Descent: Legends of the Dark designers on why it’s not a Journeys in the Dark sequel, making an app essential and why it took 10 years
“If there’s going to be a new Descent game, it has to come from a great idea and not just exist for the sake of being made.”
A new Descent game is finally happening. But Descent: Legends of the Dark isn’t simply a third edition of beloved dungeon-crawler Journeys in the Dark - it’s a brand new direction for the fantasy franchise, built on top of an ambitious new companion app and a fully co-op narrative experience.
Arriving almost a full decade after Journeys in the Dark’s latest second edition released in 2012, Legends of the Dark is billed as only the first part of a planned series - the core box’s 16-mission Blood and Flame campaign is even labelled as ‘Act I’ of a grander story.
Gone is Journeys in the Dark’s all-versus-one setup and GM-like overlord player, replaced by a newly mandatory companion app - a significant evolution from Journeys’ optional Road to Legend companion - that players will need to play and guide their characters through the connected storyline.
The app’s narrative events and dynamic enemy AI combines with revamped gameplay on the table, too, with a new card-sleeve system for weapon customisation, a revised combat system and a box packed with cardboard terrain to create 3D environments across multiple levels.
It’s a bold, ambitious next step for the Descent series that’s already stirred up discussion among fans over its app reliance, its explicit departure from Journeys in the Dark and its $175 asking price.
Ahead of Descent: Legends of the Dark’s long-awaited release next month, I spoke with Fantasy Flight Games senior game designer Kara Centell-Dunk and game designer Brandon Perdue about bringing a fantasy classic back into a hobby saturated by dungeon-crawlers, the divisive decision to rely on a companion app, and that price tag.
Legends of the Dark has been described as being a brand new Descent title, rather than a third edition of Journeys in the Dark. Why was it important to make this distinction, and what does that mean in terms of its relationship and similarities to previous Descent games?
Brandon Perdue: Legends of the Dark will let players once again take on the roles of heroes in the realm of Terrinoth, and fans of previous Descent titles will recognize some of the characters, creatures, and factions that appear. But not only is Legends of the Dark built on new mechanics from the ground up, it also has what is, for us, an unprecedented amount of focus on telling a story and making that experience responsive to players’ decisions and achievements. Not only can players make big decisions that will affect the future of Terrinoth itself, but they’ll also guide each of the six playable heroes on their own personal stories, and will get to choose how the heroes’ journey changes each of them.
Descent: Legends of the Dark didn’t start by looking at Descent: Journeys in the Dark. It was always a game that had its own identity and goals.
Kara Centell-Dunk: For me, if I’m making a new edition of a game, my starting point is the previous game. Even if I end up choosing to radically depart from the original, it still forms the foundation of the design process. Descent: Legends of the Dark didn’t start by looking at Descent: Journeys in the Dark. It was always a game that had its own identity and goals. Both Nathan and I started our careers by designing expansion content for Descent: Journeys in the Dark, so we carried a lot of that experience over into designing Descent: Legends of the Dark. The two games share being tactical, grid-based dungeon-crawlers set in Terrinoth and starring heroes, but Legends embraces telling a more specific, co-operative hero-focused narrative and pushes app-use to create unique systems like crafting, hero feats that unlock skills and recipes and unique enemy behaviours, to name just a few.
Journeys in the Dark 2E was released almost 10 years ago. Why has a new Descent game taken so long to emerge?
Perdue: Kara can speak more fully to this because she’s been involved with Descent as a series far longer than I have, but I think there was a feeling that for a game to say Descent on the cover, it needed to be more than just a good dungeon-crawler; it needed to bring something new to the table.
Centell-Dunk: To Brandon’s point, if there’s going to be a new Descent game, it has to come from a great idea and not just exist for the sake of being made. Time is only one factor. Ten years also sounds long ago if you only focus on the Descent: Journeys in the Dark base game release, but the co-op Road to Legend app content was released just four years ago, and it was pretty impactful.
When did Legends of the Dark begin development? What were the most significant changes from your original concept for the game, and why?
Centell-Dunk: Legends of the Dark got its earliest start sometime in 2018. The great truth of making board games is that you’re going to make about a hundred versions of your game as you go. One significant change is that every quest used to be multiple maps/encounters. Ultimately, there were a handful of reasons we moved away from that, some of the bigger ones were: 1) individual smaller maps had less to explore, 2) tearing down and building multiple maps takes time, 3) multiple encounters made every location and story have a similar structure. Now our quests are designed around what makes the experience for players the strongest, both narratively and mechanically. Some quests are one big dungeon you uncover a tile or two at a time, while others make thoughtful use of representing multiple locations as you play.
A major part of making Legends of the Dark was identifying early what kind of experience we thought wasn’t already out there that people want.
Dungeon-crawlers have become one of the most popular genres on the tabletop, particularly in the years since Journeys in the Dark was released. Did you feel you had to go further to ensure Legends of the Dark stood out in the crowded genre? What does it offer in terms of mechanics or experience that’s new to dungeon-crawling?
Perdue: I think that was absolutely in our minds. There are a ton of different dungeon-crawlers out there now that offer some really cool experiences, so a major part of making Legends of the Dark was identifying early what kind of experience we thought wasn’t already out there that people want, and thinking about what we could do uniquely well.
Centell-Dunk: Absolutely! It’s not just dungeon-crawlers - there’s a lot of great games coming out lately. As a player, I love the choice and variety, and as a designer it makes me ask the same question: what am I doing to give players something that they haven’t seen before, or at least haven’t seen this way?
In Legends of the Dark, I love the card flipping. Your hero, skill, and combat card are all double-sided, and each side has a different ability. When you play the game, you’ll build up fatigue and conditions on your cards, and you can clear those by flipping them. So deciding when and if to flip your cards is key—for example, do you keep the skill you want, but suffer poison damage each turn until you flip to clear it? I like that it makes a rest/recovery mechanic an interesting tactical decision.
Descent: Legends of the Dark also has crafting, weapon customisation and its own custom, dynamic soundtrack. Each hero character has personal stakes in the story being told, and virtues they’ll choose between that will impact their stories and mechanical moments in quests. Enemies have damage type weaknesses, different abilities, and tactics. There are even variations within enemy types, so there’s not just the Bandit but also the Shadowalk Bandit and the Runeblade Bandit. Almost every piece of 3D terrain is interactable by default, so you can climb the tree, brew a potion in the cauldron or get water from the well. And, of course, Descent uses pillars and stairs to create multi-level maps.
Legends of the Dark’s box includes a lot of 3D terrain. What was the importance of including 3D terrain, rather than conventional cardboard tokens/tiles?
Perdue: So that depth and verticality isn’t just for show: it matters in the gameplay, and it matters in the way we can build adventures. Many of the quests in Legends of the Dark simply couldn’t be done with flat tokens because it’s important that things can be stacked or climbed or on top of each other. The fact that it also makes the game look really awesome on your table is a nice bonus, though.
Our terrain is here to look pretty, yes, but also serve a mechanical purpose.
Centell-Dunk: Pillars and stairs create maps with levels and verticality. You might shoot arrows from the ramparts down on melee foes below, and those enemies can’t hit you back unless they take the stairs which might buy you a turn to attack them again. Other tokens block line of sight—a function that’s intuitive and clear when you see a tall bookshelf standing next to a low table instead of two flat tokens.
This question reminds me of plastic figures. Like, “Why include plastic figures instead of tokens in your game?” And the answer is similar to having plastic figures: for some it just looks better and is more immersive than just having flat tokens do the work. But we know that’s not enough for everyone, which is why we leaned into our 3D terrain whenever possible from a mechanical point of view. Our terrain is here to look pretty, yes, but also serve a mechanical purpose.
The box was announced with a rather significant RRP of $175. Do you have any concerns that the price may limit the game’s appeal? Especially in the wake of Kickstarter games of a similar cost?
Centell-Dunk: Before I made games, I worked retail and had very little money, so I know that price will always be a limiting factor. I was pretty vocal about taking the price tag seriously during development - Legends of the Dark was already a really ambitious project, but I and others were always pushing to find ways to add more content or improve upon the content we had already made. Ultimately, though, I know value is going to be subjective.
It’s hard to communicate just how much value the digital part of the game adds.
Perdue: Sure. We know people will look at Legends of the Dark next to other games with that sort of price tag and ask if it is worth it. Communicating the value of the app content is always a challenge too; before players have gotten their hands on the content in the app, and seen the variety of scenarios and the depth of narrative, it’s hard to communicate just how much value the digital part of the game adds. But this app definitely goes beyond anything we’ve done with our previous games and I think some people who might be on the fence now will be really intrigued once they see what it’s doing.
Journeys in the Dark received an optional companion app, Road to Legend, but Legends of the Dark makes the app mandatory. Why did you decide what a fully app-powered experience was necessary this time around?
Making the app an indispensable part of Legends of the Dark means we could push this game in ways that we could just never do in a scenario book or a deck of cards.
Centell-Dunk: It was part of the foundation of this design idea. You know, we’ve done some amazing work with app-integration, and so one of the questions we posed was “What have we learned from app-integration so far? Where can we improve or innovate with our apps?” We wanted to create an interactive story and tactical enemies without bogging players down—an app makes that possible.
Perdue: Our games with optional apps have to make compromises to the fact that the game has to work without the app, and that’s always limited a bit what we can do with those experiences. Making the app an indispensable part of Legends of the Dark means we could push this game in ways that we could just never do in a scenario book or a deck of cards. The complexity of some of the logic this app is doing, and the number of things it is tracking to make this experience responsive to players in ways big and small, is beyond anything we could’ve accomplished without the app.
The app means that the game is fully co-op, as with Mansions’ move from one-versus-many in second edition. Is this a reflection of player interest in games with a GM or overlord-style role? Will future games similarly opt for co-op over competitive?
Perdue: I think it’s more specifically a reflection of player interest in games that let players tell stories together and feel like they are going on these epic adventures and have a lot of agency in the way the saga unfolds at their gaming table. When we’ve tried to tell stories in competitive games like Journeys in the Dark or Imperial Assault, it often felt like getting to tell the story you wanted was the prize for winning, and that meant that someone at the table didn’t get to tell the story they wanted. That’s fine for games that are really about the tactics and outwitting your opponent with the story just as a garnish. But the story is the heart of Legends of the Dark, and we want everyone at the table to be part of that together.
Centell-Dunk: In co-op I think there’s more room for losses or failure to feel like part of the tapestry of the story because it was completely in your hands. Whereas in a 1 v many losing a quest instead feels like something someone has done to you. In their story, our heroes can experience both victory and loss, but we want the losses to feel like part of their building legend, too.
I do think—and this is my possibly misguided opinion as a designer and as an inveterate game-player—that 1 versus many games are getting ripe for a comeback. I think the shift to co-op reflects a better understanding on what drives players away from one-v-many games, and that someone who looks at this and iterates on the one-v-many genre to address these concerns could make something really, really cool.
How does Legends of the Dark’s companion app build on Road to Legend, as well as the companion apps for Mansions and Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-earth? What does it do that’s new for app games as a whole?
Centell-Dunk: Undo button! It sounds like a small thing but I know people are going to be really excited about it.
One newer innovation is the way enemies work in this app. Each enemy has a unique ability when they’re attacked and another unique ability when they activate. When you fight bandits you have to care that they’re going to be pretty slippery and run away after you attack, and when you fight Uthuk berserkers you have to think more about positioning so they can’t attack two heroes during their activations.
In this app, you’ll drag from your hero portrait to an enemy (to attack) or to an object (to interact), so the app actually knows who’s doing what actions, which is entirely new. It lets us do some under the hood work - like having enemies target heroes who are doing a lot of damage to them - as well as some overt narrative moments like how Brynn can find a favourite childhood story among the books when she searches the bookshelf.
Perdue: What Kara mentioned there is really the biggest thing for me: what Legends of the Dark brings totally new is that we’re now working with a specific cast of heroes who each have their own goals and hopes and flaws, and who each have their own story interwoven into the huge threat facing Terrinoth, and that lets us go so much deeper into how players can engage with and affect the story they’re telling as they play through the campaign.
Both Mansions of Madness and Journeys in Middle-earth have received a mixture of digital-only DLC and physical expansions. What are your plans for future Legends of the Dark releases?
Centell-Dunk: This is all in the realm of Nathan [Hajek, Legends of the Dark co-designer] and Brandon, who are continuing work on Descent: Legends of the Dark. I’m just as excited to see what they make as everyone else!
Perdue: The thing that excites me most about Legends of the Dark going forward is that this isn’t a game line that resets for each product. People have noted that the game box says “Act I” on it, and that’s not just us trying to find a cute alternative to saying “core set”. I kind of think of the Act I campaign as the first “book” in a series. The campaign has a plot that resolves and our heroes have their own arcs that see resolution, but the story isn’t over when the credits roll.
Centell-Dunk: I joke that it’s like the movies. “Our heroes will return in Descent: Legends of the Dark Act II.”