DESCENT : JOURNEYS IN THE DARK
I particularly hope you enjoy this element of the review, as you see spread throughout, the transformation of some of the 31 monster models and 8 Hero figures from their original, bland, plastic state to their final incarnation.
In pale creamy/white or plain red
The reason each set of monsters has one figure moulded in red is because it represents a master version of the type with stronger stats than the lowly minion version. Fine at the moment, but painting obscures this distinction. So, watch the various ways in which I restored the difference when I painted the models.
After the figures, a brief [or not so brief] list of the components tells you all: 152 small cards in six categories, and 84 larger cards in eight categories, 150 cardboard tokens 8 Hero card sheets and then 48 sumptuous dungeon pieces, along with 7 doors and their plastic stands - oh, and 9 customised, specialist dice.
Last, but not least, 3 substantial full-colour booklets - the main Rule book and two separate Quest books.
The range of large tiles
And finally the little connecting bits & pieces
Just one of the maps for the many Encounters
Even where there is a range of choice, rarely is one person having to deal with all the choices. Take the Class cards, which are allied to the Heroes. There are 84 of these alone, but as there are eight heroes to choose from that means that each player has only 10 or 11 cards to consider and only if you are beginning a campaign rather than a single encounter.
4 Archetypes with 2 classes in each.
Of all the cards, the most criticised have been the Search cards for their limited range and not particularly striking effects. In all, there are nine different possibilities, including finding nothing[!], three different types of potion [for two of which there are duplicates] and a number of individual items including a treasure chest. Both the type of objects to be found and their effects seem absolutely typical of dungeon games. Added to these are a number of relics that come in to play. when playing the encounters as part of a campaign. These are primarily rewards for the outcome of an encounter. What I like most about them is that the card for each relic is double-sided; one side for the Heroes if they win and one for the Overlord player [more about him/her soon], if the heroes fail.
Other categories of cards include Condition Cards, which detail such "joys" as what happens if you are inflicted with a condition such as being poisoned, stunned or diseased. Travel Event Cards, which come in to play between Encounters on a Campaign and Shop Item Cards [one of my favourites], which provide the wide range of typical offensive and defensive equipment that you can buy or acquire in the course of any fantasy adventure.
The generic front of the Shop Item Cards
Just a few of the items you can buy in the shop
Goblin Archer :
note the two cards for the different Encounters
Linked to these and very similar are the Lieutenant Cards that identify six individual characters. These are intriguing, as each plays a part in the unfolding Campaign story and features in the substantial eleven page narrative that introduces the first of the two Quest booklets. The only downside is that they are represented by cardboard tokens, not plastic figures. I'm not sure what six more figures would have added to the cost, but it seems a missed opportunity for even more of the excellent detail Descent pays attention to. Much as I'm sorry that FFG didn't do this, it's a very minor point in such a substantial package and I envisage seeking out some appropriate models at a future date to correct this.
The six Lieutenants - servants of Evil
The exemplary knight, Avric Albright
Avric Albright & Leoric of The Book
[basic grey plastic, prior to priming]
Jain Fairwood & Syndrael
The full range of Overlord Cards
A typical Overlord Card
Being Overlord in Descent : Journeys In The Dark is about as good as it gets. Instead of a "passive" organiser/story-teller/plot-driver, you have a very positive [seeing that you're evil, should that be negative?] part to play. At the very least you are running the monsters, moving and fighting with them with your hand of Overlord cards to add to the nasties you can deal out and thwart the pathetic plans of those miserable Heroes. On top of that and even better [worse?], many Encounters have goals for the Overlord to pursue. This, for me, is a major bonus to the game, producing conflicting plot lines and goals for both the good and the bad!
On the left, Health markers, on the right Stamina markers
So, dear reader, as my Stamina is getting low, seems like a good place for you to pause for breath too and enjoy another pictorial interlude.
primed and then given a base coat of flesh and clothing colour
Clothing nearly complete, shading applied to the skin colour and an initial coat of grey on the base
Love these finished Spiders.
Note the red edge to the base & red stripe to distinguish
the master model from the minions.
Condition Tokens - love those skulls!and then Villager Tokens, which stand in for a variety of minor characters that you may come across such as wounded clergy in the opening Encounter : Acolyte of Saradon or captives in Rise of Urthko.
Villager Tokens -
kinda sinister for most of what they represent.
I've kept my comments about the counters much briefer largely because they play a simple, functional subsidiary part in any game of this type. However, I feel that it's important to focus on their substantial quality and appearance. Not only do they complement the atmosphere of the game, but there's a really good solidity to them, even the small heart shaped health points, and all match the similar quality of the map tiles.
I found everything clear, logical and well ordered and, though not overly complex, a considerable distance from the simplicity of the old HeroQuest. In particular, Combat is perhaps the most detailed element in the rules. Starting with the appropriate attack dice versus the defender's, as designated on the Hero or Monster's card, these may be affected by such things as character traits or skills along with weapon abilities or defensive qualities. Most often these will be brought in to play by what are called Surges - essentially lighting bolt symbols on the dice that can be used to trigger the corresponding symbol on the range of cards linked to the figures.
If playing a single Encounter as a one-off stand alone scenario, equipment and skills are pre-set, but once again you have the option to upgrade both the Heroes and the Overlord, if you want a stronger, more varied session, or simply enjoy that element of a fantasy game where you purchase skills and equipment.
The Quest booklets, particularly the first one, are illustrated throughout with strong artwork from the front cover to the back.
Delving beneath the substantial surface attraction of the Quest booklets reveals, if anything, even more substance. The first booklet contains an introductory Encounter, two Interludes [consider these three as shorter links in the vast expanding Campaign story] and seven Encounters. But even this is misleading, as five of the seven main Encounters are divided into two sections which in most cases means two full-blown connected Encounters.
The second Quest booklet is equally rich with nine Encounters, including five doubles and a finale of a triple Encounter. Virtually every Encounter seems strongly detailed and the whole expanse provides a wide range of goals for both sides involving different approaches. Pressure of time features quite strongly, often with fatigue tokens being potentially wracked up by one side leading to defeat. Occasionally, I've felt that one or two seem well nigh unachievable especially for the Heroes.
In the earlier games of this type that I've played where there are linked scenarios with items/gold/experience acquired and then able to be spent to develop your Heroes' abilities and equipment, I have to admit that the death of a Hero usually seemed dealt with by resurrecting the character [son of the barbarian?] ready for the next quest [though often with a loss of experience and/or equipment]. So, perhaps, Descent's way of dealing with it is not so different. Ultimately, it is essential for a campaign of such length. But - BIG question - having battled through so many Encounters are you up to the final, "You have failed the Overlord has defeated you!" Well, if you're the Overlord player then yes.
Again, I think this is a major point about this game, especially for the Overlord player who must realise that he/she is a combatant in this game. If you play as a traditional dungeon-master i.e. a facilitator for the Heroes, then, first of all, you'll probably lose. Secondly, for me that's not what I'm in it for. To some extent these are puzzles like in Space Hulk and as always the luck of the dice will play their part, but above all it's the experience, the atmosphere, the whole immersive quality. On this count, I think Descent scores admirably. On the other hand, you will find those who've dismissed it as bland and generic.
That the number of monsters in each group and the number of reinforcements that the Overlord is allowed to bring in is tied to the number of hero players is a strong point, unlike some fantasy games where you were always constrained by not having enough players to make the scenario worth playing. Though that could usually be overcome by each player running two hero characters.
A Final Glimpse of Some Painted Heroes
Syndrael, Elf Warrior
Jain Fairwood, Human Scout
Grisban the Thirsty, Warrior Dwarf
And the largest Monsters
Should you too take to this system then there are certainly more than enough expansions to feed your appetite for some time to come and, as I believe that the majority of players will still want to become the Heroes and for those who simply have to be on the side of good, then Roads to Legend the app provides the necessary Overlord, so that all the human players can choose from the good side. But, as with so many aspects, this too has its devotees and its dissenters.
Ultimately, I cannot speak as one who has a vast experience of many fantasy systems and I imagine that, if you are, then you'll already know whether you like Descent or not. Perhaps. more than any other genre of gaming, fantasy seems to attract strongly polarised opinions. Personally, I have found Descent a strong contender in quality of component, variety and game play. It meets all that I find enjoyable in fantasy gaming and for me has been a far better and richer experience than the several, different games that sit on the fantasy/horror borderline that I've had friends press me to try.
Esdevium Games: UK supplier of FFG games and a whole host of other games and toys.