When I was a kid, I always knew Christmas was officially over when the holiday ads started appearing on telly. Oddly enough, despite the seemingly exotic locations on offer like Tenerife and Majorca (I was less than 10), one location was suspicious in its absence.
Offering sweeping grassy plains, soaring mountains, any number of mysterious, explorable caves and caverns, and the odd two-headed ettin, Terrinoth never came up in the Thomas Cook package tours.
Terrinoth is, in fact, the all encompassing world that Fantasy Flight Games (FFG) has created to set a surprising number of its Runebound games of recent years, including er... Runebound (obviously), Battlelore and the subject at hand, the almighty Descent: Journeys In The Dark.
Descent: Journeys in the Dark is now in its second edition, the first being a behemoth of a box of delights and still played and beloved today. The Second Edition predominantly streamlines the rules, combat system and hero options.
Descent is a classic dungeon crawler that will feel very familiar to anyone who has played D&D or similar RPGs. It plays 2-5 players and with the new app and add-on packs, even supports solo play. In the basic game, one player will take on the role of the Overlord, a shadowy figure whose intentions are purely based on making the heroes wish they'd stayed at home; the other(s) take on the role of the Heroes (up to four), just trying to grab a bit of loot and overthrow the forces of evil.
It plays either with stand-alone missions, or connectable missions that build into a nicely narrative campaign.
Playing the Game
In our house, we are predominantly a two-player ecosystem and decided to play our campaign with me playing the Overlord, and 'er Across The Table playing two heroes: Jain & Sindy (actual name on the card, Syndrael).
One of the plus points of Descent is that it scales beautifully. PvP works just as well as Player vs Many. The relationship between the heroes and the Overlord is entirely asymmetric in that each mission gives the heroes and the Overlord often very different win/lose conditions. The missions themselves are nicely varied as well, some being classic 'search & recover the groovy thing' and others being 'rescue the captives' even a couple of straight monster races!
And it's this variety that makes Descent so interesting. Your character creation, abilities and load-out will change your experience of the campaign quite dramatically, but rarely disastrously. Certain combinations will make life trickier, but never make the game grind to a halt.
Heroes, of course, never really die, which also means that on a prolonged campaign, you will get a chance to grow to genuinely care about your chosen heroes and find interesting ways in which they can help dependent on the situation at hand. Players will come to the aid of fallen compatriots and healing is an integral part of the actions available to the heroes.
Which brings us neatly onto why the heroes might need healing in the first place - combat. No dungeon would be complete without a cast of nefarious and impressively betoothed and clawed meanies that the Overlord can choose to throw at the heroes at the most inopportune moment.
For each mission, the Overlord is given a choice of monster groups that he/she can choose from. Often an open group is available which acts as a free choice, which adds nicely to the variety.
By today's escalating detail standards, the figures supplied with Descent: Journeys in the Dark, whilst generously plentiful, can be a little lacking in detail and often arrive a little bent and bruised in the box, but a little hot water and TLC will straighten them out and a quick lick of paint will make them come to life. The variety of figures makes for interesting choices for the Overlord, and the addition of Master and Minion classes make a great challenge for the heroes.
The combat is dice-driven and works very well being a simple simultaneous attack & defend mechanism. The hero will declare a weapon to use (which may be a base weapon or something they've picked up along the way) and whether it is melee or ranged. The beauty of the system in Descent is that the pool of dice to use is dictated by the character and monster cards themselves.
The different colours of dice have varying degrees of attack or defence capability, and which colours to use in the pool are listed on the side or bottom of the card. Even the range pass/fail is on the dice as well. Hearts are hits, shields are defence. The difference in the two figures is the damage. Very simple. Special abilities on the cards can be triggered by lightning bolts on the dice called Surges. These will give different sorts of damage that will affect the target in differing ways and may cause a variety of different transitory or lingering conditions.
The terrain on which all this takes place is made up of a series of jigsaw-like interlocking tiles. The artwork on the tiles is incredibly evocative and sets the tone of the game really well. Each scenario uses different tiles from the impressively plentiful supply you get even in the base game, but a number of substantial expansions add extra tiles and monsters and even heroes, meaning the game has an impressive amount of replay-ability. That twinned with a thriving online user submitted scenario builder (that makes your missions look just like the official ones!) means that you could quite happily play Descent for a very long time and not get bored.
Line of sight in any game can always be a little clunky or at least highly tailored to the game mechanics, and in truth, Descent is really no different and can at first be slightly counter-intuitive. In brief, so long as a line can be drawn without obstruction from the corner of a square bounding one part of a model's base to another corner on an opposing model, then you have line of sight. The finer points of the system need a careful read-through in the rules, but once you've got your noggin round it, things are fine.
Our first campaign lasted around 10-12 sessions, with some evenings allowing a couple of missions to be crowbarred in. At the end, we had a go at writing a custom mission with the online editor and came up with a nice little 'bragging rights' mission that we envisioned Jain & Sindy undertaking whilst in the pub afterwards.
If you've ever thought about playing an RPG but are a little intimidated by the idea of role-playing and creating characters, but really like the idea of a game that has a really strong narrative with huge variability and rapidly shifting dynamics, then Descent: Journeys in the Dark would be a brilliant alternative. We got very immersed in the campaign story and it's spurred us on to actually getting involved in a D&D campaign!
As with many games today, the expansions for Descent: Journeys in the Dark are many, though happily there are a number of more affordable clamshell type small expansions, including the Lieutenants for the game (basically, members of the Farrow family who are significant in the main campaign). Irritatingly, these are represented in the base game as a series of standees which can feel a little underwhelming against the other plastic darlings.
They are about £7-8 each, and we splashed out and bought them all as they are playable in individual missions as well. But they are by no means necessary. Also available though, is a standalone campaign book called Heirs of Blood which instantly refreshes the base game narrative for around £15 and again, is centred around the Farrow family, meaning many of the Lieutenant model expansions can be used here too.
Positives and some Negatives
There are a good many dungeon crawler games around today, including the recent and mighty Gloomhaven. All of them are very good in their own right and have their own reasons to shine, however, for me, Descent: Journeys in the Dark (Second Edition) holds its own for many good reasons:
- Its rules are very smooth in play and don't take too long to learn, many can be looked up along the way as situations arise.
- The combat system is intuitive and simple especially if you have played other FFG games like Imperial Assault or X-Wing.
- The narrative is very well thought through and promotes a sense of ownership especially in the Heroes' players.
- The entry level is reasonable with a good range of expansions.
- The expansions range from almost pocket money prices to base game comparable pricing.
- The levelling-up system rewards at many stages in a campaign, but gently punishes when things haven't gone quite so well too so it feels like there's risk.
- There is no 'perma-death' meaning Hero players always feel involved, even when overwhelmed by grebblies.
If I had to nitpick (which honestly feels very mean!) then there are a few things that could possibly be improved with a third edition.
- Line of Sight is not staggeringly intuitive, but the system FFG have used works well.
- The quality of the models by today's CMON and even new FFG production, is a little tired and 'rounded'.
- As well as being an advantage, there are a LOT of expansions and the game can get quite expensive if you are a completionist. (We have one big box expansion, a couple of the smaller boxes and a fair few clamshells and we'll be good for a while).
Final Thoughts on Descent: Journeys in the Dark
Descent: Journeys in the Dark (Second Edition) is a brilliant introduction to dungeon crawling games and even the base game comes with an expansive campaign, a comprehensive modular tile system, lots of varied heroes and monsters and a very well written rule book. It has given us many very happy hours of tension and laughter and would be a brilliant addition to any game shelf for many years.