Descent - Legends of the Dark (LotD) is a co-operative app-driven dungeon crawl campaign game where 1-4 players will control a band of heroes in the land of Terrinoth. Published by Fantasy Flight Games, designed by Kara Centell-Dunk and Nathan I. Hajek. With Art work from Preston Stone and Gary Storkamp. Suitable for ages 14 and up.
Core mechanics from Descent 2nd Edition such as combat, fatigue, skill and items have been completely overhauled whilst a new approach to scenario layout and the inclusion of 3D terrain creates a striking multi-level adventure.
At its heart, Descent Legends of the Dark is a miniature moving, dice rolling, asymmetric characters, role play adventure with a fast and intuitive ‘three turns’ system. Do not let that fool you into thinking this a just a fancy version of HeroQuest though! There is a lot more to this game!
It is worth considering the components in two distinct parts: The miniatures and everything else. As a keen miniature painter, I was drawn to the game initially by the quality of the minis. Look/theme aside, the detail and crispness of the sculpts is probably the best I have seen for board game figures that come fully assembled. Yes, minis from a game like Cursed City from Games Workshop are arguably better but you have spend a long time assembling those even before you can use them in the game. The LotD minis cry out to be painted and painted well. The 32mm+ (some feel larger) scale may annoy folks hoping to proxy them in other games like D&D) but for me, they were a joy to paint as a result of being that bit bigger than your standard 25-28mm tabletop game figures. A high level detail in miniatures often comes at the cost of durability. I’m pleased to say that in this case the plastic used is surprisingly strong. Many of the monsters have very pointy weapons and armour but even after painting, playing a full campaign (involving a lot of handling) and dropping many of them from table height on to a hard floor, not a single one has broken.
All the monster figures have a cleverly designed base that incorporates a swappable coloured marker so you can easily identify different variants of the same sculpt. This works really well in conjunction with the app. It may also aid those gamers with certain forms of colour blindness.
The six heroes are, perhaps, not to everyone’s taste. With two animal hybrids and some questionable armour and poses I can understand this. However, once painted and on the table I think they look pretty good. One thing I really appreciated was that they all (enemies included) have sculpted bases. Out of the box this is not that significant, but once painted they really help the figures to stand out. I certainly appreciated not having to base 60+ miniatures - something I have done with another FFG co-op campaign game!
One of the big decisions the designers took with LotD was to give us 3D cardboard terrain. I was a little sceptical about this initially. Especially after an hour of punching out the components and assembling them (no glue required). I now think is a very nice upgrade to other ‘flat’ dungeon crawlers, making the scenario tiles come alive and it really does draw you in. After a whole campaign the cardboard has not worn out yet, some of the connections on the pillars have bent, partly due to the fact they are required to build different structures in every scenario and partly because I was too ham-fisted. The giant box LotD ships in has a large storage chamber in which you can keep all the terrain pieces assembled and ready to be laid out. I didn’t find it took an excessive amount of time to set up each scenario and the end result was worth the effort every time.
The cards, tokens, tiles, and dice are all what you would expect from FFG - pretty damn good! Tokens are all double-sided cardboard and the character, item, skill, injury cards all feel durable enough for game where the spend most of their time on the table rather than in your hand. FFG do include 6 sleeves for the each character’s double weapon mechanic. I chose to sleeve all the cards because I like to, not because it was essential. Apart from a few tiny bits of damage to the 3D terrain, after a full play through, I had no other problems with the components.
Once a quest has begun there are just two phases you cycle through in each turn (handled of . The first is the Hero Phase, where each character activates in any order and performs their 3 actions:
Manoeuvre (characters each have a “speed” that translates to spaces on the tiles) and then any 2 of the following:
Fight (the hero attacks an enemy)
Explore (the hero interacts with an explore token, usually revealing more of the map or a piece 3D terrain like a treasure chest or book case, Ready (the hero flips any one of their cards to remove fatigue or negative Infected, Terrified or Scarred tokens) and access different skills/attributes)
Or resolve any ability prefaced by an action icon.
A player can choose to do any of these actions twice but a maneuver must always be performed (worth noting that you can perform actions between spending movement points). Once all characters have activated, the Darkness Phase begins and the app instructs what the monsters will do if there are any on the map and if some events are triggered. Like all good dungeon crawlers there is an element of the ‘ticking clock’ in every quest, since the longer you spend trying to achieve the scenario goal, the more numerous and stronger the enemies get.
Attacking is very streamlined: Although all heroes carry two weapons only one is “readied” at a time - the weapon that is face up is the one you must use. If it is ranged, determine which enemy you can target and use the built in line-of-sight tool in the app if you need to. You then instruct the app who is attacking which monster and roll the die depicted on your hero card. Enter the number of successes into the app and it will calculate the damage automatically, taking into account the weapon used, the type of damage it does and upgrades it has and whether any defence value reduces it. This is one of the big advantages of an app driven game as it handles a huge amount of the admin and allows you to focus on having fun!
The ‘fog of war’ for each quest is done really well and keeps them exciting and challenging by preventing you from planning ahead based on unfair precognition. In LotD one of the most intriguing aspects of the whole game is the innovative card-flipping action mechanism. For fans of Descent Journeys in the Dark there are a few little elements that feel vaguely familiar here but make no mistake this is a well thought out, new system. Each character sheet is double-sided and it can be flipped back and forth using the “ready” action or by spending a “prepared” token, to access a different core ability. These unique core abilities are fixed and never change throughout the campaign. Fatigue tokens (a Descent 2nd Edition callback), the “push your luck” aspect, can be discarded by this flipping mechanism so you soon learn when and how to take advantage of it.
Before every new quest, each character selects a skill cards from their available pool, up to their XP limit. Early on in the game these choices are limited but you can add to them as the campaign progresses by completing mini-goals (randomly selected by the app but chosen by you and connected to narrative choices you make). When you begin playing it is easy to overlook these individual character goals in favour of the crafting mechanic that provides weapon upgrades and new items but they are worth paying attention to as they do unlock more skill cards which are the core upgrade path for the characters and do provide some potent abilities and synergies.
Each character also starts with two weapon cards (each with different abilities, range vs melee or are stronger against certain enemy types or can be boosted with fatigue tokens etc.) that are placed into a single sleeve (included in the box), creating a double-sided weapon that again can be flipped. When you upgrade or obtain a new version of your weapon you simply slide out the card and either flip it to the more powerful side or slot in the new one. These new weapons are not always a strict upgrade, they often provide an extra attack type or ability instead. The real weapon upgrading comes in the form of recipes and the crafting mechanic that happens entirely within the app. In each quest, defeated enemies and chests etc. offer up random quantities of materials. Less often you will obtain a recipe that requires a certain amount of different elements. On the “City Screen” you can purchase more materials and occasionally recipes in the Shop. Then, in the “Crafthall” create the upgrades. These can then be grafted to a particular weapon to boost it’s abilities. There is very little in the way of guidance as to what is worth creating or using, so you do need to figure it out as you go along. These upgrades are not permanent and can be swapped out, the unused “parts” are held in your party inventory for future use. Later on in the campaign this does form a part of the overall puzzle, whereby you’ll have a decent quantity of upgrades for all your weapons and select them based on what you are likely to encounter.
Once a scenario is finished you return to a map of Terrinoth that shows you where your characters are. The group will move from the “dungeonl locations back to the city, which is where much of the campaign’s interwoven narrative happens via dialog sequences. In these the characters and key NPCs will discuss what to do next and you often get to decide how certain members of your party respond. According to the designers your choices will have an impact on the development of the story. The campaign aspect means that the game is not finished until you reach and complete the final quest. It took my group approximately 60 hours, so there is plenty of value in a single play-through but obviously you need a committed group to do so.
One element in LotD that sets it apart from most other games in this genre - and is not readily apparent when starting out, is that those playing get to use ALL the available heroes rather than each choosing one based on preference or play style. For every new quest you are required to choose between 2-4 heroes from the 6 available (once you have unlocked them all). These 6 do, generally speaking, fall into the stereotyped D&D format of Ranger, Warrior, Mage, Thief, Cleric and well the last one is a bit of mix, lets say Dwarf/fighter/alchemist and leave it there. LotD is therefore a campaign game where there is a strong focus on developing all the characters as evenly as possible and playing through the entire story until the final conclusion. Unlike the vast majority of dungeon crawl games, loosing a quest does not mean you have to repeat it until you win. Failing a quest can actually form a part of the branching path of the campaign and come back to effect a particular events in a much later one. These two details, often overlooked, give LotD an interesting feel and present an additional aspect that helps to draw you in.
Love it or hate it, Legends of the Dark requires you to use an App to play the game. There is no choice here. It’s free to download and will run on iOS or Android. If you have the option to ChromeCast or Airplay to a TV then definitely do it if you are playing with a group. For many old school dungeon crawl enthusiast this is may be an instant turn off. I say “dismantle that belief system” and embrace it! For the combat especially it really does improve overall enjoyment. In addition to that it acts like a a Dungeon Master, taking care of the most of the admin, providing a searchable rules glossary (very useful when learning the game and avoids the need to constantly get the rule book out), not to mention the ever evolving story.
At the very start when creating a party on the app you have the option to choose the difficulty of the game: Journey, Standard, Heroic and Warfare. Some reviewers claim that only on warfare does the game really shine, because you need to plan your turns optimally to have a chance to succeed. Others who just want to level up a bit and play through the story might prefer the easier and less frustrating modes. My game group was plenty challenged by the Standard mode!
At the time of writing, FFG have announced an Act II Expansion for LotD, which will continue the adventure for the same 6 heroes in several related stories. Even without this good news, the base game does offer a pretty decent amount of replay-ability given that the app randomises so much of the content and you will inevitably make different choices creating a different feeling campaign. That being said, you would be using the same characters, with the same skills and weapons.
Theme & Artwork
The first iteration and subsequent evolution of Descent always suffered from the world in which it was set being, frankly, just not that interesting. Terrinoth is a fairly typical fantasy setting with not much to make it standout against other fantasy realms (Middle Earth, Cthulhu etc.). Although FFG tried to flesh it out with RPGs and other board games, they never quite managed to achieve the goal of creating a truly memorable world.
What this results in is, for a game that revolves around an interwoven character centric story, a theme that is a bit too generic at times. More often than not each individual character’s own branching story arc was shallow and did little to draw you in as much as the scenarios themselves do. The biggest disappointment by far was the dialog between the heroes and NPCs, that you have to read and scroll through before and after each scenario. The attempts at humour or suspense often fell well short of the mark and all of the characters felt very one-dimensional. Good voice acting/narration would have made all the difference even without improving the actual script. During my campaign we took it upon ourselves to read out the dialogue in character with specific accents and voices. Usually resulting in a great deal of ham-acting and NSFW humour. I recommend you give that a go! For those with no role playing desire (or solo players) it is likely you will just start to skip over a lot of the dialogue to get on with playing the game. Whilst I think this would be a shame and may mean you miss a vital bit of plot that you need knowledge of in a future quest it is understandable as there is quite a lot of “script” to get through at times and with it being appearing to have been written with a younger audience in mind, a bit of a chore. This is the biggest missed opportunity for this game. For Act II, voice acting is in my eyes essential, to help bring some more depth the characters and make the story more engrossing.
When Descent LotD was released it’s artwork quickly became a “marmite” debate in the forums. Many hated it’s cartoon-esque look whilst others appreciated the evolution of the previous Descent style and that they (FFG) had tried to do something different. Once you begin playing you realise that the artwork in the physical rule book and character cards and the story telling parts of the app are quite different to combat and scenario view sections. With the former having a colourful early 90s animated cartoon series feel to it and the latter being darker, grittier and based on the miniatures themselves. Personally, I was not too keen initially, but as the campaign progressed (and worked on painting all the miniatures using the art work as a colour reference) I warmed to it. It should also be noted that the graphical design of the app is excellent and a joy to use (apart from the aforementioned text scrolling). The artwork of the dungeon tiles and 3D terrain is also very nice. Particularly the smaller unique pieces like the Cauldron, Bookcase and Wishing-Well.
Pros & Cons
The mechanics in LotD are innovative and in contrast to earlier incarnations the choices are much more varied. One of the best elements of the game is the enemy activation phase. Depending on the type, enemies will behave very differently. Some might be more cautious, others more reckless. The app controls all these activations and will often display a pop-up dialogue telling you that a particular enemy was “doing something”. After a little while it became apparent that these were specific clues as to whether a powerful attack or defence action could occur in the next round. Again, another part of the puzzle that you have to play around and a nice touch.
Once I got the hang of it I really enjoyed the dual-sided card system. It provided greater depth to the puzzle and whilst the same mechanic is used by all the characters their individual abilities and skills required a different approach.
The basic premise of Legends of the Dark is still true to the dungeon crawl genre: progress through various “dungeons” (in truth very few actually were dungeons), fight a variety of monsters, solve some puzzles to attempt to win the quest. Then, at some point, fight the Boss.
Of course, if you play on easy mode you just waltz through the scenarios, move and attack every single time. But if you play on normal and especially on warfare mode, you have to really plan your turns. Which skills do you use? Do you rest this turn to get back your stamina to activate your skills or do you need to take a chance and rush to the enemy, because you are running out of time?
The mission design is also great, because you don't have to kill every monster (like in 95% of all Gloomhaven scenarios) and you don't have to rush through the missions like in Descent 2nd Edition. Instead, the emphasis is on carefully exploring each unique scenario is, figuring out the priorities and adapting to what you encounter. If you have chosen your characters poorly, this can be easier said than done. The quests were definitely a bit less frustrating with 3 or 4 character parties.
If you are looking for the classic D&D way to upgrade your heroes, i.e. through finding or buying equipment and increasing stat values, then prepare to be disappointed. Yes, you can find new weapons and materials to enhance them but they never really get too powerful. They are, more often than not, about adding different attack abilities to your tableau. Each character’s four core stats of Might, Agility, Insight and Wit never change for the entire campaign. Likewise for the number and colour of dice you roll. The designers built the real upgrading into the skill cards you acquire by completing mini-goals referred to as “Feats”. You choose these in-between quests and the app records your progress, notifying you when you have completed one. The reward can be a new skill or an exclusive recipe. The new card is then chosen from a specific deck. The recipe is added your Crafthall, and once you acquire all the ingredients can be crafted and added to a weapon. One thing that will be familiar to any dungeon crawler player is character XP (Experience). This is earned, albeit in very small amounts, for completing quests and can then be spent on Skill cards. This works a little bit like the system in LotR Journeys in Middle. By the end of our campaign each character had enough XP to equip 3 or 4 skill cards.
The decision to only give each hero one die to roll is interesting. For many this will feel wrong for this type of game, where adding more and more dice to your attacks is a standard (and enjoyable) mechanic. However, I feel this is a decision that helps the game step back a bit from the random nature of dice rolling and requires players to utilise the synergies between abilities, skills and weapon types. “Learning” (again the app logs this for you) as you fight, which monsters are vulnerable to ‘crush’, ‘slash’ or ‘pierce’ damage is key to progressing. It is therefore essential that your party for each quest is equipped with a broad variety of damage type weapons - not just the standard ranged vs melee choice. The die themselves have no “misses” on them (something I hated about Descent 2nd Edition) only combinations of “success”, “surge” and “advantage”. Usually, the more “successes” the better the attack/outcome of the test. It is up to the player how to utilise the other two icons, with the “push your luck” mechanic of placing fatigue on cards to convert a“+” to a “ * ”.
FFG have tried to do something quite difficult with LotD: provide a challenging campaign dungeon crawl, with plenty of monsters, branching paths and a familiar hack n’ slash feel. Whilst introducing an innovative card flipping mechanic, alternating hero choice and an a-typical way of upgrading you heroes. Whilst you can play the game using only two characters for each scenario it is at it’s best with three or four each and every time, in spite of this leading to quite crowded dungeon tiles. Whether you opt for two players controlling two heroes each or games with a higher player count is a personal preference. My campaign was a two player affair but we did many scenarios with two, three and four heroes. Settling on 3 for most of the latter half of the campaign. There would be nothing to stop you playing one campaign with a group that changed count from session to session - that’s one of the advantages of the system LotD operates around.
Legends of the Dark is a game that rewards players who can invest time to master it. I think it is worth that time. I do not believe that this game only excels when you the Warfare difficulty level. Certainly, warfare makes it harder and requires that you play optimally as a group, but it doesn't make it more fun. Warfare doesn't mitigate any of the discussed downsides nor will it make you love the tactical gameplay if you didn't like it before. I really enjoyed Descent Legends of the Dark. Enough to want to play it again if I ever find the time and certainly enough to want to invest in the upcoming expansion.
Stating the obvious here but you do need to be okay with having an app as an essential part of the game. If you are unsure, don’t worry about it. This is one of the best app integrated co-op adventure games out there. Whilst you can run it on a smart phone, it is better on the larger screen of a tablet or linked TV.
Is it better than Descent Journeys in the Dark 2nd Edition? In my opinion, yes. Descent 2nd Ed. has a lot more expansions, monsters and heroes that is true. But LotD has better mechanics, is a true co-op and utilises a far better app. Not to mention the 3D terrain and amazing miniatures.
Is LotD better than other dungeon crawlers? I'd say; it’s better than many currently out there and different enough to justify owning if you already have a collection with other good ones in it. Arguably, LotD is better than Sword & Sorcery for instance, because it has a better balance between being tactically challenging and not too convoluted. It is different enough to Lord of the Rings - Journeys in Middle Earth for me to have no issue owning both.
How about compared to the big daddy of co-op crawlers - Gloomhaven? Well, if you are considering buying LotD or Gloomhaven, then I’d say it depends on what your gaming experience is and who you plan to play it with. GH is a more rewarding game and I do rate it higher. However, if you are new to co-op adventure games or you plan to play with people who are or you hate the ‘accounting’ that a game like GH requires then LotD is absolutely the better choice. And the miniatures are much better… did I mention the minis already?