Yesterday was Brennan’s test run of having a board game day in the Fletcher Free Library’s community room. My friend and I were the first to arrive, and Brennan and Alex arrived in short order. For the occasion, I borrowed a friend’s copy of Descent: Journeys in the Dark. It’s a big, sprawling, bitfest of a dungeoncrawl from Fantasy Flight Games, makers of my beloved Arkham Horror. This set also had all the expansions mixed in, so it took some sorting to pull out the In retrospect, Descent probably wasn’t the best choice for a day of getting new faces to play board games, as it’s pretty time-consuming, which isn’t fair to latecomers. But I bulled ahead anyway.
At first, I thought it was going to be a rough sell. The tough part, as is usually the case with Fantasy Flight Games’ output, is working through all the bits and pieces to explain what they signify. In Descent, most of the players each have a character to guide through the dungeon and send against the overlord, the final player’s, monsters. So everyone had a pile of tokens, cards and special abilities that needed explaining.
Once we got through that, explaining the rules of the game was straightforward. They’re easy enough to remember and I’d had the chance that morning to flip through the rulebook and remind myself of the niceties. I’d also spent much of the morning debating whether to use the introductory adventure or the next one down the line. “Into the Dark” is, frankly, a cakewalk. The boss monsters can’t even reach the heroes if they’re bright enough to stay on the far side of some pits conveniently placed in the room. But I’ve also had some rough experiences with the next one, “The Brothers Durnog,” in that the two or three I played or saw the scenario played, I’ve never seen anyone actually beat the thing.
This time out, the heroes acquitted themselves admirably. Once they got the rules down, play moved along at a good clip, though we paused a turn in as Kristy joined us. We even had two players who were completely new to the concept of an adventure game like Descent, but they got into before too long. A lot of the joy of the game is assembling a fistful of dice out of a weapon, power dice and other bonuses. It’s a very tactile pleasure that I think helped get the more tentative players climb on board.
Descent‘s a tricky game because the overlord player, manning the forces of darkness and adversity, is expected to try to win just as energetically as the heroes have to. But the game can be heavily slanted in the overlord’s favor, particular if the heroes don’t draw skills and weapons with particularly useful synergies. So I followed in the footsteps of the overlord who taught me the game and make less aggressive choices. Both because everyone else at the table was new and because, for me, the joy of Descent is in the play itself. Winning or losing is immaterial to me, so long as I get the chance to roll the dice, spring traps and otherwise make life difficult for the heroes. Actually, I prefer to play a hero struggling against such odds, because it inspires greater ingenuity than when playing the overlord, who often has a surplus of resources and options. But once the game is over, it’s pretty much over, because no one wants to start a whole new dungeon. So there’s less incentive for an overlord to play to win, unless that person is super competitive.
All told, Descent took about three and a half hours — and that was because after killing the first of the Durnog brothers, we unanimously agreed to call it. We still had an hour and a half to go before the community room closed, and two people who’d been watching Descent play out with interest, but not much to do themselves, so we wound up breaking into two groups of three. Alex, myself and Orson played Dominion, while Brennan, Sarah and Alan played Ticket to Ride: Europe.
My Dominion play is improving, I’ve noticed. After a long indulgence in chaining together endless multi-draw and action effects — Village and Smithy are an addictive, if often fruitless, combination — I’ve begun working on generating cash with which to buy stuff, particularly Provinces. I reached a personal best in this game of accumulating 11 coins, mostly gold, and two buys in a single turn. I’m sure others have done much better, but it was definitely a first for me.
The person we taught the game to, Orson, seemed to dig the game. He was very thoughtful about making his choices. He also recognized the first game is often about exploring options and combinations, rather scoring heavily. At the end of the game, he pointed out his own mistake of not buying enough treasure cards. He spent more of his time and energy converting cheap treasure into more valuable denominations with several Mines, but the overall low number of treasure cards hurt his ability to purchase big ticket items, like Provinces.
Over at the other table, Brennan, Sarah and Alan seemed to have a good time with the European map Ticket to Ride. The addition of tunnels, ferries and stations makes me a little apprehensive of the first time I play that version. I still haven’t nearly grokked plain jane Ticket to Ride, so I’m sure my first outing in Europe would be more than a little embarrassing. But it’s important to recognize, like Orson did, that it’s less about doing well the first time out and more about learning the moves of the game.
After that, we packed up our bits, chatted about how the games went and also discussed making the Fletcher a regular venue for board games. Outside groups are typically limited to using the community room one day a month, but if this takes off, it may become a library-sponsored event, allowing it to occur more frequently — and maybe catch a different slice of the game-playing populace who can’t make it to Tuesdays at the library.