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Descending into the Darkness

Most gamers love a good dungeon delve, especially those older gamers who were brought up on roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons, but no longer seem to find the time to prepare and play regular sessions in between paying a mortgage and bringing up children! Boardgame dungeon-crawls are a good way to scratch that roleplaying itch in a relatively short time. I’ve discussed the range of dungeoncrawling boardgames before, and the recent release of Castle Ravenloft is a worthy addition to the genre; but one game has now become so comprehensive that it really deserves an article all of its own. That game is Descent: Journeys in the Dark.

Descent was first released in the big ‘coffin-box’ format back in 2005 by—you guessed it—Fantasy Flight Games. It was an instant hit; a box chock-full of high quality plastic miniatures (20 heroes and 60 monsters, including big demon and dragon figures), a set of dungeon tiles, lots of cards and counters, and a book of adventure scenarios, all designed in inimitable style by a company who really has taken on the mantle of the ‘Games Workshop of the 21st century’ when it comes to boardgames. For the gamers shuddering at the high prices demanded for old copies of Warhammer Quest on Ebay, it was their dungeon-crawling prayers answered.

Descent is heavily based on the earlier licenced sci-fi game Doom, which was the first to use the ingenious device of specially printed dice to deliver range, hit chance, ammo and damage all in one roll. Doom is a fantastic, fast-moving and very tense game that I highly recommend checking out if you never tried it.Descent took the dice system and developed it further; adding a bit of complexity, and a huge range of options and variants in the form of decks of magic items, weapons, armour, spells—all the classic ingredients of your typical dungeon delving expedition. The game is semi-cooperative: one player is the Overlord, and controls the dungeon and the monsters and the various threats that the heroes must overcome, and the other players cooperate as heroes to defeat the Overlord’s schemes.

A word of warning however, a game of Descent takes time. So much time that a good gaming buddy and I have a running joke after a long exhausting evening of boardgaming (and several beers), and one of us is usually facing some work meeting early the next morning. Inevitably, someone will pipe up with “fancy a quick game of Descent?” You probably need to set aside four or five hours to play this complex game, though of course it depends on your players, how quickly they work together, and how experienced you are with the game. There are lots of decisions to be made; some people find the complexity a bit high for what is supposed to be a good monster-bashing, others love the huge range of options and wealth of items. Regardless, Descent a game for the gamer who loves a long, involved game experience.

There’s a further challenge if you’re getting into this mother of all dungeon-crawlers—do you paint the figures or not? There’s no denying it’s a daunting challenge, especially if you made the mistake, as I did, of waiting until you bought several expansion sets before tackling that big pile of unpainted figures. There is also no denying that there’s nothing like playing the game with fully painted figures; it really is a visual feast. I recommend a production-line approach, and don’t forget to make good use of those excellent Games Workshop washes. With a base coat, wash and a quick highlighting pass, you can get that horde of plastic painted and on the table in no time.

Fantasy Flight was quick to capitalise on the success of the game and the following year we saw the first expansion: The Well of Darkness (2006). Six more heroes, 27 new monsters (including stone golems), more skills, treasure, counters and map tiles, and some expanded rules such as allowing the Overlord (the player who controls the monsters) to customise his deck of Threats.

Another year, another expansion. 2007 saw the release of The Altar of Despair (2007) and another 6 heroes and 21 monsters—love those Chaos Spawn—and vicious things like spiked crushing walls and dark relics for the Overlord to inflict on the hero players.

The next year there was something different; The Road to Legend (2008), a campaign system that put a whole new spin on the game. This came with an overland map of Terrinoth, FFG’s fantasy world and the setting for Descent, and for the first time you could play an interconnected series of adventures and bring your heroes out into the wilderness to travel between cities and dungeons, slowly building the strength to defeat the schemes of one of a choice of evil Overlords. You’ll need some dedication to play a campaign right through; perhaps something like 20 long sessions of play—but this is as close as you can get to a roleplaying campaign without the roleplaying game. The dungeons tend to be smaller and shorter, but both the players and the Overlord can accumulate experience and upgrade their abilities. The game even comes with several illustrated cardboard boxes to store your components in between sessions. Be careful though; there are quite a few changes from ‘normal’ Descent, and I recommend checking out the latest FAQ (not to mention my own rules summary and reference sheets) to head off those rule ambiguities at the pass. For those with the time and commitment however, this is a dungeon delving experience par excellence!

But the expansions hadn’t stopped coming! Next was Tomb of Ice (2008), adding some snow and ice-themed tiles and beasties (21 monsters and another 6 heroes) and some new elements such as Feat cards.

For those who prefer the long haul campaign, the latest expansion to be released was Sea of Blood (2009). Much like Road to Legend, but this time set on the islands and high seas of Terrinoth, Sea of Blood really expands your games of Descent into a completely new melieu. There are even ship’s deck tiles so you can battle at sea, play through boarding actions, fire cannons and assault islands (and don’t forget the ocean map board expansion). And who doesn’t love a bit of pirating with their fantasy?

Finally, the Quest Compendium is a hard cover book chock-full of Descent sceanrios by some of the best known personalities in fantasy gaming.

So there you have it, a quick overview of the dungeon/wilderness/sea-crawling behemoth that is Descent: Journeys in the Dark. All the talk at the moment might be about it’s much newer and simpler cousin Castle Ravenloft, but for shear weight of stuff, Descent can’t be beat. Brush off your copy, buy some expansions, and descend once again into the darkness!

by Universal Head

For more information about Descent in this article, visit Fantasy Flight Games (www.fantasyflightgames.com)

and BoardgameGeek (www.boardgamegeek.com). You can also find rules summaries and reference sheets for Descent at Headless Hollow (www.headlesshollow.com/freebies_games.html).

Universal Head (www.universalhead.com), has been designing for clients across the globe for more than twenty years, and playing games for much longer than that. He’s responsible for the graphic design of several boardgames, notably ‘Tales of the Arabian Nights’ by Z-Man Games, and once spent an entire year recreating the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza in 3D for a computer game. In between he’s designed just about every form of visual communication: corporate identities, websites, packaging, brochures, even postage stamps. He also created the game websites www.tekumel.com andwww.battleloremaster.com. His blog site www.headlesshollow.com is an obsessive repository of professionally designed rules summaries and reference sheets for popular boardgames.

3 Comments

  1. Interesting article Peter!

    I like Descent, but between this and Doom, I have to admit to preferring Doom. However, the one aspect of Descent that really has me intrigued is the Campaign systems in Sea of Blood and Road to Legend. I would have loved something like this for Doom as well – but they really seem like fascinating additions to an already well established and excellent game.

    Great overview of the series! Have you considered covering RuneBound with a similar article?

    Cheers,

    Giles.

  2. That’s a good idea Giles, I’ll be sure to do that. Doom is definitely one of my all-time favourites, and I’m kind of glad it only got one expansion because it has everything it needs (though some new scenarios would be good).

    I’ve yet to try one of the campaign systems – I don’t have the spare time unfortunately – but I’m especially intrigued by the Sea of Blood one. Who doesn’t love pirates?!

  3. Yes – that’s why it has me interested! One of the things I always had fond memories of was modding out an old freighter for the obligatory smuggler character in a StarWars RPG Campaign. The ability to modify and improve the ships is one subsystem in Sea of Blood that seems really interesting!

    Cheers,
    Giles.

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