Review: Descent 2nd Edition
Quinns: GOD WHAT’S HAPPENED TO YOUR FACE
Paul: So I hear you’ve been playing the new Descent without me.
Quinns: Look I-
Paul: I think it’s time we had a chat, don’t you? Would you like to sit down?
Quinns: I can’t sit down because you’ve amputated my bum and also I’m hanging from a hook.
Paul: Then let us begin.
Paul: Do you remember those happier times? Those times when we played Descent each week, every week? It’s thick, meaty campaign twisted and turned like some great python, constricting us all in its grip. It swallowed us whole and we adventured deep within its cavernous depths. What’s this I hear about a… leaner, smaller Descent?
Quinns: Oh God, it’s true! Fantasy Flight have unleashed Descent 2nd Edition. I wouldn’t worry about what you’re missing, Paul, honestly. It’s kind of the same game.
Quinns: Up to four players control heroes nobly sprinting through a dungeon, while the last player is an evil Overlord, controlling the traps, monsters and dark magicks that they face.
It’s still the fantasy equivalent of American Gladiators, with heroes booting down doors and spending reserves of precious fatigue to clear just a few more yards of real estate. It’s still a game where every attack and block sees you rolling a chunky fistful of dice, where every “miss” result causes an gleeful amounts of emotional distress. It’s just a lot prettier.
Prettier, and they’ve wisely tucked the campaign play, where every night’s gaming strings together in an epic saga, into the base game rather than how the first edition hid it in an expansion. The campaign’s the best bit of Descent, so that’s wonderful.
Look! There’s still a map.
But that’s all that’s changed, really! You’re not missing much. Um, where did you get this hook from?
Paul: I know! It’s called a Höoke and it was only £6.99.
Quinns: That’s great. Does it detach?
Paul: Yes, it- NO!
So you’re telling me it’s just as grand as the original? That we’ll spend days, weeks, months playing our way through dungeon after dungeon, repeatedly indulging our psychotic, kleptomaniac tendencies until we become the most overburdened adventurers in the land?
Quinns: Ah. No. The campaign is much shorter, but that’s a good thing. Rather than arriving at the finale in 140 hours, you’ll need just 20. That’s because the campaign’s much more focused.
After every adventure, the heroes will unlock a new power for their team. You’re not just playing Syndrael, pro warrior, anymore. You’ll make the choice of whether she’s a berserker or a knight, each of which gives you a tiny deck of skill cards you’ll be claiming, one after another. Or as the Overlord, you’ll probably get new card – a new toy, inserted portentously into your deck.
And some adventures see you battling over double-sided relic cards. One side for if the heroes win, another if the Overlord wrestles it from their grasp in the nick of time. Second edition doesn’t just add more colour to Descent, it compacts it into less time. Which also means the game has less time to collapse under the weight of itself, when the heroes realise they can combine that skill with that axe and that spell to turn their warrior into a pissing humvee, roaring down the corridors, flattening dragons.
This is just the better game. But it’s also a game built entirely from new content. If people own the first edition, they probably shouldn’t even think of it like a new edition. It’s a standalone expansion. More monsters, adventures and ideas than you can waggle a magic staff at.
Paul: So you’re customising your character with this sort of… skill tree? And what do you mean more adventures? What sorts of adventures? How can MORE be LESS? What’s happened to all those enormous decks of equipment and items and monsters?
Quinns: Good questions. Essentially, Descent 2e plays smarter, not louder.
For example, there are less item cards. But that’s fine! Don’t you remember how in first edition we ended up ignoring most of them as we gravitated towards the best gear? Here, equipment’s rarer. So’s money. It forces the heroes to make taxing decisions. Or, if you’d prefer, to play the game.
Likewise, rather than the Overlord starting with a huge stack of cards, they get just 15. The rest are earned slowly, and you gradually prune the chaff from your deck in a great bit of deckbuilding. Spending six adventures earning a card, then finally drawing it into your hand? It feels like the game just gave you a gift. And you cast that card onto the table with such force it leaves the heroes spitting teeth. Or maybe it sputters and the whole table laughs, because this is Descent.
The new adventures are just as creative. Remember how in first edition the dungeons were all about sprinting to the exit, and we compared it to playing a medieval swat team? Second edition turns that shit into Black Hawk Down.
The heroes are forever trying to rescue VIPs from the Overlord’s minions, or ignite rescue beacons, or liquidate a team of goblin archers before they can flee. One quest even saw my hero opponents trying to escape down a mountain pass before it filled up with falling boulders. It was incredibly tense. The warrior casting boulders out of the way, the archer skewering the spiders in hot pursuit. It was beautiful.
Paul: So, it has more objectives now? More variety in how you are heroic or villainous?
Quinns: Yes! A change that required no more components or manual space, but offers substantially more colour. More game.
Paul: Hm. So, does this mean you feel it’s a better game? So it’s tighter and, I’m sure, has stamped on some of the strange bugs and overpowered item combinations of its predecessors, but don’t you miss that sense of scale? Don’t you miss the great variety of things that it gave you and the pure sprawl of the thing?
Quinns: Well, it’s still a very, very generous box. But Fantasy Flight have you covered. I didn’t realise this at first, but the first expansion – Lair of the Wyrm – doesn’t give you a new campaign (though rules to turn it into one are now available online). It exists to grow the game laterally. To give it sprawl.
Two new monster types. More items. More hero classes. New “rumour” quests, that make your campaign wider. New secret rooms! New status effects, and of course, a suite of new Overlord cards.
And if that’s not enough for you, you could also buy the conversion kit. A box adapting every single hero and monster miniature ever released for first edition, giving them cards for second edition. So you can still play with the Ice Wyrms that gobble heroes whole!
Paul: I’ll tell you the truth: I haven’t really cared about most of your answers to these questions. Things change. It’s the way of the world, and we’re born, we live and then we die, hanging on hooks in somebody’s basement. What really matters, what’s most important is, is it balanced now? Does it feel like a fair fight?
Paul: The truth! Give it to me, Smith!
Quinns: It’s not balanced, no.
Paul: Oh, for heaven’s sake.
Quinns: Clever plays in Descent Second Edition still see players bending the game’s joyous systems and ideas into patterns that only ever, to the other side, feel like cheating. The Overlord still has to bully unprotected heroes, and the heroes still have to come up with combinations of skills that let them shatter even the biggest monsters like glass.
But I don’t care. I’m still having pots of fun with it, and I’m actually going to finish my campaign this time, rather than abandoning it like some broken plaything. I love this game. I’d recommend it to anybody.
We have a space in our group, you know. Want to join in?
Paul: Hm, possibly. It sounds worth a try. Would you mind hanging on a moment? Hah! Sorry to keep you in suspense, to make you hang around, but it sounds like this game does have a hook and I oh you’ve bled out.