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Not Cardboard Children: Descent

Table Dancing

Every time we write about boardgames here on RPS the same comment rears its pointy little head. It goes like this. "Sigh, looks like fun. If only I had some like-minded friends to play it with."

Because of this I'm going to be doing a roundup of incredible board games designed for just two players, but NOT THIS WEEK. No, this week I'm going to talk about a monster of a game that you'll need four geeky friends for, and a colossal table, and hundreds upon hundreds of hours, and I'm doing this to you because to exist is to suffer. This game is called Descent: The Road to Legend, and it's the single biggest, most brilliant game you've never heard of.

The basics: Descent is a dungeon crawling game. A team of four hero players have to progress through a grid-based dungeon under the control of a fifth player, the Overlord. The Overlord moves monsters around, spawns new monsters, and casts traps and spells on the players with the aim of either impeding or killing the heroes. So it's a bit like Dungeons & Dragons, except with all of the roleplaying and talking stripped out and replaced with a Dungeon Master who've actively trying to murder you.

As I was saying, Descent is a big girl.

Oof! Look at all those tokens and tiles and cards. It's like the god of games sneezed all over the table. A table which is, incidentally, six feet long and three feet wide, and we're using almost all of it. That's not all, either. Just out of shot is far are several other boxes of Descent tokens and miniatures to represent different monsters, traps, dungeon tiles, heroes, status effects, items of treasure and lord knows what else.

A big girl.

Descent's fantasy setting holds few surprises, but something that is unique about it is it's pace. The traditional image of a party of adventurers progressing through a dungeon is one of caution, right? Four heroes huddled together, squinting out of their torchlight at what might be lurking in the shadows, advancing step by cautious step.

If you try that in Descent, you'll be murdered. The Overlord will swat the lot of you like flies. The way the heroes survive Descent is by moving and fighting with the speed and grit of a medieval S.W.A.T. team.

You see, the way Descent plays is that first the heroes take their turns, running or battling or even entering a kind of Overwatch mode, if you've ever played Space Hulk, and then it's the Overlord's turn to act. He moves all the monsters, but he also draws two cards from his Overlord deck, and he gains four Threat tokens that can be used to play those cards. If this sounds familiar, it might be because the same publisher later used it in Mansions of Madness.

Overlord cards can cause anything from falling rubble and poison gas to placing new monsters on the board or even "charming" a hero into hitting another hero, or himself.

In my group one of the heroes is a towering barbarian called Laughing Buldar. Last session we entered a new dungeon and managed to get about five yards in before Buldar felt compelled to attack himself with his Dragontooth pickaxe. He was so injured he had to be teleported back to town for healing, leaving the rest of us to charge deeper into the dark without our warrior.

Five sodding yards. This shit never happened to Conan.

So, yes. You move fast and you fight efficiently, because every single turn will see the Overlord growing in power. Furthering the S.W.A.T. team vibe is Descent's single most entertaining rule, which is that the Overlord can spawn monsters on any tile that the heroes don't have line of sight to. So you work the angles. You leave someone behind, covering your back. As you're clearing a room, you fan out to make sure that you've got somebody on either side of that wall of rubble, and you do all this because if you don't then spiders the size of Smart cars are going to start crawling out of your peripheral vision like continuity errors. "I could have sworn there was nothing behind that stone!" the hero players will joke, and they will joke to hide the terror, because now they're surrounded.

Further proof, if it were needed, of the speed at which the heroes are racing through the dungeon comes from the fatigue system. I love the fatigue system.

Depending on their physical conditioning, each hero in Descent gets a small handful of fatigue tokens (the orange teardrop in the upper right of the picture) that you can spend to fight a little bit harder, or run a little bit further, or activate various cumbersome items. These are handy little tokens, and all you need to do to get them back is spend half of your turn resting. That's it. You just need to take a little pause to catch your breath.

Nothing speaks more of Descent's breathless pace than the fact that as a hero, you'll be running around with no fatigue tokens for most of the time. Rest? There's no time! There's always some bloodthirsty monster that needs stabbing or an imposing door that's gotta get kicked open. This leads to various incredible moments where your hero will charge at some huge demon and make his attack, and after you roll the requisite fat handful of dice you'll realise that you're one point of damage away from killing it. But you don't have any fatigue to add to the roll. You're exhausted. Spent. If only you'd taken pause outside the room to have a sip of stamina potion! But no, you kept running because you were too scared. And now you've got something to be scared about.

That's basically Descent. A game of pain, tactics, cunning and a lot of really good dice rolls.

Ah, but I came here to talk about Descent: The Road to Legend, one of the worthiest expansion packs ever designed. In the base game of Descent, each dungeon is a self-contained game. The players pick their heroes, the dungeon is set up, the heroes either win or they lose and everybody goes home.

What Road to Legend does is turn Descent into a massive campaign played over real-life months, where each dungeon only represents a skirmish between the heroes and the overlord in a far larger arms race that has the heroes racing all over a world map.

Does that sound cool? Because it gets so much better.

Spread across the map are plenty of dungeons, but also cities offering training in different special abilities and secret huts where grandmasters dwell. And as the heroes are slinking their little party token this way and that, the Overlord isn't idle. He gets to have the most fun of all.

Each time he kills a hero and forces them to resurrect (as well as each in-game week that goes by) the Overlord gets experience of his own that he can spend upgrading any aspect of himself, or his dungeons, or his deck, or even on lieutenants that he can then move around the world map in an attempt to fortify dungeons, ambush the heroes or siege and raze cities.

What you've got here is a grand subgame happening in the background of your dungeon crawling. In the here and now, yeah, you're worrying about whether you'll roll enough damage with your bow to kill that naga that's ensnared your friend, but in the back of your mind you're worrying about the town of Dawnsmoor, which is besieged by a wyvern that you're not sure your team should go toe-to-toe with.

At the end of this dungeon you'll have to make a decision. Do you leave Dawnsmoor to its fate, and go off to investigate that rumour that dragon younglings have been found on the Thelsvan Highway? Or do you try and be the hero? Do you travel to take on the wyvern and its minions, and risk a total party kill that'll give the Overlord more experience than he'll know what to do with? This could be the decision that dooms the world.

Maybe you want to play it safe, but your friends want to be heroes. You'll argue. Over popcorn and bottled beer you'll pass around that card showing the Wyvern's stats, and you'll argue about potential plays and averages like the most passionate of sports fans, and all the while down there at the end of the table the Overlord is giggling like a child. He's planning on building a temple to the dark gods on the rubble of Dawnsmoor, and your party will be to blame for it.

In a word, it's epic. My group isn't anywhere close to the final showdown with the Overlord himself yet - yes, at the end of the campaign the heroes finally storm the Overlord's keep, which is right there on the world map, and attempt to assassinate his chosen avatar - no, we're not even close. But I know that when it happens, it'll be a once in a lifetime gaming experience, because our campaign already feels like a once in a lifetime gaming experience.

Playing a game that's this rich for this long, you end up with stories, yes, but you also start to develop feelings about every enemy, about the Overlord's way of playing, and, of course, about your own heroes.

These are our boys. I'm not going to talk about the battle with the giant that you can see here, because it was a horrible slog that left the entire party phyiscally and mentally exhausted before we'd even finished trekking to the dungeon entrance, but I will talk about our heroes.

On the left you can see Grey Ker, a.k.a. "Two-Hole Ker". The nickname emerged from our very first battle in the campaign, in which Ker accidentally fell into a hole leading to some catacombs, and emerged two turns later only to immediately get batted into the same hole again by a skeleton. The name stuck because Ker's player was later caught writing "Grey Ker the Brave" on the campaign record sheet, and we decided he had to be punished.

Ker never misses with his crossbow. This is because the crossbow, Ripper, which nobody in the party remembers even finding, allows you to re-roll your attack dice, making Ker's famous accuracy nothing at all about his skill. Nonetheless, Ker reminds the party whenever he can that he never misses. That's not true, actually. Ker missed an attack not two weeks ago, shooting at a ghost in a bush. He doesn't like to talk about it.

Next along is Laughing Buldar, a barbarian capable of wielding two-handed weapons in one hand. When he's not hitting himself in the face, Buldar's chief talent is that when he declares that he's spending his turn battling (meaning standing still and attacking twice), he regains fatigue, gains extra armour and gets an extra attack. We've equipped him with the party's Ring of Quickness so that he can still move one square while battling, which means he's the human equivalent of a weaponised spinning top

Laughing Buldar is by far the most popular member of the party.

Third along is Okaluk & Rakash, a tiny halfling (Okaluk) riding a wolf (Rakash). Because of his absurd speed and supernatural dodging ability, for about a month Okaluk's primary role was that of party hoover. There could be a chest at the very end of a corridor blocked up with beastmen, but it wouldn't matter. Okaluk would find a way to weave and slash his way down there, grab the loot and rejoin the rest of the party in the next room.

Most recently, Okaluk received a suit of platemail and a week's intensive training in the art of Taunting. His role is now to wedge himself between danger and Runemaster Thorn and attract the attacks of all monsters.

Finally we have Runemaster Thorn, wizard extraordinare. Thorn is my character, and I'm not saying he dies a lot, but he's just an eldery gentleman wearing a bedsheet and he dies every goddam week. He can, however, teleport to anywhere in his line of sight, and he has an item called the Staff of the Grave which stops enemies with the "Undying" ability from potentially coming back to life.

This means my signature move is to push my way to the front of the party, teleport over to whatever undead big bad is threatening us from the other side of the room and use all of my fatigue to permanently shred him with the staff. There's one problem in this plan that we've yet to iron out, which is that the staff is cursed, meaning when I do this I immediately become worth more points to the Overlord, which works great thematically. I equip the staff, and suddenly every monster is running at me, and every door I open is trapped.

I'm telling you about our characters because I'm hoping it'll express just how much colour there is to this game. Through nothing more than some (about a hundred) miniatures, a few (four bags of) cardboard tiles and a stack of (some 600) cards, this game gives you an entire world to have adventures in. It's glorious. Click here to see some exceptionally poor photography of all the miniatures lined up.

When I first started playing Descent I wondered why video games hadn't done a multiplayer game on this kind of scale before, but I've long since stopped thinking about it. Everything I love about Descent is stuff that wouldn't translate to a video game. It's about you and your friends watching the same dice clattering across the table. It's about looking at the hero player across the table from you and know that you're in this together. It's about dying and leaving the table to go get a bottle of beer from the fridge, and peering at the Overlord's hand of cards on the way over.

Pain. Tactics. Cunning.

SO! Let's say I've convinced you, and you want to get in on this whole Descent thing. Where do you start? Let's go through each of the Descent products in turn.

Descent: Journeys Into The Dark

This is the base game. It comes in a humungous box and will set you back an eyewatering £65. If you feel like stopping here, you can. It comes with plenty of dungeons for you and your friends to play through.

Descent: The Road to Legend

Right! Here's your £35 campaign box that turns Descent from a game of one-off dungeons to a campaign. Obviously, you're best off thinking of this money you're spending as an investment. A single runthrough of a full campaign will entertain you and your friends for some two hundred hours, so it's not unreasonable to ask them to chip in.

ALTERNATIVELY, instead of Road to Legend you can buy this:

Descent: The Sea of Blood

Years after Road to Legend was released Fantasy Flight released a second campaign box set with different Overlord lieutenants, a different map and so on, in which the players explore the world via an upgradeable magic galleon. I haven't played it, but it does look like a more richly themed campaign than Road to Legend. Instead of buying Road to Legend, or if you can't find it, you could happily buy this instead, but do not buy both. They're not compatible.

Descent: The Well of Darkness

The first expansion for the game, adding (among other things) new monsters, new treasure and the ability for the Overlord to customise his deck. If you want to expand the game, get this first. You can happily expand the game after starting the campaign.

Descent: The Altar of Despair

This is the second expansion. Get this second.

Descent: Tomb of Ice

This is the third expansion, adding the prettiest new miniatures and the craziest new heroes (Okaluk & Rakash come from this expansion, as does a hero that's just a yeti), as well as a Feat system that means the heroes get hands of cards of their own.

So there you have it. As always, FindYourLocalGameStore.co.uk is ready and waiting to help you out, and if you do embark on a campaign for the love of God make sure somebody around the table knows the rules back to front. That includes the errata. Nobody said saving the world was going to be easy, baby.

Should I give a shout-out to my local game store? I think I should. Leisure Games in Finchley, baby! Low prices and excellent people. Love you guys.

Oh, two more things.

(1) The Descent rule system is actually based on the rule system of the (now out of print) Doom board game. As in, Doom the video game.
(2) The same publishers will be releasing a co-operative Gears of War board game this autumn. See here for details.

Until next week!

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About the Author
Quintin Smith avatar

Quintin Smith

Former Staff Writer

Quinns was one of the first writers to join Rock Paper Shotgun after its founding in 2007, and he stayed with the site until 2011 (though he carried on writing freelance articles well beyond that). These days, you can find him talking about tabletop board games over on Shut Up And Sit Down, or doing proper grown-up journalism with the folks at People Make Games.