#oneaday Day 925: Journeys in the Dark

I remember catching a glimpse of the first Descent: Journeys in the Dark a good few years back now. It was when my friends and I were just starting to discover the joy of board gaming, and had been experimenting with everything from Risk to Space Crusade via Catan and several others. Descent was noteworthy for 1) coming in a massive box and 2) costing £60, which put it slightly out of “impulse purchase” territory. I mean, if it sucked, that was a lot of money and shelf space to have wasted.

I did some reading up on it, though, and found that it seemed to be a well-regarded game, and one of the favourite “dungeon crawlers” among the community. I kept an eye on it with interest, but never got around to picking up a copy.

A month or two back, I decided that I really actually quite did want to give it a try, so I paid a visit to a couple of online UK board game distributors that I knew of and tried to order a copy. It was, as Sod’s Law tends to have it, nowhere to be seen.

A little research, and I discovered that the reason it was no longer available was because publisher Fantasy Flight Games was beavering away on a brand new edition. Descent: Journeys in the Dark Second Edition to give it its full, and rather grandiose title, in fact — hereafter referred to as Descent 2 to save my sanity. (Not to be confused with the video game Descent 2, however, which is something entirely different.)

Descent 2, it seemed, was to be a complete reimagining of the original game. The core mechanics had been overhauled entirely, a variation on the “campaign” rules from the original game’s Road to Legend expansion were to be included as standard and a whole new series of quests was produced. And the whole thing somehow came in a box half the size of the original while still cramming in a ridiculous amount of cardboard and plastic.

I haven’t played the original Descent so I can’t comment with any authority on the differences between it and the follow-up. But I can comment on how Descent 2 plays, because we gave it a try last night.

I honestly wasn’t quite sure what to expect. From reading the rules, it was clear that Descent 2 would be a little different from the other “dungeon crawlers” I’ve played in the past. It didn’t appear to have the sheer brutality of DungeonQuest, the heavily random nature of Advanced Heroquest and Warhammer Quest, or the purely cooperative “GM-free” gameplay of Legend of Drizzt. And it was considerably more complex than Hero Quest, a game which brought many people to the genre in the first place — and one which they should really rerelease for the modern world.

In fact, I’d argue that calling Descent 2 a “dungeon crawler” is actually rather inaccurate. It’s a competitive scenario-based strategy game in which a team of players (the “heroes”) take on a single opponent (the “overlord”) over a series of quests, with both sides gradually growing in strength as the campaign proceeds. (It’s also possible to play the game’s quests as “one-shot” adventures, but one would argue some of the satisfaction of watching your characters grow and evolve over time would be lost.)

Each of Descent 2′s quests is actually made up of two separate encounters, with a couple of exceptions. Each encounter takes place on a prebuilt map, the entirety of which is visible to both sides from the start. Both sides are also fully aware of the victory conditions for the map, rather than the heroes having to explore and uncover the mysteries of the quest for themselves. And once play begins, it is full-on competition between the overlord and the heroes for supremacy.

That latter aspect right there is the key difference between Descent 2 and the previously-mentioned dungeon crawlers. In most cases, the “evil” player (the respective games’ overlord-equivalent) acted as a facilitator, pushing the story forward and occasionally bending the rules in the player’s favour if things looked like they might be getting out of control. (After all, where’s the fun in composing an epic five-act quest if the heroes just get killed by goblins in the first dungeon?) In Descent 2, meanwhile, the overlord is trying their best to accomplish their own victory conditions, rather than simply trying to stop the heroes from accomplishing theirs. Notably, knocking a hero’s health down to zero does not kill them off (unless the group is playing the final battle of the campaign) — it simply causes them to spend a turn knocked to the ground, hopefully allowing the overlord time to gain an advantage.

The campaign unfolds over the course of two three-quest Acts, with additional shorter introduction, interlude and finale quests at appropriate points. For each quest, the victor (be it overlord or heroes) is recorded, with the available quests in Act 2 being determined by who won corresponding quests in the first Act. It all comes down to the final battle in the end, though, because victory for the entire campaign can be secured by either side in both of the two finale quests, regardless of how well (or badly) they have done up until that point. A poor performance could put one side or the other at a disadvantage come this final battle, however, so it is in the interests of everyone to give each quest their all.

In terms of base mechanics during play, they are relatively simple but very flexible. Weapons and skills provide players with varying numbers of dice to roll in combat, with some dice having the potential to deal more damage, others specialising in “surges” (which can trigger special abilities) or ranged combat. There’s a heavy degree of tactical play during each scenario, particularly in those where the heroes are accompanied by civilian characters and are also able to use them to their advantage. Should they get a civilian to close the door, forcing the slobbering monster outside to waste one of its two actions opening it again? Should they run away? Should they hide behind a hero or get as far away from the action as possible? Should the heroes defeat the monsters, or focus on the objectives? Is there time to pick up the hidden treasures scattered around the map? A Descent 2 encounter is a series of decisions like this, culminating in a charge for the finish.

So far we’ve played the introduction quest (which is very short and simple) and one of the Act 1 quests. Both seemed to be slightly weighted in favour of the hero players (though I may just be saying that because Overlord Pete lost both quests) but I’ll be interested to see how the game evolves over time — both heroes and the overlord have the opportunity to spend experience points on new skills between quests, and the overlord’s forces get an appropriate jump in power between Act 1 and 2. The game is also pretty well balanced according to the number of hero players, and from next session onwards we’ll have an extra hero in play, so it will be interesting to see what effect that has, too.

The game was a big hit with the two other participants I played it with last night, and I’d only describe one of them as a particular enthusiast of the dungeon crawl genre. But there’s the point, really — despite Descent 2 featuring a variety of dungeons, and quests, and equipment, and monsters, and experience points — all things readily associated with “dungeon crawling” — it’s really more of a scenario-based battle game. And it’s all the better for it. It’s easy to understand, surprisingly quick to play, and very satisfying. Also, the dynamic nature of the campaign means that it has a lot of replay value, too. A single campaign playthrough is supposed to take about 20 hours in total — multiply that by all the possible combinations of quests that you can play throughout and there’s an impressive amount of content in that box. And, if Descent 2 is anything like its predecessor, it will enjoy a healthy amount of official expansions and fan-created content, making it all but certain to keep a regular place in gaming groups’ rotations for months and years to come.

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