I must start this post with an admission about my sordid gaming past: I Was A Teenage Dungeon Master.
That’s right… for roughly three years “back in the day” I ran a rag-tag group of adventurers through a variety of dungeons & forests set in a fantasy world of my own creation. Armed with the board from AH’s Outdoor Survival (the map of “the world”) and the ‘blue box’ edition of the D&D (Dungeons & Dragons) basic rules, I spent most of my free time (and some of my class time) drawing dungeons & creating stories in preparation for marathon Saturday gaming sessions & quick one-shot adventures on weekdays after school.
Our crew never got into miniatures – I think because of economics rather than my current excuse, “the fear of painting.” Similar reasons kept us from playing too many of the “official” modules – the primary ones I remember are The Village of Hommlet (T1) and the Giant trilogy. (I’m still cheesed off that TSR didn’t publish T2 – The Temple of Elemental Evil – until years after I’d stopped playing D&D.) I vividly remember spending my hard-earned allowance money on the first Monster Manual, Player’s Handbook, and Dungeon Master’s Guide… and using the information in those books to dream up even more diabolical adventures.
Then, sometime in the spring of 1981, I stopped playing D&D. I kept playing Traveller (a sci-fi RPG – that’s “role playing game” for those you playing along at home) and a little bit of SPI’s Dragonquest, but you could stick a fork in my time with Dungeons & Dragons.
But I continued to enjoy fantasy games… Particularly those that captured some of the flavor of D&D. For a while, we played Talisman (2nd edition) on a regular basis. Then there was Warlock of Firetop Mountain… and even Space Hulk, which always had a bit of a dungeon crawl meets Aliens feel to the game. Another favorite was Dungeonquest, which I foolishly sold (along with both expansions) back in the mid-90’s. Thanks to the generosity of Keith “I Used To Be A Neutral Good Monk In Mark’s D&D Game” Monaghan, I have the game back in my collection. In the early 90’s, I bought the entire 3rd edition Talisman set… and we spent many happy hours chasing around the board, attempting to defeat the monsters & avoid getting turned into a toad. (Weirdly enough, I never actually played Heroquest and/or Advanced Heroquest. I wonder how that happened?)
Most of those are gone now… Warlock, Space Hulk & Talisman (3rd) all sold at hopped-up E-bay prices to enlarge my oddball collection of games. Every once in a while, I get a hankering to play them, but not enough to give up the pile of other games that they financed. (Dungeonquest, OTOH, is still here… and gets played every 3-4 months or so.)
In the last decade, the same “wish I could level up a character” impulse has led to my complete & total enjoyment of Return of the Heroes (and it’s expansion, Under the Shadow of the Dragon)… and, to a lesser extent, my sort-of enjoyment of Klaus Teuber’s Candamir: The First Settlers (which is a weird cross between The Settlers of Catan & an RPG.) More recently, I’ve had a blast diving into V. Chvátil’s fantasy games Prophecy and Mage Knight, in addition to the puzzle-y charms of Legends of Andor and the creepy ambience and Euro-tinged gameplay of the Space Hulk-influenced Claustrophobia.
It was just over 10 years ago (Memorial Day weekend 2006, to be exact) that I was first introduced to Descent: Journeys in the Dark. Produced by Fantasy Flight Games with one of the largest game boxes I’ve ever seen (I think it may even produce it’s own gravitational field), this dungeon crawl game combined some of the best elements of Space Hulk/Heroquest (the puzzle-cut dungeon boards & the nifty miniatures), Lord of the Rings: Sauron (with one player “running” the game, attempting to thwart the adventurers), and Runebound (the fatigue system & the fantasy world – “Terrinoth” – setting of the game) combined with innovative new ideas first created for FF’s Doom: The Boardgame. I particularly liked the “one roll combat” mechanism.
At the time, I wrote that I was seriously thinking of buying or trading for a copy, due not only to my own enjoyment of the game, but the potential for my boys to eventually enjoy it with me. I noted that I was concerned about the length of the game (3-4 hours per scenario) and the potential for expansions to go awry.
I wasn’t wrong. The early promise of that first wonderful game withered with repeated plays… it took so long to get the game going, the campaign system was clunky, and an adventure took 4+ hours with a full complement of players. My desire to own a copy myself went the way of the dodo… and about the only reference I made to the game was in reviews of Catacombs. (“Catacombs = Descent + Carabande – 3 hours”)
So when I saw that Fantasy Flight Games was rebooting Descent, I was both intrigued and wary. And, for a variety of reasons, I didn’t choose to pick it up… and I didn’t get an opportunity to play it.
Fast forward to the summer of 2013… and while visiting with friends in Texas (hi, Ed!, hi, Susan!), my boys & I joined them in one of the early Descent 2.0 scenarios just to see how it would compare to the original.
I was blown away… and so were my boys (ages 8 & 12). All of the design ideas I’d loved from the original game were still there – one roll combat, customizable characters, great miniatures & artwork. At the same time, FFG had managed to knock off the “rough edges” – simplifying the Overlord system, losing the silly transport glyphs, etc. Most importantly, they’d broken adventures down into bite-size (read: playable in 60-90 minutes) pieces… and then connected them via a simplified campaign system that works like a charm.
So, I used some of my birthday money and bought the base game & the first expansion in July 2013… and in the intervening 3 years, we’ve completed 41 different scenarios. With me as the Overlord, one group of friends worked their way through the Lair of the Wyrm mini-campaign. Meanwhile, my boys & I finished The Shadow Rune (base game) campaign… and then my oldest son tried to destroy his little brother and I in the Labyrinth of Ruin – and failed. (We did the dance of victory and then demanded that Son the Elder bring us the finest muffins and bagels in all the land.)
Slowly but surely, we’re acquiring the various expansions that are part and parcel of (a) pretty much any fantasy adventure game, and (b) pretty much any Fantasy Flight game. (Let’s not try to figure out how much Son the Elder has invested in X-Wing miniatures… or how much Son the Younger has in Lord of the Rings LCG cards.)
Descent actually has five different types of expansions:
- Campaign boxes – which contain heroes, monsters, terrain and a wide variety of extra cards. They also contain campaign scenarios and additional rules. (There are both large and small campaign boxes.)
- Hero & Monster sets – which contain, well, heroes & monsters
- Lieutenant sets – which contain a single lieutenant for the Overlord as well as more cards for the Overlord
- Cooperative sets – which are small sets designed for players to play against the game system
- Campaign books – so far, there is only one campaign book, which uses the components of the base set to create a new campaign of scenarios
As a former Dungeons & Dragons player and Dungeon Master (Note: the term “Dungeon Master” is a wholly owned trademark of the same guys who make the Pokemon CCG, and my use of it here is likely to get me set upon a band of ravaging Japanese anime characters) … and as a long-time fan of dungeon crawl/fantasy adventure games, I have to be honest – for all of the its gamer-y goodness, Descent: Journeys in the Dark is not a replacement for your favorite RPG. This is a multi-layered “one vs. many” fantasy adventure game that is designed to focus on combat and “leveling up” your character (whether you’re a hero or the evil Overlord). Descent doesn’t lean into the improv and storytelling aspects of role-playing, though it does manage to do a fine job of character development and creating a story arc between multiple scenarios.
The Road To Legend
In Descent 1.0, The Road to Legend was a creative but entirely too cumbersome campaign mode bolted onto the original design of the game. FFG has reclaimed the name with an amazing app that – wait for it – replaces one of the members of your game group. (Let’s take a short pause while some of you imagine replacing one of the members of your game group – the guy who uses cards to pick his teeth and wants to bring a 5 gallon drum of generic cheese balls as his snack food of choice.)
With The Road to Legend app, you can forget the basic structure of Descent: Journeys in the Dark. Instead of an Overlord player plotting your doom and sending waves of plastic minis at your intrepid band of adventurers, the app itself takes on the Dungeon Master role. (There I go running roughshod over trademark again.) The app sets the scene, reveals the map in dribs and drabs like the DMs of old, and places monsters on the board, ready to devour you and your friends. It makes Descent a truly cooperative game.
Activations work differently as well. Players and monster groups take turns activating… and the app gives each monster group a list of possible instructions both minions and masters that reflect their character, their strengths and their weaknesses. Best of all, the monsters receive different orders each activation – so one turn may see a group of wraiths rush forward in a hit & run attack, while the next turn could be a defensive retreat.
The app does not specify where the monsters are on the board – it simply tells you how to move and attack with them. I know that may sound crazy, but I think this a genius bit of design. It keeps the app from being a memory/processing hog on your device – and it makes sure that play stays focused on the board and the great FFG minis rather than devolving into a computer game where you roll physical dice.
My boys and have played through the Rise of All Goblins campaign – and though we managed a number of scenario victories, we ultimately failed to stop the evil horde. Even though we lost, we had a fantastic time playing and adventuring through the scenarios. We have begun the Kindred Fire campaign with new heroes… and are having even more fun with the crazy twists and turns.
While I’m still a huge fan of the base game (Overlord vs hero party), I think The Road to Legend offers a high-quality cooperative dungeon crawl experience. It even makes it possible to play Descent: Journeys in the Dark as a solo game – though I’m not sure that shows the game at its best.
I’ve purchased the newest addition to the app: The Delve – which promises a one-evening experience of leveling up that sounds a bit like playing a tabletop video (complete with “bosses” and “leveling up”). I haven’t played it yet – we’re still fighting our way through the Kindred Fire campaign – but I’m looking forward to it.
So, here’s the skinny: the Road to Legend app itself is free – and both the introductory campaign and first full campaign are included. I’ve spend $5 total (for The Delve) and eaten up some memory on my iPad – and in exchange, we’ve played 10 games of Descent 2.0 in the last five months. (That’s twice what we played in all of 2015.) If you enjoy the game, it’s an excellent addition to your toolkit… and it could well get a great game back to the table more often!
Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers
Dale Y: I was first introduced to the Descent family about ten years ago – I was asked to sit in at a session at the Gathering, at Alan’s table no less… I hadn’t had any experience with the genre to that point, and though I would classify myself as a avid Euro-gamer – I was sucked in by the experience. Before I knew it, I was traveling to Pittsburgh for an entire weekend of nothing but Descent, and I loved the whole thing.
When I tried to bring the magic back home with my brand new set, it promptly fizzled and died. I quickly learned that a lot of the fun in the game is playing with the right people, and I also quickly realized that the hardest job in the game is being the Overlord. Without a decent Overlord player, the game is probably going to be sub-optimal no matter what. I am an awful Overlord, and my failure at this was a big part of it not going over well locally.
Thus, Descent 1.0 was quickly re-shelved. I never sold the game because I kept hoping that I’d get an excuse to bring it back to the table, but that never happened. Then, Descent 2.0 came along. Again, I got my first experience with in at a game con – this time, I think it might have been at a Gulf Games. The box was much smaller physically, and the rules were now a bit less opaque, and the scenarios were a bit shorter. We had a great time with the new set, and it was refreshing to be able to play through 4 scenarios in a single session as opposed to having to set aside a long holiday weekend to get the same done.
I didn’t get a set initially because I still sucked at being Overlord, and as I was the only one willing to do so in the group at home – that pretty much meant that the game was dead. The new app though takes on that role, and it makes the game a possibility for us to play now. No longer does one of us have to be an “expert” at the game to have a good time. Additionally, it opens up the door for my family to play scenarios as a team – where dad and the two sons can try to vanquish the foe together instead of the usual 2-on-1 setup.
I’ll admit that I’m probably never going to “love” this style of game, but for the genre, this is about as good as it’s going to get for me. It’s playable is a manageable amount of time, it doesn’t take up an entire bookshelf of storage space any more, and the automated overload thing frankly is the bomb for part-time dungeon crawlers like me. So I will say that I love the app. Without it, the improved base game is neutral at best – but given an opportunity to play it with the app is a big game-changer..
Patrick Brennan: I can’t speak to Roads of Legend, but can at least offer some thoughts on the base game. I’ve been mostly trying to wipe the memory of the too-long first version from my mind, but the first two scenarios played in v2 are both of an excellent length, 2 hours or so, and brings me mostly back on board. Linking scenarios into a campaign is an attraction, where the degree of success in one helps define what you take into the next. Combat is still a quick single die roll (tick). There’s not that many text effects slowing things down (tick). It’s not that much different from Ravenloft et al really, except here the Overlord moves the monsters instead of them being programmed. Which makes life harder, but still has probably a touch too much downtime for the adventurers, as well as providing some odd thematic moments (hang on, the zombies moved, attacked, then moved back?? What kind of pussy zombies do that!?). Allowing the players to decide their turn order is the big win, as that gets the conversation going each turn as to how best to proceed, producing a true co-op feel. Combat rolls are weighted towards success but fail at the key moments, causing drama, not a bad thing. So the conversation is going, there’s a story being told, the game flows pretty easily. Obviously it’s all pretty random as well, but there are decisions to be made. There wasn’t quite enough tension to hold me, so maybe I felt the randomness was a tad overwhelming, but I’d be happy to explore the campaign further to see how far the game takes me if ever the chance arose..
Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
Descent: Journeys in the Dark 2.0
I love it… Mark Jackson
I like it… Patrick Brennan, Dale Y
Not for me…
Descent: Road to Legend App
I love it… Mark Jackson, Dale Y
I like it… Matt Carlson
Not for me…