Descent 1.0: Released back in 2004, this is the grandfather of today's games. The system was heavily inspired by HeroQuest and Warhammer Quest, though it did quantum leaps in terms of design and balance. It is a good engine. I was in love with the card burning for threat engine. As as Overlord I had a massive deck of death I could utilize to nuisance players though the dungeon or just sit tight and cozy and discard, and discard, and discard, to fuel a major hurt in the most inopportune moment. So many good times and yet, one major problem was just impossible to ignore. That being absolutely no campaign. Good story dungeons but not one iota of character progression. Everything was one off and reset. FFG later published an expansion to add a ‘campaign’ system which allowed for Overlord/Hero progression and totally dropped all fun story/text box elements. All the battles and dungeons were just bland slap ups. We tried running the adventure books with the campaign set up but it never quite felt right. It always felt as if they were two separate animals and FFG never really thought of merging the two wholly.
Mansions of Madness was a fun sidestep. The adventures felt deeper – there were interesting adventuring things to do. Sometimes there were patches of not much happening though as you wandered about, but on both the player end and the evil end there was tons of atmosphere. The mechanics are reshaped to bring out this new theme. Combat was very unique and very stressful (in a good way) as you never really know what skill check would need to succeed in order to damage the monster. As the Overlord I don't really need to physically kill my players, as psychic trauma from say finding chopped-up body parts in the cupboards or visions of bawling children in mirrors will render your character insane shortly and when that happens characters are susceptible to the worst things that the Keeper can throw at them. It is very often in the player's best interest not to fight, to investigate, and run. That really strengthened the theme. But again- no progression. After end game you ‘hit’ the reset button and woke up on some other mansion’s lawn at square one. While I played a lot of MoM and I still love the game (hell, I even made a few custom scenarios) I felt an empty feeling when ever I set up a scenario and thought back on what happened the last time I played, and how that bore no influence on the game.
Descent 2.0 Well this was going to be the solution to everyone’s problems. Built in campaign system, skill cards, character progression, overlord progression. A lot to love here. As the overlord I wept at the loss of the massive Overlord deck and threat currency to create evil plans. I sometimes feel limited to just push monsters around and hatch a bit of occasional wickedness from my whopping deck of 6 Cards Against Heroes. But the players all have a lot of fun, and it's as best as a modern Dungeon Crawl could ask for.
Imperial Assault takes the all-of-the-above and creates a Greatest Hits and more.
The engine is still the same – all those colored dice of different strengths. Hits vs Range. Collecting surges to power boosts etc. But the implementation and the details are different, and in my opinion, perfect. Lets begin; it's a two in one box. A Campaign “Dungeon Crawl” and Skirmish Game. The Skirmish Game is two player X-wing Lite: The Ground Force Game Edition kinda game. Very tactical and very fun. There is nothing in ways of exploration here as it's basically a tactical shoot out. Last one standing is the winner.
Some of the skirmish aspects have drifted into the dungeon. The boards are tight. Things get heavy and in your face really quickly and very oftem. It really isn’t a dungeon crawl so much as a Dungeon Skirmish. Unlike Descent, all the heroes don’t take their turns in succession. In Descent you could clear a room of a few evils before the Overlord even got a chance to activate them. Like a skirmish game, in Imperial Assault it is strictly – activate *one* Rebel then Imperial activates a figure or *group*. Rinse and repeat. Rebels are usually outmanned, they can be looking at two or more Imperial Forces activating after all the rebels have taken their turn. The tension is much more palpable.
It isn’t really a crawl. In Descent, you could move from room to room, clear things out and lollygag because nothing was going to happen until you walked through the next door. Sure the Overlord got to draw a few cards and build a threat pittance, but you could take a breather on occasion. Imperial Assault strips away that safety like a bully taking your lunch money. Tight maps mean somebody is always coming after you. Sure there might be a closed door over there but there is no guarantee it isn’t going to open in a moment and Lord Darth himself is going to start heavy breathing down the back of your neck. There’s no opportunity for strolling and especially not crawling. The most you might have is a chance to duck around a corner and collect your thoughts. The game also uses an Imperial Turn Counter which may (or may not) create a hidden time limit for a mission. Rebels don’t know. All this serves to creates a feel of the Rebellion working on limited intel, against the truly massive force that is the Galactic Empire.
Threat is back – sort of . Enough to keep me happy. There isn’t the massive Overlord deck of disposable/usable options from Descent 1.0 but the Imperial Player generates threat currency every round like Mansions. I can use thread to bring in reinforcements, deploy secret troops, power evil Imperial zaps, etc. As well as secrets I can't discuss in case any of my players are reading this. I admittedly misses the big deck of nastiness from Descent 1.0, but feels I have plenty of decisions to make that I'm playing also and not just pushing monsters around. As the overlord I have so many tactical ways that the game gives me to utterly ruin the player's lives and it brings me immense joy seeing their panicked faces as I implement some grand plan. I also feel I get to react more to what the players are doing rather than let it all play out and clean up.
Upgrading is done amazingly well, and better than Descent 2. Agenda cards I get as the Empire allow me to plan some great evil for the overarching missions as well as other secrets I've yet to unleash on my players. Players save up XP to buy class cards of their choice to customize their characters to their play style. As well as credits can be spent to buy more gear so the rebels are better equip on their next mission. None of the items are overly powerful and they all flush out the feeling of a under equipped army fighting against a true governmental evil. Level progression is as smooth as it's ever been. Never does the tug of war ever feel like it's getting one sided. Most game's come down to the last turn or the last die roll.
FFG could have very easily taken the lazy rout and just slap Star Wars pictures recycled from their LCG on Descent and they would have made back more than their investment. I don't mean to sound cynical but that is exactly what Hasbro has done (for years) with Star Wars Monopoly or Star Wars Risk. FFG has shown love and care in this game, and it shows from the countless of flavor text written everywhere from the rulebooks to the hundreds of cards and the overall reworking of a tried and true game system. To put it bluntly: Imperial Assault is far from “Descent, but with Star Wars”. It is a perfectly streamlined and designed game that takes classic design concepts and mechanics and refines them to one of the best gaming experiences I've ever had. Stay on Target, and May the Force be with you.