Descent: Journeys in the Dark review
After 10 plays and about 50 h spent playing, explaining and studying the game I’m beginning to feel confident about writing this review. I won’t be covering everything that is to say about the game, not even by far, but give you my personal feelings about it and maybe help the reader decide whether this game is a worthy addition to his collection or not.
Just look at the pictures…the game has beautiful components, modular game board, tons of plastic miniatures begging to be painted, many cards depicting items to equip your heroes with and a plethora of various markers. The thick cardboard puzzle pieces that form the map come with interlocking mechanism and an array of shapes that makes you immediately wanting to get into dungeon designing business. It seems more like you’re buying a system rather than a game as with the components you get the scenarios you can play are limited only by your imagination. You might want to ask a friend to help you purchasing Descent as it has the biggest, heaviest box I’ve ever seen. You’ll also need an expandable table to play it as sooner or later more than half of the contents of the box will be in play.
To this date there are 100+ questions on BBG about Descent’s rules. Personally I don’t know why as the game seems pretty clear to me (no disrespect to those asking the questions). There are few odd situations but nothing critically affecting game play and most of them solvable by using common sense and guessing the designer’s intent. The rulebook is filled with examples demonstrating every important concept of the game and in my opinion nicely structured. So far I taught the game to 8 people, none of them gamers, and encountered no difficulties whatsoever.
However, that’s not to say the rules are easy. No matter how clear they appear to one person or another, one thing is for sure: there are a LOT of rules. So naturally there are a lot of things played wrong or completely left out and even now, after 10 games I find myself browsing through the book while playing. No doubt with more play things are improving but the first 2-3 games things can be confusing.
There are two sides playing the game, a dungeon master, in control of the monsters, traps and other things you normally find in a dungeon and 1-4 heroes. The heroes want to accomplish the goal (i.e. killing monster X) and explore the dungeon gaining conquest tokens. The DM wants to kill the heroes and thus take away their conquest tokens. If he does that enough times that he takes all their tokens, he wins the game. This ensures that everybody stays in play till the end which is a good thing as the game usually lasts 3+ hours . Although the scenarios seem pretty straightforward usually the dungeon is designed in such ways that the obvious path is not necessarily the good one. If you feel the scenarios are not creative enough nothing is stopping you from making your own so the replay value of the game is as much as you could want a game like this to be.
The game starts with 20 pre-generated heroes. Some are good close quarter fighters, some are skilled with a bow or any ranged weapon, some are able mages and cast deadly spells, some are mixtures of the above. Each has a unique ability on top of everything else, more or less useful. Besides that each hero begins with additional 3 traits, making him unique each game! Wow...the diversity…You’re still not satisfied? Grab a pen and make your own character, skills and special power, items or whatever. It’s a role-playing game so play a role of your liking. I would give the example of the thief, a character that I personally would like to play but haven’t found in the game. There are 2 characters that come close but not as close as I want them to be.
Problem nr 1: Remembering all the above . So you have a character card, with 4 basic stats, 3 fighting traits, 1 personalized ability, 3 additional abilities, equipped with a couple of items that each does something else. Maybe I’m making it sound like a big deal…it’s not that big but EVERY turn EVERYBODY forgets to do something that his character could have done. Oh, I killed a monster 2 turns ago, I forgot to take my fatigue and I badly need one now cause I was counting on it…Damn, I forgot I had one damage because the other hero has Command ability and he was within 3 range when I made that attack and your monster would have died so there’s no way you could have eliminated the poor mage…give me the conquest tokens back!...No way, you forgot, it’s your fault!...but the rules say…oh forget it…Be prepared to have a lot of conversations like that or play with a group with larger attention span. What about the DM, who has to remember ALL the abilities of 4 heroes so he makes correct decisions? As usual the rule “he who forgets better stop daydreaming, we’re playing a game for goodness’s sake” applies but that doesn’t change the fact that many feel frustrated for not being able to remember everything.
Problem nr 2: poor balance of characters. As you would expect, the mages and the ranged characters have weaker armor and less life points but more maneuverability, while the fighters the other way around. Nothing unusual about this one, but the fact that heroes have no zones of control makes it easy for the DM to slip his monsters through the fighters and rape the weak players. As a result nobody want to play those as they have no fun dieing over and over again. On the other end you have the fighter, a virtual tank if packed with the right abilities. One time I played a character that could make 3 attacks in one turn, had armor 6 and could automatically be left on guard mode, meaning any monster passing next to it could be killed…and that was near the beginning of the game, only one special item equipped. True, he was moving slowly, it took me 3 turns to clear the room, but I killed 6 monsters including 3 quite powerful that could eat all the others in one blow without taking a scratch. And the DM is feeling like he’s throwing rocks at a King Tiger…no fun playing against a hero like that.
Playing as DM can be quite fun too. You have a deck of cards and each turn you draw 2 and collect threat tokens, 1 for each player. With those tokens you can pay to activate certain cards who’s conditions have been met. Thus you can spring traps when heroes try to open doors or chests, you can bring more monsters into play, you can make your existing ones more powerful, etc. As always the poor balance rears it’s ugly head. If only 2 heroes oppose you, they’re doomed from the very start, because there’s no way in hell they can kill more that you can spawn, spring, trick or twist in your dungeon. On the other hand if there are 4 heroes, then they just swirl from one room to another killing everything in their path before you even have the chance to put the monsters on the map. After a while it just gets boring to have no control whatsoever over your environment because as soon as the door opens there’s nothing left to control. Ha, behind the door you have found a master giant flanked by two nagas and a swarm of razorwings…Mwa-ha-ha-ha-ha…*coughs blood…ha-ha-ha-ha!!!...so what, my melee fighter has 20 damage with pierce 10 and if he successfully kills 2 monsters per turn the rest flee in panic. I’m exaggerating but in the last room the heroes are generally able to take the boss monster within 2 turns maximum so instead of being one epic last battle in rivers of blood it feels more like hunting ducks with a antiaircraft gun. Statistically I would say 3 heroes are the best combination with the current rules but you know the joke about the 3 statisticians going duck hunting, don’t you?
My next issue, of course again about balance is with the items found in the dungeon. As game progresses heroes find all sort of useful things laying beautifully packed in chests. A rather odd rule says if a hero opens a chest, EVERYBODY gets the contents, no matter where they are. I understand that there are only few chests, so if only one hero would take the contents, there would be fewer items in play, meaning one player could find himself playing the whole game with the same rusty axe…or the items found could all be runes, completely useless to a party made out of fighters. But on the other hand the overlord gets nothing, his monsters are just like in the beginning, even though now they are easy prey for the heroes. And the items found by the heroes boost them in such a way that it becomes futile for him to use many of his cards or monsters…why should he spawn more monsters if the heroes don’t care much for them anyway? And like I previously said, in the last room or even previous there’s usually a golden chest…and even before that the heroes get insane amounts of money they can use to buy more golden objects…so taking the boss monster is merely about keeping your fingers crossed so a miss doesn’t show up on a die, because any other result blows the big bad dragon into oblivion before he gets the chance to recite his flavor text. Perhaps making the items grant both advantages and disadvantages would have been an idea to make things better for everybody…Cool, I found the Bow of Shrieking, 5 extra sonic damage to all monsters within 3 spaces of the target!!!...hmmm too bad half of them are deaf and the boss wears earplugs.
After all the above you’re wandering why I rated the game so high…because it’s SO much fun! …Seriously, I have a problem with balance in this game, there are plenty suggestions on BBG so far, I’ve tested them all and even made my own house rules (without much success though), but that doesn’t stop the game from being fun and us wanting to play it over and over again. I don’t have many games and I picked them carefully based on my interests but also on the interests of the persons that I play with. And Descent is the only game so far that we played till early hours of morning because everybody refused to go to sleep until the big boss gets it. Now as I write this review I’m still laughing as I remember how I transformed one of the players into a monkey and during the strategy discussions the heroes were having he was making monkey noises to indicate his preferences, refusing to speak… Or the look on their face when I’m announcing a player he cannot perform his famous dance of death killing ritual since he just fell into a spikes trap and lost his last life point… Or the endless discussions about which way is better to go to find the damn key that was lying in their face all along…In all seriousness I’m not at all unhappy with what I got but I am waiting for a second edition of rules to fix this one problem I have with the game…the balance. Unfortunately Descent suffers from the same problem more of the new games, board or computer based, music, movies and everything you might want to add to the list: we live in a world that goes faster and faster by the minute and in order to remain competitive few take the right amount of time to do things right, preferring to deliver rough stones now rather than polished gems later.
A friend of mine won this game in a game store and we played it one day later. And you're absolutely right,the big problem with this is the balance.Even with only two heroes the overlord doesn't stand a chance.
On our first game me and my buddy lost,because we seperated our heroes in the dungeon.The second game we were drowned in treasure and killed every monster on sight. The other games we played were with more heroes...and the overlord lost even worse.
So I think the problem is that Doom was too tough(at first) and so they (FFG) were trying to make things "better" with Descent...and failed.
Too many treasure,too powerful weapons,monsters too weak,event cards too meaningless.
But...and oh yeah,there's a big BUT:
The game is fun. It looks great,it has the right dungeon crawl feeling about it and it's just...yes,just fun!!!!!!!
If they can fix the balance on this one,so that it's actually a threat when a beastman war party or a skeleton war party spawns right in front of you...then everything will be fine.
Till then...there is a lot of work to do...a lot of houserules have to be tested!!!