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Cardboard Children: Descent 2nd Edition

Cosmic Boardgame News

Hello youse,

Today I invite you to celebrate my birthday with me, and before we finish I'll try to get our list of Some Games underway. I want to thank everyone for their reaction to last week's column. The main reason why it's an honour to write on a site like RPS is that the quality of comment is usually so very high. You are a bunch of smart-arse clever-clogsies and I like you all very much.

Oh, and by the way... Descent 2nd Edition is out.


This week I dropped into one of my local board game shops, just for a wander. That's what I always say - “Just for a wander”. After last week's column, though, I told myself that I would NOT be buying any new games. But, forgive me - this week I had no chance, because Descent 2nd Edition was on the shelf, and I did not expect to see that.

I did not expect to see that sitting there.

Now, I'd been told that I would probably be sent a review copy of the game, but I was happy to shell out the 65 quid there and then so that I could take it home. Here's how I see it – I played Descent 1st Edition like crazy. I got my money's worth and more. I was comfortable with just laying out that cash for the new edition sight unseen, play unplayed.

I played it that same night.

I played it twice that same night.

I played it twice, in about two and a half hours, that same night.

Anyone who has any experience with First Edition is probably now, at this point, calling me a liar. The first edition of this dungeon-crawler was an enormous, slow-moving thing. A group of heroes fighting an evil overlord for five hours (or more) in a series of tactical, grindy battles in a dungeon full of re-spawning monsters. I've played many a session of First Edition where we didn't even get to finish the scenario. We'd have to call it, because we would be (no joke) falling asleep at the table. This, you would think, is the mark of a deeply flawed game. But our group loved it, regardless. We learned to love its many issues.

Second Edition is still Descent, but it feels like a very different game. And when I say “a very different game” I actually mean “a game so different it's pretty much a different game, by which I mean actually a different game”. It still wears Descent's beautiful old rags, but under the rags is the buff, hard body of a muscular new dungeon battle game.

I haven't put enough time into Second Edition yet to call this anything like a review – I'll continue with my coverage of the game next week, but here are my first impressions, in handy bullet-points.

  • The game plays quick. The rules are so streamlined that the game can be explained in minutes and the bones rolling a few minutes later.
  • Setting up First Edition used to be a hassle. Second Edition is much easier. There's less “stuff” and less exploration. The scenarios are smaller too. This is now a game that doesn't have to be “planned for” on a “special night” like you would plan sex during a marriage.
  • Combat is so clean and quick that you start to wonder what all that weird First Edition clunky crap was all about. There is no slowdown for people doing sums, working out their hits. It can be read fast and the hits applied fast.
  • The miniatures are beautiful. Great quality.
  • The class system (more of that next week) offers a lot of variety. In fact, “variety” is the key word of Second Edition.
  • The scenario book is thick, and full of great stuff. Where Descent quests were once theme-light slaughterfests, there is now narrative and variety in objectives. (There's that word “variety” again.)
  • The overlord's job is far easier. His cards can be played on the heroes without any mechanical fuss, and he can focus on moving and attacking with his monsters. This makes the game more fun for everyone at the table.

There's something major I need to mention here. There was a massive flaw with First Edition that made the game far less fun than it could have been. In First Edition, the Overlord gets rewarded for killing hero players. After death, the hero returns to full health and comes back into the dungeon in a later turn. What this actually meant was that the Overlord always focused his attacks on the easiest to kill member of the hero group. To play the game properly as a competitive thing, as intended, the Overlord always defaulted to bullying one or two players. Where was the point in attacking some tough, high HP hero? He'd take ages to kill, and would then be back at full strength soon after. Pointless. It was always a much better idea to start chasing some poor wizard around the dungeon, as the other heroes tried to keep skeleton archers from popping him with arrows.

Second Edition deals with this beautifully. First of all, the scenarios are objective-based, meaning that hunting heroes is rarely a priority. But the main difference is how death is handled. There is no death. Instead heroes are “knocked out”. Every time a hero gets knocked out they can choose to “Stand Up” in their turn if they're not revived by another hero first. Whenever a hero comes round from being KO'd, they need to roll to see how much health and fatigue they recover. They will be back in the game, but they will be weakened. I absolutely love this. I love it.

Speaking as someone who always played the Overlord in sessions of First Edition, I was never comfortable with that whole bullying thing. It just felt shitty to be letting loose on one player so often. But you couldn't choose not to do it. You couldn't choose to let the weak player live just this once to keep everyone at the table happier. That would change your role to something along the lines of an RPG's GM, and that's not the point of Descent at all. I would often hear of people playing the game that way and it would blow my mind. “Oh, when I Overlord I always GM things a bit. Sometimes I choose not to play a card that would win the game for me if I feel that the heroes deserve their victory.” What bullshit is that? If you want to GM, play an RPG, don't waste time on Descent. Descent is a board game about a bastard trying to beat a bunch of good guys by being as much of a bastard as possible.

Second Edition lets you do this fairly, in a way that feels good. And it's all because of that KO system. Whether you put down a weak character or a tough character, they're both getting back up weaker than they started, and almost ready to go down again. Suddenly everyone is equally as vulnerable. I mean, think about it – an adventure could start with some low HP wizard being the vulnerable one, right? A few KO's later the big tough warrior is the one with the low HP, shitting himself at every trap card you play. That's such a massive shift that when it hit me during play it completely sold me on Second Edition.

Oh, and it's so... so... beautiful.

I've loved what I've played so far. More next week once I've looked into the campaign elements of the game.


As we start to compile and discuss this list of Some Games, some board games that will do, some board games that are enough, I ask you to keep adding input. If you disagree with my additions, tell me why. The list can change. If you have anecdotes about playing the games, or variants you use, or cool additions you've made, write them down in the comments. I can add the best to the page for each game. We'll try to create a beautiful thing.

There can be no doubt in my mind about which game I'd put into the list first. Many of you suggested it last week, and there is a huge reason why it's one of the perfect games to have if you're only going to have some games.

Last week, in the comments section, Stromko said this about COSMIC ENCOUNTER:

“It’s a complex game with great replayability, but it isn’t hard to teach and doesn’t take long to play (usually). I find it less stressful and easier to do well at than something like Settlers of Catan. There are aspects of luck, such as what cards you have available, and how effective your alien powers are in the current situation, but luck has a place I think. Games where you aren’t given a set amount of resources provide a chance for less experienced or weaker players to win.”

While I don't agree that Cosmic Encounter is necessarily complex, the replayability factor is inarguable. And that whole luck thing, that chaos thing giving inexperience players a leg up? Absolutely. That's a big tick in the accessibility box. Pantsman (look, that's his name, okay?) totally smashes it with this:

“Cosmic Encounter – Combines great social dynamics (bargaining, bluffing, backstabbing) with a rule-set of practically limitless variability to create glorious chaos. Takes a while to explain but easy to understand once you get into the swing of it. Always gets people shouting, pointing, laughing, and glaring. My brother almost broke up with his girlfriend when she sided with me instead of him for a shared victory, probably my favourite moment in my entire board-gaming experience.”

Cosmic Encounter, as I've said a million times, could be the greatest board game of all time. But that's not enough to make it onto our list. If you're only going to have some games, those games need to last. They need to be great forever.

I can't tell you how many times I've played Cosmic Encounter, but I can tell you that it is a different animal every single time you let it out of the box. A simple space conquest game, about establishing colonies on your opponent's planets, becomes a hilarious, unpredictable riot of a thing when the different alien powers crash into each other. And there are a LOT of aliens in the box, and a lot of powers. Here's a board game that you can't prepare for. You have to just deal out the aliens, reveal them, and then try to work out how to approach controlling a surreal new universe.

“Practically limitless variability.”

Yes, Pantsman. Yes. Exactly. Exactly, man of pants.

I put it to you all that the first of our games, the first of some games, must be Cosmic Encounter.

What do you say?

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About the Author

Robert Florence


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