It’s Not Easy Being an Overlord

Andrea, Houser and Alex (left to right) engage in butt-kicking for goodness without breaking a sweat in Descent: Journeys in the Dark.

This past weekend, some folks got together for a game of Descent: Journeys in the Dark, which has, bizarrely, turned out to be a near unanimous hit for the regular gaming group. I say “bizarrely” because, well, it appeals even to our hardcore Eurogamer girl. I think it’s thanks to all the resource management, conversion functions and need to maximize efficiency against time.

Descent and I have reached a funny sort of relationship. I’ve played it enough to recognize that the base game’s dungeons and equipment largely gear it for the heroes to walk all over the overlord. My limited experience with the dungeons from later expansions, namely The Well of Darkness, suggests they’re as unkind to the players as the base game is to the overlord.

That said, at this point in the group’s Descent playing experience, it seems best to go into the role of overlord accepting the heroes are going to prod serious buttock. Four players working together, planning their moves, can coordinate on a level that allows them to open the door to a new area and, unless it’s seriously stocked and designed to work against them, reliably clear 80 to 90% of the monsters therein. (Although, in retrospect, this may be what the Gust of Wind event is for: to make the further reaches of a new space more difficult for the heroes to affect at range.)

Once you reach that conclusion, playing overlord is mainly about seeing how hard you can make the heroes work for it. You can throw cheap one-shot monsters into the fray and drop crushing blocks and all that, but it honestly seems like an exercise in tedium for the overlord most of the time, particularly once the heroes start opening treasure chests. I understand later expansions work to tip the scales away from the heroes, but in typical heavy-handed fashion for a Fantasy Flight production, putting it crushingly in the overlord’s favor through tougher monsters and traps — so much so, that I find it interesting the second most recent expansion, Tomb of Ice, adds a new resource for heroes: one-shot effect cards in the three areas of expertise, melee, ranged and magic.

Talking with other players in the group, most of our game modification noodling centers around the overlord a small pile of threat tokens  and an opening hand of cards to begin the game, rather having to scrape together resources from the very beginning. I think the dungeons could use some modifications, too, particularly in the way of the frequency of glyphs, treasure chests and how much they pay out in the form of goodies.

It’s all hypothetical at this point. We don’t play often enough that it’s a real problem, per se, but it does create an onus around the job of overlord. I willingly and persistently took it on this time, since I felt pretty confident about staying in a positive mood and enjoying going through the actions of the game without necessarily getting the rewards of play. Still, I think there’s a growing sense with the members of the group is that overlord is a job that should be shared. At the very least, it helps defuse antagonism when it’s not the same visage leering at you from over that hand of cards of death and destruction.

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