eryn roston
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My Background
My gaming tastes are pretty varied. My favorite games include Twilight Struggle, Space Alert, and Power Grid. When it comes to theme of high fantasy I have played quite a bit of the Lord of the Rings LCG and Mage Knight.

I’ve recently concluded a full campaign (as a hero) of Descent 2nd edition. I’ve also played a few games of the 1st edition and a handful of additional campaign adventures from the 2nd edition. In this review I’ll be looking at what Descent attempts to offer its players and whether or not I feel it is successful.

What Descent wants to be.
Descent is a light tactical miniatures game set in the high fantasy world of Terrinoth. It is a “classic dungeon crawler” where players take on the roles of different sword and sorcery archetypes and stomp through cramped hallways and dark chambers fighting off hordes of evil creatures (who are controlled by the “overlord” player). A big selling point for Descent is that it offers a full “campaign” experience where players can string together multiple adventures into one long epic story. The heroes (and the overlord) will grow in strength as they gain new abilities, weapons, and armor from one game session to the next. While each adventure can be played out in a single sitting, the grand campaign will stretch out over the course of many adventures. Player progress is easily saved between games so players can move through the story one small session at a time instead of having to bang it all out in one epic weekend.

In a nutshell this box offers the gamer:
- Tactical combat
- Rich Fantasy setting
- Epic campaign story
- Character progression from session to session
Let’s go through each of these now and see how Descent lives up to its promises.

TACTICAL COMBAT:
I’ve played a few tactical combat systems (most of which are set in the 2nd world war) and my experience with these games leads me to believe that there are 2 essential ingredients to a great game of this sort. One is terrain (and terrain modifiers), and the other is some aspect of unit facing. Both of these things give players a reason to move around the battlefield and can keep the game from feeling static and/or procedural. In short, it gives the players opportunities to make real decisions.

Descent has some varied terrain but whether or not you interact with the more interesting tiles, depends on the scenario you are playing. Even when you do have one of the more unique locations to play around with, the features there tend to have little impact on the players decisions. There is almost no spaces on the boards that give some advantage or disadvantage in combat (though there are a few water/fire spaces that will affect your movement).

While classic unit facing rules are non-existent, a clever overlord can position his monster figures (especially the large ones) in order to split up the heroes. Isolated do-gooders can then be easily knocked out or their abilities will be less likely to synergize. Beyond that there seems to be very little to motivate the players to think deeply about how they move across the board.

There may be some moments in a given game of Descent where players will have to be clever about their placement or movement of units but overall the tactical element of this game is pretty weak. When I compare it to something like Conflict of Heroes (a light tactical combat game I enjoy much more) it does not come close to offering the same quality of game-play and decisions. In this respect Descent is merely average.

RICH FANTASY SETTING
My experience with Fantasy Flight’s “Terrinoth” setting is limited almost exclusively to Descent (with just a dash of Runebound). It is one of the most generic, lifeless, fantasy settings I’ve ever encountered. Where the fantasy games that come from designers like Vlaada Chivatil or Ignacy Trzewiczek feel like they come from Santa’s Workshop (despite also being pretty generic), the world of Terrinoth feels like it comes from some grey and lifeless assembly line. It is as bland and joyless as they come.


Now that I’ve established how underwhelming this world is, I will touch on something that I did like.

The character I played – Alyce Raine. At first glance she is a typical “tank”/”paladin” type character, but she’s more interesting than that once you put her onto the battlefield. Most tanks work by forcing the monsters to focus on you, letting you soak up damage while the other party members are free to eliminating the threat. Alyce actually thrives when her teammates are being attacked. This in turn gives the overlord an incentive to attack you but doesn’t force it. It makes for some interesting choices for the bad guy. Also positive points for a character design that focuses on a practical armor set instead of a sexy one (though I will say that name is SUCH a stripper name).

The atmosphere this game provides can only be as rich as the scenarios it offers. Each Descent adventure (which is typically split into 2 parts) can be played in one session (sometimes we would split parts 1 and 2 up if one of them ran long) – which is very convenient. The variety between these scenarios isn’t staggering, but it’s not too bad either. A lot of the missions manage to offer a different or unique challenge to the players. Despite that fair amount of variety the quality of the adventures are a little hit-or-miss. While some feel novel and engaging, others are very straight-forward and uninspired.

Another issue I have is that many of the quests involve either getting someone out of the dungeon, or preventing someone else from leaving. These do a good job of keeping the objectives clear and the length of a session reasonable, but it means that the overlord’s best chance of success is usually to just delay the heroes. This has all the drama and tension of a traffic jam.

EPIC CAMPAIGN STORY
The “campaign” aspect of this game was what I found most disappointing. The story line was extremely fractured and very dull. I will stress that this is how it seemed to ME. Our campaign was played fairly regularly with each session being about a week apart. We read all the flavor text for the mission set-up. We did NOT go above and beyond what the game offers to do any “the story so-far” stuff. We never tried to recap what had happened previously. So each week seemed completely separate from the last in terms of the narrative. While we did notice a few recurring characters, the full story line felt totally disjointed. After playing the for weeks and weeks I had no idea why we were doing anything or what the overall goal was. We would show up, set up the board, and read the flavor text for what was happening that day -- never getting any indication that we were part of a broader more involved story line.

One of my concerns about the campaign was how it would maintain balance over the course of several sessions. In our experience this was not an issue. Sometimes the overlord won and sometimes the heroes did. There were times where one side seemed firmly in control only to have everything slip away at the very end. So no problems with game balance from my perspective.

CHARACTER PROGRESSION
While the grand story feels clumsy, the character development is quite fun. I don’t mean that in the classic story-telling sense where the hero grows and learns and changes in a fundamental and life-affirming way (That would be tough to do in this format I think), I mean the powers and items you acquire while moving through the story. It is satisfying to gain new abilities and items and then put them to use in the battlefield. There are also important choices to make here -- both individually and as a team. Trying to find the best abilities and spending your limited monies for great combos is pretty cool.

FINAL THOUGHTS
Our last game played out exactly as it should have. We looked at the board and decided that success was unlikely…probably impossible. The overlord was too strong. Things looked particularly grim when our healer died in battle – never to return. Yet somehow we managed to fight through and get to a point where the whole game hinged on one final roll of the dice. The climactic roll went the hero’s way and the good guys triumphed over evil. There was much rejoicing…but I was glad that it was over.

From session to session, Descent is a fine game. As a “once in a while” excuse to play with wizards and goblins it works about as well as any of the other games of this type (Mice and Mystics and Myth for example). It would not be my first choice of games to bring to the table but when there are other motivated players I’m happy to sit down for a quest. As for the campaign, I am not particularly interested in committing to another one. There are other games I’d rather play.
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Robert
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I agree with up your review and share the same feelings. I am still interested in playing the co-op quests from time to time.
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I have read that the expansion campaigns are a lot more interesting than the base game quests. Can someone offer their opinion regarding that?

Great review by the way!
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Thorsten Schröder
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HarryCanyon wrote:
I have read that the expansion campaigns are a lot more interesting than the base game quests. Can someone offer their opinion regarding that?

Great review by the way!


I can only comment on Labyrinth of ruin: The disjointedness of the story continues here. We are in the 2nd Act and I don't have a clue why we are doing what we are doing. Ok our group meets very unregularly so that may be a problem.
I our base campagne I was the OL and since I wanted my group to like the game (and they were very frustrated after the firt scenario) I did not play my best. That backfired very quickly and in Act2 I had no chance at all.
In this (LoR) Campagne a friend of mine is OL. He thought he could do better but experimented to much in the beginning with unconventional monster-groups and OL-Deck-Upgrade.
So now we are at the same point. No Chance for the OL. I'm beginning to think I am done with this game.
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A.T. Selvaggio
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baditude wrote:
My Background

EPIC CAMPAIGN STORY
The “campaign” aspect of this game was what I found most disappointing. The story line was extremely fractured and very dull. I will stress that this is how it seemed to ME. Our campaign was played fairly regularly with each session being about a week apart. We read all the flavor text for the mission set-up. We did NOT go above and beyond what the game offers to do any “the story so-far” stuff. We never tried to recap what had happened previously. So each week seemed completely separate from the last in terms of the narrative. While we did notice a few recurring characters, the full story line felt totally disjointed. After playing the for weeks and weeks I had no idea why we were doing anything or what the overall goal was. We would show up, set up the board, and read the flavor text for what was happening that day -- never getting any indication that we were part of a broader more involved story line.


This was biggest disappointment with this game as well. In my case, I found that the fluff text and story line was so disjointed that it became confusing. All these different names of people and events that I could not locate in the narrative of the game without going back and deciphering it. It seems like for a narrative to work it should be obvious what you are doing and why. Many great things about the game, but a coherent, unifying and engaging campaign narrative is not one of them. Great review.
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Ryuhi Hikari
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Quote:
TACTICAL COMBAT:
I’ve played a few tactical combat systems (most of which are set in the 2nd world war) and my experience with these games leads me to believe that there are 2 essential ingredients to a great game of this sort. One is terrain (and terrain modifiers), and the other is some aspect of unit facing. Both of these things give players a reason to move around the battlefield and can keep the game from feeling static and/or procedural. In short, it gives the players opportunities to make real decisions.

Descent has some varied terrain but whether or not you interact with the more interesting tiles, depends on the scenario you are playing. Even when you do have one of the more unique locations to play around with, the features there tend to have little impact on the players decisions. There is almost no spaces on the boards that give some advantage or disadvantage in combat (though there are a few water/fire spaces that will affect your movement).

While classic unit facing rules are non-existent, a clever overlord can position his monster figures (especially the large ones) in order to split up the heroes. Isolated do-gooders can then be easily knocked out or their abilities will be less likely to synergize. Beyond that there seems to be very little to motivate the players to think deeply about how they move across the board.

There may be some moments in a given game of Descent where players will have to be clever about their placement or movement of units but overall the tactical element of this game is pretty weak. When I compare it to something like Conflict of Heroes (a light tactical combat game I enjoy much more) it does not come close to offering the same quality of game-play and decisions. In this respect Descent is merely average.


I take issue with this part.

You point to terrain and unit facing being key elements, I really have to disagree.
I have played a good number of strategy and tactics game both digital and boardgames and know quite a couple of pen and paper rpgs.

While many of those games do make use of both, there are tons of games that completely do away with unit facing for one thing.

And for good reason in most cases.
Unit facing, in the sense of "you can only attack in this directions, you get reduced defense from others" etc. can work, but it can just as well create the worst kind of clumsy turn based mechanics where you end uo rewarding figures for senselessly running around their opponents and not being able to defend properly from attacks despite the fact that realistically (we are taking about relatively mobile combatants, not slow moving tanks), turning to face an attacker would be perfectly possible and much more plausible.
Unit facing can be a very cluttered mechanic for very little reward, not a key feature of tactical combat.

As for terrain, Descent offers "hard to move through terrain" to allow strategies of slowing others down and doing hit and run with ranged units, obstacles to hide behind, dangerous squares (lava and pits) which it can be advantageous to force others to move into or force opponents to pay dearly for moving through and elevation lines to give further options for ranged combat tactics, on top of things like doors and shrubberies.

It lacks a mechanic for "light cover", being harder to hit when being partially covered by obstacles and other figures, but that aside, I do not really see what is really missing in terms of terrain that makes sense in a tactical game on this scale.

And in return, you neglect the key element of resource management which Descent focuses much more on.

We have lifepoints and number of models on the map, fatigue the heroes can use and regain for more advantageous tactics, skills and heroic feats with limited uses...
There are quite a lot of options there, including overlord cards and their economic use, which alone is a very important element of gameplay.

Descent runs on a tight action economy, this of course means that any delay tactic is especially effective, you eat up enemy resources while expending as few as possible valuable resources of your own.
In a similar fashion, heroes balance reducing the overlord resources (available monsters mainly) against advancing their own scenario goal more quickly and plan to best use their given resources.

I do think there is a lot of tactical decision making to be had in Descent. I can support evidence for that point in the form of many play sessions, many scenarios played with different heroes, different players and similar. Tactics used can influence the outcome to a high degree (even though some scenarios are not well balanced, especially in the Labyrinth of Ruins campaign).

Descent is of course also luck depended to a degree, a series of bad rolls or the wrong overlord cards in your hand will change the game.

But unless you compare it to a strategy game without any or with few luck based components (like the Nintendo Wars game series), I would really like to know what kind of strategic depths you think is missing here which is readily provided in other games.

Statements without much argument to support them make a bad review.
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eryn roston
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Unknown X wrote:

Unit facing can be a very cluttered mechanic for very little reward, not a key feature of tactical combat.


We'll have to agree to disagree here. For me unit facing is usually an important part of a good tactical combat game. Exceptions certainly exist in both ways (I quite like Commands and Colors: Ancients for example which lacks unit facing, and I'm sure that there are plenty of games that implement the idea poorly...but bad execution is not the same thing as a bad idea)

Unknown X wrote:

As for terrain, Descent offers "hard to move through terrain" to allow strategies of slowing others down and doing hit and run with ranged units, obstacles to hide behind, dangerous squares (lava and pits)


Yea I do make mention of this in my review. I just don't think there was enough of this sort of terrain and it didn't seem to make much of an impact on the games we played when it was there.

Unknown X wrote:

And in return, you neglect the key element of resource management which Descent focuses much more on.

We have lifepoints and number of models on the map, fatigue the heroes can use and regain for more advantageous tactics, skills and heroic feats with limited uses...


I do agree with you here, especially in regards to the aspect of "fatigue" which leads to some interesting decision points in the game. The heroic feats are ok...the scenarios are usually short enough to where the decision as to when you should use it usually seemed pretty obvious to me, but it's still a nice touch. It's worth pointing out though that the fatigue system and action economy do not really relate to your original point of contention regarding maneuver and tactical combat.

Unknown X wrote:

I do think there is a lot of tactical decision making to be had in Descent. I can support evidence for that point in the form of many play...


but you DON'T supply that evidence which makes this a bad response to my review...Just kidding

Unknown X wrote:

Descent is of course also luck depended to a degree, a series of bad rolls or the wrong overlord cards in your hand will change the game.


I don't think I mentioned anything about luck or chance in my review...it wasn't really a factor in my enjoyment of the game either way.

Unknown X wrote:

I would really like to know what kind of strategic depths you think is missing here which is readily provided in other games.
Statements without much argument to support them make a bad review.


I'm sorry you feel that way. I feel like I provided plenty of reasons as to where and why I feel this aspect fell short. But to re-iterate my opinion: Playing this game feels like a string of very obvious straightforward decisions (at least in terms of how you move your figures across the map). Most of our games saw the heroes sort of walk in a straight line from point A to point B, clearing monsters as they went. There was very little reason or opportunity for meaningful or interesting maneuvers.

Without a detailed session report (which I don't really have for you I'm afraid), I can only really give you my general impressions of how things went I'm afraid. Sorry I can't be more specific than that!
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