Get Down Tonight – Descent: Journeys in the Dark – Second Edition review

Time to introduce another new reviewer! Please welcome Stuart Platt to the site, a guy who is not only an avid gamer but also happens to be a professional wrestler. Working as The Judge, you should expect his reviews to be fair and informed (until he pulls a heel turn, anyway). To kick off, Stuart is taking a look at the Second Edition of Fantasy Flight Games’ classic Descent. Will this remake convince fans to move over from the original or is it just a cash in? 

Ah, Descent… where to begin.  Well, how about a little context.  The coffin box of Descent 1st Edition (or D1) as it will be called henceforth, was one of my first BIG purchases after getting back into the gaming hobby.

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Brimming with the nostalgia of my youth – hours and hours spent huddled round Hero QuestWarhammer Quest and Talisman – this giant box filled with plastic-goodness was almost impossible to resist – and yet the sensation was somewhat bittersweet.

Someone plays the big, bad Overlord, the others play the Heroes.  You’ve got all the monsters you could ever need, huge swathes of terrain tiles, chunky custom dice… and a play time you could knit a cardigan in.  Like an XXL cardigan.  With pockets and everything.  But the experience wasn’t what I wanted.  In fact, it just raised a few questions.

Why aren’t we just playing D&D?  Why does D1 exist? What niche is it trying to fill? Well, it’s  a board game implementation of a Dungeons & Dragons-esque fantasy scenario / dungeon crawl but in a more manageable play time?  Only it’s not.  The game is fiddly, dense and unwieldy. Once the characters get geared up with equipment, skills and plenty of cool-stuff, turns can be a monstrous, analysis paralysis fuelled exercise in min-maxing your turn.  Death is an excuse to go shopping, play sessions can be huge and progress is slow.

But the game is competitive isn’t it? For both the Overlord player and the Heroes? Except, from my experience, if the Overlord goes all out he will probably kill the heroes handily – and the line of sight / spawning monster rules (which prevent the Overlord bringing in creatures where the heroes could see them) mean that both sides are constantly ‘gaming’ what is supposed to be a romping thematic experience.

So, you may ask yourself, why have I spent the first 250 words of this review talking about D1? Well, Fantasy Flight’s Descent 2nd Edition (or D2… see what I did there?) expertly fixes all of my problems with the first edition and brings new things to the table which elevate the experience even further.

Up to five players (four heroes and the Overlord) can approach missions either piecemeal or as part of a larger campaign, complete with levelling and persistent equipment.  Our first play (with 3 heroes) saw us complete a well-designed introductory quest and the first 2-part mission in one evening!  Now for readers who desperately want to avoid spoilers, be off with you!  I don’t think knowing the outline of the first main quest will ruin the experience – but best be safe.

Oh my. This is very pretty indeed. I want it. NOW.

Right, now they’ve gone… Why does D2 succeed?  Well, the quests are excellent.  Descent has always had relatively interesting objectives for the heroes – go here, kill that, collect those and the like, but the Overlord has essentially had to make do with ‘KILL ALL GOOD GUYS!’  D2 introduces opposed objectives for both – and your performance in part one will have ramifications for part two.  For instance, Fat Goblin Part One sees the Overlord’s Gobbos stealing crops, whilst the heroes try to secure them in the farm’s barn.  The more crops that the Goblins pinch, the more health the boss in Fat Goblin Part Two will have.  In game terms, this dissuades players from descending into a pure slug-fest.  There will be blood, but you can’t take your eyes off the mission objective.

Play is streamlined.  The core mechanisms remain intact but are refined: Movement is fluid – besides a simple modifier for crossing water and opposing monsters blocking passage, you can go where you want up to your Speed stat.  Line of sight is obvious – so as not to affect game flow.  To attack, players cause damage and check range by rolling a number of custom dice related to the weapon they are using.  Opposing that, new defence dice provide variable protection against attacks (instead of D1’s static numbers) and are simply implemented – tougher creatures (or better Hero armour) have more and/or better defence dice, but you can’t account for that terrible roll which always gives the underdog hope.

The other big mechanical change from D1 is the removal of the rather fiddly ‘Threat’ which the Overlord would accumulate and spend to summon creatures and play traps throughout the game.  Instead of this, each scenario now has specific rules of how, when and where the monsters come out to play – thus providing a more balanced and thematic experience.  The traps and spells are provided in the form of a deck of cards which the Overlord draws from each turn.  In a nice touch, this is customisable by spending XP generated from quest to quest – so as the Heroes level up and develop their skills, so does the Overlord.

Each of these adjustments fixes a problem from the first edition, and turns Descent into the game I always wanted it to be.  It can now be the quick, fun, one-off dungeon crawl where someone gets to play the bad guy as hard as he wants – and the Heroes will have to work well together to compete.  It can still be the sprawling, epic, 20 plus hour campaign with development, new skills, looting treasure for cool stuff and buying things at the local shops  that it’s always been but it’s now delivered in more interesting and engaging bite-sized quests that have a strong narrative through-road.

I think it’s fairly obvious from the tone of this review that I thoroughly enjoy the game.  It’s almost like Christian Peterson (Founder and CEO of Fantasy Flight) tapped into my thoughts, extracted my whims and desires and brought it to life… Actually that’s a little scary. Must change my passwords.

Fantasy Flight will make a fortune of this, and the endless expansions that will undoubtedly follow.  I’ll see you there.  I’ll be the big guy at the front of that queue, frantically waving my money.

Descent: Journeys in the Dark – Second Edition is available now and will set you back *uuuuurp* £65. It’s probably a better idea to get in touch with Gameslore who’ll sort you out a copy for £52.99 – much better!