Death To Sprues: Dark Elements (Descent part 2)
Welcome back Anton with another installment in his Death To Sprues series. He completes his Descent review (part 1 here) with a review of the co-op expansion Dark Elements. Review copy of Dark Elements provided by FFG.
Play time: 3-4 hours
Blood! Doom! Fire! Your best friend unleashing their inner megalomaniac! Semi-cooperative games aren’t for everyone. Some gamers don’t like having that one player whose sole purpose is to throw wrenches into the gears of your gameplay. If you really like the idea of Descent: Journeys in the Dark, but would prefer a purely cooperative experience, there is a solution for you. Fantasy Flight Games (FFG) has released three co-operative expansions to date, the latest of which is Dark Elements
All of the Descent co-op expansions run under the same general ruleset: The Overlord player (who would be controlling all of the monsters) is removed from the game, and is automated by random card draws. Instead of wanting to punch a specific player in the schnoz for killing off the party, you can blame it on a deck of cards (huzzah?). The cards cause monsters to move and attack according to a set of instructions. They also may cause specific player targets to be chosen, like the one with the lowest HP or furthest from the exit. Certain cards also make specific groups of monsters temporarily more powerful or sinister. The monster activation deck really ties the themes of the scenario together and creates some interesting swings in difficulty. The loot system is also automated by giving the heroes a flush of item cards at predictable times for killing monsters. Heroes will be rewarded for killing the more daunting minions, but the time it takes to do so could be more trouble than it’s worth.
The pace of the game is kept fairly brisk via a couple of mechanics. First, there is the Doom track that runs the risk of ending the game early if the heroes let it advance too far. It also seems that Fate has it in for the band of heroes. On the same track as Doom is the Fate token. If the two should ever meet, the game ends in failure. Fate marches towards Doom especially quickly if the heroes dawdle in the dungeon and cause cards from the Peril deck to be drawn. These elements keep the heroes feeling as though they are doggedly being chased, rather than merely exploring the dungeon. The main thing to grasp ASAP is that the players must get about their tasks and not spend too much time fiddling about positioning themselves on the map. Sometimes it is better to just bowl through enemies than try and set up that all-powerful wombo combo. No really, get moving!
Other than the few decks of cards that replace the Overlord player, co-op Descent follows most of the rules and gameplay of the regular game. Combat is identical, and some classes can streamline their abilities by removing any that reference mechanics that only appear in the base game. The maps and monster placement are dictated by a dedicated booklet of rules and diagrams that can be printed or referenced from the FFG website.
The game scales considerably based on how many heroes are on the map. A single player may tackle the dungeon solo (nutter!), although FFG recommends a solo player controls two heroes. Adding more heroes usually increases the number of monsters that appear on each map, or perhaps complicates the objective somehow. The Doom track also starts in a more perilous state as you increase the party size. In general, I found four players to be fun, but brutally hard. If you were expecting to prance through the dungeon and thumb your nose at the monsters, you’ll quickly find yourself in three kinds of trouble, and probably on fire.
Speaking of fire, it’s worth noting that the Lair of the Wyrm expansion is required to play the Dark Elements scenario. A few of the included map tiles are used to create the dungeon, but most notably the monsters and the “Burning” condition cards are used a lot. Heroes will probably spend about 15% of their time in this scenario on fire, or at significant risk of becoming lit on fire. The Dark Elements scenario has recurring themes of dark and light. I won’t spoil specific story particulars, but know that there are rules governing whether heroes are standing in well lit spaces, and those in the dark suffer some detriments.
Despite its somewhat unforgiving pace and difficulty, especially with four heroes, I had loads of fun with Dark Elements. The co-op scenarios are hard, and sometimes you get a series of bad cards that end the game prematurely. I eventually came to interpret the scenario as more of a big puzzle. Players need to collaborate with each other on many levels, beginning right as you choose your heroes. Making foolish or sentimental choices in hero selection can really hobble the party. A venturing group should choose heroes that will synergize and benefit from certain gameplay mechanics. If they do, they will be well on their way to dying much further along in their adventure, rather than in the opening minutes.
Presently, there are three co-op scenarios available from FFG for Descent. Each one runs with a theme, and plays out a simple story that ties all the maps together. Compared to the base game experience, the co-op side of things offers its own set of pros and cons. The scenarios are meant for a one session playthrough, and whether you succeed or fail, the story does not change. The normal campaign concepts like multiple sessions and characters leveling up over the course of a few encounters are abbreviated into a single session that has heroes level up and improve their gear at an accelerated pace. While this may sound like a boon for players seeking shinier helmets and daggers with less rust, you are sacrificing some variety. The amount of content for the basic Descent experience is exponentially higher. If you love co-op and burn through FFG’s content, you’ll be hunting for player-made scenarios much sooner.
So is co-op Descent for you? If you like the idea of Descent anyway, or already own it, co-op is a fun way to play it. Getting rid of the Overlord may alleviate some frustrations or concerns but it certainly doesn’t assure victory. A party of four heroes has a tight timeline, and a very probable death to look forward too, but you’ll have all the fun Descent offers as you go down.
Is Dark Elements a good starting point for co-op? It really isn’t. Since the Lair of the Wyrm expansion is required, it adds another item to purchase to make the game playable. If you’re an established fan of Descent, adding an expansion is a good way to get you more of everything the game offers. Lair of the Wyrm adds two new heroes and classes, two monster types, more map tiles, and some extra item cards, among other additions that aren’t used specifically in the co-op experience. Trying out one of the co-op scenarios that only requires the base game is a much simpler solution for the casual or curious, however. If you’re a veteran of co-op Descent and are wondering whether Dark Elements is worth it, I’d say it is. The theme of dark/light has players struggling to survive and synergize, and the encounters give the game a desperate air of being just one step ahead of encroaching darkness.