Review: Descent – 2nd Edition

Fantasy Flight games has finally released the 2nd edition of Descent, their classic dungeon exploration board game. Players form a group of heroes to face off against a single player that acts as the evil Overlord. While it might pitch itself as an adventure game, in reality you have a pretty tactical skirmish game that captures that feeling of a fantasy dungeon crawl for up to 5 people.

The game revolves around several specific scenarios. Many of them form a two part quest, with the outcome of the first quest having some bearing on the second part. The heroes are helmed by up to 4 players. Each player has a choice of 8 heroes. Further, each hero can then select one of 2 different class types representing different starting equipment and abilities. The player in the Overlord role plays the opposition, running the various monsters that the other players will fight against.

Play moves around turns, with all the heroes taking two actions for their turn, followed by the Overlord taking two actions for the different monsters. Actions include opening/closing doors, moving, attacking, recovering fallen heroes, to even searching for treasure. All actions for the heroes can be repeated (allowing for 2 attacks if needed). While the Overlord has a similar turn structure with some limits (each monster can attack only once).

If players want to move further, they can gaining additional fatigue represented by counters. Many special abilities also utilize fatigue. This makes for a game currency that allows the player more flexibility during their turn. They might search a treasure chest gaining a healing potion, but be stuck not being able to use it on a fallen hero. Using fatigue, the player can now move those additional squares needed to get to a fallen comrade, and use their second action to offer that newly gained healing potion.

While the Overlord player cannot use fatigue, they have access to a deck which allows them temporary boons to the monsters, or other cards they can play during the heroes turn to hamper them. This gives the Overlord a chance to pull out a trick or twist to the usual predictive monster turn, and possibly muck up the heroes.

Combat is a simple affair rolling custom D6s pairing damage against defense dice of the target, with the attacker inflicting damage if exceeding the rolled defense score. Ranged attacks also require a certain number to be rolled depending on the distance. Meaning not only does enough squares in range need to be rolled, but also enough damage to overcome defense rolls of their opponent. What stands out is that one die has an ‘X’ on one face, indicating a miss regardless of the other dice. So attacks always have a slight chance of missing.

A small twist to the dice rolls is special surge icons. These can be spent to add small bonuses to damage or range. They are entirely dependent on the different equipment and powers wielded by the hero. Additionally the monsters have surge abilities too, including some special characteristics depending on the monster type.

What results is a nice mix of tactical play with just the right amount of luck. Players have a lot of meaningful choices, like deciding to gain those 2-3 counters of fatigue to get a bit closer to an enemy, almost ensuring an attack is in range. As with the Overlord player, heroes have a limited number of actions, so there is a fair amount of thinking and decision-making to optimize their actions from turn to turn.

Combined with the surge abilities and static powers (with both the monsters and heroes), combat is a fast and fun affair. Defeated heroes always have the opportunity to pop back up on their feet later, and the Overlord can continually respawn most minion-type creatures (or gain reinforcements), meaning everyone always has something to do on their turn. Also the different D6 dice have a disproportional number of pips for damage and defense. Some dice are more ideal than others for attacks or defense, and scrambles the probability a tad more than your usual 2D6 array of standard dice.

I have not played the first version of Descent. However I’ve heard chatter the game could slip towards the longish side and that heroes could either be completely overwhelmed, or once enough treasure was gained, completely roll over the Overlord player. This isn’t something I see much with the new version.

What I particularly like about the 2nd edition is that each scenario has specific endgame and victory conditions. It’s broken down into small chunks of gameplay that can be easily tackled during a night. Also my impression from a few games is that for the most part scenarios seem balanced, and I haven’t had the inclination to pull any punches as an Overlord. Also while the victory conditions and layout are set, the Overlord does have some wiggleroom for deciding some of the monster opposition the heroes will face off against.

One nice feature is that it can be played as a bunch of one-off scenarios, however the game also incorporates a campaign mode. There are 16 stand alone scenarios, and up to 20 missions for the campaign. Heroes and the Overlord both gain experience each mission, allowing for additional powers (or additional cards for the Overlord deck). Even gold can be earned searching for treasure that can be used to pick up more advanced armor and weapons for the heroes back in town. What I particularly like is that the outcome of each scenario has some impact on the following campaign missions, which can alter the path the heroes take towards completing the campaign arc.

The Good – Descent is a fun fantasy dungeon crawl. It has the right complexity to make it a challenge and still have enough streamlined play to get in a few sessions during a game night. The rulebook is well written with plenty of examples. There are a lot of different class combinations and the Overlord has some choices for their forces for a quest too. So even with the scenario limit, there is a lot of room for replay. The game scales very well with different number of players, allowing smaller groups of heroes to experience a challenge.

The components are gorgeous. Map tiles and counters are made of thick cardstock and colorful artwork that is very evocative of the theme. The figures that come with the game are very detailed and made out of stiff plastic, giving a very visual element to the gameplay (and simply cries out to be painted up).There is a plethora of cards for abilities, equipment, treasure and combat conditions. Allowing for bookkeeping at the table to be handled with the components alone and not require a pencil and paper.

The Bad – While the rules are well written, there are some times where you might need to look over the FAQ to clear up some muddied points. Additionally, this isn’t a simulationist game. It’s very much a board game and the rules ‘as written’ might occasionally hinder that player wanting to do something more heroic.

Also, the game is very much a gang up on a single player. You have that one person managing a lot of monsters as the Overlord, and the lopsided team might not sit well for everyone. A workaround however can easily be attained, as there are lots of different monsters to field for each quest and the Overlord role could be split between 2 players if desired.

The layout and opposition are fully realized for each quest, along with the victory conditions, meaning it doesn’t quite capture that feeling of dungeon exploration. Also while there are a lot of potential combinations for class abilities, equipment, and Overlord monsters, there is a limit to what is in the box. Eventually you may have that slight feeling of ‘sameness’ that creeps into the game.

There is a lot that comes in the box. While I applaud having bits to keep track of the game without the need for paper and pencil, at the same time you will have to make an effort to organize the game components. Plastic baggies are a must for the game, and card protectors wouldn’t hurt either.

The Verdict – The second edition of ‘Descent: Journeys into the the Dark’ is a great game. While you can easily pick it up and play out a single quest for the night, it cries out for more frequent play and the campaign format. There is a good chunk of variety in the class abilities and room for progression for both the Overlord and heroes, which gives the game some legs for replay. The quest victory conditions are varied, and usually have both players trying to achieve some objective. This means that each side has to be proactive and can’t just sit back in static attack or defense roles.

I would garner to say that Descent might be also an excellent entry point for non-RPG players into the hobby. At the core, there is that tactical combat relying on teamwork and character progression that gives a nod towards traditional fantasy RPGs. For someone completely unfamiliar with RPGs, this might be a decent stepping stone to getting them acquainted with the hobby.

For the rest of us, you have a deeply enjoyable dungeon delve board game. It hits on just about all cylinders, capturing the theme and feel of your typical fantasy adventure very well with lots of monsters to fight, treasure to find, and powerful abilities to acquire. The components and play are well thought out and all the moving pieces of game play work great. I highly recommend picking it up if you are itching for a dungeon crawl type of game.

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