Game Night Verdicts #71 – Descent: Legends of the Dark

Descent: Legends of the Dark is not a small game. Its large cube-shaped box hides enough tokens, dice, plastic minis, printed map tiles and modular cardboard objects to offer a fantasy adventure over about 16 missions, that knows how to keep you engaged for about 60 hours of playing time.

Accordingly, this is not a short review. It is excessive. To spare you the long scroll to the end, allow me to pull up my conclusion right to the start:

Descent: Legends of the Dark is fantastic. It deserves to be the point of reference in its genre. The game that all other games of its type should be compared to and the one that others have to distinguish themselves from.

This does not mean that it’s a game without flaws. Descent: Legends of the Dark has its share of them. But a great game isn’t defined by the absence of flaws, but by the presence of undeniable strengths. I will get to those soon.

Descent: Legends of the Dark is a cooperative, app-based adventure game. The technical term for which is “dungeoncrawler”, and this covers the essenceof Descent: Legends of the Dark as precisely and as non-specifically as board game genres often do. Many of its genre’s building blocks are present, so it’s comparatively easy to identify where it belongs. But the way that Descent: Legends of Dark feels to play, hits a similar note to what a Games Workshop game of more than 30 years tried to accomplish.

The events of the game take place in a fantasy world called Terrinoth. It’s populated by typical fantasy creatures. There are elves, dwarves, dragon people, humans and more. Some of them have magical abilities, while others hit enemies with a pretty massive hammer. Hitting enemies plays a central role here, because – like many other dungeoncrawlers – you are repeatedly and sometimes incessantly faced with malicious, hostile beings, trying to cause you considerable harm.

In practice, this harm translates into losing points step by step (represented with a heart). This can result first in a small and later a larger complication you will have to deal with. You gain a “wound” card, which limits your character’s ability to act in the game in one form or another. In fact, over time you spread out many different cards before you, which give you various ways to influence the events of the game. These “weapons”, “skills” and “items” must be carefully selected, charged with tokens and flipped over at the right time. While the mixture of texts and symbols can seem confusing at first, after only a few turns, you gain the first insights that let you influence the game more effectively.

A skill here, combined with the right position of your character there, might increase the strength of your attack. Once you’ve done this a few times, you quickly discover that the malicious opponents rarely pose a huge threat to your heroes. This is where it becomes obvious that while combat is at the center of the game’s structure, it is less important for the overall experience. Yes, we fight a lot in Descent: Legends of the Dark. But combat is a means to an end. It is not what the game is about. Because Descent: Legends of the Dark isn’t trying to channel the experience of playing Diablo or Skyrim. At its core, it wants you to experience an adventure, not just best the challenges it contains.

Property dispute, handled the old-fashioned way

Descent: Legends of the Dark is a cooperative game. You are not a lone wolf with individual goals forced to work together by the game’s design. You are a team standing up against the threats to Terrinoth. Unlike earlier games that carried the name Descent, you do not play against one single player. Instead the dedicated game app lays out the options and challenges you have to face.

As usual, the lamentation, teeth gnashing and histrionics regarding the end of real analog board gaming whenever the inclusion of an app is mentioned, is wholly out of place. The app handles the unappealing administrative parts regarding the game’s antagonists. The game still takes place on the table, only rules admin is handled with the app. We move our characters on the table. We choose which cards we want to combine and activate. We also choose which objects like chests, doors, shelves, etc. we want to interact with. The results of our decisions as well as any random events are, again, handled by the app.

For the most part this works well and smoothly. As a group we are primarily engrossed in the game and we interact with the components spread out on our table as we explore the game’s world. The game’s table presence is something of a secret weapon hiding in plain sight. It’s obviously an eye-catcher. But the spaces we construct also manifest Terrinoth as a place of playful interaction. Each adventure we go on quickly develops its own character, thanks to how it’s been designed. Step by step the world our heroes move gets filled out a little more.

The app shows how our surroundings and our opponents respond to our actions. According to some basic guidelines we move enemy miniatures around. But when these guidelines can’t be easily implemented, play can slow down noticeably. A typical example would be the app naming an enemy target, which we can’t move the mini to, even though we can see an alternative target.

This is now where the board gamer and the seasoned roleplayer part ways. The latter can find a solution based on some thematic explanation, which they consider reasonable enough for play to resume. While the former might be frustrated at having to flip through the printed rulebook or the digital reference book. While you can always access the latter within the app without losing any information of the game state, you do lose that nice feeling of being deeply engrossed in the game itself.

Because in a board game you generally don’t resolve a rules question by paying close attention to the game’s theme. But then, Descent: Legends of the Dark isn’t rooted in the tradition of eurogames. It’s much closer to dungeoncrawls in the vein of an RPG like Dungeons & Dragons. In that light, it’s not too far-fetched to adopt a different perspective on rules ambiguities.

The game’s bigger picture, decision points and core ideas are easily understood. But it’s the details, the small and meticulous parts, that demand players to make quick decisions about the game’s mechanisms.

But the flow of the game can be somewhat easily protected, as long as you have a player who knows their way around the game. Much like you would in a traditional role-playing game. As good as the game’s app is in providing structure, it can’t (and probably isn’t intended to) run the game for you.

But all these observations only deal with the outer framework of the game. Its essence, the core of the experience, isn’t expressed in rules or their application. At the center of Descent: Legends of the Dark rests the idea of exploration and discovery. Beginning with the game world that only gradually reveals itself to us (or is constructed step-by-step by us following the app’s instructions). Right from the start, we only discover places, dangers and objects, when we start to interact with the game world.

It’s only when we reach the edges of the game board, that it opens up and unlocks new ways for us to interact with it. Our curiosity is repeatedly rewarded. The more efficient and quicker we rush through an adventure, the narrower our options seem in hindsight. Objects like chests, shelves or wells often harbor items, that we might not need to succeed in this mission. But they also offer the means to provide new decisions as the game goes on.

In Descent: Legends of the Dark the characters barely change throughout the campaign. It’s our weapons and items, which undergo the biggest mechanical changes. A sword can be given additional attributes through “recipes”. These attributes can lead to additional damage effects, if they are randomly triggered by the app while resolving an attack. This makes them similar to “critical hits”, which most roleplayers are familiar with, but without adding more rules for players to keep in mind.

Recipes on the other hand are only available by solving small quests. They require us to interact with the game world and other players, or make use of the various objects in the game world. Both are an explicit call to action for players to explore and interact with the game. This is where it becomes apparent that Descent: Legends of the Dark is, despite its conspicuously excessive presentation, a carefully developed and deliberate design.

Explore all those possibilities and you will find yourself almost overwhelmed by the number of options afterwards. But especially when we rush into battle, we might quickly find ourselves cornered by enemies. If on the other hand you approach Descent: Legends of the Dark as a tactical operations mission for the SEAL team Terrinoth, a different experience emerges. The tactically optimized route might quickly lead you to the epic’s end, but it will also leave a sizable number of cards, tokens and skills unused in the box.

Two heroes facing off against an unduly confident villain

This is where it becomes obvious that Descent: Legends of the Dark has no intention of continuing the design ethos of its predecessors. It is actually the spiritual successor and the modern equivalent to games like HeroQuest: an entry point to fantasy gaming, that isn’t too far off from a tabletop roleplaying game.

Descent: Legends of the Dark is a game that rewards a youthful urge to explore and grants you a successful resolution, even if you only have a rudimentary understanding of tactical positioning and effective rule combinations. It’s a game that’s exciting due to its colorful and inclusive worldbuilding. It’s a game that is best understood as an activity out of which a narrative will emerge. It should be considered, as mentioned earlier, the point of reference in its genre.

Unfortunately its urge to tell a story overshoots its target towards the second half of the campaign. Here Descent: Legends of the Dark repeatedly loses itself in long, verbose descriptions of things that players have no influence over. At most, we get to read out dialogue between our own characters and others, as we patiently wait to do something ourselves again. At the start of the campaign, these scenes are helpful as they give our plastic heroes some strong character definition. They let each character carve out their own niche in our shared imagination. But at some point the written narrative of Terrinoth (or its duchy Forthyn) expands to include multiple historical events far beyond the reach of our characters. This doesn’t simply strain our patience. It’s also frustrating, because the moments when the game actually manages to create a gripping narrative, are superb.

Because it is always our own decisions that form the center of a game’s narrative.

Throughout the campaign individual characters are faced with simple, binary choices to make. They are often described in a dramatic and short (!) description: will you seek out connection with your fellow heroes or give into your obsession with revenge? Do you believe in a better future for all or in a definitive breaking with the past? Will you uphold your tradition or make personal sacrifices for the good of many? These and similar decisions are strewn throughout the campaign. They don’t just add depth to our characters, they also make us feel like an active part of the story.

When these decisions later pay off with tangible, i.e. gameplay relevant, consequences, they add up to a story that you can’t really experience this way in any other medium. Similar to the infinitely more flexible tabletop roleplaying games, it’s the tangible consequences of our decisions, that engage us and turn us into the protagonists of the game. This has a far bigger emotional impact on players than hundreds of carefully worded and meticulously sculpted sentences about thorny friendships, political intrigues or social responsibilities could.

The story of a game are not the events we are told about. It is only ever the things that we do. Whenever Descent: Legends of the Dark serves up such moments, that’s when the game unfolds its full potential and pulls us in deep. That’s when it becomes apparent that the game doesn’t try to impress us with its clever rules mechanisms. It wants to win us over by making us actual protagonists.

This is also where the inclusion of the app is at its most effective. There is no storybook to reveal what could or might have happened. There are only the decisions we make and the consequences that shape the way the campaign will go. Like any magic trick, with enough experience you can easily track the invisible strings behind the curtain. If you want, you could deconstruct the design behind Descent: Legends of the Dark and name all its elements, to show that you are too clever to fall for such simple tricks.

But what’s magical about games and especially those that allow us to experience a story, isn’t a result of being that much smarter, sharper and more cunning than the people behind the game. The magic doesn’t happen when we easily beat the game’s challenge and proudly raise our arms in the air.

They happen because of our willingness to follow where the game’s journey will lead us. It is a result of us agreeing to take the game’s fiction seriously. The magical moments of a game occur when we manage to look beyond the limits of the game’s rules and its material and catch a fleeting glimpse of the exciting, epic stories that are only hinted at on our table.

Much of this is up to us. Descent: Legends of the Dark is not a game that can create these magical moments by itself. No game can. But it’s a design aimed at these types of players and player motivation, and it tries to support them as well as it can. We’re invited to join this martial epic and become the heroic legends, that will shape the fate of the land. It lets us feel like we are part of a huge battle between good and evil, and that we are the powers whose actions will leave a mark on history.

This is what makes Descent: Legends of the Dark the point of reference in its genre.

Even if the talkative texts of the game do seem determined to counter the claim of board games lacking a narrative by overcompensating with far too many words. These texts often take up so much room, that they run the risk of smothering the love for action and thirst for discovery that the design actually wants to evoke. Sometimes they feel like the security instructions flight attendants are legally obliged to give. You have to sit through them, because you can’t really go anywhere anyway. Sometimes you might even listen halfheartedly, to acknowledge the work put into them. But in reality, you’re just waiting for things to get started and the plane’s thrust to softly push you into your seat.

Having such an experience with a board game can be a little grating at times, but is easily dealt with with some humour and good will. If Descent: Legends of the Dark has an actual flaw, that has kept it from garnering the excitement and support it deserves, it’s the game’s price. If this was a simple product review, it’d be enough to just say whether the game’s fun or not. But I’d like to think I’m able to gaze beyond my own navel. And when you do that, the RSP of Descent: Legends of the Dark practically hits you in the face. As I am writing this, a superficial glance at a search engine shows the game ranging from 120€ to 170€. I doubt that the people who would respond positively to the kind of experience Descent: Legends of the Dark offers, would be willing to pay that.

Descent: Legends of the Dark is a game for you people without rigid ideas of what a game ought to provide. It’s a game for people who want an experience that will pave the way to something like roleplaying games. It’s a game for people, who can’t resist the appeal of a multi-storied game board, and will put on voices as they push their miniatures around. Descent: Legends of the Dark is a game that wants to ignite a joyful sense of play like a small, warming campfire in the magic circle of its players.

It’s hard to get the interest of these types of players, once you push past the 100€ mark. A price like this aims straight for the crowd of ambitious table generals, steeled conflict veterans and eagle-eyed optimization samurais. It’s a price for people who are so deep in the board game hobby, they could improvise a TED talk about their favorite games on the BGG Top 10. Without having to look them up first.

This price practically sinks an absolutely fantastic dungeoncrawler, because while the game design is aimed at new players, the product tries to trigger the impulsive purchasing reflexes of crowdfunding fans. This contradiction invites dissatisfaction, because the challenges aren’t challenging enough and the rules don’t offer enough of a learning curve to be used efficiently. A game’s price might not reflect its quality, but it definitely sets expectations that players will judge the game on.

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