Several months ago my daughter came home from a sleepover and reported we needed to buy the game “Descent”. From what she said, it sounded like a watered-down version of D&D. Some time after that I got a chance to play it myself and decided it wasn’t bad, but it was confusing. Still, when I got a gift certificate from work I used it to pick up a copy for the kids for Christmas.
Well, now that I’ve had a chance to read the rules, it’s a lot less confusing. It’s actually fairly fun. But it really is D&D light. You have objectives to accomplish with each encounter, but any sense of a plot arch is accomplished through “cut scene” story blurbs. The actual play session consists of accomplishing specific goal-oriented actions while in the middle of a fight. Rather than have a DM, you have a player playing the “Overlord”, which gives them control of a number of monsters trying to foil the “heroes” in their objectives, or trying to achieve their own objectives. The heroes buy new weapons, armor, and other items, gain new skills and attributes, and find helpful treasure. The overlord player uses a deck of in-game boosts which he can enhance and customize over the course of the campaign.
Winning scenarios gives one side or the other a slight advantage in subsequent scenarios, and some scenarios are definitely sacked against a particular side. But their unique campaign system pretty much ensures the group will go through the entire campaign one way or another. The board itself is made up by selecting sets of interlocking terrain segments and fitting them together in configurations mapped out in the quest guide. One side of the piece is outdoor terrain, the other indoor terrain that often can double for both a cave or a castle. The heroes and the monsters they fight are represented by miniatures, and various in-game objectives or effects are designated by cardboard tokens.
It’s not really a role-playing game per se.The players can pick from a set of pre-made characters, and may add some characterization if they wish, but it’s really a sophisticated board game. No role-play is required. This makes it perfect for my kids, who are still a little young to understand the nuances of RPGs. They are more action oriented, so Descent is perfect for them. There’s also the added bonus of it being a cooperative game. They’re the heroes, I’m the Overlord. They work together to defeat me, and I’m finding they are really capable of some ingenious cooperation when they want to be.
My problem is that I can’t help but think of my role as being the dungeon master, not an opponent player. I try to make things difficult for them, but I can’t get past the idea that I’m supposed to let them win over-all. That’s not necessarily how the game is supposed to go. Still, I don’t mind. It’s just fun to watch them get excited over their collective successes. As a dad, that’s family-time gold.
I like Descent. We’ll be looking for expansions before long. It’s a great “gateway drug” to tie my kids over until they’re old enough for some real RPG fun. Someday the game will get old, but I suspect we’ve got a few years at least before that happens.
Over-all Rating: 7 – Very enjoyable, builds camaradarie, even with the “enemy”. May not have as much re-play value.
Lotsa-Pieces: 10 – This game takes a lot of setup time.
Randomness: 6 – A lot of actions are decided by die-rolls, but there are enough of them that averages will usually win out. When statistical improbabilities do occur it actually can enhance the fun. A number of factors on both sides are available to mitigate the catastrophe of a single bad roll.
Competition: 5 – Most of the players will be cooperating, but you are directly opposed to another player. Some may find a strong Overlord player to be an asset, while others may dislike his direct and complete opposition.
Strategy: 4 – There are individual tactics to pursue in each encounter, but the over-all structure does not lend itself to significant strategy formulation.
Variety: 4 – Each encounter has different objectives, but it’s usually 60% hack-n-slash, 30% dealing with changing objectives, 10% gathering treasure. The game mechanics don’t allow for much variation from that. And once you’ve completed a campaign there is even less variety beyond changing characters to play.
Will my wife play it: No
Will my youngest play it: Yes
Questionable Elements: Dark and/or supernatural elements, such as vampires and in-game descriptions not appropriate for young children.
Time: 1 hours average per encounter, 15-20 hours for a campaign. Individual encounters can vary in length +/- half an hour.
Players: 2-5 – Three (one overlord, two heroes) minimum recommended for best interaction.
Age Range: Game says 14+. None of my kids are that old (8 – 12 years), and they love it–and do quite well.