Stuart Platt
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Originally posted on The Little Metal Dog Show Website

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Ah, Descent… where to begin. Well, how about a little context. The coffin box of Descent 1st Edition or D1 as it will be called henceforth, was one of my first BIG purchases after getting back into the gaming hobby.


The classic 'coffin box' in all its glory

Brimming with the nostalgia of my youth – hours and hours spent huddled round Hero Quest, Warhammer Quest and Talisman – this giant box filled with plastic-goodness was almost impossible to resist – and yet the sensation was somewhat bittersweet.

Someone plays the big, bad Overlord, the others play the Heroes. You’ve got all the monsters you could ever need, huge swathes of terrain tiles, chunky custom dice… and a play time you could knit a cardigan in. Like an XXL cardigan. With pockets and everything. But the experience wasn’t what I wanted. In fact, it just raised a few questions.

Why aren’t we just playing D&D? Why does D1 exist? What niche is it trying to fill? Well, it’s a board game implementation of a Dungeons and Dragons-esque fantasy scenario / dungeon crawl but in a more manageable play time? Only it’s not. The game is fiddly, dense and unwieldy. Once the characters get geared up with equipment, skills and plenty of cool-stuff, turns can be a monstrous, analysis paralysis fuelled exercise in min-maxing your stats. Death is an excuse to go shopping, play sessions can be huge and progress is slow.

But the game is competitive isn’t it? For both the Overlord player and the Heroes? Except, from my experience, if the OL goes all out, he will probably kill the heroes handily – and the line of sight / spawning monster rules (which prevent the OL bringing in creatures where the heroes could see them) mean that both sides are constantly ‘GAMING’ what is supposed to be a romping thematic experience.

So, you may ask yourself, why have I spent the first 250 words of this review talking about D1? Well, Fantasy Flight’s Descent 2nd Edition (or D2… see what I did there?) expertly fixes all of my problems with the first edition and brings new things to the table which elevate the experience even further.


The slicker, more streamlined V.2

Up to five players (four heroes and the OL) can approach missions either piecemeal, or as part of a larger campaign (with levelling and persistent equipment etc.) Our first play (with 3 heroes) saw us complete a well-designed introductory quest and the first 2-part mission in one evening! Now for readers who desperately want to avoid spoilers, be off with you! I don’t think knowing the outline of the 1st main quest will ruin the experience – but best be safe.

Right, now they’ve gone… Why does D2 succeed? Well, the quests are excellent. Descent has always had relatively interesting objectives for the heroes - go here, kill that, collect those etc. but the OL has to make do with ‘KILL ALL GOOD GUYS!’ D2 introduces opposed objectives for both – and your performance in part 1 will have ramifications for part 2. For instance, Fat Goblin Part 1 sees the OL’s Gobbos stealing crops, whilst the heroes try to secure them in the farm’s barn. The more crops that the Goblins pinch – the more health the boss in Fat Goblin Part 2 will have. In game terms, this dissuades players from descending into a pure slug-fest. There will be blood, but you can’t take your eyes off the mission objective.

Play is streamlined. The core mechanisms remain intact but are refined: Movement is fluid – besides a simple modifier for crossing water and opposing monsters blocking passage, you can go where you want up to your Speed stat. Line of sight is obvious – so as not to affect game flow. To attack, players cause damage / check range by rolling a number of custom dice related to the weapon they are using. Opposing that, new defence dice provide variable protection against attacks (instead of D1’s static numbers) and is simply implemented – tougher creatures (or better Hero armour) have more / better defence dice, but you can’t account for that terrible roll which always gives the underdog hope.

 

Fantastically detailed minis

The other big mechanical change from D1 is the removal of the rather fiddly ‘Threat’ which the OL would accumulate and spend to summon creatures / play traps etc. Instead each scenario has specific rules of how, when and where the monsters come out to play – thus providing a more balanced and thematic experience. The traps / spells are provided in the form of a deck of cards which the OL draws from each turn. In a nice touch, this is customisable by spending XP generated from quest to quest – so as the Heroes skill up, so does the Overlord.

Each of these adjustments fixes a problem from the first edition, and turns Descent into the game I always wanted it to be. It can now be the quick, fun, one-off dungeon crawl where someone gets to play the bad guy as hard as he wants – and the Heroes will have to work well together to compete. It can still be the sprawling, epic, 20 plus hour campaign with development, new skills, looting treasure for cool stuff, buying things at the local shops etc. but delivered in more interesting and engaging bite-sized quests that have a strong narrative through-road.

I think it’s fairly obvious from the tone of this review that I thoroughly enjoy the game. It’s almost like Christian Peterson (Founder and CEO of Fantasy Flight) tapped into my thoughts, extracted my whims and desires and brought it to life… Actually that’s a little scary. Must change my passwords.

Fantasy Flight will make a fortune of this, and the endless expansions that will undoubtedly follow. I’ll see you there. I’ll be the big guy at the front of that queue, frantically waving my money.

Descent 2.0 scores a triumphant 4 GAVELS out of 4
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Bryce K. Nielsen
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Bigshowfan wrote:
The other big mechanical change from D1 is the removal of the rather fiddly ‘Threat’ which the OL would accumulate and spend to summon creatures / play traps etc.

I've seen this statement a few times and I kind of laugh. Descent 1st Ed is based on the Doom: The Boardgame mechanics, which did not have a 'Threat' mechanic. When Descent came out, one of the 'improvements' everyone lauded the game for was this inclusion of Threat, making the Overlord's decisions on which card to play when more interesting and tactical. Now they've regressed back to Doom's way of playing (sans Spawn cards), and it's being lauded as one of the great things of 2nd Ed. Funny how the pendulum swings...

-shnar
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Bigshowfan wrote:
But the game is competitive isn’t it? For both the Overlord player and the Heroes? Except, from my experience, if the OL goes all out, he will probably kill the heroes handily


In my limited experience the 2nd ed is not balanced either.

Bigshowfan wrote:
– and the line of sight / spawning monster rules (which prevent the OL bringing in creatures where the heroes could see them) mean that both sides are constantly ‘GAMING’ what is supposed to be a romping thematic experience.


I do not know what the game is supposed to be. I've always considered Descent to be primarily a tactical miniatures game. You have two competing teams unlike in a "true" RPG where the game master works with rather than against the players. In my opinion "gaming" is OK in a tactical minatures game. (Not that I miss the 1st ed spawning rules.)
 
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What was so bad about the threat system? (I haven't played 1st edition)
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Stuart Platt
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Not bad, per se, just time consuming and fiddly. You received a variable amount of 'Threat' to spend each turn (depending on player numbers) and then you spend that on summoning creatures & playing cards (of which you draw 2 per turn - with a hand limit of 8...)

Combined together, it provided options - and therefore some degree of depth - but did the time and admin required make it worth the effort? For me, it wasn't - and the decision to simplify and streamline in D2 makes is a good one. More fun, less fuss.

In fact, that's a pretty good tagline for the game.

Cruelsader wrote:
In my opinion "gaming" is OK in a tactical minatures game. (Not that I miss the 1st ed spawning rules.)


I think my point is that the game is supposed to be a thematic romp - a fun dungeon crawl and a slice of Ameritrash. In this respect, too much 'Gaming the game' is a bad thing, I think, especially if it gets in the way of the narrative and story.



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RoadHouse wrote:
What was so bad about the threat system? (I haven't played 1st edition)


In my opinion the system was OK. Managing the threat and cards was not too time consuming. However, "pricing" of the cards was problematic. Some of the best cards (e.g. Beastman war party) cost little threat while some of the worst cards (e.g. explosive runes) cost a lot. Consequently some of the OL cards were almost never played. (You could discard cards for threat)
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Tim K
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Yep. Spawning constant Beastman war parties behind the heroes and trying to kill their non-tanks was the problem with D1. Every OL did it since it was cheap and effective. Its why I quit playing D1. If that crap is gone I'll happily try D2. I like the idea of the OL having goals of their own instead of just killing heroes. Yep, can't wait to try out D2. Thanks for review.

TK.
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Bryce K. Nielsen
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Spawning rules have changed, each Quest has its own way of bringing on 'reinforcements'. All the ones I've seen have been one figure from the monster groups. I'm not liking it so much right now, the 'one' figure almost always tends to be the hardest monster you just killed. So it's gone from fast spawning right next to you to hardest to kill spawning real close to you.

It's different but it's missing... something. Can't put my finger on it. Maybe a random element? Maybe a point-cost system (but then I guess we get back into the Threat mechanics).

-shnar
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Ken Marley
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Some quests have no reinforcements or a way to turn off reinforcements. Each quest is different.
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Stuart Platt
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shnar wrote:
It's different but it's missing... something. Can't put my finger on it. Maybe a random element? Maybe a point-cost system (but then I guess we get back into the Threat mechanics).

-shnar


It's not going to be for everyone. It's deliberately less gamer-gamey (which is a stupid phrase but you know what I mean) and much more accessible. Definitely a positive move for me, but I understand that the removal of strategic options could frustrate.
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Bigshowfan wrote:
shnar wrote:
It's different but it's missing... something. Can't put my finger on it. Maybe a random element? Maybe a point-cost system (but then I guess we get back into the Threat mechanics).

-shnar


It's not going to be for everyone. It's deliberately less gamer-gamey (which is a stupid phrase but you know what I mean) and much more accessible. Definitely a positive move for me, but I understand that the removal of strategic options could frustrate.

It's not the "removal of strategic options" that bothers me, rather it's that it's the dumbing down to the 'obvious choice' that bothers me. For example, if the Overlord can only spawn one creature, he will always pick the Red one if available. Why would he not? And so it becomes predictable and almost boring. If there was some reason to not pick the red one, it would be at least a little more interesting. It's also frustrating if it takes a concentrated effort to kill a big red one and then they suddenly reappear completely fresh. What was the point of killing him in the first place?

One quest we recently played (can't remember name), the Overlord could spawn a red shadow dragon if he discarded a card. That at least was something. One, there's a choice involved where the OL might not want to discard a card yet. Two, there's some kind of reward for killing the dragon (the OL wasted a card).

That's kind of what I'm talking about, something to make the Overlord consider his spawning options instead of just always spawning that red Goblin...

-shnar
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shnar wrote:
That's kind of what I'm talking about, something to make the Overlord consider his spawning options instead of just always spawning that red Goblin...

I played this game last night for the first time. I was overlord. I was perfectly okay with just spawning that red goblin. I loved not having to worry too much about what would spawn because the real strategy is in achieving the quest objectives. And frankly, having to spend additional time considering spawn choices would have slowed the game down. I've already got a hand full of cards, quest objectives and deciding which heroes should get smacked that I didn't miss expending thought on reinforcements. The other advantage is each quest can specify its own reinforcement conditions that allow for a more thematic adventure.
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