Playing Descent

A bit under a month ago I was in Helsinki due to the Studio Arete meeting I wrote about earlier. I also had several days of free time I could have used in whatever way I wanted. What I ended up doing was that I borrowed Descent: Journeys in the Dark from a friend and played it for a couple of days straight with my brother. These are my notes on the game; it proved quite interesting for several reasons.

Descent is a board adventure game like Heroquest of old; one player is a monster player (“Dark Lord” I seem to remember) who has a pre-designed dungeon set-up, while the other players each play a single hero. The heroes try to finish the dungeon in a cooperative manner while the monster player tries to kill them however many times the dungeon set-up degrees they will have to be killed for the dark lord to win.

So far, so good. What differs between Descent and Heroquest is mainly in the details:

  • Descent is a race against time. Each turn the monster player gets more resources and opportunities to kill off player characters. Monsters spawn in the dungeon, often at spots that lead to immediate attacks and bleeding of character resources.
  • Characters improve all through the single dungeon. They “go to town” to shop and train periodically, and they find more powerful equipment in the dungeon as well. Meanwhile the opposition improves much slower, so the hero attrition slows down as the game proceeds, instead of accelerating as it does in Heroquest.
  • The macro-strategic issue in the game is area control. There are these silly little teleporters in the scenario that are the main source of victory points for the heroes, as well as important tools for surprise attacks and holding initiative. Generally speaking, a single room of the dungeon will hold a single teleporter, and the heroes may be considered to have “secured” an area if they manage to activate that teleport. Keeping the area is simply too costly for the monsters after the heroes have the capability of jaunting into the room from the safety of the town whenever they want.
  • There is quite a lot of tactical and strategic process in the game, especially compared to Heroquest. This makes the game feel more adversial and alive.

All in all, Descent should be a great game. The rich fantasy color and extremely complex resource control equation, combined with an infinite amount of possible dungeon set-ups makes for a huge array of gaming possibilities. However, in practice, I pretty much felt awful after playing through three scenarios in a row, and that didn’t even have that much to do with exhaustion. I was very divided about the game, about whether it’s good or not. Some thoughts as to why this might be:

Asymmetric player roles

The hero players and the monster player are playing quite different games. The overriding concern for the monster player is tactical and strategic: when to push and when to give, which resources should be preserved, which should be used. The role of the hero player is rather different: his is a procedural optimization game wherein success comes from not forgetting to add the several sources of bonuses and action freedom together. More subtly, the hero player needs to figure out the correct way to play a given hero team, as the different heroes with different skill sets have wildly different strategies. Both of these hero player concerns are, of course, constantly improving through the dungeon scenario. Add that to the improving equipment mentioned above, too, and you get to a situation where the hero player will most certainly win the game if he just stays alive long enough.

The thing here is that while there is certainly a nuanced strategic challenge in playing the heroes, it’s far from agreeable for anybody. I myself felt constantly frustrated with playing the heroes (we played with several heroes under one player’s control), because I didn’t particularly enjoy the challenge of mentally cataloging the options through a turn and applying them. Good play in that regard makes for a better hero survival rate, but if you forget to add your black dice to an attack roll, say, that’s just added frustration when you notice it later. This would be a completely different, logistically trivial game on a computer, simply because there wouldn’t be this constant pressure to remember all the benefits your character special abilities, skill cards and equipment allow you.

A part of this management challenge are the rules: there are some very important procedural constraints on hero player activities that are far from intuitive, but which allow abusive tactics when applied. An example of this is the fact that a given hero can only teleport once per round. Another is that a hero can only drink one potion per round (right? I still am not sure.). Folks who have played the game can imagine what kind of abusive tactics can be immediately applied if these limitations are not followed. The thing is, there is no way to know that you’re playing wrong when you’re playing, so we were still playing with partially wrong rules during our fifth game, only slowly honing towards rules-mastery.

This whole complex of issues makes Descent a cumbersome and tiring beast to play. It has a zillion different playing pieces, so even setting up and managing the components is an art in itself. Playing the game reminds me of nothing so much as a tea ceremony: the important thing, especially for the hero players, is to concentrate, concentrate and focus on each movement, trying to mold your own activity to flow as smoothly as possible through the ritual space. Arranging the dozens of different playing pieces into a harmonious library of components on the table is a part of this, and if I were to own the game and play it regularly, I would certainly device some chants to sing over when it’s my turn and I have to remember to check the potions, pick my initiative, declare action, add the black dice, apply the skill bonus, use the surges and so on.

It is a devilishly fascinating exercise, still! If I didn’t have all kinds of proactive gaming plans, if gaming was just a low-intensity hobby for me, I could well imagine getting Descent with all the expansions and just playing that for the next year or so, getting together weekly with a friend to explore the intricacies of the game. There is a lot of depth to the finer nuances of spawn placement, area-effect attacks and all the other choices that can be made.

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One Response to “Playing Descent”

  1. 24 hours on the Shadowfell « Game Design is about Structure Says:

    […] encounters. I believe that we would have been favorably served by playing it like Descent, which I played quite a bit last year; it was often remarked over our Shadowfell sessions how Descent does almost everything provided by […]


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