It’s a good choice for those new to role-playing — or for those who don’t have as much time for dungeon-mastering as they did in their younger days.
As I prepare to run my first Dungeons & Dragons campaign in three years, I’ve been thinking a lot about how the game snared me so effectively, and how much it’s shaped my life. I still remember the first time my best friend showed off his New Easy to Master Dungeons & Dragons boxed set. It was 1991, I was 10 years old, and we barely managed to escape from Zanzer’s Dungeon alive. We butchered the rules, we ignored THAC0, and we had a blast.
Eventually I’d like to hand the geeklet his own Crown Royal bag full of polyhedral dice and a 4E Core Gift Set, but I want to prepare him first. So, I’ve reached into our massive game chest and play-tested some potential stepping stones on the path to pen-and-paper glee: gateway games to geekdom, if you will.
The first of these games, Descent: Journeys in the Dark (Amazon and BoardGameGeek), distills the ingredients of a classic D&D session into what is essentially a board game. Designed for 2 to 5 players, it puts one player in the role of Overlord, while the rest play adventurers in search of treasure, glory and epic showdowns with big baddies. The box suggests age is 12 and up, but I think 10 and up is more fair.
The game ranks high on the "toy" scale. It comes with what seems like a thousand little pieces. I had to buy a couple of toolboxes to store all of the (six-sided) dice, game pieces and cards, and even then ran out of room for the plastic miniatures that serve as stand-ins for players and monsters.
My favorite pieces in the entire game are the interlocking tiles that make up the board. If your idea of a relaxing afternoon involves some graph paper and the Monster Manual, then you’ll love how easy it is to construct really cool rooms and encounters on the fly with the modular tiles. Even better is that the tiles use standard miniature-game grid dimensions, so you can use them for other games as well.
The only area where Descent seems to flounder as an introduction to more sophisticated pen-and-paper RPGs is that the Overlord and the players are essentially playing against one another. The Overlord tries to eliminate the heroes’ "Conquest Tokens", and once they are exhausted, the game is over, the Overlord wins and the heroes lose. This type of winner-takes-all competition is not typically encouraged in D&D, where the object of the game, for DM and player alike, is an entertaining story and engaging encounters.
Aside from the increased competition and the somewhat cheap hero miniatures (the monster minis are awe-inspiring, but for some reason the good guys don’t measure up), the game mechanics are sound and it’s a great substitute for a good D&D dungeon crawl. With expansions that allow for wilderness adventures and even multisession campaigns, Descent: Journeys in the Dark is definitely a game that will help inspire younger heroes to take up the road to high adventure and vivid imagination and maybe even graduate from a d6 to a d20.
UPDATE: Descent, like D&D, can be more than just a gaming hobby. You can also geek out with arts-and-craft activities. Reader JesterOne points out the Hirst Arts Descent Game Board molds, which let you mod the gameboard with your own modular, 3-D dungeons.