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DESCENT : JOURNEYS IN THE DARK 2nd EDITION For a typical dungeon crawler [?] it seemed appropriate to begin with a bit of na...






For a typical dungeon crawler [?] it seemed appropriate to begin with a bit of narrative text to set the scene and so I offer you ...

The Atonement

"Many years ago, a wise and kindly man discovered an artefact of great popularity, which its creators had in their infinite wisdom deemed worthy to call HeroQuest and it contained many sculpted figures.  With great patience, this father, for such he was, didst paint all the figures most carefully and the father's children were wondrous pleased and spent many an hour with him amassing untold treasures and encountering strange beings in the dungeons of that fantasy realm.

However, as time passed, those children grew older and left to make their own way in the world and the father unwisely did dispose of the artefact into unknown hands at which his children, now adults, discovering this some years later were sore dismayed.

And so the father sought to atone for his grievous error..."

In the way such confessional revelations usually continue, I must confess, "I was that man."

Consequently, it may come as no surprise then that I was more than pleased when Jason asked me to take over the task of reviewing Descent : Journeys In The Dark [2nd edition].  What a package!  And in a deceptively modest-sized box too, for this sort of offering.

There's no doubt that there are many similarities between the two games, but the gap of nearly 28 years really does highlight the changes in our gaming expectations.

 Descent : Journeys In The Dark [2nd edition] is a product of Fantasy Flight Games [FFG] and all that label promises.  First and foremost, that represents a standard of excellent physical quality and an initial unboxing lived up to all those expectations.  It amazed me that so much came out of the box and even more amazing that you can fit it all back in again.  Though, when you see the figures, you'll realise why I have chosen to store them separately, even though technically it's not necessary. 

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.

All the components are impressive and it's hard what to single out as a starting point, but I've got to start somewhere, so to begin with... the map tiles.  What's not to like - well, like virtually everything I have to say in this account, you can find someone else who WILL differ in their opinion.  For me they are a visually rich, varied mix of very good quality pieces displaying highly accurate die-cutting.  They can be matched up in a myriad different ways, including small link units, with precision and ease.  They are double-sided and are clearly numbered, making each dungeon's assembly from the diagrams in the two Quest books a very easy and swift procedure.

The range of large tiles

Connecting corridors

And finally the little connecting bits & pieces

Of the differing views I've come across [e.g. mine - they capture the menacing dungeon atmosphere/ someone else's - too dark, too similar; mine - clearly numbered/ someone else's - obtrusive; ]  only one stands out as a fact and not an opinion and that is the fact that for each encounter the whole plan of the dungeon is laid out from the start for all to see. 

Just one of the maps for the many Encounters

[As a brief aside, the distinctive white lines between the pieces is purely a helpful element of the diagram to aid you in distinguishing what you need to put together this map.  As you'll see later, when assembled, the pieces fit beautifully together.]

This has led some to proclaim that Descent is not really a dungeon crawler at all [now you can understand what the question mark was doing in my opening sentence].  Unlike HeroQuest, there is no opening a door with trepidation, unsure what you will meet on the other side and what sort of room you will be stepping into - a torture chamber, a mystic vault with unspeakable creatures lurking in the shadows, a pit into which you plunge onto sharp poisoned stakes.  You get the picture.  But when all's said and done, you only get that frisson once, as next time you play the same scenario you know exactly what is to come.

If that is the absolute defining, essential ingredient for you, then perhaps Descent will not satisfy you, but that feature never stopped me having a whale of a time with Space Hulk and it certainly hasn't stopped me getting the same enjoyment out of Descent.  After all, when you have enjoyed all that this game has to offer, you have all the physical tools ready to hand to create your own scenario [or as this game calls them, Encounters] replete with unknown rooms and doors just waiting to be opened.

Pause for breath - transforming the models

An Elemental, white-primed

Goblin archers still in the queue for priming

The red plastic Merriod with black priming

The Wealth of Cards

Next in line for scrutiny is the wealth of cards.  The different size of card, the distinctive background colours, the art work, text and symbols all add to the spectacle and atmosphere.  The sheer variety at first may seem almost overwhelming.  In fact, I've not felt that they are.  This is mainly because most cards are not all in play at one time, only some will appear in the course of the game and each player doesn't have to cope with them all individually.

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.

Most of the cards offer the customary elements for a dungeon game.  The Class cards give you the typical skills associated with each of the four archetypes Warrior, Healer, Mage, Scout and within each archetype, there are two classes. For example, the Warrior archetype may choose between the sub-classes Berserker or Knight, while the Mage archetype may choose between Necromancer and Runemaster.

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

Then we move on to the superbly illustrated monster cards that display each monsters stats along with their image and specific abilities.  Among the many attentions to detail that I rate Descent highly for is that there are two cards for each monster type, one for use in Encounter I, the other for use in Encounter II.  In addition, its stats as a minion and its stats as a master monster is indicated at the top and bottom of each card.  Mainly, it is a question of small increases in strength or health or the range at which they can attack.  But, I just love the fact that this game bothers to make such distinctions. 

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

Even more impressive are the substantially larger card displays for each of the Heroes.

The exemplary knight, Avric Albright

As you can see, each Hero has his or her special Heroic Ability that can potentially be used every turn and below it the Heroic Feat, a once per game usage that tends to be a more powerful form of the Heroic Ability.  Running down the centre are the Hero's stats for Speed, Health, Stamina and type of defensive dice rolled in combat.
Finally, in the bottom left corner are the stats for Might, Knowledge, Willpower and Awareness which generally come in to play for varying tests that may have to be taken in the course of the game.

These cards have also been very useful as guides to help me in painting the Hero figures.

Avric Albright & Leoric of The Book

[basic grey plastic, prior to priming]

 Jain Fairwood & Syndrael

From the imbalance of 3 male figures to 1 female in the former days of HeroQuest, we've moved to total equality with 4 female and 4 male figures - which probably makes the world of Descent about the most egalitarian realm in existence.

Of the many cards, we come finally to the deck used by The Overlord.

The full range of Overlord Cards

In the basic game, if you are playing a single Encounter, there are 15 cards used.  More are available if playing a Campaign [i.e.  a series of linked Encounters] or an Encounter in Epic form.

A typical Overlord Card

Here, it's appropriate to introduce another key aspect of the game - the Overlord.  As with virtually any dungeon type game, one person has to take the role of the "dungeon master" equivalent.  For many, this has always been one of the drawbacks to the D&D world.  Everyone wants to be the Hero. So, who plays the dungeon master?  Certainly, that was my allotted role when I played HeroQuest or some of the earliest Dungeons & Dragons products, years ago with my young children. 

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!

The Counters

Though many in number, the majority are Health markers [shaped like hearts] in various denominations with which to track the health of the Heroes. Essentially think "life points", though most unusually your Heroes cannot die and, for me, this is the one key point I find plain weird and fundamentally at odds with all fantasy game practice.   The terminology used in Descent is the word "Defeated" i.e. a monster or hero whose Health points are reduced to zero is "Defeated" - now normally that's what I'd call "dead".  For the monsters, it is as good as, because they are removed from the board and play no more part in the Encounter.  Not so for our Hero.  He or she is considered knocked out, removed temporarily from the map and a token replaces them on the map!  This token no longer has any physical effect on the game.  The square it's in is treated as empty.  Any figure can move and even end its move in the square where the counter lies.  

On the left, Health markers, on the right Stamina markers

Come the next time it is the Hero's turn, wonder of wonders our Hero is allowed one Action and one only - to stand up [i.e. put the figure back in the square on the map] and roll for how much Health and Stamina is recovered.  Indeed, if another Hero has the ability/equipment necessary then this can be achieved even earlier.  So, a monster cannot kick you while you're down, or stab, throttle or wreak its nasty actions on you, but another hero can revive you.  This really does not make any logical sense, except as a game mechanic to keep you in the game.

A surge of rule tinkering desire does raise its questing head for me.  As things stand, it is one rule I really struggle to accept.  I leave it for your considered judgement to mull over.  Side by side with the Health markers are the Stamina markers.  Stamina makes much more sense - and I love the droplets of sweat [sorry, beads of perspiration] that represent it.  Some actions cause you to lose stamina and you can only lose 4 before you have to take an action to regain all your stamina.  Ok that's no great sweat, perhaps, dash a hand across your brow and everything's fine again, but at least your Hero can't just rampage on endlessly [even if he/she can revive endlessly] without a minor pause.  So chalk up one good idea against one dubious one.

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.

Hopefully refreshed, on we progress to Condition Tokens which obviously relate to the Condition Cards already mentioned.

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.

Objective tokens represent an astonishing range of functions depending on the Encounter, from levers that open doors to pillars that the Overlord is trying to destroy in order to bring the dungeon crashing down on your heroes' heads, to documents to be found to name but a few.

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.

Rules and Quests Booklets

These three substantial booklets maintain the same high product standard of all the other components, being presented in sumptuous glossy magazine quality and style.  The Rules are supported by full-colour examples and take you in a very logical progression from an outline of the components, through the Setup procedure first for the Heroes and then the Overlord, on to a very brief summary of each side's turn and then a more detailed one and finally the core of rules with substantially more affecting the Heroes than the Overlord and his/her Monsters. 

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.

This is maintained with a mixture of full page illustrations and narrative text before even reaching the details of the Encounters themselves.

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.

To some extent, this doesn't matter as failure, as mentioned before, does not lead to the end of the Campaign, but simply provides the Overlord with some reward prior to the next Encounter.  Here we return again to the question of your personal reaction to the fact that your Heroes cannot die and the doubts I raised earlier. 

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. 

I know looks aren't everything, but have a look at the Encounter below.  This is the opening set up for the Siege of Skytower, where our heroes have to defend and prevent monsters that have not yet appeared  from exiting the bottom of the board, while at the same time being harried by monsters already on the map.

Such as the spiders to their rear, which the dwarf, Grisban the Thirsty, has turned to deal with.  Meanwhile, the other heroes are going to try to cut through the flesh-eaters facing them to reach the leavers that will close some of the doors to the Tower!

Love the plot, love the action.
These are just some of the other features I particularly like.  That each Encounter gives the Overlord player a number of set groups and individuals and then an open group/s that can be chosen from a range of traits such as cold, cursed, water, dark that each Monster group is linked to.  That most of the Encounters are substantial enough to provide a good stand alone experience.  Again this has been criticised by some, but using the simple facility in the Epic rule to upgrade both your Heroes and Monsters seems a valid way to enhance the experience.

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.