A common refrain in my game group is that Descent is fun despite itself. I think this is accurate. We certainly had a blast playing the game, but that was mostly because our experience combined the right people at the right time to make it into a riot. We still reference some of the silliness that happened during those plays years later. But the game isn’t great, relying on dice far too often. When strategies do emerge, they often feel like the exploitation of a flawed ruleset rather than cleverness within it.
Descent follows the long and storied lineage of Dungeons and Dragons, which focuses on putting the players into trouble and relying on dice to bring them out of it. That’s not to say there isn’t any strategy in those games. Indeed the malleability of role-playing ensures that there are a number of games out there in the wild of super intense, hardcore D&D rivaling any heavy-duty strategy game. I think the strengths of role-playing games lie elsewhere, but I’m not going to look down on anyone who plays differently than I.
That said, I’ve been thinking about why I tend to prefer the adventure board games that play like elaborate, difficult puzzles. I’m talking about Gloomhaven, Mage Knight, or Spirit Island, to name some of my favorites. These are the kinds of games that people recommend with a disclaimer: not for the faint of heart. These are capital-H Heavy games with a large rules burden and many different strategic facets to consider on a given turn. Indeed, the most common complaint about Mage Knight (other than the tiny rule book font) is that it feels too much like a puzzle.
The subtext with those criticisms is that this genre of game should be more lighthearted–that by mixing heavy strategy with a group of adventurers fighting a series of foes we’ve entered the realm of genre-mixing. Certainly this is manifested in terms of production–show me a game like Mage Knight and I’ll show you five others that look more like Descent. This is a missed opportunity.
Beyond the point of ludo-lineage, I think randomness-heavy adventure games proliferate because of a link to escapism (cogent or not on the part of the designer). Going out and defeating packs of goblins with your friends does sound like a silly thing to do, so the games that provide that narrative should similarly be a bit silly. I understand this point, and though I might be in the minority, I disagree. The most immersive, escapist board game experiences I have are when I’m fully invested in the game as a piece of design, not as a stage for other antics.
Let me explain it this way: when we played through our Descent campaign I have a number of fond memories from those hijinx-filled evenings. None of them relate to anything in the Descent narrative at all. They were all springboarded by the game, but ultimately outside of it. Sure we followed the campaign story and narrated our character actions within it (which mostly included forward backflips–don’t ask), but I never felt like my character was actually doing something. We were riffing on the generic fantasy story situations the game gave us, but never felt like we were in the story.
Perhaps that’s simply a weakness of Descent specifically. Above and Below, with its storybook scenarios, certainly draws you into a world, though only for brief moments of time before shoving you back to the surface with some tokens. Spirit Island has no narration and no storybook, yet I can sit here now and picture the time we all synchronized to throw fistfuls of enemies into the ocean’s hungry grasp, or when the mighty snake emerged from its ancient slumber, crushing everything on the island.
My point is this: adventure games work best as tough strategic puzzles because adventure stories are about overcoming obstacles, and tough strategic puzzles are the closest to approximating that within a cardboard box. The advantage that games have over other forms of storytelling is player agency. When that agency is repeatedly handed over to some dice, you’re squandering the advantage.
The very best games transport players into the world of the game by providing them parallel situations and parallel decision spaces. The Resistance works so well because the paranoia and suspicion of the story is told via actual paranoia and suspicion. Twilight Struggle is brilliant because, among other reasons, it pushes both sides towards the brink of nuclear disaster, just like the players in the actual Cold War. A dice fest adventure game has no such parallel, other than, I suppose, requesting the aid of fates or gods*. On the other hand, when I conquer a city with my character in a game of Mage Knight or defeat a Gloomhaven boss, I feel like I’ve accomplished something, just as my character in the story has accomplished something.
I’m not saying that dice are bad or that lighter games are inferior, I’m simply making this plea: make your gameplay feel like your theme. Don’t be tied down to the mores of the genre. Look for experiential parallels with your theme and I think you’ll be on the right path.
*Has anyone made an RPG or RPG-like game where the dice are actually representative of a theological construct? That could be interesting.