A plan made in-game between players: An “In-Descent” proposal.

Publisher Fantasy Flight Games
Designed by Kevin Wilson and Darrell Hardy
Art Credits Jesper Ejsing, John Goodenough, Lou Frank, Scott Nicely, Andrew Navaro, Brian Schomburg
Game Contents Rules, Quest Guide (scenario book), 20 hero sheets, 80 plastic figures, 12 special dice, 180 cards, 61 interchangeable board pieces, 10 doors with plastic stands, 371 tokens and markers; boxed, full color, two to five players;
Guidelines Dungeon Crawl Boardgame
MSRP $79.95
Reviewer Andy Vetromile

As the title might suggest, Descent doesn’t have you fighting foes in starships or sylvan glades. You’re going down into the bowels of the Earth and you’re not coming back until you or your formidable enemies go down.

The heroes’ objective is to complete their mission in the underworld; the overlord player’s is to drain them of “conquest tokens,” plunging the defeated team (and the usual “big chunk of the rest of the world”) into darkness.

The players have a wide variety of heroes from which to choose, each with its own statistics and special abilities. Skills in combat and magic and so on provide you with cards from a corresponding deck, though not all give you “skills” in the traditional sense. You might, for example, get a familiar with mystical abilities when drawing from the magic skills deck.

Armed thusly, the team ventures into the underground cavern, uncovering the layout as they go. Rooms, corridors, and passageways of varying sizes are snapped together, all connected with jigsaw-cut edges. If the endless permutations thereof weren’t enough, board elements like teleporters, obstacles like rune-locked rooms, and encounters that might spring surprises, good or bad, on curious characters throw even more curves. A scenario (available from the book, the players’ imaginations, or FFG’s on-line scenario generator) dictates not only the blueprints but what lies in wait. Certain monsters abide in particular rooms, but don’t barge into play until their rest is disturbed (read: a hero opens the door to that section). It wouldn’t be much of a fantasy game without fabulous treasure; dotted about the dungeon, some is useful combat gear while the rest is money to be spent in town.

Attacks are adjudicated by custom colored dice that dictate distance (if it’s a ranged attack it may peter out before it reaches your target) and the damage done. Special black dice, lightning “surges” on the roll, and exhausting one’s fatigue points can also boost attacks. For example, a hero skilled with a particular weapon might get an extra point of damage for every pair of surge symbols he gets. The party gains further advantages from special orders: If you take the Dodge maneuver, for instance, your opponent may have to reroll an attack, changing a hit to a miss.

When the adventuring party has done all the damage they can do, the overlord gets his turn. Although he doesn’t enjoy same perks (no dice surges for him), he does get a whole deck of cards to himself, filled with extra units, ways to hurt players, and traps to spring. His minions have their own stats, powers, and effects (flying critters, breath weapons, magical fear effects), and secrecy is more his friend than yours. He’s limited by the cards he can “pay” for with threat tokens, the mastermind’s currency.

Either the heroes succeed in their mission – to save someone, maybe, or find an important artifact, or just kill a really tough monster – or the overlord vexes the party enough to take all their conquest tokens (the coin of the realm for do-gooders). In the former case the good guys win; in the latter, darkness reigns supreme.

Using mechanics borrowed from Doom, the company has created a fantasy version that nevertheless holds up its end. Although so much of it is taken from the parent game, it has a feel all its own, with different monsters, more character individuality, additional strategy, and plenty of variety. Heroes aren’t cookie-cutter versions of the same man four times; you have advantages and disadvantages, and winning means learning how to use them to best effect. You have to balance your fatigue expenditures, time your special orders, and equip the right gear at the right time. The villain also has lots of upsets and wrenches in his deck that can turn a good plan into a hopeless mess for the good guys. It may seem like a rock-paper-scissors effect, figuring out whether good or evil has the advantage, but there’s so much for everyone to juggle the whole thing comes out surprisingly even.

It also takes longer than Doom, so you’d best set aside a late night or a full afternoon to accommodate the three- or four-hour running time (which balloons out severely your first couple of games). Being able to travel to town and trade goods and services during a mission is an odd mechanic, one that makes thematic sense for hero healing or even resurrection, but training? It’s a hefty box with an equally daunting price tag, but you’re really getting what you pay for. There are countless high-quality miniatures for both sides (each hero has a specific figure, with detail enough to pick yours out of a crowd), stacks of counters, and lots of cards. The map pieces provided are top of the line and offer endless variations, so customizing the game for everything from number of participants to play time available is at your discretion. To avoid the obvious play on words, Descent is more than just “decent” – it’s the complete package.

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