Descent – Journeys in the Dark, 2nd Edition is a dungeon crawler that, on first sight, looks like a Best-Of of Kevin Wilson’s brilliant first edition and multiple expansions. The latter suffered from some counter-intuitive game mechanics, hoards of items, skills and markers that required mundane managing skills, and from a generally very hard-felt complexity. Does the 2nd Edition combine the very best ideas of the original into a new board game treasure or does the mighty heir shatter under the burden of expectations?
First-off, the 2nd Edition is a complete redesign of the game. Fans of the original will find a plethora of changes that amount to a very different feel for both overlord and hero players. However, it is recommended that you don’t compare it with the first edition directly, because it was not designed as an update, but rather as a new game. That is seen in the design of the heroes, the dungeon maps and the overall faster pace of the game. The overlord player is still in charge of the game, and up to four heroes try to fulfill quest-specific tasks, while having a bloody good time adventuring through beautifully designed dungeon maps, and skilfully slaughtering malicious monsters. Yet, the entire movement and combat system was drastically changed to reduce the number of game rule arguments and increase transparency, as well as general game overview. Using abilities and attacking vile enemies only requires quick dice pooling, and is no longer obstructed by gazing over a dozen cards on the table that may have additional effects on the outcome of the dice roll. Move-stab-repeat is the new formula, and aside from a few frustrating moments of bad luck it conjures a ball of flaming joy.
Heroes make their way through the dungeon in search for a lovely princess or a pot of gold, or whatever it is that the quest editor thought to throw their way. The real enjoyment of the game comes from the dark side of the overlord player, who spares no expense to use his special deck of cards for setting traps, spawning monsters and attacking the heroes with his beasty brood of creepy creatures. The focus of the game has shifted to a quick-paced explore-and-destroy style that leaves little down-time for the means of shopping or treasure-hunting, but still leaves ample space for dungeon masters to write thrilling and challenging quest concepts. Many scenarios can be played within the hour and give the heroes an incentive to play a few missions in quick succession, all of them neatly held together by the great campaign setting that spins an epic story from the first careful dagger stabs to the final bloodshed in the name of crown and king.
When a hero receives too many hits on his noggin, he does not meet the angels, but rather is knocked out and has the opportunity to jump back onto his feet next round. This puts additional pressure onto the overlord, since he can no longer keep the heroes from venturing through dangerous passages. However, with some foul tricks he can still kick adventurer asses around the dungeon, and meet his own goals for a scenario victory. Up to nine scenarios are combined into one campaign, and this is where the 2nd Edition reveals its big potentials. Quest objectives range from head-hunting to villager-protection to search-and-rescue operations. Most of the twenty missions that come with the package are quite entertaining, and the editors poured a lot of love into them, making the campaign spring to life on your table. Since most encounters are brief and respawns of monsters are rare, all quests are strategically challenging, though many can be finished in under an hour. The new dice design and defence mechanics effectively cap the damage outcome of every heroic clash, so that scenario designers have an easier way of balancing encounters. You will find yourself more often than previously in a situation of frustratingly bad luck, but the chances for overlord or heroes to knock out an entire enemy group in one round are drastically reduced. This bears once again on a much more strategic and less frustrating game flow.
At the end of each quest heroes and overlord alike receive quest-specific rewards in gold and experience points, which they can then spend on new abilities and items from the shop. And while the heroes are still debating which of the randomly drawn shop items to purchase with their hard-earned money, the overlord quickly sets up the next quest, and after a few short travel encounters the epic journey continues. Some role players may morn about the relatively small roaster of four heroes. But every hero archetype comes in two different flavours (Knight/Barbarian, Runewalker/Necromancer, ...), and all eight resulting classes have very distinctive abilities and starting equipment. And surprisingly enough, all of them are useful. Now, that’s a thing that you didn’t hear in a long time, did you? Moreover, potions and money are hard to come by, which really keeps the heroes on their toes at all times.
The overlord player has taken a few hits since the first edition. He no longer has cards that let him spawn monster groups, and the effects of most traps are reduced to prevent a cheap killing spree. He also only ever draws one card per round, which severely limits his capabilities. On the plus side, though, all cards can be played without expense, which gives the overlord more flexibility in the use of his card hand. Also, spending hard-earned experience on new overlord cards adds a great role play component to the otherwise character-less side of the gaming table.
The game has a few down-sides, though. Movement has its merits, as heroes and monsters alike squeeze through the spaces between diagonally arranged obstacles. The magical shrinking and rotation-at-will of large monsters is badly reminiscent of video game creatures spinning wildly due to clipping and collision errors. And the line-of-sight rules are an illogical nightmare for everyone who has ever played a tabletop or pen&paper game. The players can adjust these issues manually through the application of some simple house rules, but one of the big expectations on the 2nd Edition was the burial of home-made edits to the guidelines. On top of that, most merits with movement and line-of-sight could easily have been avoided, if the editors had moved the game into the 21st century already, and replaced the old-school squares with hexagons. Also, the overlord can feel a bit left out at times, because with one card per round he may not draw anything that fits the situation for several game rounds. Furthermore, purchasing new overlord cards is expensive, and heroes will level up their gear and skills a lot faster than the overlord ever could.
Looking over all these game-play tripping-hazards one wonders, if Fantasy Flight Games may have made a few sacrifices too many on their way to a stream-lined dungeon experience. But all moaning and knit-picking aside the 2nd edition is still a great game of dungeon exploration and monster hunting. The new stream-lined Descent has great looks and a game concept that manages to enthral both role-players and strategists of various skill and experience levels.
If you are fan of the first edition, you will miss some strategic depth that has been sliced off together with the monster spawns, stacking conditions, more powerful traps, treasures, and quest markers. What you may not miss are elements like the thousands of markers that used to track gold, negative effects and overlord powers; tons of cards to signify skills and items; overpowered treasures and monster abilities; and a general imbalance that could throw entire quests into a big kill-and-get-killed orgy. No matter if you liked the first edition or not, it is highly recommended that you I) see Descent – 2nd Edition as a completely different game, and II) try it out yourself. Because the gaming experience is very rewarding, but also greatly dependant on your personal taste.
Finally, and as a disclaimer to everyone who’d like to blast me for writing a review in English: if you could understand the babbling above, you won’t have difficulties with the English version of the game.
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