“The twin baronies of Rhynn and Carthridge lie on the outskirts of Terrinoth, far from the Free Cities…” -Introduction to *The Shadow Rune* campaign. Descent: Journeys in the Dark 2nd Edition.
In the beginning (1975 to be exact) there was DUNGEON! Pick a character, roll and move, flip a card, fight a monster, score some treasure. DUNGEON! grew out of the same primordial soup that generated the original DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS.
At the tail end of the 80’s Milton Bradley and Games Workshop brought us HEROQUEST, and a new villain to face: Zargon, the Evil Sorcerer, played by one of the other players!
ADVANCED HEROQUEST (1989) would soon follow from Games Workshop, though it bore little to no resemblance to the original. And the Zargon player had been replaced by a non-partial Game Master. This was truly a light Role-Playing Game experience, with character creation and advancement, huge multi-part campaigns, and smaller scenarios published in the pages of White Dwarf.
WARHAMMER QUEST (1995) was to follow, which superficially resembled its HEROQUEST ancestry but did away with the GM role and created an all-for-one random dungeon game.
A dearth of quality dungeon crawl games was to follow. It would not be until 2005 that Fantasy Flight Games would release DESCENT: JOURNEYS IN THE DARK. Loosely based on the mechanics of FFG’s earlier DOOM boardgame, and taking place in Terrinoth, the setting of RUNEBOUND, DESCENT made the bold move of creating the position of Overlord. One player would take this role, and unlike a gamemaster, the Overlord would actively play against the other players, attempting to defeat them at every turn. This allowed designer Kevin Wilson to balance the game like a proper adversarial boardgame, without having to make the sort of design concessions necessary for narrative flow or secret GM information. While its DOOM pedigree resulted in a lot of video game type mechanics (like “dead” heroes teleporting back to town and getting in a leisurely shopping trip before teleporting back into the dungeon) DESCENT brought an out-of-the-box playability to the dungeon crawl genre that hadn’t been seen since the original HEROQUEST.
Prior to DESCENT, ADVANCED HEROQUEST was far and away my favorite of the bunch. It was an RPG-light experience with the vastness of the Warhammer miniatures line available as expansion. Creating new adventures was as easy as writing a new scenario for a typical tabletop RPG, and could utilize any of the Warhammer models in your collection. For Warhammer players or modelers, ADVANCED HEROQUEST came complete with scores of models that you could seamlessly plug right into your game. What it required, was a lot of prep time.
In 2005 all that would change. Upon its release, DESCENT became the preeminent dungeon crawl board game for me. My main complaint (lack of a real campaign system) was remedied with the release of the ROAD TO LEGEND expansion. It wasn’t perfect. The video gamey elements were sort of a thematic turn-off, and I really wanted a richer narrative, even in campaign mode. But, all things considered, it was unquestionably the best dungeon crawl board game to date, four to five hour playtime not withstanding.
So. Second Edition.
I have the first edition. What have they changed?
I have one complaint. One. And I’m gonna get it out of the way here, because everything else is great. I hate the new art, especially the heroes and lieutenants. Some of them look like they fell out of a Disney movie. Anyway, your opinion may differ. On to better things…
The biggest mechanical changes were all done with an eye toward streamlining play. Armor Values from first edition have been replaced with Defense Dice. So it’s now impossible to “math out” attacks. Exactly how much damage a target will be able to ignore is largely up to fate.
Also gone are Threat Points. The Overlord simply starts with a number of cards equal to the player count and draws another each turn. He may play as many cards from his hand each turn as he likes. It’s worth noting here that Spawning is also gone. Each scenario gives the Overlord a number of monster “groups” to work with, which can frequently be customized. Reinforcement rules are dictated by scenario conditions.
Gone too are Conquest Tokens. So how do you know who wins? Well, victory conditions are tied to the specific narrative conditions of the scenario. Gone are the days of abstracted “points” accrued by kills. Everything is tied to story, which gives the whole proceeding a sense of purpose and urgency that the game lacked before. Additionally, the arc of advancement isn’t remotely like first edition. Heroes do not grow from newbies to mighty heroes over the course of one scenario. The entire system is now built around campaign play. In fact, it’s practically the default method of play. Yes, that’s right, campaign play right in the main box. The advancement that does occur is largely skill-based; one can’t boost damage output and Health levels to astronomical levels, but instead you gain an arsenal of special tricks and abilities. Additionally, each character is one of four archetypes and has a choice of one of two corresponding classes to pick from. So every time you play, you’re customizing your character a little bit.
Treasure is considerably more rare. What this means for game play is that you’re no longer calculating huge numbers like some sort of math problem for every damage roll. (Anybody who’s ever discussed actual RPGs with me knows that I prefer low magic settings, because I think magic items become all the more meaningful if they are exceedingly rare. So this development pleases me greatly.)
All of this drives home my favorite thing about this new iteration of the game. If I could sum up the new edition in a nut shell it would be Story-driven, Narrative Campaign Play. Anything remotely video-game-like is gone. No more teleportation glyphs, no more shopping during dungeon runs, no more instant gold upon killing master creatures (I always heard a video game “bling” in my head whenever that happened.) The game is more internally consistent, which is to say that things work the way you would expect them to within the game world. The game no longer feels like a board game version of Gauntlet, but like a miniatures-based, light role-playing game. And that, ladies and gentelmen, is awesome sauce. And oh, by the way, game play is typically under two hours. No, I’m not kidding. When we ran our preview night here at the store, I ran the intro scenario three times from start to finish (including rules teaching each time). All between 6:30pm and 9:15pm.
What’s with the smaller box?
A lot of people have noticed that when DESCENT was first released, it was in a massive box and retailed for $79.95, and later raised to $89.95. The new version is $79.95 but comes in a much smaller box. So yes, there are fewer plastic figures in the box (though they are all new, more on that later.) The fact of the matter is that plastic manufacturing costs have raised considerably in the seven years since the first edition came out. But other than that, what’s missing? It is honestly a bunch of stuff that is no longer needed with the new rules. No threat or conquest tokens, as already discussed. No gold tokens (since there’s no mid-adventure shopping, it’s all handled during campaign play and recorded on the campaign form.) No terrain tiles. Why? ‘Cause the new double-sided Map Tiles have terrain pre-printed on them, which at first glance may seem limiting, but actually means that many of them are story-specific for use in the various scenarios.
What is in the box is entirely new. Even if you own absolutely everything from first edition, there is not a single bit of plastic in here that you already have. And with the purchase of the Second Edition Conversion Kit, all of your old plastic converts seamlessly over to the new edition. Every monster and every hero, even promos.
With the new emphasis on campaign play and the streamlined system, it is my fondest wish that Fantasy Flight expand upon the new edition as if it were an RPG. How cool would it be if they periodically put out $25 expansions that simply contain a new campaign book, a couple of new Map Tiles and maybe some new unique Relic cards? Basically modules for Descent? The first edition expansion boxes filled with a bunch of new monsters and heroes were cool and all, but somehow unsatisfying. Adventures and campaigns are the way to go. And with the free-form monster group mechanic in the new edition, smaller, simple “monster box” expansions with one new monster type would rock. Save the great big expansion boxes for crazy crap like what SEA OF BLOOD did for first edition.
From my point of view, DESCENT: JOURNEYS IN THE DARK second edition is better than the original in every way that matters. It will see play more often and result in more satisfying sessions. If you’re a fan of first edition, I see no reason not to upgrade, and if you’re a fan at all of the Terrinoth setting or dungeon crawl board games in general, it’s a no brainer. The preeminent dungeon crawl experience just got that much better.
Got any other questions or want to reserve a copy of the game or the conversion kit? Email Paul at Paul@gamesandstuffonline.com
-Paul Alexander Butler is the store manager at Games and Stuff, where he runs Tuesday Board Game Night and writes about nerdy stuff in [Card.Board.Box.], his monthly column for the store’s website. When not at work he can be found sulking around the shadows of Terrinoth with Bogran the Shadow, relieving less deserving heroes of their gold.