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Co-op Case Study: Descent – Journeys in the Dark 1e

The overlord category of co-ops gets a decent amount of attention in Meeples Together, but we probably could have written a whole chapter on how overlords interact with the challenge machinery of a co-op game. Instead, we offer up this case study, our first to discuss an overlord game. It describes one of the foundational games in the modern overlord category, and also outline how overlords and challenge systems work together.

This article originally appeared in Meeples Together.

Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games (2005)
Cooperative Style: Overlord
Play Style: Adventure, Combat


In Descent: Journeys in the Dark, players take on the roles of heroes who are venturing forth on dangerous quests. Each of these quests is codified in a scenario that tells the overlord how to lay out rooms and monsters. The game is then played out as tactical combat, with the heroes trying to fight their way to the end of the scenario while the overlord tries to slay them.

Challenge System

Descent was the first major overlord-driven co-op of the euro-influenced wave of games that followed the release of Lord of the Rings (2000). However, its design for how its overlord interacts with the challenge game system largely follows in the footsteps of older co-ops such as HeroQuest (1989).

This interaction comes from the overlord filling two major roles.

The overlord’s true interaction with the challenge machinery comes from his second major role, as a fighter. Here we truly see how an overlord can work as a cog amidst the challenge gears.First, the overlord acts as an administrator: each scenario describes a dungeon with different areas separated by doors. Whenever a door is opened, the overlord places rooms, corridors, monsters, and treasures according to the design of the scenario. There’s also a minor storytelling role here: the overlord is instructed to read color text when each new area is unveiled (and also when certain events occur). Neither of these roles is a very interesting part of the challenge machinery: the players could just as easily do this placement themselves if they could be protected from seeing information that they shouldn’t — as Fantasy Flight has managed in some of their later, app-driven co-ops, such as Mansions of Madness 2e (2016).

Like many co-ops that derive from the roleplaying side of gaming, the overlord in Descent activates just once a round, after all the heroes’ turns. This is pretty important for overlord play because an overlord shouldn’t go too often, lest they impact everyone else’s fun.

After the overlord is activated, he has an overlord trigger, meaning that he makes the decision about which bad things happen. But, that’s not the whole story. The overlord can only play cards that he draws, which effectively introduces a card trigger to the equation: it’s just hidden from the other players, because only the overlord gets to see those cards before they’re played. There’s also a simulation at play, because the overlord is spawning monsters, which he’ll then activate and move toward the players. (Their activation isn’t automated as in similar co-ops that don’t have an overlord, such as the Dungeons & Dragons Adventure System games, but nonetheless their movements and attacks will often be pretty set, depending on the powers of the monsters and the position of the heroes.)

Descent doesn’t contain much decay, which is another standard for overlord play: because the overlord is more explicitly a competitor, the game can’t be too unfairly biased toward him. As for cascade, the closest is a system of resource-driven ebbs and flows. The overlord has to pay for his card plays with the “threat” resource, which he gains every round. He can continuously play it to generate constant pressure, but he can also save it up to suddenly hit the players with multiple problems (or one big problem) all at once. So, it’s a uniquely player-driven style of cascade, where the overlord decides when everything spins out of control.

Generally, one can model overlord-driven challenge machinery as a system of inputs and outputs with the overlord sitting at the middle. Here, he receives cards, resources, and a round-limited activation as inputs and he outputs monsters and consequences that then link into a monster simulation and can create cascades.

Challenge System Elements: Round Activation; Arbitrary Trigger; Overlord Trigger; Simulation; Linear Cascade; Overlord; and Combat Threats.

Cooperative System

Descent is a game of tactical combat, and so the majority of its cooperation occurs via that mechanism. This cooperation is enabled by the specialization of the heroes, which mainly focuses on how they fight. Tanks stand up front and use their armor to shield the rest of the party, while more vulnerable spellcasters and archers attack from afar. Together, they group damage to try and kill monsters in the most efficient way possible. It’s a simplistic method of cooperation, but the complexity of the game board creates tough tactical decisions.

Adventure System

Contrariwise, Descent has a very intricate adventure system.

Each character is defined by a character card (which includes ten attributes), three skill cards (which grant special abilities), and a number of equipment cards (which mostly aid the character in combat). This creates quite a high level of specialization for each character.

The game’s skill-test system is based on carefully manufactured dice. This is quite a clever design, because the players don’t have to learn special rules for figuring out when they hit their foes: they just roll the dice and read the results.

A “miss” result (or its lack) determines the overall success of the dice, while “damage” results measure the total number of hits; this means that the more dice a character rolls, the more damage he does, all without requiring special rules for more proficient warriors: they just roll more dice. Special “power surge” results integrate special powers: a character uses any surges rolled to pay for those special abilities. Finally, ranged attacks roll special dice that include “range” results, which are added together to measure how far the character could fire; this is yet another clever and intuitive integration: better ranged fighters will roll more dice, which will allow them to hit from further away.

Since Descent’s skill-test system is focused on combat, it doesn’t have the breadth of some other adventure games, but its use of special dice to model the usage of special powers and the advantages of proficiency remains unmatched even more than a decade later.

Expansions & Variants

Descent reimplements the game system from Doom: The Boardgame (2004), adapting it for dungeon play. The two games remain close cousins.

Descent has also been much expanded. Most of its supplements add new rules, new scenarios, and piles of new plastic monsters to fight. These include: The Well of Darkness (2006), The Altar of Despair (2007), and The Tomb of Ice (2008).

Descent 1e’s Road to Legend (2008) expansion marked a larger change — and also a turning point for the whole co-op category. Road to Legend introduced rules that allowed players to engage in many sessions of tactical combat, all connected together as a campaign, lasting perhaps 40 hours in total. Back in 2008, the idea of being able to pack up a game and return to it was all but unprecedented. Road to Legend managed it by using a campaign board to link together all of the adventures and by providing boxes that could be used to store a character’s cards and markers. As a first in its class, Road to Legend was a bit unpolished, suffering in particular from problems with maintaining balance over time, but it was still an amazing innovation.

No other game has repeated Road to Legend’s idea of simply breaking a game down into bite-sized scenes, allowing for sessions as short or long as desired. However, the concept of campaign games has proliferated, particularly in card-based campaign such as the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game (2013) and in legacy games beginning with Risk Legacy (2011), which spawned co-op campaign releases such as Pandemic Legacy (2015, 2017, 2020?). Fantasy Flight themselves repeated the campaign idea for Descent 1e in Sea of Blood (2009), though it reportedly had even more game balance problems.

The whole Descent line has since been revamped in Descent: Journeys in the Dark second edition (2012).

Final Thoughts

By reimplementing the Doom: The Boardgame (2004) system, Descent 1e became the first of the new dungeon delve co-ops. It (and Doom before it) in turn followed in the footsteps of HeroQuest, redefining its classic gameplay — with an overlord laying out set scenarios and controlling combat threats, while the other players cooperate mainly through tactical combat — while applying more precise eurogame mechanics. Many more games of this sort have followed, from the flicking Catacombs (2010) to the three-dimensional Attack of Titan: The Last Stand (2017), from the overlord-free Masmorra: Dungeons of Arcadia (2017) to the Legacy-hit Gloomhaven (2017). But this is where you can find the core concepts that defined the category of play.

“When I designed Descent 1st ed., I purposely started the quests easier for the heroes at first, and then ramped them up over time because of the violent reactions some folks had to Doom’s difficulty. It’s tricky to gauge that sort of thing because no two gaming groups are the same, and that makes the 50/50 win ratio that some expect kind of impossible, assuming it’s even a worthwhile goal.”

—Kevin Wilson, January 2012, “Interview with Board Game Designer Kevin Wilson”, Cheerful Ghost,

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The original article can be found on the great Mechanics & Meeples