Updated: Sep 19, 2019
This review is for Descent 1st Edition, if you wish to see a review for Descent 2nd Edition click here. Interestingly enough I find both games offer vastly different play experiences and still own both.
You are a hero, or possibly an antihero, glory seeker or treasure hunter. Regardless, you have chosen your path and it leads into darkness. You will venture into the darkest depths, battle the foulest creatures, steal the most valuable treasures and… well… die… a lot!
This is a huge box… sorry A HUGE BOX, and it’s a pretty beautiful box, sturdy, great art, linen finish, but no usable insert to be found! I know this is FFG and not Days of Wonder, but there are so many components in this box that need to be tracked during the game, it wouldn’t have been too much to ask for some kind of organisation in the box!
Regardless, lets see what you get inside:
1 Quest Guide
20 Hero Sheets
80 Plastic Figures
12 Custom Dice
61 Map Pieces
500+ other tokens/makers
And no I’m not going to list the tokens separately. Considering I picked this game up for £54 (new) that is a lot of stuff. If you disagree why not compare it to what you would get in two boxes of Settlers!
Just opening the box for Descent takes a day, you need to punch out all that cardboard, organise everything into baggies and pots and of course re-flatten the bases for all your monsters using hot and cold water. When you’ve done that you’ll probably need to paint the minis too, which will take you about a life time.
Of course the length of time it takes to get the game out of the box does a pretty good job of foreshadowing the length of time it might just take to play the game.
Ok, so, you get a lot of stuff in the box, but what did I think of the quality? As I’ve often said with FFG’s plastics, I don’t like them. They do an awesome job of art, but their plastic sculpts are pretty poor. In time I’ll probably replace every model in the set with metal minis from my own collection, with the notable exception of heroes and only because they can be used in all the Terrinoth games. That said I did make a good start on painting everything in the box (I’ve still not finished) and I did a whole series of articles in my other blog called “How Not To Paint Descent”. I have still not yet found the time to paint the Demon and the Dragon.
Plastics aside, the punchboard is all excellent. There are hundreds of bits that are not only great for Descent but for roleplaying in general. In fact Descent is a great purchase for any budding dungeon master, regardless of whether or not the game is any good!
The cards are all standard finish, as opposed to the new linen finish. Much of the art is the same as that in Runebound, but that’s not really a problem. If I have any complaints at all it would be that the character cards are pretty thin, I would have preferred something thicker, more like the player boards in Warhammer Invasion, but it’s really not like FFG were skimping on the quality in this game.
Also included in the game are two booklets, a rulebook which does a pretty good job of explaining the rules and a quest guide. The quest guide has a few errors, which were corrected with an included leaflet.
There are also rules for a campaign version of the game, but these kinda feel a bit tacked on as the base game of Descent is really intended to be played as one offs, seeing the heroes rise in power for zero to hero in the one game.
All in all Descent provides great value for money, regardless of how good the game is. If you like dungeon games at all or play rpg’s I would say to you, go out and get it…NOW!
Oh, right, the rest of the review.
To set up the game each player chooses a character card.
They take the corresponding figure, wound and exhaustion tokens equal to their maximum, 4 Order Tokens and 3 skill cards. The three skill cards they take are shown on the bottom of their card. The player may then discard one of these skills to draw another from the same deck if he chooses.
Each hero receives 300 gold to buy starting equipment and potions from the market.
The Overlord chooses a scenario from the book and sets up the map, only placing monsters and obstacles in the Start Area on the board. The Overlord then draws 3 cards from his deck.
The players and the Overlord then receive their starting Conquest tokens, usually none for the Overlord, in the starting quest the heroes receive 5.
The game is now ready to begin.
For those familiar with the game Heroquest the basics of gameplay will be familiar. However, the way the simple Heroquest mechanics have been adapted and changed seriously boosts this game up several hundred notches.
The Heroes begin the game and they may act in any order they choose. Each hero completes a full turn before the next hero can act. Once all the heroes have acted the Overlord can act. On their turn the players have 4 choices, they can:
Run (Move Twice)
Battle (Fight Twice)
Advance (Move and Fight)
Ready (Half Action + Ready Action)
The player must declare which of the options they will do before moving or rolling any dice. This is vital to balance the gameplay, allowing the players to wait and see will lead to an easier game by far. In addition many hero special abilities and skill cards are powered by declaring one of these 4 actions. If a player chooses Run or Advance they are awarded a number of Movement Points equal to or double the number in the green boot on their character card.
Movement Points can be spent in the following ways:
0pts – Pick up/Drop Item in your Space
1pt – Move 1 Space inc. Diagonal
1pt – Drink a Potion
1pt – Move Up or Down a Staircase
1pt – Give a Weapon or Item to another Hero
2pts – Open or Close Door
2pts – Open a Chest
2pts – Re-equip
3pts – Jump over a Pit
In addition players can spend 1 fatigue (Orange Teardrops on their Character Card) to gain 1 Movement Point, whether or not they used a movement action this turn.
If the player chooses to attack they look at their weapon card and roll the number of dice shown, plus any black dice they have in the relevant trait (black dice are shown on your character card in one of three traits, Melee (red) Ranged (blue) Magic (white)).
If the attack is a Ranged or Magic Attack the players add up all the numeric values on the dice they rolled, if the number is greater than the number of spaces the enemy is away from them, they hit. If it is less they miss. After rolling the Hero may spend fatigue to add additional black dice to the result. At most a hero may roll 5 black dice, either from his trait or exhaustion or a combination of the two. If the attack hits the player adds up all the hearts on the dice he rolled, this is how much damage the attack does. The opponents armour (blue shield) is subtracted from this number before the enemy suffers any wounds.
If the player rolls an X on any of his dice the attack automatically fails. There is a 1 in 6 chance of this on any one attack, an elegant way of balancing higher level characters without extended mathematics.
Melee attacks can only be made against adjacent enemies but they work exactly like Ranged and Magic attacks except that they ignore rolled range.
On most dice there are small lightning bolt symbols called Surges. Surges may be spent to power special abilities the hero has listed on his equipment/weapon/character/skill cards.
If a player has chosen Battle or Advance he may make his attacks at any point during his turn. For example, if he did an advance he could move 2, attack and then move another 2 if he had a move value of 4. If he chose to Battle he could attack, then use a fatigue to move a space before making his second attack.
The final thing a player can do is ready. This allows the player to either Move or Attack and place an Order Token. There are 4 Order Tokens, they are:
Aim – Reroll any dice during an attack
Dodge – Reroll any attack dice rolled against you
Guard – Interrupt the Overlord’s Turn with an Attack
Rest – Restore your Fatigue to it’s starting Value
Guard, Rest and Aim, are removed if you suffer a wound regardless of whether or not you have used the token. To Use a Rest Order to restore his fatigue a player must start his turn with the Rest Order still in place (i.e. suffering no wounds during the previous turn).
The Dodge Token stays with the hero until the start of his next turn so can be used multiple times. If a hero/monster dodges an aimed attack the two effects are cancelled out.
Once all of the Heroes have acted it is the Overlord’s turn. At the start of the Overlords turn he draws 2 cards and Threat equal to the number of players in the game. Threat is the currency the Overlord uses to pay for cards from his hand. Each card has a threat cost, it also has a discard value that the Overcard can use to generate additional threat tokens by discarding the card.
Obviously discarding cards limits your options but also allows you to get better cards into play faster.
Once the Overlord has drawn cards and threat it is time to activate his monsters. Each monster may activate once but unlike heroes they can only move and attack, they cannot attack twice or move twice unless specified by a card or special ability.
Monsters work exactly like Heroes although they generally have a selection of special powers listed on their card. If a monster kills a Hero the Overlord takes a number of Conquest tokens equal to the worth of the Hero (as shown in the bottom left of the character card). Dead Heroes respawn in town minus half their gold and may act normally on their next turn.
Winning the Game
Conquest Tokens are the way the game is scored, these are gained by the Heroes by activating Glyphs (which link to town and act kind of like Save Points) and by opening Chests.
The Overlord can only win by killing the Heroes enough times to reduce their Conquest Token pool down to 0. The Heroes win the game by completing the specified goals in the quest guide.
Is that it?
Well, no, but Descent has a lot of rules and I’ve already spent long enough explaining things. However, if you are playing the game for the first time I highly recommend downloading the Headless Hollow reference sheets as these can be very very helpful!
Ok, so I have compared many other Dungeon Crawls to Descent since I picked it up and they have all come off worse, but I guess that really depends on what you are looking for in a game.
Personally I find Heroquest and D&D the Boardgame to be too simplistic, Descent plays more like a tactical miniatures game than either of these games. It has a complexity and flexibility to it that I enjoy. It doesn’t suffer from the same issues that some of the more hamstrung rulesets out there do.
For example I love the Fatigue system which allows you to make additional moves or turn a miss into a hit, a critical wound into a kill etc. I like the fact that Movement Points are a defined system, meaning that you can spend a fatigue to drink a potion, take a step or trade items with a player for example, rather than just take a step.
I like that Diagonals were not an issue. Many dungeon crawls outlaw diagonal moves and attacks, often leading to bizarre situations. Descent simply does not.
I like the simplicity of the combat system. The chance of missing is low but constant, which is nice.
The Surge system allows for spectacular effects which also add definition to the heroes. For example a Hero with a Pierce Weapon will be the front line of attack against high armour monsters. While a character with a blast weapon will target closely grouped monsters.
I like the fact that every model blocks line of sight as this leads to a series of tactical choices. I also like the fact that every obstacle is clearly defined as to whether it blocks movement and/or line of sight.
The fact that the characters work together as a team, with no fixed turn order is also a great design choice. Often in Heroquest you worked alone, but Descent creates a great all for one atmosphere. The turn order is just another example of how Descent frees up the players and allows them to make tactical choices. While the lack of player elimination or serious penalty for death keeps everyone in the game all the time.
I could go on for a while listing the things I like about this game, but there are some issues with it.
A lot of the miniatures are bent and no matter how long you soak them in hot water it will be hard to make their bases flat again. Of course, with a scalpel you could try and transplant them onto better ones.
The organisation of the game is pretty poor and the book keeping is a full time job. Our table barely fits the small maps on and I need to use 2 additional small tables for all the cards and tokens during the game. This of course can be solved by players, but it would have been nice to have a system already in the game box, especially when there is so much to keep track of in the game.
Even an experienced D&D player or Board Gamer will be overwhelmed in their first game of Descent. There is sooooo much going on that your going to get things wrong, that’s just the way the cookie crumbles. However, the rules do become transparent with time and that means you can concentrate on killing the heroes!
Of course the major complaint that everyone has against Descent is length (this is fixed through the Road to Legend/Sea of Blood expansions to a certain degree). The game can easily last 5 hours or more, when I read about this I thought people were exaggerating, as I seem to get through games almost 3 times faster than the average gamer, but in Descent that was not the case.
Now, I don’t mind having a game that goes on for this long, but people can become hot, hungry and tired during a game and so you’re probably going to need to break the game off every now and then.
I bought Descent as a replacement for D&D. My family has always played D&D but the game is too complex for my younger brother and not visual enough to keep his interest. Also my parents struggle with the complexity now too. So Descent struck a happy middle ground for me, complex enough to keep my interest, simple and contained enough to keep theirs.
I know that Descent is not a roleplaying game, not even with the campaign systems from Road to Legend or Sea of Blood, but you can make it so if you want. You can tone down the Overlord, add additional story elements, skills, weapons, treasures and monsters. The beauty of the game is that there is no true death so if you create a new monster that is too powerful the Heroes will always come back to life and kill it.
I’ve already stated above that I think you should buy this game regardless of whether or not it is a good game, but the truth is that it is an excellent game, especially with Road to Legend, which helps solve a lot of issues, including length and the lack of a proper campaign structure.
Look out for more reviews from me focusing specifically on the Scenarios and the expansions.