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Sovereignty: Crown of Kings, published by Slitherine and developed by The Lordz Game Studio, is an interesting new take on the grand s...

Sovereignty: Crown of Kings Sovereignty: Crown of Kings

For your Wargamer, Toy soldier collector, MiniFig collector, military history nut. Reviews, interviews, Model Making, AARs and books!

Sovereignty: Crown of Kings, published by Slitherine and developed by The Lordz Game Studio, is an interesting new take on the grand strategy genre. If a fantasy version of Europa Universalis with hex-and-counter tactical combat sounds like something you might enjoy, come see what this title has to offer. 

Sovereignty is a fascinating mix of ideas that I have not seen put together quite this way in any other game out there. The game takes place in a well developed fantasy world where 35(!) unique realms are available for the player to choose from. You take the lead of one of these realms and attempt to achieve a specific set of objectives. Your options as leader include engaging in diplomacy, managing the economy, developing spells, and of course building armies and taking them to the battlefield. I'll explore all of these in detail separately later.

Sovereignty takes place in a detailed and complex fantasy world.

The first thing you will realize when trying to decide on a realm to play is that each one has a fairly detailed back story, and that many of them are interlinked. By reading these different backstories you can get a feel for the world. There are two major human empires rivaling for power in the south, orc realms threatening on the borders, and various flavors of elves that are separated at the start, but can seek reunification. There are also human barbarian tribes in the north, a colony of pirates in the south, and swamp full of undead in the middle. There is certainly something for everyone, and every realm has a different set of goals to pursue.

I found these unique goals to be one of the game's most interesting features. Unlike the open ended gameplay of most other 4X titles, here you begin each campaign with a specific set of objectives to achieve. For example, in my first (disastrous) campaign I played the High Elves of Sonneneve. Their goal is to form a powerful alliance with the other two elven realms, the Wood Elves and Dark Elves. These other elven realms are a fair distance away, have different alignments (realms can be good, evil, or neutral) and if either one is destroyed, you lose. So right out of the gate, I can see that diplomacy will be important for this campaign, as well as having a military force capable of getting me closer to those realms and aiding them in inevitable conflict. If you go play as those other elven realms, your objectives will be similar but distinctly different in one case, and completely different in the other. 

Some of the especially unique victory conditions include searching for clues to a hidden treasure (the aforementioned pirate realm), capturing a bunch of prisoners (the ice realm of the Winter Witch), and taking complete control of the seas (an England-like island realm). There are trade focused campaigns, campaigns focused on specific political rivalries, and of course several that require simple conquest of particular provinces. You can also choose to play each realm with more generic objectives like conquering the entire world, or taking out a particular rival. 

For my second, much more successful, campaign, I decided to be the Germanic barbarian themed Vessoi realm. Now my goal was to control the four "totems" so I could call the Horde to sweep across the land. I also had to ally with two of my northern neighbors. The twist here is that in order to control all of the totems, I would have to attack and conquer land from one of those neighbors, and use diplomacy to cozy up to the other, which was led by the isolationist and kinda spooky Winter Witch.

Once you have settled on a realm to play, the game begins. Gameplay is split between the strategic layer and the tactical combat layer, both being turn based. You spend your time between battles on the strategic layer, purchasing units and buildings, making trades, and moving armies around. When one of your armies encounters an enemy army, the combat takes place on a more detailed map using a hex-grid. 

My soldiers form a line and await the undead hordes.

First, let's talk about the strategic layer. In a world where Europa Universalis IV exists, any game that occupies the same niche is going up against some serious competition. I don't think there is any game development studio out there that is going to top the sort of excessive options and extreme detail found in a Paradox grand strategy game, so I won't fault Sovereignty for coming up short in a direct comparison. It's not that Sovereignty does a bad job of giving you information and options for how to shape your realm, but, overall, it can't help but feel a bit crude in the shadow of Europa Universalis IV. For example, every other realm has a relationship with you ranging from friend to enemy, but why the rating is what it is, and what variables are influencing it, is not readily apparent, compared with EU where you get a detailed breakdown of your relations and how they are changing over time.

Diplomacy and trade in Sovereignty is handled in a manner that will immediately be familiar to any experienced 4X gamer. Deals can be made for resources, gold, treaties, and so on. What makes Sovereignty a bit different is that you are limited by how many "agents" you have available for assignment. Several turns are required to complete trades with realms that are further away, and your agent cannot be used for anything else in that time. Some nations have several agents available and can constantly be wheeling and dealing, while others may have only a single agent to work with. In that case, you must try to make every exchange count, since these agents are also needed for spying and influencing diplomatic relations. I was pleased to find that the AI in Sovereignty was actually willing to make fair deals with me. Too often in other 4X games I don't even bother with negotiations, since the AI usually wants an arm and a leg for even the least valuable resources. Here you can usually expect to make a deal that is both reasonable and beneficial. 

There are about a dozen or more resources like iron, gems, and beer to be found in Sovereignty, and acquiring access to them through trade or conquest is a critical part of the game. Any non-basic unit, and almost all province upgrades, require one or two of these resources to build. The resources are produced by specific provinces scattered across the map, which generate one unit of that resource per turn. This means that the amount of a given resource in the game world at any time is finite, making them quite valuable. 

At the start of the game you will often only have direct access to a couple of the resources, and will need to acquire the others somehow. There are a few ways to do this. Negotiating for a couple units of iron is simple, but inefficient, since you will immediately use them up and need more. Going to war with a neighbor in order to conquer their resource producing provinces could be a lengthy and costly endeavor, but will get you unlimited access to that resource. The third option is something that should have been a great feature in the game, but currently feels incomplete: the stock market. The market lets you sell resources for cash, or buy resources that other realms have sold. The price of the resources is supposed to depend on supply and demand.  Unfortunately, the market didn't seem to work quite like it should in theory. All prices are exactly the same at the start of the game, and in my experience playing they never budged one way or the other. On most of your turns there will only be one resource available to purchase, if any. This should be a lively and interesting part of the game, but in the current iteration it is not.

Besides specific resources, the most important part of your realm's economy is gold. You begin the game with a healthy income, and your primary expenses will be buying new units and paying maintenance on existing ones. There is little reason to stockpile cash on hand, so you will always want to keep your income-expense ratio pretty tight by building the biggest and best army you can afford. You can invest in upgrades to provinces to make them produce more, so you will want to keep that in mind while setting your budget as well. The more income you have, the bigger an army you can field.

Another important money sink is the magic system. Every realm has a set of spells available to them, but these spells must be earned over time by gathering research points. The points can be generated by specific provinces and buildings, and can be purchased each turn in exchange for gold, with the cost per point being different for each realm. Once you have enough points, you can either unlock a new spell, or open up a new tier of spells. This is the closest the game has to a tech tree, and while the options are somewhat limited, the spells available are quite useful. Some give you a strategic layer bonus of some sort, while others can upgrade a specific unit. Higher tier spells can make powerful, and sometimes permanent, changes to provinces and units. I really enjoyed this system, since every realm had a unique array of spells available, and there was always something useful to work towards.

The final way to spend your funds is the most fun, building an army. While diplomacy and trade are features of the game, make no mistake, you will need to have a large army in the field at almost all times. Units are broken down into six categories: infantry, irregulars, archers, cavalry, siege units, and naval units. Within each category you will have usually have two or three choices. The exceptions being naval units, which are not available at all to some realms, and siege units which usually have fewer options when available.

The unit production screen. This dwarven realm has a lot of infantry options, but no cavalry.

Now, you might be thinking that only a couple of options for infantry and cavalry sounds limited, but this is another area where the game offers a ton of variety between its 35 realms. While some units in different realms may share the same art, they all have unique names and stats. In addition to their stats, many units have attributes which further shape their role on the battlefield. Some can move across difficult terrain types with ease, others can resist cavalry charges, some strike fear into enemy units, while others can offer a morale boost to the entire army, or give you a scouting bonus on the strategic map. There are a ton of different attributes in the game, and individual units can even gain more as they survive battles and level up. The armies of most realms have some kind of theme, and these attributes go along with it. The better units require specific resources, as mentioned previously. At the start of the game you have access to all of your possible units, but not the resources needed to build them.

One thing that disappointed me about the units was that they have no accompanying description or flavor text. There is a box for it on the unit purchase screen, but for every unit it is either blank or contains a quote from a real world historical figure like Sun-Tzu or Otto von Bismark. It's a bit odd that these descriptions are absent, since there was clearly a lot of effort put into giving each army a distinct style and interesting units. A user mod on the Steam Workshop is available to rectify this, but I would prefer official descriptions.

In addition to regular units, you can recruit heroes to lead your forces. These heroes do not appear in the battle, but instead give you one-shot abilities that can be used to turn the tide in your favor. As your heroes lead battles, they can level up, at which point you get to choose a new ability for their arsenal. There is a lot of variety in these abilities. Since you can only use each one once per battle, you will want to time it carefully to maximize the effect. This adds an interesting wrinkle or two to each fight, and makes your individual armies feel more distinct, even if they contain the same list of units.

That covers all of the elements of the strategic layer, so let's take a look at what happens when two armies collide. You are first given the option to fight it out manually or auto-resolve. I really liked the auto-resolve feature in Sovereignty compared to games like Total War. Instead of simply clicking and getting a result, here the auto-resolve is broken into three phases, offering you multiple chances to retreat or press the fight. There is also more suspense, as you watch the unit icons smack each other around one at a time until one side retreats or is annihilated.

In most cases though, the best result will be gained by taking direct control of your forces. This option takes you to the tactical battlefield, where all the abilities discussed before come into play as you maneuver units around a hex-based grid depicting the local province. This phase of the game handles much like Panzer General and similar titles, so will be easy to jump into for most strategy gamers. I found this portion of the game to be surprisingly good. It offers a light wargame feel where the unique attributes of your various units really shine. Terrain plays a major role in the battles, and the home team will often have some kind of advantage in this regard. Attacking across a river can be especially tricky. Common sense tactics, like forming a solid line of infantry backed by archers, will give your forces the edge. Cavalry must have flat ground and open attack lanes to fully maximize their charges, which are more powerful the further away they start from the target. Archers can deal a lot of damage at range, but are helpless if melee units reach them. You will want to keep units alive, since they can level up and gain better stats or special abilities. These experienced units can make short work of freshly recruited foes later in the game.

While the early game battles feature mostly standard units slugging it out, the fighting only get more interesting as more exotic options become available. You are limited to four each of your "elite" units, and they can take many turns to build, but once you get them on the field they really light things up. In my Vessoi campaign I was always excited to get my Shapeshifters (think werewolves) into the action, where they made mince meat of most foes. Other higher tier units include dragons, unicorns, walking trees, undead nightmare creatures, and all sorts of other fantasy genre highlights.

The primary downside here is that the AI is not the best. Every battle involves the attacker trying to occupy two or three cities while the defender holds them off for X turns. A human player can often trick the AI into maneuvering its forces poorly, and either seizing the objectives when attacking or distracting the AI long enough to run out the clock when defending. This assuming your forces aren't strong enough to simply crush the AI army in direct battle. That isn't to say I won every battle against the AI, because I certainly got my rear end handed to me a few times.

So, between all of these interesting pieces, how does the whole stack up? For me, the game somewhat remains a diamond in the rough, even after almost two years in early access. There are a lot of things here I really like, and I love the concept of the game. However, it still feels not quite finished in some ways, as I mentioned earlier. There are reports of bugs from other players, and I experienced a few myself. I also found that the UI was at times clunky, with one open window covering another, or not displaying the information I expected it to display as I moused over various parts of the screen.

Despite those issues, I do really like what The Lordz Game Studio is doing here. The game is a one of a kind experience, letting you jump into something like a basic version of Europa Universalis set in a fantasy world of dwarves and orcs and elves. Unlike EU, here you get to take direct control of your forces in battle and lead them to victory or defeat, instead of watching some numbers tick as the invisible dice roll. While there are other fantasy 4X's out there, none offer such a detailed and ready made world to explore. The world of Sovereignty feels like it has history, and the events that unfold during the game add to that story. Every time I started a new campaign I was confronted with a very different set of circumstances, and few games can make that claim. Fewer still can do so while offering thirty-five different choices of nations to lead. Considering the game's very reasonable price of $25, I think anyone interested in a strategy game with a fresh take on things should give it a shot. With a touch more polish and elbow grease, this game could rise above it's current shortcomings and become a great game that stands alone in style and substance.

Joe Beard

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Sovereignty: Crown of Kings is available directly from Matrix Games/Slitherine, and on Steam.

Zama Hannibal vs Scipio Folio Game  From  Decision Games  Ah, a folio game. I think the first time I purchased and pl...

Zama Hannibal vs Scipio Folio Game From Decision Games Zama Hannibal vs Scipio Folio Game From Decision Games

For your Wargamer, Toy soldier collector, MiniFig collector, military history nut. Reviews, interviews, Model Making, AARs and books!


 Ah, a folio game. I think the first time I purchased and played one was in the mid 1970s. These are usually about one battle, with a small number of counters and a short rule book. That is not to say that the folio games are simple or beer and pretzel games. The folio games are simplified compared to larger board games. The small map and easy to understand rules means that players need not take up too much space for too long.

 The battle of Zama was fought in October of 202 B.C. It would mark the end of the Second Punic War between Rome and Carthage. Hannibal versus Scipio: what else could a wargamer envision? This is one of the few times that military masters have met on the field of battle. The Second Punic War happened because of Hannibal's trek first through northern Spain and then France to invade Italy in 218 B.C. The actual battle of Zama occurred because of Scipio's invasion of the Carthaginian homeland, now in modern Tunisia. One of the reasons that the Carthaginians had run rings around the Romans for most of the war was their use of their allies' (the Numidians) light cavalry. Numidia was one of the few places that the Romans never actually conquered outright. It was to prove a thorn in their side a hundred years later. Scipio was able to get the use of the Numidians at this time under their King Masinissa. The Numidians had switched sides in the war because of Scipio's invasion. After Scipio's invasion of their homeland, Hannibal was recalled from Italy. The stage was set for either Scipio, and his veterans from his conquest of Spain, or Hannibal who had never been defeated in the field to win this final battle of the Second Punic War.

 The game is normal for a folio or magazine wargame. The map is 17"X22", and there are only 100 counters. The rule book starts with the standard rules for the series and then gives you the separate rules for the Zama game itself. The hex scale is 150 yards. The documentation lists playing time as one to two hours. The complexity is listed as low, and the suitability for solitary play is listed as high. I can attest that it is easy to play the game by oneself. Of course almost all board wargames can be played solitaire, although with some you have to fiddle with the rules or actions more than others. 

 The counters are also standard fare for these types of games. They seem a bit thinner than I remember, but perfectly useful for their purpose. You will need to cut your small cardboard armies out, and if you are so inclined cut away some of the extra cardboard from some corners. I never felt the need in any game I own, but I know a lot of people also clip the counter corners. To each their own. The graphics on the counters are also fine, but not striking. You can easily see the numbers and read anything written on them without a problem. The Romans and allies have a red background, and the various Carthaginian forces have a purple one. The one point on the counters that is purely subjective is the strength and quality of each unit. The Leader units add a 'strength additive' number to any unit they are with in a hex. In this game Hannibal is given a '3' and Scipio is given a '2'. There are many, although I am not among them, who believe that Scipio was the greatest Roman general ever. I do not have a problem having Hannibal have a higher combat rating than Scipio. This shows the versatility of board games. If you choose you can change the numbers to what you believe is correct. You could even make your own counters and substitute them for what you, or whoever you game with, feel should be more 'correct' numbers. While some computer games have editors that can help with these changes, most don't and you are stuck with developers' ratings on units and leaders.

Game setup

 The game piece setup in this game is again standard for ancient warfare games. Most battles were fought on flat ground, so many times terrain wasn't an issue at all. With Zama, the entire battlefield is made up of 'clear' hexes. The map is marked with where you are supposed to put your counters for each side. There are rules for variable deployment so you can try out different strategies once you get the game rules down pat. Another few rules are in place to make the Carthaginian player follow Hannibal's game plan. One of these is to force your elephants to move, on turn one, into a Roman piece's 'zone of control', or adjacent to a Roman piece. Any elephant counter that does not do this is considered to have run amok and is eliminated. The other rules make it so the different commands of Hannibal's army are released to attack the Romans at different times. So the second and third line of Hannibal's troops can only move once a Roman piece moves to 'X' hex line. Hannibal's plan was to try and tire the Romans out by attacking them in waves. These rules are put in place to show how the actual battle was fought, but again once you are comfortable with the game it is flexible enough for you to use free movement for all of the Carthaginian troops. The Romans have no movement restrictions placed on their troops. There is also another ancient wargame standard, 'the berserk elephant rule'. Elephants were notorious for being both battle winners and losers. If the elephant unit receives a retreat or a hit (1/2) on the combat results table it becomes berserk and immediately charges off in any of six directions, decided by a die throw, and attacks whatever is in its way, friend or foe.

Carthaginian first turn elephant attack

 The command and control rules are meant to simulate the problems of commanding an ancient army in battle. The troops are split into sub-commands for this rule and each sub-command must make a one die roll throw for each movement phase. If they are successful with the die roll, that sub-command can move that turn. There are four sub-commands for the Romans, and five for the Carthaginians. For example, the Roman citizen legions have to roll from a one to a five to be able to move that turn; if they roll a six they are unable to move. This also puts the element of surprise into the game. There is nothing worse that coming up with a great battle plan and then realize you cannot follow it because your troops are not in control this turn. The game uses another old friend to compute losers and winners in attacks: the 'combat result table'. By simply adding up the attackers points and the defenders, while adding or subtracting for leaders etc., you divide the numbers and come up with a number for the odds of the combat. If you have 8 attacking points and  4 defending, the odds would be 2-1. You check the 'combat results table' on the equivalent column and then roll one die. The one to six result is then taken on the counters. I know most of us are old hats at this, but we need new blood in the hobby. We as grogs are getting older by the day. These folio games are perfect in their complexity, price, and size to attract new players to our hobby. We don't want them running away by pulling out an old 'Europa' game first off.

 The game play is quick and tight, and the rules are not going to have you scratching your head. For us old players it is a trip down memory lane with a well conceived old friend. For anyone that is looking to get their feet wet into board wargames it is also highly recommended. There are many eras and wars that fall through the cracks of computer wargaming, so it is lucky for us that there are still companies like Decision Games making board ones. if you missed it, board wargaming has been having a resurgence lately, and that is also good news.

 There is one point about the Carthaginian setup that I had Decision Games answer a question of mine with it. On the map there are three Carthaginian setup hexes for cavalry on both sides of their infantry setup, but the game comes with only four Carthaginian cavalry counters. As I assumed, you just use two cavalry units per setup area.


Developer: Decision Games 
Date of Review: 1/24/2017

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


For your Wargamer, Toy soldier collector, MiniFig collector, military history nut. Reviews, interviews, Model Making, AARs and books!



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.