When it comes to dungeon crawlers, many gamers cut their teeth on Descent (or Descent 2nd Edition). Descent: Journeys in the Dark was a 1 vs Many game that came out way back in 2005. It was certainly one of my first dungeon crawlers (outside of Hero Quest). Over time, Descent changed and even brought in an app to help transition the game to a cooperative experience. While the app definitely worked and allowed for play without an overlord, it always felt kind of shoehorned in.
And now all that has changed. Today we are going to look at Descent: Legends of the Dark, a new offshoot version of Descent (note: this is not Descent 3rd edition) that has been built from the ground up as a fully cooperative, app-integrated experience. Whether or not that is a good thing will depend on your feeling of coop vs 1 vs Many games, and also app integrated experiences. But that’s enough of the history lesson. Let’s descended into the depths and see what this game is all about.
In Descent: Legends of the Dark (just Descent from here on out for brevity’s sake), each player gets to choose one of four heroes to play (at first). While the lore is unique to the world, the roles are the standard fantasy troops: Tanky fighter, ranger, magic user, healer(ish). Each player gets a mini, character sheet, and starting weapon.
The app handles a lot of the game for the players. It starts by dropping you into the world with some background story and banter. The first mission has the characters guarding a caravan when they are attacked. If you’ve played either Mansions of Madness or Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-Earth (both excellent games), then you’ll feel right at home here as much is borrowed from both games.
Each round has a player phase and a darkness phase. During the player phase, each hero takes a turn in any order. On your turn, you get a maneuver action, and two additional actions that can be chosen from: maneuver, fight, ready, explore, or character-specific ones. Maneuver lets you move around the battlefield with your mini. Fighting involves telling the app which monster you are attacking and rolling your die. The app tracks the health and any special powers of the monster. Your roll might get a success, surge (which activates your surge power), or + symbol, which can be converted into successes by place fatigue tokens on your cards. Every card has a fatigue limit that when reached, can’t be used to convert +’s or activate the card fatigue power anymore.
That’s where the ready action comes in. Ready allows you to flip a card. Just about every card in Descent is double-sided and has a fatigue limit. Flipping the card clears all tokens and usually transforms it into a different item or changes your hero’s power. For example, the ranger has a bow on one side and twin swords on the other. So, after your bow is at its max fatigue, you can flip it over to its sword side and keep in the action in melee range.
The other thing of note is that Descent comes with a lot of 3D terrain. Most of it you can interact with. There are trees you can climb, bookshelves to ransack, stairs to ascend, and lecterns to loot. Interestingly, the terrain can also block line of sight. It’s easy to know which because any terrain piece that is taller than your mini will block LoS.
After each player takes a turn, it’s the Darkness phase. Here, players each heal 1 fatigue, and the monsters get to act. The app dictates who they attack and how much damage is dealt. The attacked player rolls their defense to try and avoid some of it. It’s a pretty streamlined system.
Rounds go on like this, with the app adding in terrain and map pieces as the players explore. The app also keeps track of objectives and loot for the players. Once the scenario objectives are completed, the mission ends with a success and players head to town to level up, buy loot, have events, and choose their next mission.
Considering its pedigree, Descent had a lot to live up to with this release. It’s a name that’s been around as a tabletop dungeon crawler for over a decade and a half. And at the risk of sounding too excited, I can honestly say that our group fell in love with this one rather quickly. The first time we sat down to try it out, we played game after game of it for going on 6+ hours. In fact, we only stopped because it was getting really late, or else we would have kept playing. There is a lot to love with this version of descent. Interestingly, it feels like it pulled inspiration from some other contemporary dungeon crawlers. There is the card flipping from Bloodborne, overland events, unlocking heroes, and town activities found in Gloomhaven, and even some mechanics from OG Descent.
But this is, without a doubt, the best board game with an integrated app we’ve ever played, and it’s not even close. It almost merges a video game feel with a tabletop game. For example, when you attack an enemy, and they have armor, it doesn’t automatically deduct their armor, but a random bit of it. So, if an enemy has 3 armor, they will defend anywhere from 1-3 points of the attack. In addition to that, some upgrades you find for your gear will have random chances to have benefits, and the app handles all that heavy lifting. So, you might find a medallion that adds bonus damage 70% of the time and the app figures all that out for you. It also tracks all your loot. When enemies fall, they might drop items that you can equip later or crafting materials. No need to write things done or hunt for cards (yet).
That’s right, Descent lets you craft consumables and upgrades between missions. So that trusty sword you have, you can upgrade the pommel or blade via crafting. You just craft, and equip it on your sword in the app. You can even switch things around between missions, there are a lot of customizations for your character. Then, whatever benefits it gives you will be automatically calculated in the app when you attack. This kind of mechanics would be really fiddly and clunky if you tried to do it with cards and tokens. Not all crafting is strictly related to the app. Some items you craft and then take the card and put it into play as well, which was kind of a cool way to get gear.
So, let’s talk about combat now. One thing we really liked was how you never miss in combat. I think what the designers did was give the monsters a lot of extra hit points to compensate for that. So now, you attack and it’s just a matter of how much damage you are doing. This eliminates turns where you roll the die, miss, and move on with the next player. Yet there is still tension there because there is plenty of opportunities for a low power roll or one that requires you to spend fatigue that you may or not may not have. Overall, the exploration and combat was a really streamlined experience. Actions made sense, and the card flipping added in some nice variety throughout the mission.
From the story side, the writing is fine (from what we’ve seen at least) if a little silly at times. It’s not going to be winning any narrative awards, but that par for the course with board games. Although at times I found myself looking for a Skip button. What is interesting is that each player gets to make choices along the way for their character called virtues. The app will ask you at key points how you react to something, and supposedly the story will build off that as the campaign progresses. We were only given a few missions to try out for our early review, so I can’t comment on how well the system works over the long term.
I can say that while the missions are overall the same, some things are different as you play them. We had the app crash during the second mission (we were using a beta version), but thankfully the app has save points regularly so we didn’t lose too much time. But it did allow us to realize that things change. Some of the loot we searched for was different when we resumed the game, and the monsters also came out in different spots. So, while the overall story and goals are the same, it does have some baked in variety to help with replay.
I have absolutely been loving Descent, but it also hasn’t been perfect. Besides the above crashing issue, I also had some issues with the terrain. It took a few hours to put together, and some things weren’t die cut correctly. I had to get my xacto knife out to fix more than a few miscut punchboards. And things like my lectern were punched completely off center for some reason. I can say that the minis are fantastic, easily the best FFG has ever made. While not on par with someone like Games Workshop, for preassembled minis, they are some of the best you’ll see. We also had issues with the plastic-colored inserts for the mini bases falling apart, so that was a bit frustrating as well.
As to the art, it was an odd style choice, and I don’t think it will be for everyone. It reminds me a bit of the old Aeon Flux cartoon. I won’t say it’s bad or amateurish, but I probably would have gone a different direction personally.
Descent: Legends of the Dark is good… really good. We sat down to play the game and ran it nonstop for hours and I absolutely cannot wait to play it some more. I loved the combat system—from the card flipping, to the no wasted turns, to even how the app handles randomization. The designers built this game from the ground up to leverage the capabilities of a digital app, and it shows. I know there are board game purists out there that want nothing to do with technology in their games, but they are going to miss out on a really fun dungeon crawl experience. Descent: Legends of the Dark not only succeeds in creating a fun tabletop adventure, but it sets a new benchmark for dungeon crawlers that many to come will need to measure up to. I hope Fantasy Flight Games supports far into the future.
Final Score: 4.5 Stars – An amazing dungeon crawler that melds perfectly with its digitally integrated app.
• Excellent use of a digitally integrated app
• Beautiful looking minis
• Fun, streamlined rules
• Lots of loot drops and crafting between missions
• Good variety for characters with the card flipping system
• Quality of the 3d terrain could be better
• Writing was just OK