I’ve always wondered about this particular game. The gigantic box of stuff and numerous expansions of the first edition have had a significant chunk of shelf space at most game stores for years now. I’ve come across at least one hard core board gamer that loves this game, so naturally I’ve wanted to find out what the fuss was about.
Opening the box, there is a tremendous amount of stuff. So many miniatures! Ettins, goblins, zombies, some kind of weird displacer beast land-shark…. Amazing quality…. Loads of map-board pieces and counter widget thingies. My interest was definitely piqued. But then I start picking through the the characters to see which one I wanted to play. The art was strangely cartoonish… almost exactly half way between fourth edition D&D and Pathfinder in its tone. The halfling guy was particularly ludicrous. But maybe that’s normal nowadays, I dunno.
There wasn’t anyone there that had played this thing for hundreds of hours and knew just exactly the best scenario to toss at our mix of players. Sure, the bits were nice… the powers our characters had were totally rad… and the dice mechanic was super nifty with all those funny symbols and surge effects. Yeah, it was evident that someone had spent a lot of time engineering and developing this game to get a very specific effect. But I can tell you, that effect went over like a led zeppelin in this group.
Now maybe we were doing it wrong, but here are a few things that were pretty jaw dropping:
Is it really supposed to be this freaking easy?! — We played two short scenarios. One was “kill the red ettin before the goblins leave the map” and the other was “put the berries in the storage shed before the monsters get them.” The first one ended in two turns with the monsters accomplishing absolutely nothing. The second one took several turns to hash through, but it was never in doubt.
Death means lose a turn?! — Wait now…. There’s all these horrible monsters… and they are deadly scary nasty, right? And being killed means you just sit out for a round…? And you don’t even need a spell or a cleric or a hospital or anything to set things right…? Combined with the game being super easy, this pretty well caused all suspense to evaporate.
Box text — One scenario actually had box text to kick things off. It was painful…. I mean, of all the things that the designers chose to keep from eighties role playing games, this was it. Having to sit through it again after completing successfully a scenario was pretty much a punishment. I would have rather gotten a total party kill in order to avoid it, but we didn’t even seem to have that option!
There are things that we should all know not to do at this point. You’d think. I mean… you don’t play out an eight hour combat in a design-a-thing game when the outcome was already pretty well determined at the design stage. You don’t sit through a massive space empire game for four hours only to see the gimpy euro-chump take the win by turtling up and using a few Puerto Rico type moves to burn through some sort of fluff deck. And you do not make a dungeon game with no chance of death, no chance of loss, and no choice. That’s idiotic.
I’ll tell you what this was. It was thirty years of computerized role playing– thirty years of computer games that formalized the most boring and useless and uninteresting elements of role playing games… and then someone decided to translate that lifeless, useless shell of a non-game back into board game form. Tabletop gamers should be flattered, eh? But it’s worse than that. Because the overall thrust of the design here is indistinguishable from that of the browser games that non-gamers play. You know the ones about exploding candy: you get level after level and you just sit there mindlessly aligning widgets until things blossom into chain reactions of raw drool-fun.
It’s not like this can’t work. I played Pandemic over twenty times before I finally figured out how to win the game. The fact that there were so many ways to die just made it that much more interesting. You always had to avoid three equally deadly end game conditions and you never seemed to have enough moves to work towards the successful ending. And this idea of the dungeon master having the chance to really cut loose– to have the rules take over his requirement to be impartial– that sounds like something that’s worth developing. But everything else about the game works against this. (Why play the opposing “dungeon master” role when the game basically runs itself and when the outcome is pretty well predetermined?)
Now I’m sure this is a great game somehow. Somebody certainly likes it. But If you’ve ever played a real role playing game– one where you could do anything and go anywhere… one where the world steadily came into focus… one where you were tempted to push your luck just a little bit too far… one where some oddball item on somebody’s character sheet turned out to save the day for an entirely logical and surprising reason… one where you blundered into something that was far more than your party could handle and you had to run for your life… one where you’re all just noodling along rolling dice until you notice that everyone is completely immersed in the game and no one has made a Montey Python joke for the entire session…. If you’ve ever experienced anything remotely like that, then Descent will just seem like the Candy Crush version of D&D.