Descent: Journeys in the Dark Review

Oh hey a board game that, unlike Mansions of Madness, I am only two years behind the times with. Well, that and my group still enjoys it after extensive play.

The elevator pitch for Descent: Journey into the Dark is that it is a board game dungeon crawler. Similar to games like Super Dungeon Explore and the various Dungeons & Dragons board games, one or more players creates a party of heroes, then goes on a quest in hopes of thwarting the the bad guy before they do...something.

It sounds pretty basic, and the concept has been done before, but this game simply does it better: the heroes are very flexible, there are about 20 quests to choose from, and if you play the campaign mode what the Overlord can do can change with each quest, and your victories and failures matter beyond the scope of just the one quest (or even part of one).

I am going to get into the nitty-gritty in a bit, but in a nutshell this is currently my favorite board game. I have been a huge fan of Super Dungeon Explore for awhile (and I still am), but this blows it and everything else I have played out of the water. If you like fantasy games, even fantasy role-playing games like Dungeon World, I would give this a shot. At $70 the price for entry is kind of steep, but without even delving into the expansions the sheer number of choices gives it a huge degree of replayability.

With that out of the way let us start with the contents.

Production Quality
Everything about this game is amazingly well done: the art style and quality, miniatures, tiles, cards, character sheets, everything.

So of course I have a few complaints.

The first is that the Overlord's lieutenants (ie, named NPCs) are, by default, represented by tokens. You can get Overlord Lieutenant packs if you want to get them in miniature format (as well as optional rules for including them in other encounters), but I do not think think that including them would have ramped up the price by that much, and certainly not nearly as much as buying them individually at around $7+ a pop.

My other criticism is that some of the monsters and heroes are sculpted in a way as to make painting them, well, difficult to say the least. The flesh moulders and Elder Mok immediately spring to mind (especially the goddamn flesh moulders), but there are others. I get that having them preassembled allows you to get right into the game, but it would have been nice to have easier access to certain parts without having to mash my brushes around.

The Heroes
The core game comes with eight heroes and class decks, with expansions adding more, up to a total of (currently) thirty-six. Each hero has their own character sheet which lets you know their stats: how fast they can move, how many wounds they can take, what they can do, etc. They are also assigned an archetype, which is where the customization starts.

There are four archetypes in the game: Warrior, Healer, Mage, and Scout. Each class is linked to an archetype: for example Knight and Berserker belongs to the Warrior archetype, while Necromancer and Hexer belongs to the Mage archetype. Heroes can choose from any class that shares their archetype, meaning that if you have a favorite hero and want to try something new, you might be able to get away with just snagging another class deck instead of having to also choose an entirely new hero.

In addition if you play in Advanced, Epic, or Campaign mode you get XP that you can use to buy new skills, which adds both a layer of customization and decision making: do you spend it right away, or save it for a quest or two to pick up something more potent?

The Overlord
The Overlord tries to stop the heroes from completing quest objectives, using both monsters and cards to trigger traps and beef up their minions. If you play Advanced, Epic, or Campaign, then like the heroes you also get XP to stock your deck with more cards. Some are tailored to a kind of Overlord "class", like Saboteur or Warlord, allowing you to theme your particular brand of douche-baggery.

On that note some quests lock in your monster choices, while others have "open groups" that you can fill in with a monster of your choice (adding yet more to the replayability factor). The monsters scale by Act and the number of players, so there is really no "best" monster to run with (though I submit that beastmen are pretty damn brutal).

For example if you use goblin archers in a 2-player game, then you get a "master" version and two minions, in a 3-player game you get a third minion, and with 4 players you get four minions. If you go with barhgests then you get a master and minion in a 2-player game, which each player adding another minion to the pack. If you want to throw shadow dragons at them? Then you get a single minion, master, and minion and master respectively.

Playing the Game
The actual mechanics of the game are pretty simple once you get a few quests under your belt. The heroes go first, and each gets two actions to do stuff like move, search, open doors, attack, trigger certain skills, etc. The Overlord draws cards, activates groups of monsters (who also get two actions), and plays cards whenever she feels like it.

Combat is pretty straightforward: the heroes and monsters beat each other up by rolling various colored dice, comparing the number of wounds against a defense roll, and any excess wounds are carried over. Sometimes you will roll surges, which let you activate special features or skills, such as bonus damage, ignoring defense, or adding status effects like poison or stunned.

Yeah, there are some pretty important rules we initially overlooked (like monsters normally only make one attack), as well as some more fiddly ones (like when you rest you do not remove fatigue until your turn ends), but even so it has been an insane amount of fun.

There are two ways to play the game: either a single session or as a series of quests, where the points matter and the victories and failures of the heroes can impact them down the road. Personally if you plan on playing the game more than once I have no idea why you would play anything but campaign, but for the sake of being comprehensive I will talk about both modes.

I am not sure what you would call the default mode of play, but you pick one of the quests and a kind of difficulty level: basic, advanced, or epic. In basic all of the players get their default cards and you play through the quest. In Advanced and Epic everyone gets some XP, and the heroes get some gold to spend. The main difference between Advanced and Epic--aside from the amount of XP and gold--is that the characters shop for Act II items and the Overlord uses the Act II versions of monsters and lieutenants.

Campaign mode is really just the best: everyone starts out with their defaults, but after each quest both the heroes and Overlord gain XP to buy additional skills, and the winner usually gets something extra, like bonus gold or relics (awesome magic items that the Overlord can also use to equip her lieutenants with). Additionally the players get a chance to spend their gold in order to buy better gear, which helps improve their odds (especially in Act II where you really want those extra dice).

What I also like about this is that the winner or loser is not determined by a single quest: you play through three Act I quests, one of two interlude quests (depends on who won the most Act I quests), three Act II quests, and then one of two finales (again, determined by whoever won the most Act II quests). The setup of the finale references various Act II quests which, when combined with potential Overlord rewards means that unlike Mass Effect 3, what you did actually matters.

So, yeah, this game is awesome. You can go through the default campaign at least a couple times without using everything, and there are plenty of expansions that add more heroes, classes, gear, monsters, campaigns, and other rules like secret passages. If you are curious you can read the rules for free, check out a Watch It Played video series, or even jump in our weekly Hangout game.


  1. Sounds great! I haven't played this one either, but thanks to your review I might just have to try it out.


    1. It helps scratch the RP-itch and is very easy to setup and play. I like how characters are built from combined archetypes and classes, and it is something I am keeping in mind for my own game design.


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