Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

[On the Table] Descent: Journeys in the Dark, Second Edition

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.

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5 responses to “[On the Table] Descent: Journeys in the Dark, Second Edition

  1. Chris Mata September 4, 2013 at 6:55 am

    I think Descent is supposed to be the Candy Crush of DnD. That is a 100% true statement and really hits the nail right on the head.

    I know locally it has a huge following and it has brought many a player to the pen and paper games. I don’t personally like it but I think it definitely has its place. It also takes place in FFG’s greater scope of games set in the same universe and that fact keeps a lot of people playing it. Granted, locally they house rule it some and mix 1E and 2E descent together to get the *game* they want.

    I know most folks that play it are going into it with a fixed goal frame of mind. Go kill X or I gotta be home to put the kids to bed by 9 can we get this scenario in by then? So Descent does for these guys what they THINK DnD cannot. It lets them play quick, enjoy themselves, and most of all……

    BE A DM. I have seen and talked with them about it at great length. None of these guys feels like they are smart enough, experienced enough, etc…. To be a DnD Dungeonmaster. I know to call yourself a Dungeon master in the early 80’s and into the mid 90’s carried a bit of an elite air when it was said. Now, that may be gone but a lot of folks are either scared to try or are worried about doing a bad job. Descent really allows them to cut loose. The same guy that says he can play DnD but NEVER run a game will break out Descent and will do exactly that. In seconds he is going out side the lines and altering the scenario on the fly. Dropping bits and pieces of story into it. It’s weird but even the players start getting in on it. Its closer to collaborative storytelling than a DM based adventure but its neat to see a person swear they cannot be a DM then immediately start doing it in an offbeat way.

    This sounds like I am defending Descent I know, but I am not. I just think the game has greater merit for folks with a different mindset than ours tends to be.

    • jeffro September 4, 2013 at 8:17 am

      Great comment.

      I know that my group back in the day played a lot of Car Wars, Ogre, and Axis & Allies because we just didn’t have a DM…. And I understand that this game might be just the thing for some folks. But Candy Crushing D&D is like changing Star Wars to have Greedo shoot first.

      • Chris Mata September 4, 2013 at 8:22 am

        As bad as Greedo shooting first? Pretty harsh. What would the comparison be if you REALLY didn’t like it? :)

        [Heh. Well, I couldn’t post that on a family friendly blog, so I’ll leave that to your imagination! — Jeffro]

  2. Charlie Warren September 4, 2013 at 8:10 am

    I have actually picked this up and considered buying it a few times. I am glad that I did not get it after reading this post. I would like a “D&D lite” type board game with an easy setup and rules that don’t deteriorate into arguments over every little detail. I was hoping Descent or something similar could fill the spot but I see that Descent went in the opposite direction and that doesn’t interest me at all.

  3. Alex September 15, 2013 at 10:52 pm

    Good summary, Jeff.

    I want to try this game as Overlord before judging it too harshly, though. I think Eric got his butt kicked in the second game because he made a fatal strategic error right off the bat. Double-timing your line troops into range so that you cannot fire, but your enemies can, really turns the advantage to your enemies in a substantial way. That caused him to then have to double-time everything into battle, drip-feeding his troops into our established defensive position.

    The first round might have been an easy introductory scenario, so I don’t want to let that influence my view too much. Also, we had five heroes (all of whom have powerful special abilities) instead of the suggested four. This might have made a considerable difference, as well.

    So, once the overlord gets the strategy down (and i think Eric said he had a bunch of cards left over that he should have used, too), and if we play with the right amount of players, things might get easier for the bad guys.

    Full disclosure: in the first round, I’m sure I mistakenly double-spent a lightning bolt icon, because I thought Michael had said you just needed to roll one to use all of those abilities. So, that might have made a small impact. Lots of small things can add up to what seem like major balance issues.

    All this said, I think your general impression is pretty close to my own. It’s a fluffy pink chewable game that is probably pretty fun now and again, but it doesn’t nourish the hardcore gaming urge.

    In response to Charlie Warren’s post, have you tried Talisman? It’s an old-school D&D-Lite dungeon-crawlery type of game. We used to have tons of fun playing that back in the day (although it can take a solid 4 hours to get through).

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