of role-playing, Descent does not supply or even require this aspect of gaming. The Overlord player does not act as a game master or storyteller; instead, the Overlord player gets to play the game and strive for victory. This is very appealing for someone who naturally falls into the GM (game master) position but wants to be a player at the table as well.
  • Descent is not an explorative dungeon crawl (except in it’s co-op mode described below): This was my largest hesitation in picking this game up over others that provide an exploration experience. My favorite thing about Hero Quest (MB, 1990) was opening a door or turning a corner and not knowing what was on the other side. But I found the Descent system provides a better experience as a tactics game which, in turn, makes for a more challenging experience for all the players. Monsters get to activate long before you reveal their location, the villains get to start making gains on their objectives from the start, and the game stays tense throughout.
  • Descent is not a hack’n’slash: Certain dungeon crawls consist of opening doors and clearing rooms so you can pick-up and deliver or search the environment… and then you open the next door… then the next… Instead, Descent is objective driven and every action counts (for both sides). Taking your eye off the scenario objective and letting the slaying distract you may cost you the game in the end. Don’t get me wrong, combat and dice-rolls happen a lot, but it’s not the primary reason your heroes (or minions) are out risking their resin hides.

WHY I PREFER DESCENT OVER OTHER ‘CRAWLERS?

The reasons above might chase you away but are the very reasons this game keeps making it back to the table. It’s easy on my time, inclusive and competitive, and provides a variety of gameplay. I also mentioned that the Descent system is streamlined; well… it’s still epic, has lots of pieces, and plays in about 3 hours per scenario, but within the dungeon crawl genre (and compared to its 1st edition) it is much more accessible. Additionally, Descent can be played in one of 3 differing formats, has a lot of optional content, and a strong modding presence online for creating custom quests.

Regarding formats, I mentioned that there is a co-op mode which is made available as standalone quests. Playing with a cooperative expansion felt like I just bought a new game. Turns out, this option provides the missing exploration element that I so much missed while replacing the Overlord with AI so, again, everyone gets to be a player.

Try this game if you like:

  • Hero Quest
  • Warhammer Quest
  • Heroscape
  • Star Wars: Imperial Assault
  • Dungeons & Dragons

BUT IT HAS SOME HANGUPS

  • There’s a lot of expandable products and the buying options beyond the base game could be daunting to someone unsure where to spend the money (I’ll make some recommendations).
  • A bit of theme takes a back seat to mechanics. Streamlining rules like Line of Sight sometimes means sacrificing something that is expected or thematic and in ways that don’t always sit well with experienced dungeoneers or miniature gamers. Note: with a table consensus, we house rule LOS before we start our campaigns.
  • There are tendencies for analysis paralysis (AP). This is not a sure thing but it seems to happen in certain groups. Intentionally limiting AP can be the difference between a 2.5 hour and a 6-hour game. Delays tend to revolve around min/maxing moves, cooperative party decisions, and free reign alpha-gamers. Some of these can be fun, but not at the expense of a bad gaming experience for the group. So if AP becomes a problem the group may decide to set time limits or be more vocal about the problem.
  • This game has been errata’d… a lot. I ended up making little errata stickers to put on cards and in scenario rules so I’d know if I needed to go reference any changes online. Most of them are clarifications that address poor wording or confusing text, but there are many balancing issues and the errata shouldn’t be ignored.
  • Some of the asymmetry is greatly skewed toward one side or the other. There are fantastic quests that are balanced and tight the whole way, and there are quests that end after the second round in landslide victory. As heroes and the overlord level differently, certain parts of campaigns feel unbalanced. In fact, there is almost always whining about balance issues that encompass this whole game, both on the online forums and around the table. But I am not convinced this is a good reason to stay away or even that it is as unbalanced as the whiners make it out to be. I have seen this game played well, and I have seen this game played foolishly, and that (with some unfair advantages here and there) makes for a very unpredictable – and fun – adventure.

FINAL THOUGHTS

I’m all about the “buy it”, and keep buying it as the expansions come out. This brought me back to my Hero Quest days of yore, but with a more engaging experience that I can now enjoy as an adult. Having a lot of material to wade through, let me finish with throwing down some advice on what to buy first:

  • You will have to pick up the core game box. Comes with the necessary map tiles, tokens, 8 heroes, and 9 monster groups as well as your first full 20-quest campaign guide.
  • If your copy came with the Shadow Rune campaign, the next good buy would be the Heirs of Blood campaign book. This is a fantastic campaign and only needs the base game to be played. At the time of this posting, core boxes are circulating with either Shadow Rune or Heirs of Blood as their included quest book, so wait to buy Heirs of Blood until you know what’s included in your core box.
  • There are two co-op quests available for the base game that are inexpensive and really extend the value of your core box. They also provide a new mode of play and is single-player compatible.
  • There are a lot of other expansion possibilities. Here’s how you might determine what’s next for you:
    • The mini-campaigns are great if committing to a 4-5 session campaign is an attractive alternative to a more drawn-out commitment.  
    • The Hero and Monster packs really support the Overlord in giving him/her more variety to available monsters needed to suit the needs of victory conditions for various scenarios.
    • The lieutenant models are cool, but beyond that they don’t add much to the game. Their accompanying plot decks don’t tend to be attractive alternatives to other Overlord upgrades and add unnecessary complexity to leveling and gameplay decisions. Alternatively, you could proxy lieutenants with unused heroes if you want to save some cash. Of course, I keep getting them because I’m a sucker.
    • And lastly, we can’t leave out the big box expansions which practically double the content of the core box in every way.

Happy dungeoning!

PUB THOUGHTS

SHUCK

Dungeon crawlers aren’t typically my thing. I prefer more of the euro-styled games, particularly with set collection, but Descent reminds me of my old MMORPG days. I’d say it’s like World of Warcraft on a table, at least from a converted PC gamer’s perspective. I really enjoy choosing an archetype (or race) and then picking out its class, just like you would in WoW. It gives me a sense of identity in the game. Descent is also very campaign driven which is similar to the missions you would need to complete to earn experience. Collecting and finding things, leveling up…it’s all there.

As Bryan mentioned, this is all very similar to Dungeons & Dragons as well. The difference being that you have a narrative to guide you along and a visual representation of what’s going on while you play. I guess you could say that it’s a board gamer’s movie to a role player’s novel. Assuming it’s more of a Hunger Games adaptation and not an I Am Number Four one. I digress.

That said, there are two things that keep me from buying this game:

  • While I consider it a great replacement for more time-consuming computer games, it still requires a bit of commitment to play. It’s more of a monthly “poker” night than a 15-hour marathon in front of the computer screen commitment but for me, it just wouldn’t hit the table often enough.
  • $$ wise Descent costs too much for me to invest in, but that’s why you find a buddy like Bryan who owns everything so when you get that itch you know who to call.

Overall, this game is very enjoyable and I would recommend it to anyone looking for a fantasy style RPG that you can play out of a box.

GARY

I like Descent. A lot. It’s fun to play, not hard to pick up the basics and it allows for you to build a character up from a puny hero wannabe to a bonafide adventurer with it’s skill customization.  I’d like to play it more, but the fact that it’s usually based around a campaign that may take several weeks or months to meet enough times to get through has kept the number of games I’ve been able to get in on to just a handful.  I’ll happily play any chance I get, though.  There’s something about playing scenarios that will influence and change future ones that feels cool.  Losing isn’t just losing, it means the overlord get’s a cool artifact or a boon in a future mission instead of your party.  Gaining a new skill or buying a cool piece of equipment feels great and those things have a big impact on gameplay.

I think the weaknesses of the game are that both AP and the Alpha Gamer can rear their ugly head here.  If you’re not careful, players may try to tell one another what to do on their turn to maximize the damage output or treasure gathering.  It’s usually pretty easy to avoid if the ground rules are set before the game begins.  Min/Maxing slows the game down to a crawl, but if everyone plans out their turn as they are watching everyone else then it’s usually not too bad.

Despite those issues, Descent is a great system and one I hope to have the opportunity to play many more times over the coming years.  I haven’t bought a copy because Bryan has just about everything for this game, but if I didn’t have anyone in my group with the game I’d definitely have this on my short list to buy.