I’ve always had a rocky relationship with Descent: Journeys in the Dark. This is a game that SHOULD be directly in my wheelhouse; a grand, dungeon crawler built upon the foundation of classics like, HeroQuest and Dungeons and Dragons the Fantasy Adventure Boardgame. Sadly, the first edition of Descent was something that I never fell in love with. The game felt like it was taking its inspiration from videogames (Diablo specifically) and this never seemed right to me. On top of that it was incredibly focused on combat and didn’t satiate my dungeon crawler appetite. To be honest, the only reason I still hold onto my original copy of Descent is for sentimental purposes. I hid my wife’s engagement ring in that first edition box for a few months knowing damn well she would never crack the thing open.
Eventually 1st Edition received a massive patch in the form of the Road to Legend Expansion which cut down the time to play, added campaign elements, and just generally made the game better. I had already given up on the beast at that point though.
Fast forward several years and FFG went ahead and retooled Descent with a brand new 2.0 edition. This time FFG looked to trim the bloat, make the game accessible, play in a reasonable time, and it added all of the excellent Road to Legend campaign stuff from the word “go”. This was it, the greatest dungeon crawler of all time had arrived and I was going to burn ever other pretender in my collection.
Then I played vanilla 2.0. It was pretty, “eh”. Alright it was way worse than “eh”. Imagine, if you will, the girl of dreams. You’ve lusted after her for roughly 10 years. She was perfect, everything you ever wanted except she was taken. A few years later though, you find out she’s free and you ask her out. It’s going good, she’s laughing at your jokes, and you’re feeling confident. Then you kiss and immediately everything is wrong. It’s like you made out with your sister or something. Innately you both feel like something is wrong. Dreadfully wrong. That is Descent 2.0 in a nutshell. I suppose it’s for the best, over the years I’ve purchased a far too many dungeon crawlers and they were relieved that I wasn’t going to go Kurt Russell from The thing on their asses. Still, the shattered dream of Descent was a scar that wouldn’t go away anytime soon. To ease the pain I begin thinking about selling it off and never looking back.
Then without warning FFG delivered…THE PATCH. Much like first edition there was only one thing that could save Descent and that was “The Road to Legend”. This time it wasn’t a physical release. Nope, FFG realized that wouldn’t work as there was already too much content available for the second edition. Instead they design an app that would allow people to play out their campaigns. ”That’s it?” I hear you muttering to no one in particular. No, that’s not it. They also decided to retool the entire game and make it completely cooperative, ditching the Overlord mechanic. Now this wasn’t the first time Descent dabbled in co-op play. FFG tested the waters with a few print on demand co-op expansions earlier. The Road to Legend App is the culmination of all the feedback they received.
Essentially, all this fancy app is doing is automating the co-op style quests that FFG previously introduced. The app has three main functions. It tells you what map pieces you need and how to initially set up a couple of them. As you play, it will spawn monsters (these will be based on what expansion material you own), it will also tell you what a search token or exploration token contains. Finally, it gives you the AI of the monsters so that you know how they act. That's really it. You're basically going through a pre-built quest and trying to accomplish a goal. The players have to roll the dice, make the important decisions and you know...play the boardgame. The app feels very unobtrusive to the overall experience and I like that. You're still using the core mechanics of Descent, but the app generates the adventure, map, monsters, and events as you play.
Before I dig deeper into the app, you need to understand why Descent 2.0 fails as a dungeon crawler. First and foremost is the complete lack of exploration. Before each game the map is laid out before you and there are no real surprises for the heroes. It’s not a deal-breaker, but like a chick that talks about her cats too much…it’s not winning it a lot of points either. Next up, the game simply doesn’t feel like a dungeon crawler. Instead of the overlord merely trying to kill the heroes, FFG decided to give goals to the OL player for each scenario. The aftermath of this decision is that the game now feels like a weird, fantasy sports, simulator. There are so many times when stopping to attack something would be a waste of time because you’re not accomplishing the quest’s goal. Plus, the heroes dying has almost no effect. It just feels off. Next, there is the blocking issue. An easy tactic for the overlord player was to simply take big ass monsters and stuff them in hallways/doors preventing the heroes from advancing. This was completely un-fun and made my blood boil in a way that few other boardgames ever could. To make matters even more "salt in the wound" like for the heroes is that the OL player can just play cards whenever. Get used to moving a few steps and having the Overlord smash a pit-trap or some other nonsense onto the table. It completely interrupts the flow of play and gives the Overlord role this awful "take that" feel. Finally there is the issue of balance for the hero players. To have any real chance at succeeding, there should be four heroes at all times against the overlord. Not just any four heroes though, but specifically a warrior, wizard, thief and healer. Each one is a crucial cog that will be mandatory for any semblance of balance. Not bringing one could mean a horrible, HORRIBLE, time for the heroes. All of these issues really made dislike the game. I tried people. I really tried. After a dozen games or so I just couldn’t do it anymore.
However, just when you think you’re out, FFG drags your ass right back in. With Road to Legend they seemingly fixed everything I despised about the game. There is actual exploring in the game now! You start with a small piece of map and as you open doors it gradually reveals new areas. I shouldn’t have to squeal with joy for this in a dungeon crawler, but…THERE IS ACTUAL EXPLORATION IN DESCENT NOW! Next, since the Overlord has gone the way of the dodo bird there are no competing objectives to worry about. Instead, each quest has a specific goal you’re trying to accomplish. Heroes must band together with brains and brawn in order to succeed. I know these sound like idiot proof ideas, but the fact that they’re here now really just warms my dungeon crawler obsessed heart. Another welcome change is the addition of Morale. Since there is no longer a competing Overlord player getting KO is how you can lose a quest now. Your morale is your party size plus one. Get knocked out that many times and you fail. Yep, you read that right. Dying actually has an impact in the game now! Finally, since the AI of the creatures is controlled by the app you never have to worry about enemies PURPOSELY blocking your way as a feasible tactic. In short, I no longer need to take blood pressure medication while playing Descent. This is good. This is GREAT.
And that’s just the basic stuff. The app is really doing a bunch of other things that I truly love. Those enemies I just spoke about? Each turn they attack in a different order AND they have different tactics. So you’re never quite sure of what a particular enemy might do. This is FANTASTIC and quells a major beef I have with most co-op dungeon crawlers. With this tiny change it makes it almost impossible to “game” the enemy AI system. Also, since you don’t know when monster groups will activate you’re sometimes forced to take risks with your plans and tactics. Couple this with the game borrowing the hero/monster activation rules from Imperial Assault and it completely upends the feel/flow of the game. This is a very welcome addition.
Do you know something I hate all campaign games? Keeping track of stuff. The Road to Legend app has effortless hurdled this pitfall as well. The app keeps track of EVERYTHING for you. It tracks your gold, your items, your XP and the skills you’ve all learned. This is game changing type stuff. No more keeping cards separate or writing anything down. Just toss all the components back in the box and let the app tell you what you need when you return. This is going to RUIN other games for me. I can just feel it. Or maybe that’s the chili lime taquitos I ate giving me indigestion. MOVING ALONG!
It's not all naked maidens and endless flagons of mead though. While the app itself is pretty snazzy it suffers from a few design flaws. First, there is the lack of an “undo” button. This is 100% unacceptable. If you accidentally press the button that tells the app that all minion monsters have activated when they didn’t, then you’re screwed. You’ll have no idea what their AI for that turn is and you’ll just have to wing it. Speaking of monster groups, the app will always state that there is a Master monster as well as minions regardless if it is true or not. I hate this. It causes a bunch of confusion and the first few times I played I questioned if I was putting out monsters correctly. My final complaint is another interface issue. You have to end each hero’s turn by clicking on their portrait. The game asks you to end the turn or KO the hero. Two INCREDIBLY different options. You must click on a tiny prompt that appear next to the hero's portrait and it’s very easy to accidentally click the wrong one. Just make a KO icon somewhere else instead.
The final nails in the proverbial coffin are balancing issues and "peril" (random events). I still think that, regardless of actual player count, the game plays best with four heroes. Three works, but ideally you want to saunter into the quests with those four arch-typical classes I previously mentioned. This isn’t the end of the world, but it’s something you should be aware of. If you walk into a quest with a Disciple class healer and a Thief you’re going to be dragon fodder. The biggest and most egregious issue with the app is something called Peril. Peril starts off as minor events that the app throws at you for lollygagging around. It starts off easy enough with perhaps distrust hitting the heroes and having to run away from a particular hero. Essentially, peril is the game’s timer. The longer you take to finish a quest the more random Perils you’re dealt. And they get brutal and more deadly as the quest progresses. There was one instance where I was about to win and then BAM, Major Peril, “Deadly Tendrils: All heroes lose 8 life”. What! No die to roll? Just 8 damage to everyone! They all just DIED because of this unavoidable crap. This is just as bad as vanilla Descent 2.0! WHY? This should have been the ultimate dungeon crawling experience, but they just had to figure out a way to muck it up. Son of a…
[Editor hands me a note…the game has been patched. All that peril garbage you just freaked out about is gone now.]
And just when you think you’re out FFG pulls your ass back in! They patched it. All the major peril nonsense that made me want to break my iPad over my knee, like Bo Jackson destroying a bat after striking out, is gone. The quests are much more balanced now. Peril is implemented in a more reasonable way. The game now offers an easy and hard mode. My god, it’s finally happened. FFG has done it. [Tears begin cascading down face] They’ve finally made Descent into a great dungeon crawler. I can’t….I can’t believe it really. It’s taken them years, but DAMN this feels right. Yes, it has still has some minor interface issues, but those will likely be gone if you’re reading this in the future (hello people of 2019).
The best thing about this expansion is that it’s alive. It’s constantly going to evolve based on feedback from the players. If a quest has a few issues, they can re-jigger it with a patch. Also, I’m hoping that get REALLY creative with the quests moving forward. I’d love to see a few that weren’t as combat focused. Perhaps toss in some NPC encounters or puzzles to solve. They can really go nuts. Plus, if the quest sucks, they can just tweak it.
This is truly Descent’s time to shine. With the Road to Legend expansion FFG has turned Descent into what it always should have been; a great dungeon crawler from top to bottom. You’ll explore burned down towns, storm castles, impale goblins, cast powerful spells, and vanquish evil. They've overhauled the outside chassis to a chocolaty co-op experience, but the exquisite combat and tactical nougat of Descent remains perfectly intact. The end result is an experience filled with adventure, unique class specific combat/tactics, and fun cooperative decisions throughout. The best thing is that it won’t cost you a penny since the app is 100% free. There are currently two free campaigns that provided players with over a dozen quests! Eventually, they’ll start charging for campaigns, but right now there is no excuse not to try it out. If you have Descent 2.0 you should really make the switch to Road to Legend. I’ve been having a great time with it and I can’t wait to see where FFG takes the game from here. Also, my other dungeon crawlers should start getting nervous, because the urge to burn them all in a bonfire is rising again.