Sunday, July 09, 2006

Divining Descent: Journeys in the Dark

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What is it?

Descent: Journeys in the Dark is a boardgame. Designed by Kevin Wilson for Fantasy Flight Games, it's a tactical combat game in a fantasy setting. The main activity is combat. Two to four players each take a character (or characters), ideally forming a team, and explore rooms and passageways. Their opponents are various fantastic critters controlled by another player. Essentially, it's kill or be killed all the way.

What is it NOT?

It's not a roleplaying game. It's also not a Eurogame. Descent is more of a videogame adaptation, since characters cannot die (the adventuring side just loses victory points) and the "overlord" player has an unlimited amount of creatures that theoretically can appear anywhere. It's also not very variable. Descent is a series of endless battles until the victory point condition is met by either side. Characters either hack away with melee weapons, shoot with missile weapons, or utilize "magical" attacks.

What do you get?

A huge box filled mostly with miniature unpainted plastic figures. The game also has cardboard tiles, cards, and a lot of counters. Overall, the production is very well done, as you might expect from Fantasy Flight.

What did you like?

The combat system is interesting. (I never played its predecessor, DOOM: The Boardgame so it's new to me.) The odds of success in attacks and the amount of damage dealt are driven by various colored six-sided dice. The type of attack and the weapon utilized determine which and how many dice are rolled. Damage is soaked by armor. Various status effects apply. The system isn't a bad approximation of what many similarly-themed videogames present.

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What could have been done better?

Descent is a long game. Given the system, it's unavoidable since there is no "downtime" for the players unless they leave the dungeon premises and teleport to the town. If they do that, they're no closer to winning the game. There is also very little story here - it would have been nice to have more reasons for things in the game, especially since Descent is purely an experience game. There is no pretense towards balance anyway, so why not lean completely on the theme so that it's easier to overlook the various problematic game elements?

Related to the theme thing - the way the Overlord plays completely breaks the theme. Monsters coordinate perfectly, as if being driven by a hive mind. That makes no sense. They also can use knowledge that they thematically don't have, just because the Overlord player has the game information.

Finally, to beat a dead horse - the treasure rules make no sense at all. Character have to be adjacent to pass items, but treasure from the chest teleports to the characters? And there are always magic items equal to the number of players?


Descent is an MMO "RPG" translated to board game form. As you might expect, it's a lot slower than its computer kin, it's got a lot of moving parts and it makes less sense because of the lack of story. If you shun MMOs and need your fantasy tactical combat fix, give it a try. Otherwise you're probably better off playing a similar game online.

If you're looking for a true roleplaying game, you won't find it here either. It's just a game. There are no roles, and no story to speak of.

If you're after a lot of plastic fantasy figures to paint, you're in luck. Descent has a lot of plastic figures.

Eurogamers, there's no balance and a lot of randomness here. Roleplayers, there's no story or logical structure to the in-game behavior of the elements. Heroquest fans, this is right up your alley. MMO fans, if you for some reason want to get off the net and play with plastic, this is also right up your alley.

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Personal Spin

Not for me, but I would play if asked by my game group and there's no one else available. I would consent to playing the Overlord, but would inject reasonable monster knowledge and intellect into the proceedings. I'd also probably choose to not spawn in cleared areas, because that makes no sense. Considering the time investment and the lack of a compelling hook, I don't look forward to the next play at all and will probably never ask for Descent to be played again.


My rating for Descent: Journeys in the Dark: 4/10
Current Boardgamegeek rating: 7.2/10


Ryan Walberg said...

If someone could invent a Descent-like game that played in 45-60 minutes, it'd sell like hotcakes. (Hotcakes sell very well, I'm told.)

Linnaeus said...

Funnily enough, I played HeroQuest for the first time last night. My impressions of it were inoffensive, but uninspiring and overly long, but it got me interested in possibly trying (but not buying) one of the FF dungeon crawl games.

I think I can now safely say that Descent is not the game I'm looking for :)

Anonymous said...

try Dungeon Twister

Mads Sorensen said...

Hehe agree Ryan, wouldnt be bad at all ;)

Anonymous said...

This is a great game. I play RPG for many years and i found all i need in this game.

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