Game Balance in Descent
Reading the official Descent forum, one often reads players talking about the lack of game balance in Descent. Most of the time players think the Overlord is too powerful, but sometimes heroes give the Overlord a hard time. There are a few factors to consider before deciding to bend the rules your own way. We will examine the main factors, but let's first think a bit about what game balance is.
What is game balance?
Strictly speaking, a game that is balanced is a game where each player has the exact same chance of winning. In a perfect gaming world, the overlord would win 1 game out of 2. Well, Descent is not like chess and each side has different pieces on the board. Heroes play with items and skills while the overlord chuckles with his overlord cards and threat tokens. It is subjective, but considering this, let's say the game would be balanced if one side would win 1 time out of 3. Personally, it starts to bug me if I lose 3 games out of four. Now, we cannot expect the heroes to win the first time they try a new quest, but it would seem fair if they won after one or two tries.
Number of players
The rules of Descent (vanilla) make it possible for 2 to 5 people to play the game, but realistically, the game cannot be balanced with less than 3 heroes. Four heroes is almost a minimum. Why? Let's see.
First, because even if there are different monster's reference cards for two, three, four and five players, the only difference is the number of wounds each monster has. A Beastman has 4 wounds in a five players' game, 3 wounds in a four players' game and 2 wounds in a game with two or three players. However, the Beastman still deals the same damage, has the same armor and special abilities.
Second, the number of monsters in a quest is always the same. Let's say the heroes open the door to a new area. The overlord places 4 beastmen and 4 skeletons on the board. Four heroes using fatigue and declaring battle orders could, with a lot of luck, clear up to 8 monsters and suffer no retaliation from the overlord's minions. Two heroes could at most kill 4 monsters and would then suffer a counter attack.
Third, four heroes cover a lot more spaces with their line of sight to block the overlord from spawning monsters. Two heroes would need to split up to cover more spaces but would then be really vulnerable. No wonder most players love Boggs the Rat since it adds a fifth pair of eyes to the party.
Recommendation: let the players "share" 4 heroes, even if they are two or three.
The expansions in Descent add new heroes, new monsters, new skills, new items and enhance the complexity and the fun of the game, but they can also mess up the game balance. The Well of Darkness and the Altar of Despair add a lot of power in the ovelord's hands. Treachery cards, Dark Glyphs, Dark Relics and powerful monsters are not good news for the heroes. On the other hand, the Tomb of Ice introduces the new game mechanic of Feats which gives special one use cards to the heroes so they can foil the overlord's plans.
Recommendation: if the heroes are having a hard time, buy the Tomb of Ice. If the overlord is not challenging enough, buy the Well of Darkness and/or the Altar of Despair. If you have all expansions and play with 5 players, the game should be balanced enough.
Everybody knows the heroes are supposed to be fairly equal but that in truth there are strong ones and weak ones. Nanok of the Blade rocks and Aurim just sucks. The rules for game setup states that heroes should be picked randomly but that the overlord can let the players choose themselves. Now, that's something that must not be underestimated.
Recommendation: depending which side of the balance has the most weight, I suggest you choose between one of these three options: 1) let the players choose their heroes; 2) let each players pick 3 heroes randomly and let them choose one of them (like in Road to Legend); 3) let fate decide (alea jacta est!).
Ok, so you have tried all the above recommandations and the game is still not balanced. Love them or hate them, house rules can be the solution to your problem. Here are a few ideas taken in the forum that do not alter the game mechanics too much:
- change the number of threat tokens gained by the overlord per turn;
- change the starting number of conquest tokens;
- change the starting amount of money for the heroes.
Descent is about having fun even if we sometimes get serious about it. Hope these short tips help you enjoy it more!