More than four years ago former Fantasy Flight Games head of studio Andrew Navarro brought together a small team of creatives in Minnesota. The topic at hand was the next iteration of the company’s flagship dungeon-crawling franchise, a long running series known as Descent. The result of that effort is perhaps the biggest, most ambitious new product that the tabletop publisher has ever attempted: Descent: Legends of the Dark - Act One.
“I’m paraphrasing,” recalled designer Nathan Hajek in an exclusive interview with Polygon, “but he said he wanted it to be ‘as big and definitive as humanly possible. [...] We’re putting it all in. We’re going for it. More resources, more time, more people. Let’s blow it out of the park.’”
The result is a roughly one-foot cube of cardboard and plastic that weighs a little more than seven pounds. Inside is one of the most sophisticated sets of pre-assembled plastic miniatures on the market, as well as a novel collection of 3D cardboard terrain. There’s also an app, available for free on iOS and Android, Mac and Windows PC. It’s a full-fledged action role-playing campaign in a box, one that doesn’t require a Dungeon Master at all, and it’s going to set you back $174.95. It arrives at retail stores worldwide on Aug. 6.
Descent: Legends of the Dark is a statement piece by the Midwestern company, one that it hopes will set a new bar for the genre.
Here’s how it works.
Opening up the big blue box, I encountered a nearly two-inch thick stack of cardboard punch boards. There’s also a four-page leaflet filled with instructions. After the better part of two hours of carefully popping things out and gingerly assembling everything, I had all the bits needed to create a massive 3D level from a dungeon. There are double-sided floor tiles with special underlays representing water and lava; massive double doors in multiple designs; bookcases and magical cauldrons; spell books mounted on tables, and more. Best of all is a clever set of notched columns that allow you to create platforms that rise up off the surface of the table.
“That punch board,” producer Jason Walden told Polygon, “was not part of the original vision. It just came about naturally. One of our graphic designers, Joe Olson, suggested it [...] and then it just kind of started to snowball.”
This kind of production value would be out of the question for a $60 game, but the market has changed considerably over the last five years.
The most popular game in the dungeon-crawling genre, called Gloomhaven, disrupted the entire industry when it launched a crowdfunding campaign in 2015. The nearly 20-pound retail product comes with dozens of miniatures, hundreds of cards, and a similar two-dimensional collection of terrain and cardboard monsters. Even though it costs $150, it remains one of the most critically and commercially successful new products of this generation. Many have attempted to copy its complexity, but none have yet matched its success.
Fantasy Flight reasoned that if consumers were ready to put down that much money for new, unproven designs on Kickstarter, why not go the extra mile for fans, new and old, of Descent? It’s the kind of extravagance that tabletop fans can only dream about — or one that hobbyists will spend months or years crafting by hand — and soon it will be available in stores. The final product is fan service all the way down, including into the empty void at the bottom of the box to hold all that cardboard terrain safely between games.
That’s right: Fantasy Flight is paying a premium to ship half-empty boxes from China.
Then there are the miniatures. Previous editions of Descent have included similar plastic miniatures made of PVC. The heavy, pliable composite makes minis that are nearly indestructible, but it also leaves their features soft and their flat bases sometimes warp. Fantasy Flight tells Polygon that the models that come with Descent: Legends of the Dark are made from polystyrene, injected into laser-cut metal molds. It’s a similar process to high-end models from Britain’s Games Workshop and Poland’s Archon Studio. The results are stiff, slightly more brittle miniatures that have crisp details, including weapons and other features that extend well past the round base. Hobbyists and miniature painters will love them.
Producer Walden says the technology to make these kinds of minis has been in the Fantasy Flight pipeline for some time now. It featured prominently in games like Star Wars: Legion. This is the first time that miniatures of this type will be included in one of the company’s more traditional board games.
Of course, this is far from a traditional board game because all of the set-up and the action is managed by a digital app. In fact, you can’t play the game without it.
But this is nothing new for Fantasy Flight either. Its first app-driven game, XCOM: The Board Game was released way back in 2014. Then came Mansions of Madness: Second Edition in 2016, followed by a free update for Descent called Road to Legend. That was followed up in 2019 with the critically acclaimed Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-earth.
Descent’s companion app will handle everything from setting up the play area on the table, to equipping arms and armor, to actually crafting new pieces of gear between missions. But, according to producer Walden, the biggest innovation comes in how it enables his team to manage the game’s narrative.
“The depth of content is one of the biggest things,” Walden said. “When you’re playing a regular game and you have a deck of cards that are driving, for example, a narrative experience, you can see it. There’s 50 cards [in that stack]. You know your narrative experience is this deep. You see it. You physically see the narrative depth.
“What we’re able to do is take those 50 cards and multiply it into thousands of options,” Walden continued. “The depth is mysterious. It’s like an ocean. You won’t know how deep that goes, and that adds a ton of mystery.”
Polygon has been busy these last few weeks playing through the game’s 16-mission story arc, which Fantasy Flight estimates will take consumers around 50 hours or more to complete. Pre-orders for Descent: Legends of the Dark are live now. Expect our full review soon.
Descent: Legends of the Dark was previewed on Windows PC using a pre-release copy of the physical game and app provided by Fantasy Flight Games. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.