Descent: Journeys in the Dark Board Game Review & Ultimate Guide

Terrinoth is in peril. The wicked Overlord is imposing his ancient evil upon the land. But fortunately, a band of heroes has emerged, and they aren’t going to let their homeland fall without a fight. Together, can they defeat the darkness?

Brief Overview of Descent

Descent: Journeys in the Dark Board Game

Descent: Journeys in the Dark is a fantasy dungeon-crawler for two-to-five players. One takes on the role of the evil Overlord, who controls swathes of monsters and will create all sorts of havoc. The others are the heroes, whose task is to do all they can to stop the Overlord’s dastardly plans.

On their mission, heroes will explore haunted forests, ancient cities, and dank dungeons. They’ll have to defeat zombies, flesh moulders, and two-headed giants, to name just a few.

They’ll stumble upon tools and weapons to help them along the way. But one thing’s for sure: it won’t be an easy ride if the Overlord gets their way.

Descent: Journeys in the Dark
  • It is a board game in which one player takes on the role of the...
  • During each game, the heroes embark on quests and venture into...
  • Featuring double-sided modular board pieces, countless hero and...

Versions & Expansions

Descent: Journeys in the Dark Board Game Expansions

There is a tonne of expansions for Descent: Journeys in the Dark, including:

Shadow of Nerekhall

This big-box expansion introduces the city of Nerekhall to the game, a once-depraved metropolis that has fought back against the evil within its walls. However, all is not as it seems. Alongside new quests, you’ll get a bunch of new heroes, monsters and items to battle with. And, of course, 16 new miniatures!

Descent Second Edition: Shadow of Nerekhall
  • Nineteen new quests can be played individually or as part of a...
  • Four new heroes and four new classes let players further...
  • Presents the threat of dangerous new lieutenants and monsters

Manor of Ravens

This time, the Overlord finally gets some of the spoils. Manor of Ravens adds in new classes for the Overlord, alongside having a bunch of extra monsters and relics put at their disposal. All this is set in a new haunted mansion for the heroes to explore, which is teeming with loot… and other, more scary things.

Descent Second Edition: Manor of Ravens
  • The overlord gains two new monster groups, a deadly new...
  • Six new quests can be played individually, woven into other...
  • Hero players gain two new heroes as well as hero classes for...

Bonds of the Wild

Bonds of the Wild is from the ‘Hero and Monster Collections’ expansion series. These are slightly slimmer expansions, dedicated to padding out your collection of ghouls and heroes. Bonds of the Wild provides you with 22 miniatures that were previously only available in the first edition of Descent: Journeys in the Dark. You’ll get a couple of bonus quests to complete, too.

Descent Second Edition: Bonds of the Wild
  • The sixth Hero and Monster Collection for Descent adds twenty-two...
  • Four heroes join the hunt: Lyssa, Challara, Vyrah the Falconer,...
  • Fight for the overlord with eighteen monsters: twelve kobolds,...

Unboxing Descent

Descent: Journeys in the Dark Board Game

As with any decent dungeon-crawler, you can be sure to disturb some great monsters lurking in the box. In all, you’ll find:

  • The rulebook
  • 1 Quest Guide
  • 8 hero figures
  • 31 monster figures
  • 9 custom six-sided dice
  • 7 plastic stands
  • 8 hero sheets
  • 1 pad of campaign sheets
  • 152 small cards
  • 84 bridge-sized cards
  • 205 tokens (including 48 map tiles)

The first thing you’ll pull out is the rulebook, which is very impressive. Reading through, everything is really clearly explained and easy to navigate, greatly contributing to the experience of the first game. It’s also not particularly long, as many fantasy/RPG game rulebooks often are (rarely necessary, and seemingly more for vanity than clarity).

There’s a whole host of cardboard to punch out. Most notable are the map tiles, which make up the core play area of the game. These are thick and show real quality.

Artwork-wise, Descent has hardly gone out on a limb to create anything new. It neatly fits the fantasy genre and uses some impressive bold colors. So, while it gets no points for originality, there’s nothing to complain about here.

The best part of Descent: Journeys in the Dark, though, are the miniatures. Each monster comes in both red and a tan, representing a weaker and stronger version of itself. For those that like to paint their models, you’ll no doubt enjoy the opportunity to try out a couple of things with these. The dragon, in particular, is humongous and looks awesome.

The heroes, on the other hand, are grey plastic, so they definitely need something done to spice things up.

How to Play Descent

Descent: Journeys in the Dark Board Game

Aim Of The Game

The goal for the heroes is to complete the conditions of the quest they chose at the beginning of the game, such as defeating a specific monster or warning a town of an imminent attack before it’s too late. The Overlord, unsurprisingly, has to try and make it so the heroes fail.

Setup

Choose the quest you want to play, then arrange the map tiles as prescribed in the Quest Guide for your chosen mission. Also, identify now who will be the Overlord, and who will be each of the heroes. 

Each hero should take their corresponding hero sheet, choose one of two classes for that hero type, and their skills. This defines your character’s starting equipment and abilities.

The Overlord gets to choose the monsters he wants to use in the game. Then they set-up the map with tokens and monsters based on the instructions in the Quest Guide, and draw a number of Overlord cards into their hand, equal to the number of heroes in play.

Turns

Each round, every hero takes a turn in an order of their choosing, followed lastly by the Overlord. A hero’s turn begins by allowing them to activate any items they wish to equip that go. Then, they can perform any two of these actions:

  • Move up to as many spaces as your hero’s speed
  • Attack
  • Use a skill (you must have the required amount of fatigue to do so)
  • Rest (recover all fatigue)
  • Reveal a search token, if you’re next to it
  • Stand-up (if knocked out)
  • Revive a hero
  • Open/close a door
  • Use a special action

The Overlord’s turn is mainly spent activating the monsters on the map using similar actions to the heroes. He can activate each one once per turn and take two actions with each (although only one of those actions can be an attack).

The Overlord also has the Overlord Cards at their disposal. These are special abilities or unfortunate events that the heroes must navigate, and it’s up to the Overlord how many they play, and at what point in the game. They will draw more into their hand throughout the game.

Attacking

Combat takes place using dice. To start, a hero chooses the weapon they want to equip to make the attack (monsters don’t have to equip weapons, they have theirs listed on their card). Then, both create their dice pool, which is determined by their weapon. 

The attacker then rolls their dice. If an X symbol appears on the blue die, the whole attack is a fail. If not, then tally up the hearts rolled – this is the potential amount of damage that will be dealt.

The defending player then rolls. The amount of shield symbol results are deducted from the damage dealt by the attacker.

Note that, if you are using a ranged attack, you must also roll the right distance for it to be considered a success.

During the attack, it’s possible you could roll a ‘Surge’ symbol. This will allow your character to choose a special ability from one of their weapons, skills, hero abilities or items, or decide to recover fatigue.

As the game progresses…

Turns and rounds continue as the heroes aim to complete their quest, with the Overlord trying to stop them by sending in monsters and activating Overlord Cards. 

Along the way, heroes will improve their strengths, level-up their abilities and pick up items to boost their chances. There are other abilities and features of the game that can be used to bolster your team’s success, too, such as the ‘heroic feat’ power, which may be used once per encounter.

Heroes will also face attribute tests and be struck down by ‘conditions’, usually picked up during combat. For example, your hero could become poisoned or diseased, which will affect them every turn until healed.

Each quest is usually made up of two main ‘encounters’. It is only the second one that the heroes must win in order to be victorious. Once the conditions have been met, the game ends.

Your First Game of Descent

Descent: Journeys in the Dark Board Game

A simple thing I love about Descent: Journeys in the Dark is its movement. One feature that’s easy to miss here is that, when you choose to move, you can stop part-way to take your second action, before finishing the rest of your movement.

For example, if your hero/monster has a speed of three, then you can move two spaces, attack a monster, then move the remaining one space afterward.

This greatly increases the mobility of your characters and is a simple yet satisfying touch to the rules.

Pros & Cons

Pros:

  • Great character customization
  • A mix of co-operative and competitive
  • Nice variation of objectives
  • Really easy dungeon-crawler to learn

Cons:

  • You may not have someone that wants to be the Overlord

My favorite part of Descent is the character development. On choosing your hero, you’ll get plenty of opportunities to make them your own. From the very beginning, you can select their class, starting skills and equipment. Then, as you move through the game, your personal skillset and arsenal of weapons and loot can grow exponentially, as there’s no limit to the amount of gear you can carry. I especially liked being able to select the weapons your character uses for each attack.

This is a very pleasing aspect of the game and contributes a lot to its replayability. Should you want to play a quest again or re-do the whole campaign, you can create an entirely different character to try and win in a totally different way.

The replayability is boosted, too, by the different objectives of each quest. They vary quite nicely from one another, all with different paths to follow, meaning you’ll need different tactics to complete each one. This makes campaigns all the more challenging, as your team may have kitted itself out for one type of adventure, only to find you don’t have quite the right tools for the next one.

While Descent: Journeys in the Dark is an exciting and in-depth dungeon-crawler, it’s incredibly easy to learn. The turns all take the same structure, the attack function is very simple, and it packs in a bunch of other features without managing to feel bloated. So, while it wouldn’t do the game’s complexity justice by tagging it as a beginner, it’s certainly not exclusive of those new to the genre, either.

Finally, I like, too, the mix of co-operative and competitive elements to Descent. Rather than a scripted Dungeon Master role, the Overlord needs to make just as many decisions as the heroes, and it can become a real battle of the wits. This makes it ideal for a mixed bag of gamers, some of whom may prefer a co-operative experience, while others just want to remind their friends who’s boss.

That said, there, of course, isn’t always someone that wants to take on the adversarial role. Perhaps if you’re only playing one quest it’s not such a biggy, however, if you’re entering into a full-on campaign, they might start to feel a little left out. This is where the two-player version of the game works quite well, as it flips the game from a co-op into a more straightforward one-on-one. And no one has to feel left out.

TL;DR

Descent: Journeys in the Dark is a fantasy dungeon-crawler for two-to-five players. Mixing things up a little, the Dungeon Master actually takes a competitive role. Donning the guise of Overlord, their job is to control the monsters and make our heroes’ lives hell.

In addition to this fun shake-up, Descent shines when it comes to character development. You have plenty of ways to personalize your hero, making it really stand out in terms of replayability.

It’s a simple yet in-depth addition to the genre. So, whether or not you’re a dungeon-crawling expert, Descent should be a no-brainer. It’s got it all.

Conclusion: Verdict?

Descent is a well-loved game here at Game Cows. It makes it on to Bryan’s top RPG, co-op, fantasy and dungeon-crawler lists, for a start. And that’s no surprise. It’s an all-encompassing fantasy game that does everything you’d want from a dungeon-crawler and does it well.

That doesn’t mean it’s nothing new, though. The added competitive element of the Overlord sets the experience apart from other dungeon-crawler games. Its fast-paced, action-packed gameplay makes it a more quick and exciting endeavor than some others, too.

The best part, though, is how you can mould the heroes. Some games can be very rigid about the development your character makes, often only allowing you to improve attributes and carry a couple of special items. Not in Descent, though. You can evolve your hero in so many ways and gather a plethora of weapons, tools, and trinkets to support your cause.

Whether you’re a dungeon-crawler veteran after your next adventure, or a newbie hoping to explore the genre for the first time, Descent: Journeys in the Dark ticks all the boxes. In many ways, it’s like a band’s greatest hits album. It gives you all the big hitters, cuts the pointless album-filler, and leaves the more complex, ‘experimental period’ tracks for just the hardcore fans to explore.

Descent: Journeys in the Dark
  • It is a board game in which one player takes on the role of the...
  • During each game, the heroes embark on quests and venture into...
  • Featuring double-sided modular board pieces, countless hero and...

Have you played Descent? Love it or hate it, we’d love to hear your thoughts. Drop a comment below and let us know!

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Stats at a glance

Players: 1-5

Ages: 14 +

Hard

120 Mins

Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games

Published: 2012