Descent: Journeys in the Dark table-top game review

The cemetery sprawled out in front of them, the mossy graves gnawed and ravaged by a thousand bitter winters past. A chill wind whispered through the leaves, like a thousand ancient bones turning in the dust.

“This is an ill-omened place,” said Jain. We should depart at on-“

“What was that?” hissed Avric. “Just over there, I thought I saw something move.”

The adventurers looked around, wary, hands moving furtively to daggers and bows.

Tomble stepped forward. “Stay back, friends. I shall use my discreet arts to investigate this new menace, unseen and silent as a field mouse.”

The halfling crept into the shadowy eaves of the encroaching forest, as his companions crouched at the stony gate and waited. Suddenly, a terrible shrieking broke the quiet.

“OMG YOU GUYS, IT’S A PIECE OF ****ING PIZZA! I TOLD YOU, NO ****ING FOOD AROUND THE ****ING BOARD. NOW THERE’S A ****ING GREASE MARK ON IT.”

(Okay, so that didn’t actually happen because this review sample came with very strict instructions about food, but I think there’s huge potential for an entire campaign about the Great Pizzabeast of Sh’gath’lorialion’ian’ien, and this is my pitch. First one’s free, Fantasy Flight Games.)

According to the box blurb, Descent: Journeys in the Dark is a “dungeon-delving adventure”, and if that sounds a bit like vintage Dungeons & Dragons, it’s because it is. The game casts up to four players as a co-operative party of intrepid heroes, and one player as the nefarious Overlord who must thwart the heroes’ attempts to thwart the Overlord’s attempts to thwart the heroes (etc.). If you’ve played games like Doom: The Boardgame and Last Night on Earth, it’s pretty much exactly the same idea, but with a high fantasy hook.

With cool plastic beasties.

The game can be played as a single session (new in the second edition) or a series of sessions comprising a whole campaign, although it’s basically always the same scenario – get from A to B, kill everything in between, and then go up against the Big Bad in an epic final battle. The box includes 20 sequential scenarios, and additional fan-made scenarios are available online.

The heroes win or lose as a team, and the Overlord wins or loses on their own. When playing as a campaign, heroes can also level up and unlock upgrades that persist through to the end.

The board is put together using a bunch of unique, numbered terrain tiles, and construction is determined by the scenario. The tiles are very robust, and the artwork is actually rather attractive – in fact, I don’t see why they couldn’t do double duty for other games that use grid-based play mechanics, which makes Descent a potentially worthwhile investment for pen-and-paper gamers who are too lazy to draw their own stuff (most of them).

The hero team loadout features your standard swords ‘n’ sorcery classes, including mage, warrior, healer, and scout (rogue), each with their own idiosyncratic gear and skills, while the Overlord commands a bestiary of minion monsters to get in their way. So far, so been-here, done-this.

Aaaaaaand that’s when things get really complicated. Just setting up the game and getting started took five of us over an hour, and even then we had to constantly refer to the manual for clarification on things that should have been entirely self-evident, and things that were utterly inscrutable and/or pointlessly convoluted and/or completely counter-intuitive.

I think I’m supposed to, um, do the thing with the thing, but I’m not sure if I need the other thing to do that.

With one exception, we’re all veteran boardgamers, and for that person who was new to the whole boardgame thing, the experience must’ve been totally bewildering. While complexity can lend some real depth and strategic subtlety to a boardgame, it can also be an enormous obstacle between the players and fun. The best games introduce complexity in a way that’s not a significant impediment to ongoing play, I think, and this is something Descent doesn’t quite work out.

Descent is by no means a bad game, but it’s a ponderous, intimidating one that could turn players off long before it ever turns them on.

Our review product was provided courtesy of DigitalSushi.co.za, an electronics, geek, and hobby specialist. You can interact directly with Digital Sushi on the MyGaming forum in the official Digital Sushi forum thread.

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Descent: Journeys in the Dark table-top game review

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