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Descent: Legends of the Dark - Review Part 4

Descent: Legends of the Dark - Review Part 4

Descent: Legends of the Dark - Review Part 4

The Fate of Terrinoth is upon us… Released Friday, August 6th from Fantasy Flight Games was the hotly anticipated Descent: Legends of the Dark. In this fully cooperative game, 1-4 players take on the challenge of adventuring through the harsh and unforgiving land of Terrinoth. This game is only Act 1 in a 3 Act Saga. There will be two more boxes released in the future. In this article, we’ll be diving into how the game plays. Fair warning, this is a lengthy article as we dive into all aspects of the gameplay!

The Game

Descent: Legends of the Dark is a unique game, and there is a lot to unpack in how this game plays. 

In the game, you play a hero who is part of a group of adventurers, each with different motives but all trying to complete quests together. Each player can take on a single role or do what we do in a two-player campaign and play two heroes each. Each hero is unique in that they all have different skills and stats listed on the hero’s character card along with their skill and weapon cards.

Your job is to guide these characters through varying quests that make up an entire campaign. Each quest is very different in its objective and physically looks very different on the board. This difference is due to the modular board system and terrain tiles. It never feels like you are playing the same game over and over again. Instead, the board layout adapts to the story and truly feels like you are on a grand, immersive adventure.

a witch with a cauldron on our DH gaming mat!

For instance, you might find a cauldron with a witch standing over it. The board has a 3D model of a witch’s cauldron and a witch miniature, which you place on the board. Then in the next quest, you might find yourself climbing through multiple floors of a castle, and you will layout 3D stairs, and the next floor will be physically elevated above the gaming table. This board system is truly pretty awesome when you first lay out a two-tiered board. It looks impressive!

a shot to show the game’s board elevation

If you are thinking about getting Descent: Legends of the Dark, definitely understand you are getting yourself into an immersive experience that changes every time you play, and you aren’t just buying a single board based game that you fold out and play and then put away, repeating every time you play.

Speaking of each time you play, an individual game takes a couple of hours to play, but it never feels like you’ve played for two hours because of how engaging it is. We played a game on Sunday and sat down at 5 pm, when we finally checked the time, it was 7 pm.

So, before we get into more details about the game, let’s get into how the different parts of gameplay work and our thoughts on them. If you want to skip to our Overall Impressions, they are at the bottom of the article.

Game Setup

There are two types of setup in the game.

Campaign Setup

Before you even sit down to play your first game of Descent: Legends of the Dark, there’s the initial prep. First, you must punch out all the tokens and map tiles along with the pieces that make up the 3D terrain from the included cardboard punch sheets. Then you need to spend about an hour putting together all the 3D terrain. Yeah, that does take some time. We suggest that you do this a couple of days ahead of your planned game night. Fantasy Flight included a space in the box bottom to store the game terrain.

You will also need to take each hero’s two weapon cards, place them back to back with the “upgraded” sides facing each other, and put them into the included card sleeve. Each character has two weapons, but only one is active at a time, so the sleeve allows you to treat the two cards as a single card during gameplay.

You must also have the free App installed on a device (phone, tablet, or computer) to start a campaign. The App is required to play.

Opening screen to the app in Steam

Once you and your group are ready to play, you all will need to decide on your party’s name. Ours is the Detectives of Descent… well, we are “Detective Hawk Games” after all. Then the game starts, and you are on your way!

The campaign is the wrapper that surrounds each of the quests in the game. It only needs to be set up once. Each time you revisit the game, click on Load Campaign in the App and choose your party. There are multiple save slots so that you can run multiple campaigns at once!

Quest Setup

As with most adventure-style board games, there is a fair amount of setup each time you want to sit down and play Descent: Legends of the Dark. Fantasy Flight Games has done an excellent job of making this as easy as possible, and the players can do it in about 10 minutes.

All it takes is pulling out the enemy and hero miniature trays, organizing the pile of map tiles (18 total), sorting out the piles of tokens, and laying out the various card piles (although you can leave most cards in the box until the game calls for them).

You will also need to pull out the 12 dice that come with the game. There are three types of dice: 4 black 6-sided dice, 4 orange 8-sided dice, and 4 blue 12-sided dice. These are custom dice where each side has multiple symbols: stars, plus signs, and thunderbolts. We’ll explain each later in the gameplay section.

The three dice types in the game.

When we play, we have each token type in its small bag, and then a giant bag holds the character cards along with any items of inventory they have crafted or received along with skill cards for each character. This storage solution makes setup fast for us. We know where everything is, and we can pull it out quickly.
By dividing everything up ahead of time, it makes it pretty easy to set up the game!

Game Play

Descent: Legends of the Dark is a round-based game split into two separate phases, the Hero Phase, and the Darkness phase.

Hero Phase

In the Hero Phase, each hero gets to take a turn in any order decided by the group. They can do three of five actions and do specific actions more than once. One of your three actions must be a “maneuver” – a fancy word for move, but besides that, you are free to pick what other actions you take.

An example layout of the board… Syrus on the stairs, A Witch and Zealot wait to attack

Manuever – Moving your hero

Each character moves around the board a different number of spaces indicated on their character card. The cool thing about this game is it allows you to split up your move. So, for instance, if you are playing Galaden, who can move four spaces, he can break that up and move one space, then do another action, move a second space, do another action and then finally move two more spaces. Be aware, though, when you move into a space adjacent to an enemy, you become impeded, and your movement ends. Then whenever you decide maneuver as another action, you can only move one space. Impeding is to encourage you to stand and fight the enemies instead of running away! There is a way around this with a unique action called “shift.” If you do this, you ignore enemies and can move freely. We like that not everyone can move the same number of spaces as it makes it seem like the heroes are unique.

Interacting with the board

Another thing you can do on your turn is “Interact.” Anytime you move next to an explore token or any of the 3D terrain objects, you can interact with them. Often, this is part of the flow of the scenario where you tell the App you are interacting with something, and it will give you a narrative about what happens for that character when they interact. In some scenarios, the interaction plays out differently depending on which character does the action.

example of interacting with a tree

What could be a bit better is interacting with a random tree or bookcase always seems to have the same three options of how to interact with them, unless the tree or bookcase is vital to the story. We do wish they had built out a more extensive “library” of types of generic interactions, so it never feels like this is “the third tree you can pick fruit from,” as an example.

Testing Abilities

Interact actions often result in a “Test” to be performed. A test involves rolling two black dice and adding your skill modifier, which appears on your character card, to the result. You want to roll successes represented by stars on the dice face. However, if you roll “Advantage” (plus signs), you can take fatigue tokens on your cards up to the card limit to convert those plus signs to successes. If you roll a thunderbolt, you can perform your character’s unique “Surge” action, often adding additional successes. The other colors, along with black, are used by specific characters when they attack or defend. We’ll get into those later.

After you have your number of successes figured out, you then look at the App, and it will either say something like “Test might;5” with two buttons for Pass or Fail.
This phrasing by the App means that if you have five successes, you pass. Less than five, you fail. The other thing the App might show is “Test might” and then offer a number counter and a submit button. These tests usually require a high number of successes, and if you fail, other heroes can interact and add their successes to it, and once the App knows you’ve combined had enough successes, it allows you to pass. I like that the number counter doesn’t reset for each new hero who interacts with it. This way, it can feel like we are all contributing to the success of the party.

Testing is an enjoyable aspect of this game as it is a bit of a luck of the dice, but you also can add successes by taking fatigue. While testing to interact is not the only type of test, it is one of the most enjoyable parts of the game because you can squeak out a success and suddenly advance the story.

Attacking Enemies

With enemies, a significant action you can take is to “Attack.” When you attack, you first need to determine if you are within range and line of sight. To determine the range, see which of your two weapons is active, and does your weapon have a range icon?
For a melee weapon such as a sword, you need to be adjacent to an enemy. For a longer weapon, you might see “reach” on the weapon card. Reach means you can be within two spaces of the enemy. For a ranged weapon such as a bow and arrow, it will show you how many spaces the card you need to be away.

After you’ve determined you are in range, next look at the spaces between you and the enemy. Do any of them have trees, statues, or other barriers that prevent your character from seeing the enemy? If you can’t tell, the App has a nifty tool that you can toggle on and off. You can click on any space on the board, and it will highlight other spaces nearby that are within line of sight. Red is adjacent, Orange is for reach, and yellow is line of sight. This tool will help you greatly if you are having trouble figuring it out!

Once you’ve determined range and line of sight, go into the App, drag from your hero’s portrait to the enemy portrait, or toggle the app view and drag to the enemy miniature; both work!

A head-to-head battle between Brynn and a Fae!

After you’ve targeted an enemy in the App, the App will ask you which weapon you have active and then switch to a head-to-head battle screen reminiscent of old-school video games. Now it’s time to roll some dice! Each character has an attack icon on their card, which shows which dice color to roll. You resolve the roll just like interacting above and input the number of successes into the App. The App will take your success count and multiply it by your weapon card damage number, then apply that to the enemy. The enemy can defend, though, and the App shows you how many of the hits they blocked, which is random. This automatic blocking by the enemy is fun because sometimes you think you’ve hit them with enough, but you end up being one short, and the enemy is just clinging to life.

Readying cards

The other cool thing about the gameplay in Descent: Legends of the Dark is that one of your actions is called “Ready.” Ready means you can flip your character card, weapon, or skill cards to change your special skills or switch weapons mid-turn, adjusting to the current situation.

Character sheet for Brynn that has poison and fatigue on it.

At the start of the campaign, you don’t know what type of attack does the most damage for each enemy type, but as you play, the App will reveal if a specific enemy is weak to pierce, crush or slash. Each weapon does a different kind of damage, so by Readying as an action, you can make sure you have the right weapon for what’s to come! The other important thing about the “Ready” action is that it removes fatigue tokens and other conditions you may have collected on your cards (both good and bad ones), allowing you to manage more fatigue.

Brynn’s card setup with weapon and skill cards along with her health dial

Managing Fatigue

Managing fatigue is very important in Descent: Legends of the Dark. Most cards can take some fatigue tokens, but you can’t take anymore when you max out. Fatigue is a good thing when you can take it. It either allows you to convert advantage to a success, or it can allow you to activate a unique ability on your character and skill cards. We like the balance of deciding when you are going to take fatigue on your cards. This choice limits your ability to use special skills later. Placing fatigue allows you to either gain a success now or hold off on taking fatigue so you can strike the enemy with your special attack later in your turn. The idea that you can spend an action to ready a card is not something new, but we like that you can do it as part of other actions in your turn and that you don’t have to spend an entire turn readying a card.

Conditions

Besides fatigue, you can also take other conditions on your card. Focus and Prepare are good conditions that help you. Focus allows you to re-roll a die, and prepare enables you to do the ready action without taking action! Then there are bad conditions that can happen. Poison makes you take damage, and Terrify makes you take fatigue during the Darkness Phase, while Scar makes you take damage when you decide to flip the card it is on. All of these conditions disappear when you “Ready” the card, but they can either help or affect you during your turn.

Poison (green), Terrified (yellow), Scar (red), Prepare (purple), Fatigue Comma shape – Focus not shown, but blue.

Unique actions

The final action you can take on your turn is your character’s Unique actions. These actions give your character a unique ability to help your party during the quest. These can range from Brynn’s ability to shift and attack in one action to Galaden’s ability to “expose” an enemy in line of sight. These unique actions make picking which hero to play vital when you do quest setup. Some quests require a specific hero to be in the party, but you can choose who you want to play for the rest. I usually choose someone who can attack from a range like Galaden, and I like his unique ability!

Darkness Phase

Once each hero takes a turn in Descent: Legends of the Dark, the game moves to the Darkness Phase. Here the monsters, via the app, both move to a position within range of a hero and attack. Each enemy on the board gets their opportunity. The enemies get to target a hero, and Once each hero takes a turn in Descent: Legends of the Dark, the game moves to the Darkness Phase. Here the monsters, via the App, both move to a position within range of a hero and attack. Each enemy on the board gets their opportunity. The enemies get to target a hero and then move several spaces towards that hero. The App doesn’t tell you precisely where to place the enemy, just how many spaces to move towards them. Unfortunately, that hero isn’t always nearby. While the rules say target the nearest hero instead, it would be nice if the App considers the general location of heroes (based on what they interacted with or attacked on the last turn). They may do this already, but it still feels a bit too random. For instance, we played a quest recently which had the map not interconnected, and you interacted with explore tokens which moved your hero to a new map piece (part of a forest). The problem was enemies on the starting map piece still targeted the hero that moved off of it. It’s a minor fixable complaint with a software update, but it kind of breaks the immersive nature of the game when it happens.

An example of how the enemies activate.

The screen also shows the “range” and damage for the enemy. Each hero can defend by rolling a defend dice specified on the hero’s character card, and any successes negate the damage you need to take. This negation mechanic allows you to take control of how much damage you take from an attack. Taking damage does become a chore, though, when there are ten enemies on the board, and they all end up targeting a single hero. Not a great situation to be in!

Winning or Losing

The other thing about the gameplay of Descent: Legends of the Dark that is important to note is how you win and lose a quest. The App will tell you what your current objective is. You will probably have 3 – 4 objectives to complete in each quest before you complete the scenario. These objectives could defeat a boss character or recover a crucial piece of treasure and range in type of quest. If you make it through all the objectives, congratulations, you have won, and you can head back to Frostgate to await your next quest!

You can lose a quest if any member of your party has their health knocked down to zero three times during a quest. The first time this happens, you tell the App they are “Wounded,” and the character receives a minor wound card showing how they modify their actions. The second time it happens, you tell the App again, the hero flips the card to the major wound side, and the effects worsen. Finally, if you reach hero again, the quest fails. Quest failure happened for the first time in the most recent game. The story continued, but the narrative in the App played out differently, and we probably didn’t get some vital treasure or quest conclusion.

Win or lose, your party will head back to Frostgate, and the travel animates within the App. The App will tell you if you encounter any story events along your route back from each quest, and some have narrative implications and often open up more quests. In contrast, others add narrative color to the game along with additional items to your inventory.

Frostgate and the Campaign Map

As mentioned in our App article, there’s a lot to do in Frostgate, from crafting to shopping to equipping. These are all done in the App. However, if the party crafts a new item, you can take the appropriate card out of the deck and give it to a hero. Weapons are upgradable while in Frostgate. Upgrading weapons happens in the App, but each card can be flipped to its upgraded side and placed back into the card sleeve.

From time to time, side quests pop up on the map. These are not required to complete the main quest but can be an excellent way to add to the story and get more items!

Besides quests on the campaign map, there are also events. Events are pretty cool, they don’t require you to set up anything on the board, but you do use the App to read the narrative and find more out about the story. They usually end with either giving your party items or material to craft with.

Overall Impressions

Overall Descent: Legends of the Dark is pretty well balanced when played on normal difficulty. The enemies aren’t too tricky, but they aren’t push-overs either. The game does have four difficulty levels, Easy, Normal, Hard, and Hardest. We decided it would be best to review it on Normal as we know most of you will be playing that way too! In normal, you won’t be able to do everything– maybe you’ll miss opening a treasure chest or investigating a bookcase, but that’s not the end of the world, and you can try for them on the next play-through of the campaign.

The game is fun and not too taxing on the brain. We play a two-player game controlling four heroes and can easily handle two each. Seeing as the App contains the enemies frees you from activating those enemies and determining how they work. Even in normal difficulty mode, you can still have many enemies on the board, too, so the App can help manage. It makes that part of the game run smoothly. Our only complaint, as previously mentioned, is related to who the enemies target, but that is a minor thing in an otherwise excellent game.

If you enjoy taking a group of characters through a campaign or like games that invest in world-building, this is the game for you! It’s fun, has a lot of action, and the board looks fantastic and changes with every new piece of the story.

We want to encourage you to take a look at Descent: Legends of the Dark! If you haven’t read part three of our review of the App, check it out here. Also, check out our Terrain review and Miniature review as well!

If you like this game’s look and want to pick up your own copy, we have it for sale in our store. Get your copy today!