The cave smells of mildewy earth, old bones, and goblin urine. Your dwarven comrade belches again after taking another hardy swig from the mini-keg strapped to his waist. He’s poisoned, but after he gets a quick breather in, he’ll be right as rain. He pulls the black-tipped arrow from his thigh and spits as he throws it to the ground. The goblin archers you faced in the previous chamber were a better aim than you’d anticipated. You’re not surprised, though, as the unseen hand of The Overlord was definitely guiding their shots. As you round the corner into the next chamber, you spot a gleaming token you’d like to search in the corner of the dungeon. Before the dwarf can utter the usual “somethin’ smells funny…,” Cave Spiders drop down in front of you! The dwarf flies into a drunken rage, battle axe flailing as he charges toward the beasts! You twirl your scythe and open your spellbook, raising your dead familiar to defend you… but will it be enough?
In the second edition of Fantasy Flight Games’ Descent: Journeys in the Dark players play as either the Overlord or the Heroes. The Overlord is just what it sounds like: you control all the monsters, traps and other awful things that are inevitably going to happen to the Heroes. As the heroes, 1 to 4 other players are going into the Overlord’s dungeon as a sort of fantasy-flavored S.W.A.T team, breaking down doors, killing baddies, grabbing loot, and leveling up.
If this sounds like a role-playing game, it isn’t. It has the action-based trappings of various RPG elements, but you will not find a deep story-telling experience here. If you’re seeking that experience with this game, I’d recommend you look elsewhere. However, if you want an action-packed, scenario driven, 1-versus-many fantasy skirmish, you’ve come to the right place, friend. Have a seat. Or don’t. It may be trapped.
Descent comes with a standard Rules of Play book that will get you started with the basic mechanics for both halves of the game. Inside, you’ll find gorgeous artwork, generously broken down diagrams, rules for campaign-style play, a handy index, and a phase reference guide on the back cover. The other book is a Quest Guide which helps the Overlord to set up the scenarios, provide Heroes with the story bits, scenario peculiarities, and spell out the consequences of either the Overlord or Hero victory. It also comes with a handy little pad of paper that serves as a Quest Log to keep track of Gold, XP, loot, and victories per scenario.
Scenarios play out on gorgeous double-sided tiles that can serve as dungeons, lost woods, wheat fields, ritual chambers, or even secret water falls. Various cardboard tokens are used to represent anything ranging from health and fatigue to treasure and hidden switches to kidnapped villagers and status ailments. These tokens are quite thick with a linen finish and simple art. Monsters and heroes are represented with wonderfully detailed miniatures, with linen-finished cards for items, monster stats, and status effects. Each hero gets an oversized glossy card depicting stats and abilities, while the Overlord gets a rather devious hand of cards.
After the quest is chosen, the map assembled, and each player given a class (Warrior, Healer, Mage, or Scout) and matching character (Knight or Berserker, Disciple or Spiritspeaker, Necromancer or Runemaster, Thief or Wildlander), the game begins. Heroes take their turn moving around, attacking monsters, bashing down doors, collecting treasures and completing objectives. The Overlord gets his own phase to manipulate the monster groups against the heroes, springing traps, stealing victory out from under them, and just generally being an evil, evil dick.
This game, at its core, is an asymmetrical mad dash to victory. Speed is of the essence as each side has a competing objective, and as one side gains ground in the struggle, the other loses that same ground. The Overlord is trying to kill the party, but death isn’t final – it only serves to slow the Heroes down. Losing a turn recovering as a Hero is devastating. You miss out on the ability to go and grab that bundle of wheat, or to check that cage to see if it holds the hostage you’re looking for. The minions of the Overlord getting cut down also spells trouble for him/her because reinforcements aren’t always available. It’s a good amount of push and pull for both sides that divides the focus evenly between combat and exploration of the map.
Inside this box is not only a wealth of cards, tokens, miniatures, and tiles with gorgeous bits of art on everything, there’s also a deep wellspring of story-telling opportunities. Descent ultimately will be best known for the great fantasy hooks in the tales it tells on your tabletop. Whether it’s how you saved the party by using your Disciple’s Blessed Strike or, as the Overlord, you triggered the trap that ended the victory run of the Thief at the last second– you’ll be creating your own epic stories with your friends, and that’s the real magic here.
In addition to the contents of the core box set, there are tons of expansions in both big and small boxes, complete with brand new campaigns, heroes, and minions, as well as a robust online scenario generator. Descent is a thoroughly solid board gaming experience. If you like fantasy, games with RPG elements, dice-chucking combat, or asymmetrical gameplay, I highly recommend this game.