Game Review: Descent

Gen Con Indy 2011 wasn’t my first encounter with Descent.  The game has been in our house for a couple of years now.  I’m not sure why I haven’t reviewed it before, but I’m happy to do so now.  It’s a game I’ve enjoyed in the past and at Gen Con Indy.

The board game, produced by Fantasy Flight games, is a dungeon delving adventure game.  Descent is one that we’ve enjoyed immensely, especially with friends.  The difference between Descent and other role playing type games is that the person who is running the game, the overlord, is actually playing against the players.  The overlord is trying to kill everyone off and keep them from respawning in order to win.  He’s not just running the game and organizing everything.

For us, my husband is usually the overlord.  He best understands the game, its rules and gaming in general.  Plus, he’s just a natural leader, so it works well.  However, at Gen Con this year, we decided to get in a full-length running of Descent through Fantasy Flight.  We paid for our tickets and hit the table on Saturday morning.  I was looking forward to playing Descent with my husband rather than against him, even though the game was scheduled for five hours.  Of course that’s a long time, but the time whizzed by.

The overlord totally runs the game.  It has quests.  According to the chosen quest instructions , the overlord starts with laying out one room and putting out some monsters for players to encounter.  I can’t tell you a lot about how the overlord rules work from there, because I’ve never been the overlord.  So, the review will focus mainly on what it is like to be a player.  Bare with me as I go into detail about the game.  There is a lot to Descent for sure.

Descent sits on our game bookshelf ready to go at all times.

Each player picks a character.  The characters are a wide variety including magic users, melee fighters and ranged weapons fighters.  For our game at Gen Con, I played as Red Scorpion who is a well rounded female character.  My husband was Vyrah the Falconer who was ranged with a bit of magic and had a familiar bird named Skye who could help us in battle.  Characters come with their own card and miniature.  For familiars like Skye, a token is given to the player to control on the board as well.  One of Skye’s abilities was that he could go to the same space as a monster and distract said monster lowering both its defense and attack.

The character card outlines how much health a character starts with, how much basic armor the character has, how far the character can move in a turn, how much vitality a character has, what traits the character has (melee, ranged and magic) and what skills the character has (fighting, subterfuge and wizardry).  Yeah, that sounds super confusing, but I promise it’s not.  It makes sense once you are in the game and reading the card.

My character, Red Scorpion, was pretty general across the board.  She had one of each of the three traits, which meant she was average in fighting melee, ranged and with magic. I kind of liked that since I didn’t know what the overlord was going to be like.  I was happy with picking her as a character.

Each character also gets money to spend at the start of the game.  I bought some armor and a weapon.  Each character also draws skill cards according to the number on the character card and can trade in one for another if desired.  My character had one skill in each of the three categories of fighting, subterfuge and wizardry, so I got my three cards.  I was happy with them.

The overall party gets threat tokens as well.  These come in handy.  Whenever a character is killed in battle, three tokens bring them back from the dead.  Players earn more threat tokens as they go by doing things like activating glyphs to go back to town.  However, if any player dies without enough threat tokens to bring him back, then the game ends with a victory for the overlord.

The game starts with all the characters in town.  Well, at least the first quest does.  We were sent into the dungeon where we were to kill a giant and collect as much treasure as we could.  We got on our way in the first room.  Monsters spawned and were at the ready.  The heroes go first.  Just like in most games of this sort, you can move and attack, do two moves or hold position and do two attacks.  Dealing with line of sight comes into play as well and can get a bit tricky for those of us who like to attack from afar.  Each weapon tells how far it can attack from.

Attacks go by the roll of the dice.  There are various colored dice.  Both traits and weapons combine to help each player figure out how many of which dice to roll for a chosen attack.  The dice determine both the range of the attack and the damage.  It is possible to roll without enough range.  It is also possible to roll and miss since one side of the dice has an “X.”  Any “X” in the roll equals a miss.  The damage is tallied and the monster (or hero when it’s the overlord’s turn) takes that amount of damage, minus his defense.

Of course, the overlord gets a turn as well.  In his very first turn, our Gen Con overlord killed my character.  She went back to town and rejoined the group on the next heroes’ turn.  I’m not crazy about that, but it’s how the game goes.  My defense could only do so much.

Our first room was one of the hardest.  When we were finished, the overlord explained to us that the cards he kept drawing to use against us were monsters instead of other fun-for-the-overlord cards like traps.  So, just when we thought the room was clear, more monsters would spawn.  It was frustrating, of course.  Monsters could spawn anywhere that wasn’t in line of sight of a player or a specific familiar named Boggs the Rat.  The person playing Boggs struggled with that in the first room in understanding where to best place the rat.

After a tough, long battle in that first room, we finally opened the door to another room.  In Descent, if you don’t close the doors behind you, then monsters can spawn in those rooms and come through to attack from behind.  We were careful to close doors when we could to keep our playing area under control.  We also didn’t know what was on the other side of a door until it opened.  That said, some more hard core gamers don’t think that all the monsters in a room should spawn until characters have line of sight on them, but the Descent rules call for all monsters (and treasures) in a room to spawn when players enter the room.

We fought everything from spiders to undead soldiers.  Undead enemies get to roll and see whether they respawn when they are dealt a deadly blow.  So, there were a couple that we had to kill more than once.  We also picked up health and fatigue potions as well as treasure along the way.  The fatigue potions restore vitality points that you can use to do certain extras in the game, including utilizing certain skills.  My character, for example, could spend one fatigue point at the start of her turn to recover one wound and vice versa.  It came in handy.

Our overlord was most definitely aggressive and out to get us.  I’m happy to say that the four of us held our own (the game is for two to five players).  We battled it out.  We came close to losing quite a few times.  We talked strategy.  We were just ready to take on the final giant when the five-hour session ended.  So, we didn’t get to finish the game.  The overlord was confident he would have won.  We were confident that we would have won.  But, it was a draw since time ran out.

Honestly, Descent is one of my favorite games.  It can seem complicated at first explanation.  And it can seem overwhelming, but it’s pretty easy to pick up.  We’ve played it with gamers and non-gamers alike and found that they could pick it up pretty easily no matter what their background was.

I also like that it is very re-playable.  Each quest is different.  Each set of characters in a party is different.  They work to make for a unique experience each time you play the game.  It has a semi-steep price tag (around $90 on Amazon.com), but I’d say it’s worth the investment.  Various expansion packs (around $40) make it even more playable.  We have the Sea of Blood expansion, though we’ve not gotten to play it, yet.

I’d give Descent a 5 out of 5 stars.

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