Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Review: Descent Journeys in the Dark (1st edition)

It's a big box, no question, it's even full of stuff... just not win!

So here I am, finally reviewing Descent: Journeys in the Dark.The game loads of people have told me I should have got in the first place. It's reputation is pretty impressive, talk to any serious board gamer and they'll all know of Descent. It's also one of the few board games that many wargamers have heard of, most I've spoken to have either had a quiet respect for the game or have been madly in love with it and wanted to marry it. Honestly it has been rare I've come across people willing to question the status this game has, even in polite company, it's like walking up to the bride on her wedding day and pinching her ass. It's like handing the Pope a copy of Origin of the Species as a Christmas present. Telling a new mother her baby is ugly... all things that are considered bad form, or so I hear. So this review might be fun!

There's a lot of stuff. This isn't all of it!!!
Product Description

Descent is quite often described in language that is normally reserved for deities, rather than a game in a box. However, it is most assuredly the later and I have yet to see any evidence to support the claims that it is indeed the former. I'm not going to regale you with tales of what is contained within this box, suffice to say their is a lot. A hell of a lot, I know there are 20 plastic hero figures and therefore logically it follows that there must be 20 hero sheets. There are 60 plastic monsters too, and there must be a similar number of interlocking dungeon tile pieces. There is a rulebook and a Quest Guide, but there is no way on Gods good green earth I'm going to list all of the various tokens and thingymebobs and doohikies!!! There is just a boat load of card components in this box, a ridiculous number to be honest with you, and some custom dice.

Gameplay 6 out of 10

Right, this is where I know I could very well end up with a massive amount of angry fanbois sending me yet more death threats for what I'm about to say. But I need to get this out of the way right now, I found Descent boring. There I've said it! I've got it off of my chest and I feel better for it. I thought my  play through with girls might have just been a one off and that although the game wasn't suitable for that group, it might yet prove a worthwhile purchase. In some respects my initial feelings were right, Descent does have it's unique charms and I really can see why certain gamers would love it, but for me it's just a bit too long winded. I've run this game through with 1, 2, 3 and 4 adventurers now. Each time the game takes between 4 to 6 hours average to play. Now for some that's not too long for a game at all, but for me it is too long for this sort of game. Plus not much ever seems to happen in those 6 long hours.

That's a lot of monsters by anyone's count.

Let me state my reasons why I feel that. I accept that many Dungeon Crawlers in the past have been in-depth and that they have asked a lot of their players. However, ostensibly Descent should be quite a straight forward game, you don't roll for your character, you don't spend ages choosing the right skills for them. The game doesn't really ask you to get 'invested' in the characters because they're not yours, they are someone elses generic creations. The game doesn't ask the Overlord to generate their own quests and write out a plot, they're already provided out of the box. So there is none of the 'front end' investment of time that is expected of you from other more involved games, or traditional RPGs. So I find it bizarre that a straight forward Dungeon Crawler board game would take so long to play to resolution. Especially when so little actually seems to happen in the game.

The character cards and stuff, there's loads
So why does it take so long? Well because the attacks seem quite powerful on both sides. A lot of damage is dealt. Now normally this would lead you to believe that wrong moves would be punished and games could be over quite quickly. Potentially that can happen, but Adventurers have the option of nipping back to town at the nearest and most convenient glyph and restocking up on health potions and stuff so they're ready to go again. This pretty much is the only way adventurers can succeed at the game from my experience, a slow methodical plod through the predetermined cave network. The Overlord with little scope or power to force the pace of their progress. So I'd like to dispel a myth that I have consistently read about Descent, the myth that it is a complex and detailed game. It is not, it's just slow and methodical. I'm pretty certain with a few tweaks here and there the game could be sped up no end.

It's not all bad however, I actually quite like the Overlord versus Adventurers nature of the game. It does lend a decent amount of tension to proceedings that the group I normally play with found was missing from the Dungeons & Dragons Adventure games. The 'Custom Dice' too are a really easy way of constructing and managing a fluid combat system, and actually work really quite well. I've found these sorts of custom dice in the past have greatly aided the speed at which games are learned, and played, with Descent that's no different. There aren't any complex tables to learn, or reams and reams of paper to wade through to understand what the hell just happened. You just line the dice up, and work out what the symbols mean and compare that to the defenders statline. It really is simplicity itself, and it works quite well in theory.

OK I'll take you all on!!!
There is also a hell of a lot of variety contained within the Hero cards and the random abilities they can have. It's an impressive list of potential combinations, even if some of them would turn out to be utterly rubbish. That should give the game some longevity I guess to those who find themselves enjoying the core game itself. To me it led to an interesting frustration. You see with Castle Revenloft, Wrath of Ashardalon and The Legend of Drizzt I found myself thinking it'd be pretty cool to develop my own character, but I never felt frustrated I couldn't. I know Geology Girl and specifically Dr Brainiac felt very differently about that, but I could live with it. Descent on the other hand has frustrated me no end though. Because there are these options and I just think it's a wasted opportunity not to be able to generate your own adventurers and a shame that rules for this aren't contained in the game. It might have made me more willing to sit through 6 hours of gameplay if it was my own character I was playing.

The final issue for me though is a really important one. The game really does not scale at all well. I had a comment on my unboxing of the game from somebody called 'AC', who said:

"A tip though: the player scaling is absolutely dire. The best solution is to set-up as if you were playing with 4 or 5 players regardless of the actual number and just divide the heroes between the hero player(s)"

This might end badly boss
On the whole I agree with him. With one adventurer the game swings wildly in favour of the Overlord. No two ways about it, with only one Adventurer the Overlord will stomp on them extremely hard. The monsters really don't drop in effectiveness that much and you still get the same amount. The difference in challenge to two adventurers is barely noticeable either, it's just takes a little bit longer for the inevitable to happen, and the Overlord to win. I personally have found that 3 Adventurers seems to lead to the most balanced games so far. With 3 heroes the Adventurers have the resources to get through most Dungeons as long as they plan things out and work as a team. The Overlord though can still win if they use their resources right and select targets. At 4 Adventurers though things swing yet again, and I found at this level the Adventurers party was just able to deny the Overlord spawning points far too easily, while one of them went shopping to stock up on potions again.

Time to die giant!!!
Most games are designed to be played at a certain 'level', be they card games, board games or wargames. It's just the nature of the beast. With Descent I think it was meant to probably be played with 4 Adventurers, but almost certainly I found that once more 3 was 'the magic number'. But the fact that the game scales so badly at other Adventurer numbers was a little shocking to this reviewer. It just seems that 'gimping' the monsters at lower levels of Adventurers wasn't the way to go. It'd have been far better if the amount of monsters in each room was actually scaled to the number of adventurers, so there would be fewer if there were only 1 or 2 adventurers and more obviously if there were 3 or 4 Adventurers. Perhaps this is something the add ons brought to the table, or maybe it's something the second edition of the game will address.

There's only one of you? That seems unwise!
It's possibly worth mentioning here that as I've criticised the core game that Descent did receive a judicious amount of expansions. A truly impressive amount actually, most of which gave you new monsters to face, Dungeons to tackle, tricks for the overlord and Adventurers to use. They really grew the core game during it's first edition massively and really supported it. That's admirable, and a few of the fans of Descent I know have told me that what I really brought with Descent: Journey's in the Dark was potential. Now that's all well and good but the expansions weren't cheap and if what you're saying is that dropping £70 on a core game isn't enough and I should really scrape together the pennies to buy 5 more expansions at roughly £45 a piece then you're barmy! I accept that the Road to Legend expansion sounds cool, the ability to level your characters on an epic quest against an evil Overlord sounded cool, over a 100 missions... at roughly 5 hours each? Hang on and aren't there things to do in between missions? Maybe it's just asking for too big a commitment off of me and my friends.

Yay!!! More super fun shopping time.
So in conclusion I think it's fair to say that I feel there are some significant issues with the game from my own perspective. The game does take too long for me, especially given the actual simplicity of its core mechanics and challenge offered up. Nothing much ever really seems to happen in the games I've played and a narrative never really seems to develop. The ability for Adventurers to nip back to town just seems to drag things out, as does the level of damage the monsters often cause, because you wouldn't risk wandering around with half your health as an adventurer when you have coins in your pocket and nipping back to town is so easy to do. It just leads to a lethargy in the game and it actively encourages the players playing it to procrastinate, which is a shame because underneath all this is a very good game wanting to break free. Hopefully the second edition can put these issues right and Descent can finally, deservedly live up to the hype. Because right now, for me it doesn't.

I need a hero! Just one that doesn't look deformed.
Detail  7 out of 10

There are a lot of different tokens, counters, cards and components in this game. They all have their own unique artwork and shape to them, to define their function so from that perspective they serve their purpose quite well I feel. They aren't the most colourful or characteristic of tokens though. The art direction does feel a little bit staid. All the detail is well presented and clear enough, it's just that I personally felt that things weren't as 'pretty' as I'd like them to have been. The thing though that really kicks the score right in the man parts are the miniatures. There is no shape or detail to many of the heroes, and I'm pretty darn certain that I could achieve a similar level of sculpting without too much effort on my behalf really. Some of the worst looking miniatures I've seen in a long time in a game. There poses are bland too... yuck... they're just not nice mini's.

The tiles and tokens don't look too bad. But...
Quality 6 out of 10

Well this is an odd one for me. I have recently heaped mountains of praise onto Fantasy Flight Games products in terms of quality. I have genuinely been impressed with the components contained within pretty much all of their games. Descent does let the side down somewhat. The quality of those miniatures is poor. No question about it, compared to many of the board games I have purchase recently the moulding is bad, the substance they're made out of is rank and as discussed above the detail is woeful. But you know what? Sometimes that is the case with board games, the miniatures can leave a lot to be desired. What is actually quite galling in the main is that the card floor tiles aren't so great. They are jigsaw interlocking pieces, nothing wrong with that at all, the card they're on even seems quite thick, but they are poorly constructed and the corners of the printed surfaces at the jigsaw joins are already starting to wear. The card tokens are made out of the same card, but should be fine because they aren't going to be used in the same way as the floor tiles. The Overlords cards, monster cards and Adventurer profile cards are all suitable enough, but not quite as good as more recent products.

Att leyest teh bocks iz bige
Service 9 out of 10

I had a real struggle to get this product from anywhere I'd normally shop, OG Games had sold out and couldn't get it in and neither could the Maelstrom. My Local Game Store didn't have it and the shop assistant on the day I went in doesn't like talking much and when I asked him a question he mumbled under his breath and went out back and didn't reappear... so I took that as a sign they couldn't get it in for me. I'm a creature of habit and if I find somewhere I like to shop, because they give good customer service I tend to stick with them. So when my normal shopping outlets failed me with this I ended up looking on Amazon, well out of my comfort zone. I found Green Knight Games had a few copies, and reluctantly I decided to part with my cash. Having never heard of them didn't help matters. I went for free delivery, because I'm a cheapskate. The game turned up two days later very well packaged in a box. Top marks all round really, and I'd consider using them again.

Dinah cat of Judgement, judges thee... poor!!!
Price 7 out of 10

£63.49 isn't actually a bad price in many respects for all the stuff you get in the box. I believe the original RRP was actually £79.99. At that price Descent: Journeys in the Dark is daylight robbery in my opinion. At £63.49 it's not too bad, especially if you like the game, for me though given that the components aren't the greatest ever made and that the game is for me duller than ditch water it is getting a 7. Green Knight Games price was very reasonable compared to what other vendors had charged for this game but the RRP that Fantasy Flight Games gave it in the first place was just ridiculous. It wasn't ever worth it's asking price in my opinion.

Overall 6 out of 10

So yeah, to quote the exceptionally funny film Four Lions "you've shot the special needs donkey!". Seriously if you haven't seen Four Lions yet you should, bloody hilarious and totally not politically correct, here's the trailer:


But back to Descent if I must, it's just too long. Not long and detailed, just slow. There's also far too many tokens and things to keep track of during the game. It doesn't scale very well and the components don't look the best. Can I see some positives? Yeah, if you want a group of mates round to drink beer order pizza and sit there for an evening chatting having a laugh and playing a Dungeon Crawler this might do, but for me and my friends we can do that playing wargames round my house, or some other games. Scratch that then, I'm not too sure who this game is aimed at. Peace out!

Vom Krieg

Hiya, one of the readers of this blog Von Krieg has actually painted a load of the Descent miniatures and made them look significantly less rubbish than they actually are, so good job my friend! As I'm never likely to want to paint these miniatures at all myself you should check out these links:

Descent: Journeys in the Dark Hero's
Descent all the heroes
Descent: Journeys in the Dark Monsters


  1. Couple of my friends gave this game and they mention like 6-8 hour games as pretty standard which limited the amount of times you can play it. I really cannot give up a whole day to play a board game once. I can do 3-4 games of Blood bowl in that time.

  2. @eriochrome, it's just utter madness at times it really is. I could perhaps see myself playing a game for that length of time if it was an involving and engrossing game. Something akin to Twilight Imperium, which can take up to 6 hours sometimes to play... but a Dungeon Crawler? No way, thing is Descent puts the emphasis on Crawl!!! I'm with you, rather get a few games of something else in like Gears, Blood Bowl or even Mansions of Madness, you could arguably fit 3 games of Mansions of Madness in and that's a loooong game to play, or so I thought.

  3. Had a copy of this 2 years ago, and totally agree with all you said. Sold it on ebay. Shame because at the time i was looking forward to it so much. Abd yeah to many tokens for me.

  4. yep, I think you've managed to highlight all my gripes with the game. Though I would have rated game play a but lower due to the fact that on one occasion a 'clever' trap in one of the dungeons locked one of the heroes out of the final monster fight between runs to town.

    And on top of that, the first expansion (at least when I looked into it) came with errata for the game. A self contained board game should not have errata!

  5. Six...friggin'...hours?

    The 'nip back to town for a re-up on potions' mechanic kinda eliminates the risk/reward thingy that makes well-designed games interesting, I think.
    It TOTALLY reminds me of the Hack 'n' Slash adventure games on PC and consoles.
    Things getting a lil' dicey in the dungeon?
    Off to town!

    'Whew! For a second there, I thought I was gonna die! Teleporting ROCKS!'

    Also, the trend of releasing something pretty much 'bare bones,' and then releasing 'expansions' to flesh it out permeates every gaming medium, it seems.
    It's tiresome and predictable.

    Might as well wait for the 'Deluxe Edition,' or the 'game of the year edition,' or whatever.

    Another excellent review, Frontline.

    I'm gonna go watch Four Lions with my stepson...the trailer had me in hysterics- thanks!

    If I may be so bold- for American wackiness, check out 'Tucker and Dale vs. Evil.'

    Trailer here:


  6. @Pancake, yeah I'm with you! Although I've seen some copies going for silly prices on ebay, and they're not even pretending they aren't knackered and battered. I might keep an eye on it because if they continue to go for that sort of dosh I might actually be able to turn a profit!!!

    @Lauby, well perhaps now somebody has stuck their head above the parapet and gone on the record with what they think of the game then maybe I can start a Descent support group. Possibly we can help more gamers 'come out' and admit that they don't like Descent? lol.

    @SinSynn, hope you like Four Lions and I have to say your suggestion looks pretty damn funny too. I have to say I'm pretty confused with the whole game. I'm struggling to see it's worth at the moment. I sure that there are people out there who genuinely enjoy the game, and for them I'm sure it makes perfect sense. It's just not for me it seems.

  7. I forgot how crap the game looks unpainted.

    It's the game me and my friends play instead of playing D&D these days. Its full on beer and pretzels lengthy dungeon slomping goodness.

    The key, i've found, is to have the overlord be a merciless bastard. People might shoot back to town to grab potions,but thats a turn they need to move on, keep spawning critters and ramping up threat.

    The expansions make the overlord way tougher though, I can't remember playing the game with only the core set.

  8. FF has provided rules and templates for making your own characters on their site/forum. If you buy this game to enjoy a dice system that manages all manner of tactics, items, and leveling for PCs (plus the Overlord's cadre), then the price ain't so bad. Every scenario in the book or online is a retail module your non-creative GM doesn't have to buy. Every tile is a craft project you don't have to do, every miniature is a model you don't have to hunt for in a dealer bin. As a tool set for players of varying experience, I still think DESCENT holds an edge over other multiplayer dungeon crawls.

  9. @Vomkrieg, I think most things look naff unpainted and Descent is no different. I've seen some pretty sweet paint jobs for Descent on the Internet, but reality is the miniatures aren't the best.

    Trust me as the Overlord I was as big a bastard as I could be. But in all honesty it just slowed the inevitable down really when playing with 4 adventurers, they were bound to win and there was little I could do about it. Except the one game where I actually won in the first round by getting flukey rolls on my attacks and finishing off two adventurers and wiping out their conquest points... but that was even lamer than playing it for 6 hours!!! lol.

    I have to say that if a £70+ product that is ostensibly a game in a box needs further £50+ add ons to make it good then it is in trouble for me. It didn't make me want to go out and grab any expansions for it at all, which is a real shame because we were hoping it'd be a game the group could engage with.

    @Lee B, if there are rules templates for making your own characters then they should have been in the box. Great that Fantasy Flight Games have done them, but it was perhaps an oversight. Not meaning to denigrate a game you clearly like, but the tactics didn't seem all that 'deep' to me or varied either. I except there's a lot of stuff in the box, I say as much in my review, but the miniatures are poor and the floor tiles easily damaged. However, the biggest draw back for me and my group of friends was that the game was a 6 hour repetitive slog, where not much happened. Mybe the second edition will sort that out.

  10. The Road to Legend expansion adds a "life outside the dungeon", and events with consequences in a quest-laden realm. In regard to first-box constraints, I expect to search for post-production mods/errata and a marketing plan hinged on selling expansions. Alas, my friends that will spend weeks in front of a PC slogging WoW have no time to see what a four-box DESCENT campaign offers. Maybe DESCENT should include 80+ levels and a collectible mount.

    1. Brilliant comment "Maybe DESCENT should include 80+ levels and a collectible mount."

      We just started a Road to Legend, its been a lot fo fun, kind of like an old school D&D campaign, but i dont have to worry about reading a module.

  11. @LeeB, yeah I've heard the Road to Legend box set is what you need to make the game seem truly worthwhile. And that's OK, but I think it's a big ask to find a group of 5 people who are willing to commit the required amount of time to play the game when there are so many things out there at the moment that deserve our attention as opposed to requiring it. You've also hit on a pet peeve of mine, WoW God how I hate that game. It's utterly dire, can't stand it and never have and never will. But more than enough people like the game, just like more than enough people like Descent. Peoples tastes differ. Thanks for commenting.