I’d been intrigued with Descent: Journeys in the Dark, from afar, for a while. The first edition came out in 2005 and spawned a fair few expansion packs. More than one regular gamer of my age group had referred to it as being similar, and at times a spiritual successor, to a game that I loved when I was younger: HeroQuest. HeroQuest was a gateway RPG for many of us at the time along with the Fighting Fantasy series of books, which certainly opened the doors for me and my school friends to get into other, more demanding, games such as Dungeons & Dragons and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. Time has passed, people have slept, our expectations have increased and board games seem to have become a lot more complex. Seven years after the original, it’s now time for Descent: Journeys in the Dark – Second Edition.
Descent is set in the RuneBound universe, sharing a common mythology with some other Fantasy Flight Games. The game is for two to five players with one controlling the Overlord (bad guys and monsters) and the others the heroes. All fairly standard for an RPG board game up to now… However, don’t mistake the Overlord player for a traditional ‘Dungeon Master’ who helps to set the scene, tell the story and who also happens to control the monsters – whoever is playing as the Overlord should want to win just as much as the hero players. In Descent, the bad guy winning doesn’t just strike a line under things, ‘game over’ style. Instead, it can determine what happens further down the line, in the second act of some quests, for example. Narrative wins the day!
Everyone playing should be familiar with the rules. This is a basic ask for many board games but something a lot of players sometimes neglect. It helps keep things flowing. Once used to the initial set-up, gameplay can move along quite speedily, allowing players to actually, well, play the game rather than be bogged down with the mechanics, very much like in the recent D&D Adventure System series of board games. In Descent everything is very intuitive from the design and layout of the many skill, item and character cards down to the custom dice that use easily read symbols and numbers to determine different outcomes.
Replayability is aided by variations stemming from the hero/class chosen, to the quests they play and how these are completed. For example, each hero has an archetype, be that warrior, healer, mage or scout. Each of these four archetypes has two classes to choose from, each with their own skill cards and equipment. A warrior, for example, could choose to be one of either the Knight or Berserker classes. Your basic Knight begins wielding a sword and wooden shield quoting an Oath of Honour whereas a Berserker starts his quest waving a chipped great-axe in both hands whilst flying into a berserker rage.
The included Quest Guide contains twenty quests which should keep players entertained for many sessions. Sixteen of the quests can be played individually or all twenty can be strung together using the advanced Campaign Rules. Rules for Epic Play are also included to give players more of a challenge. Along with further quests and campaigns I can easily see more archetypes and classes being added in future expansions.
The game is gorgeous to look at, too, from the many cards used in play through to the rule book and map tiles. Illustrations on the whole are lush, colourful affairs and the miniatures are beautifully detailed, all helping to make play-through a joy.
Descent is more complex than the RPG board games of my misspent youth (HeroQuest, Space Crusade, Space Hulk etc.) yet it’s also a lot more intuitive and, therefore, easier to play. It stands alongside the aforementioned D&D Adventure System series of games yet I think Descent has the edge and is an all-round better package. An RRP of £64.99 might be a big ask for many people new to the series whereas I’m sure it’s a guaranteed purchase for fans of the first edition of this game. However, with a game that’s easy to set-up, quests that are relatively quick to play through with a straightforward combat system and a good dose of narrative, I think there is plenty of value for money for the casual as well as the more experienced gamer.