Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Journeying in the Dark: Kev's Lounge Discovers Descent

The Game

Descent: Journeys in the Dark by Fantasy Flight Games sat on my shelf for 5 months before we even gave it a go. That was a huge mistake! As we have only recently found out, this is one of the most fun games that has ever been played here in the old lounge (which is in fact a dining room) and since that first game, Descent has become the game of choice and we've played almost nothing else.

Descent is basically your average dungeon crawl RPG distilled and refined to its very essence. You have a dungeon and it's loaded with monsters and treasure. One player will take the role of the Overlord... He controls the monsters and tells the story. You could say he's something like the Game Master, except that he's actually competing with the players rather than merely facilitating their adventures. He can win the game by causing the heroes to fail in their mission. The other players take the roles of the heroes, and they progress through the dungeon killing monsters and looting treasure and gaining advantages which gradually make them strong enough to eventually kill even the mightiest of dragons! They work as a team against the Overlord and can win by completing their quest before he kills them all.

Each game session revolves around a single self contained quest. The box includes a booklet with 9 such pre-written quests and several additional official and fanmade quests can be downloaded from their website to make sure you always have something new to play. While most RPGs are based around roleplaying (duh) this game is purely about the action, so while the quests do have stories, the stories are really just there to give each dungeon some flavour and are relatively light. The monsters are there to be killed not for conversation!

The heroes, similarly, are handled with action in mind. The box includes 20 hero character cards each with a corresponding miniature figure. The illustration and name give some clue to each character's background, but otherwise the card is concerned with the game related specifics like stats and special rules, and in this game it is all you really need. The way you manoeuvre your character in combat and how to best use his/her special ability is really all that matters. The hero cards offer a great deal of variety. Some are strongly focused either on Magic, Melee or Ranged combat, and others that are multidisciplined or simply jacks-of-all-trades. Some heroes will have a lot of hit points, and some will move faster. Each hero also has a special ability unique to them that gives them a specific advantage. Further variety is added by the skill decks and by your choice of starting equipment. It is entirely possible to play the same hero multiple times and still have a different game each time because of a different array of skills and equipment. The heroes start off relatively average but get stronger as the game progresses. While there is no true level advancement system, the characters are made stronger through the purchase or looting of better equipment and treasure can be spent to add additional skills or to make you stronger in a specific combat discipline.

The Overlord's job is to reveal the story elements of each quest to the players as they progress and to control the monsters. He is also equipped with a deck of cards that allow him to add new monsters to the table or augment the abilities of the monsters already there. The deck also allows him to spring traps on the heroes to slow them down and do some damage to them to soften them up. The deck also acts as a time limiter of sorts to keep the game from lasting forever. Each time it's used up and reshuffled, and each time a hero dies they lose conquest tokens and when those are gone the game is over and if they haven't completed their quest they have lost and the Overlord has triumphed.

The bulk of the game revolves around turn based tactical combat. Heroes manoeuvre and attack monsters and vice versa. Movement is handled with a grid system with each hero and monster having a speed stat dictating how many squares they can move in their turns. Attacks are based on a clever dice-based system that is both simple and quick to handle. The box includes a special set of dice that allow any attack to be resolved with a single roll and that speeds things up quite nicely. There are 3 controller dice, one each for Melee (Red), Ranged (Blue) and Magic (White) attacks. Then there are a series of dice which I think of as Augmentation Dice. Yellow ones enhance range significantly but do little extra damage, while the green ones add extra damage but do little for your range. Finally there are the black Power Dice that just add a little extra to range or damage. The weapon you have equipped dictates which controller die and augmentation dice you'll roll, while your heroes aptitude in the relevant combat discipline dictates how many power dice you get. It's simply a matter of rolling that handful of dice and adding up the range counters to see if you reach your target and then adding up the damage markers to see how much you hurt him. Each roll also gives a certain amount of surges which can be spent to activate extra abilities that the weapon in question has.

The game is surprisingly enjoyable... At it's core the mechanics are simple and efficient as those of Risk, and that allows for a fast paced and exciting game. The game itself takes a few hours to play, but time flies and you're never bored. A word of caution though: Don't play it in the evening if you have to be up early the next day, particularly if you are playing for the first time and are not familiar with the rules. It can easily take 6 hours to finish a quest even though it says 2- 4 hours on the box and it's going to take longer if you have to constantly refer to the rulebook. The rulebook is also not as well written as it could be, and often the rule you need is not where you expect it to be, and at other times it's just plain confusing.


There are 60 monsters miniatures in the box.
9 Beastmen (More like Beastman from Masters of the Universe than the goatlike gors from Warhammer)
9 Skeleton Archers
9 Spiders
6 Hellhounds
6 Sorcerors
6 Razorwings (Something like gigantic vampire bats)
3 Nagas (Gigantic snakes with human-like heads rather than the kind from Warcraft)
3 Manticores
3 Ogres
2 Giants
2 Demons (kinda reminiscent of the Balrog from LotR)
2 Dragons

The monsters come in 2 different colours of plastic, Red and Cream. The cream miniatures represent average joe beasts with lowly stats while the red ones represent what we have come to call "bosses" with better stats and extra abilities.
These minis have a lot of value outside of this game too if you play Dungeons and Dragons or any other game that uses fantasy miniatures. The Dragons, Giants, Demons, Ogres, Manticores, Nagas, Hellhounds and Spiders are particularly good. The Razorwings and Beastmen don't have corresponding creatures in the Monstrous Manual, but with a little creativity you could use them as something else (the beastmen would make good unarmed bugbears for example). The Skeletons and sorcerors are both quite usable and have existing counterparts, it's just that there are better miniatures available for both, and the scale is slightly smaller than standard so these minis might look a little out of place.

There are also 20 unique hero miniatures, which cover a nice mix of races and classes.
2 Male Human Wizards
2 Male Orc Warriors
2 Male Human Rangers
2 Male Human Warriors
2 Female Human Wizards
A Male Minotaur Warrior
A Female Elven Rogue
A Female Human Rogue
A Male Death Knight
A Male Orc Wizard
A Female Human Warrior
A Male Elven Battlemage
A Male Orc Rogue
A Male Lizardfolk Barbarian
A Male Human Rogue

All the figures are pretty decent in quality with reasonably good sculpting detail for what they are. They don't quite measure up to the vastly superior metal miniatures or even the Games Workshop plastics, but those are in a different class designed with a different purpose in mind and these are just fine for what they are. You could easily use them with other miniatures in other games if you wanted though. The scale may be a bit of an issue however, as these figures seem markedly smaller than most commonly available brands. They would work okay with the old Ral Partha figures but they are noticeably smaller than the GW and Reaper stuff and certainly smaller than the D&D minis available currently. The women, rogues and rangers might work, but the warriors look a little puny. The Orcs are way too small by modern standards being smaller than the average human mini, and the minotaur is barely big enough to cut it as a GW Gor, but you may find some use for them by using them as something else.

The miniatures are quite paintable though I have found that it requires a little more patience and quite a bit of care to get right. The moldlines are more tricky to remove than usual as the plastic is soft and a little rubbery, and because the moldlines tend to run through tricky areas like the hair and armour. The plastic is also a little resistant to water-based paints. The detail is pretty good, but it's not as clean and crisp and pronounced as the detail you'd find on a good metal mini, or even on a GW plastic one. This means that in a lot of cases simply drybrushing the mini won't pick it all out, so you do need to do some manual layering to make the most of it. A painted Descent miniature isn't going to win any painting contests, but the extra colour does a lot to bring them to life and can really add to the beauty of the individual pieces.

If you enjoy board games you may also be interested our reviews for Risk 2210AD and Zombies!!!
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Anonymous said...

Thank you for the review. This game looks like a fantasy version of the Doom game I played with friends. 2-4 hours did turn into 2+4= 6 hours. But the build it as you go was very nice.

Your dungeon sets are amazing. Thank you from all of us broke DMs out here.

Lounge Lizard Kev said...

As far as I understand it, the same creative team that was behind Doom brought this to life. More than simply being a fantasy version, it is also an improvement in that they took the lessons learned and adjusted the mechanics to make the game better over all. I've also seen some whispering on the net that the latest World Of Warcraft boardgame owes a lot to Descent too, but as i haven't played that yet, I can't confirm that.

Thanks for the compliments on my dungeon tiles... have a lot of new stuff coming, just tricky finding time to get it all finished. :)