Descent Legends of the Dark (A Game Review by Brandon Kempf) *No Spoilers*

  • Designer: Kara Centell-Dunk & Nathan I. Hajek
  • Artist: Gary Storkamp
  • Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
  • Players: 1-4 players
  • Time: 120 – 180 minutes
  • Times Played: 3

A bit of history, a confession of sorts. I buy, or rather, I used to buy a lot of games that ended up never being played. For one reason or another, I would buy a game and be excited to play it, only to find out, no one else shared the excitement, or that we could never schedule time to play it for one reason or another. Be it a giant box Euro, a big dungeon crawl or even family style games. Sometimes they just never got to the table. One of those games was Descent Journeys in the Dark 2nd Edition, and sad to say, a lot of extra expansions that went with it. My youngest daughter and I played with the miniatures and created our own stories and adventures, but I never did play the actual game, not even when the app came out that would be the Overlord for you. So I sold it. Never regretted selling it, but always wanted to play it. I know part of the issue with it was the all versus one aspect of the game. A lot of game groups have that gamer who wants to be that one, we didn’t. Up steps a new Descent, one that we really shouldn’t call 3rd edition and one that Fantasy Flight Games has made sure to try to differentiate it through art, through playstyle and through packaging. All of that change was met with a lot of trepidation and baseless dismissal prior to release from a couple of “big name” reviewers here in the states. That led me to this, becoming the owner of another system, Descent Legends of the Dark

Before we get too far into this, let’s just say, there will be no spoilers here. The other note I want to make is that I have only played three scenarios, and those weren’t from the beginning. I was lucky enough to be at the Gathering of Friends in August and I hopped into a game with an old acquaintance and then continued on for three scenarios total, the flea market made sure that we didn’t continue as we had to put the game away where we had just been leaving it set up to come back to. Having only read the rule book briefly when I got the game, I relied on the folks at the table to teach the game to me as we went, as I didn’t want to slow them down too much. It worked for the most part, but I think you would have a more difficult time doing this for someone who is coming in completely cold to the game, and the system. It’s not as if the system is difficult, that’s not what I mean, but there are, just like most any game from Fantasy Flight Games, lots of little things that you need to know in order to play. Also worth noting, some of my game terminology may be a bit off as I didn’t read the rulebook completely, but I will try to get as close as I can. 

Descent Legends of the Dark is a dungeon crawl style game with a strong narrative hook. As opposed to previous iterations, this Descent is purely cooperative with an app that will help run the action and tell the story. You and up to three other players will have characters that you can develop and grow throughout the adventures in this first box, labeled Act 1, with more surely to come, this is FFG, right? 

Each adventure starts out in a town, or I suppose you could end the previous adventure in town and then start out on an adventure immediately. But anyway, normally you will start out your adventure in town, get some information and story and then possibly upgrade gear and abilities. This is the first thing we’ll talk about with the app. Through your adventures you will have objectives for your characters, be that killing a particular bad guy, or touching something in the story. These objectives are tracked in the app. As you complete them, you can be assigned your next one. These feat accomplishments will give you new abilities and are part of your levelling up of your character, which allows for more things to be equipped. Another fun thing that the app will take care of is all that loot that you have been gathering, it’s all stored in the app. So you can use this loot to craft items, to sell in order to buy other things. It’s all right there in the app. The app is also your storytelling reference. Instead of consulting a book or cards or anything else, the app will narrate the story to you and give you choices along the way that will further affect the story down the line. There is no voice over on the app, so what we did is we had one of our people cover most of the narrative reading, except for our characters, which we attempted to fully voice while reading. So this kind of invested us all into fully paying attention to the story. 

After all the narrative, there will surely be a quest for you to undertake, some quests are “simple” retrieval quests, others are investigation based or even some in which you know you are going into battle. As you travel to your destination, the app can trigger short events for your party and provide clues to an overarching narrative. As I have said, I only played three scenarios, so I definitely have not seen everything the game can throw at you. 

Gameplay is pretty straightforward as far as adventuring goes, there is no set player order, so the players can choose when they activate each round, if there are bad guys on the map, they will activate after all of the players do. Each turn a player can do three actions, one maneuver action and two other actions, repeating if they desire, moving and combat are the most common. Each player’s character will have individual combat and movement stats that will dictate what and how they can do these things. One interesting action that you can do is interact with things that are on the map, which I bet is something you are wondering about. Just how is the map set up for each adventure? Once again, the app does the work of generating the map and telling the players where to place cardboard map tiles, and many other 3d terrain that comes with the box. 

In order to interact with terrain, you use the app and it will dictate what happens. You may find something exciting, or dangerous, or you may just find some fruit or nothing at all. Who knows what all is in that tree or down in the well!! The app handles this pretty well. Each character in the game has a small portrait at the bottom of the screen during action. To tell the app who is interacting with what, simply drag from their portrait to what they are interacting with. Combat is much the same, simply click on the player’s portrait and drag to what they are attacking, input dice rolls and boom, all taken care of. The app will track all conditions and do the math accordingly. 

I am leaving out a lot of things, like how each character has specific powers that they can do, and specific weapons and gear that they can carry with them, that’s all standard stuff for these types of games, but I will touch on Fatigue a bit. Certain actions that characters can do will take more effort than others. When you do these actions, you will gain Fatigue that will go on the cards that represent your character or gear that they have. Each of those things that can hold Fatigue tokens can only hold a set number, and if you ever cannot take on Fatigue due to having too many tokens, the character will take damage instead. So one of the actions that a player can take on their turn is to flip a card to ready a different action and get rid of Fatigue tokens on it, including your main character card. Each side of your character card has a different set of actions that you can do, making for a lot more flexibility than it may seem. 

That’s really the game in a nutshell, visit town, do quests, rinse repeat, all while telling an overarching story. I mean, that’s what playing a dungeon crawler is about, right? 

Three scenarios isn’t really enough for me to spoil things for you anyway, hell, I don’t know the entire story to spoil, but it is enough to give some opinions on how the game plays, how the app works, and what I think of the components. You know, do I think you are going to get your money’s worth for $175 worth of MSRP? In short, yes, I think that you can definitely get your money’s worth. I mean, there is a solo version, which should be really good, considering the app runs most everything that you don’t, but I’ll never play it that way. I know a lot of folks will though and I think that it will be pretty good. 

Descent Legends of the Dark is an event game, each of our plays lasted two to three hours. Now, we were in a loud environment with numerous interruptions, so time will vary based on your group and it’s circumstances. I’d say that two to three hours is a good gauge though timewise. In the box they advertise 16 quests in this Blood and Flame campaign, with side quests not counted I don’t believe, so on average that’s probably more than 40 hours worth of play in the box. Inside the box are forty really well sculpted miniatures, and one not so miniature, some map tiles, tokens, cards and even forty six three dimensional cardboard terrain tiles that bring the playing area to life. I didn’t put the cardboard stuff together for my box yet, but I was told to plan on about two hours to get it all punched, sorted and built. Those three dimensional pieces are also a big reason why that box is so oddly shaped and sized. Component wise, it’s a fantastic box full of goodies. It will be a bit of a table hog, but that really should come as no surprise. 

Gameplay is smooth, with only a few actions you can take on a turn, you should be able to know what to do and get rolling with the system relatively quickly. Don’t get me wrong, playing your character correctly will take some getting used to. Knowing the best time to refresh/flip your cards to get rid of Fatigue and to use the other options available will be important to your success. One of the characters in play was flipping cards left and right, while another rarely would, only to clear tokens most of the time. Your starting gear is nice, and I like the way FFG did the weapons with them being upgradeable. Everyone starts with two weapon choices, both basic and you sleeve them in one of the included card sleeves with the basic sides facing out. If you upgrade, you flip the card so that now the upgraded version shows up. There are tons of ways to make your character your own through gear and potions. You seem to be able to adapt your character a bit more to your playstyle as you go, although each character is kind of uniquely set in their path with what their main style will be. 

The app that FFG has put together here works wonderfully. Everything from the town interactions, to building of the map that you will be exploring, to combat and interaction is done wonderfully and seamlessly. That’s necessary as you will be using the app a lot while playing. The story unfolds in storyboards on the screen with the dialog on screen in writing as well. As part of our play, we each were reading our own parts when our character made an appearance, it really helped kind of immerse you into your character and understand them a bit more. There are narrative parts that are NPCs, we just elected someone to read those as well. 

Crafting plays a huge role in Descent Legends of the Dark and once again, the app pulls through and makes this a breeze. First off, it will track everything that you loot during your adventures. Secondly, it will show you what is available to craft from what you have as well. A couple clicks on the app and it tells you what you have crafted and it’s now in your inventory. 

Combat is made almost too easy with the app.To initiate combat, the player just drags from their character portrait to whatever it is they are wanting to attack. You still get to physically roll dice, that fun hasn’t been taken away from you. You simply input the number of hits as told by your dice and any actions you can use and the app will do the rest. If you inflicted anything on the monster, the app knows that and takes those numbers into the math. No longer are you tracking if you have slowed and impaired anything, it’s all there in the app. When the monsters attack, the app will say who they want to attack, if they can, if they cannot, you adjust on the fly, it’s super easy. Roll some defense dice and input that info and that part is done. Simply note any damage on your damage tracker and move on to the next. 

The app is there, constantly, so it is important that it works well, and it does. We did have a couple moments where we had to reboot the app, but it saved everything and was an easy recovery. I imagine that FFG and their app developer will continue to improve the app and with the app further expand Descent Legends of the Dark. I would suggest using a mouse with the app if at all possible, it seemed to work really well as opposed to the touch screen, which worked, but seemed a bit more “touchy” in the control of what you wanted to do. 

All this said, I am looking forward to starting our campaign here at home. I have a couple of people lined up to play, and hopefully we can commit to playing on a regular basis. This will limit some of my other plays, but so be it, if we are enjoying what we are playing, why should I play anything else(wink wink, nudge nudge). I liked this a lot more in play than I did Gloomhaven, mainly because of the app. It makes things a lot less fiddly and time consuming. There are times with Gloomhaven where I feel like all I am doing is bookkeeping, but so far the action has outweighed those instances for the most part. In Descent Legends of the Dark it didn’t feel that way so much. Yes, some of the map building can be a bit tedious if you have a limited space as you don’t know what kind of room to allow for at the start of your play, but that’s all part of the fun, right? The exploration, the unknown! Even though that table may not be able to hold it all. 

Now, what do I do with that unplayed copy of Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-Earth?

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers…. 

I love it…Brandon K.

I like it… 

Neutral… 

Not for me… 

Thoughts from the Opinionated Gamers

Mark Jackson: Had I not invested substantial amounts of money (I own all of the boxed expansions and a number of the Lieutenant & Monster/Hero expansions) and time (64 plays totalling more than 90 hours) in Descent 2.0, I’d likely have put this new edition on my wishlist. (Descent 2.0 remains on my top 50 games list.)

Further comment is not needed, as I haven’t actually seen an open copy of the new version yet. 

Matt Carlson: I got a used copy of the original game, and never got it to the table.  When I heard 2.0 was coming out I sold my used copy for a bit of a premium and invested in the new game, but with the “revised” deck of cards that were supposed to allow old pieces to be used in the new game.  Finally, my boys were old enough to give 2.0 a try and we had a (brief) fun time running through the game with the app providing the role of the bad guys.  This was very much my preferred way, as I love to play co-ops with my family as I find it more fun to win or lose as a group.  Since those first, brief forays I continued to eye some of the expansions but never bought any.  This new version, with a full-on cooperative mode managed by the app does look good to me (probably not for $175…) I don’t mind when a game uses an app as a supportive part of the game.  While I have not played the new edition, the description above makes me a bit wary of character progression.  What I liked about the first (and second) versions was that characters actually improved in ability in a somewhat quick manner.  Games like Hero Realms, Dragonfire, the Pathfinder card game, and to some extent Gloomhaven, seem to have the protagonists “level up” painfully slow.  I’d rather play a shorter campaign where I regularly grow in power, than a longer one where power sort of trickles down.  I find growing my character (in power and specialization) one of the main attractions of this style of game.  I’d rather play two quicker “adventures” and enjoy developing two different characters to a high level than one longer, more drawn out single character experience.  It remains to be seen where on the spectrum the new Descent lies…

Brandon K: Hey Matt, yeah, the levelling is probably going to be done over the entirety of the campaign. From what I could tell, the feats were going to be your primary way to improve your abilities and such. But! I have seen a scenario where someone completed three or four feats, whereas I had one where I could never complete it because it wasn’t available to me during that scenario. Not sure if that was supposed to be that way or if it was a carryover from a previous play that I was not involved in. I assume feats are supposed to be achievable during the current scenario for the most part.  

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