Gloomhaven and the Descent games are highly successful dungeon crawlers, guaranteed to give you endless hours of entertainment for your time and money. While these campaign-based, role-playing games share similarities, there are also many differences between them.
When you’re weighing up Gloomhaven vs. Descent, Gloomhaven is a slower-paced, densely packed brain teaser with card game dynamics.
On the other hand, Descent is a faster-paced, more traditional RPG, with a dice-based tabletop or an innovative, app-based gaming experience.
Need some more clarification? In this article, I’ll lay out more of the nitty-gritty details that make these two games so different and unique.
Whatever your RPG preferences are, one of these games is sure to suit you!
Gloomhaven and Descent Are Great Dungeon Crawler RPGs
First of all, these are fantastic board games. Both Gloomhaven and the Descent games frequently make the cut for lists of “the best dungeon crawler board games.” For example, these two games have clinched the top two spots on this list of best dungeon crawlers.
Impressively, Gloomhaven has even secured the number one spot (for all board games!) on the venerated Board Game Geeks’ rating board (with a Geek Rating of 8.505 and an Average Rating of 8.74). Not only is it a top-rated campaign RPG, but it’s also the highest-rated board game on BGG.
Although the Descent board games aren’t on BGG’s list of top-100 games, this doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a worse choice for you personally than Gloomhaven. Your preferences will dictate how much you like one over the other.
There Are Two Different Descent Games
Do keep in mind that I’ll be comparing Gloomhaven with two different Descent games. These are Descent: Journeys in the Dark Second Edition (released in 2012) and Descent: Legends of the Dark (published in 2021).
Just a heads up: I’ll refer to the former as Descent: Journeys 2nd Ed. and the latter as Descent: Legends.
That said, let’s delve into game-specific factors that might have you leaning one way or the other when tossing up between Descent or Gloomhaven.
Game Dynamics and Mechanics
Gameplay mechanisms, stories, game objectives! What and how do you like to play? All three games are set in fantasy lands where adventurers embark on exciting quests and campaigns to rid the world of evil.
Each game is an engaging, dungeon crawler RPG featuring allies to befriend and horrible monsters to defeat. There are hours of fun to have with both RPGs, but the games differ on some points.
Gloomhaven is a cooperative game focused on 1-4 players banding together to fight against the evil forces surrounding the town of Gloomhaven. Your party members each have personal, private reasons for doing so.
The campaign consists of many scenarios with specific objectives. In Gloomhaven, a player’s cards dictate their power and energy levels. These card-based gameplay mechanics are excellent for players who want to feel more involved in their RPG.
In addition, some may enjoy the denser, slower-paced adventure of Gloomhaven. It’s all about using strategic gameplay to work together, and strategically using your card stats in combat demands quite a lot of forethought from players.
Compared with Descent, Gloomhaven plays more like a puzzle-solving game. Gameplay is less dependent on luck than is the case with Descent: Journeys 2nd Ed.
Instead, victory in the game relies more heavily on the synergy between players and using your cards in the best way.
Gloomhaven is designed for players to create a random dungeon with random monsters, choose their characters and cards and work with what they’ve got.
In Gloomhaven, a player’s actions permanently change the ever-evolving landscape of the game. While the world is constantly evolving and players impact it, Gloomhaven is still a classic RPG.
What about monsters? Gloomhaven has more monsters straight out of the box. These creatures also increase in ability and difficulty along with your characters. There’s an element of surprise to what might be hidden inside those boxes of monsters.
However, Gloomhaven’s enemy minions are cardboard stand-ins, whereas Descent: Journeys 2nd Ed. comes with detailed and attractive miniatures.
Gloomhaven features a lot of material in the box and many places to explore. The world map is beautiful, and players can mark off sections they’ve completed. It takes ages to explore and unlock everything. And then there’s the fan-made content!
Descent: Journeys in the Dark Second Edition
When playing Descent: Journeys 2nd Ed., one player takes the role of the evil, treacherous overlord fighting against the rest of the players who play as heroes. You choose from either an encounter (a single scenario where both sides have objectives) or a quest (generally consisting of 2 encounters).
The second edition uses a unique dice system to damage enemies. According to FFG, players “build their dice pools according to their character’s abilities and weapons, and each die in the pool contributes to an attack in different ways.” Also, the overlord can control any monsters on the board!
Seasoned board gamers have commented that while Gloomhaven feels more involved but slower-paced in action, Descent: Journeys 2nd Ed. is more like a traditional RPG and is faster-paced. There’s also the element of luck in which dice rolls you’ll get.
Because the Descent game has less content for players to manage, the gameplay is swifter. Gloomhaven has more content to micro-manage, and it’s a denser gaming experience.
Depending on your preferences, you may lean towards the card-oriented, slower gameplay of Gloomhaven or the more classic, dice-rolling RPG experience offered by Descent: Journeys 2nd Ed.
Descent: Journeys in the Dark Second Edition has combat resembling Dungeons and Dragons. It’s got a grid-based system, where you select special abilities and actions like in DnD.
Regarding replayability, in Descent: Journeys 2nd Ed., everything is known to the player. However, with Gloomhaven, your starting characters unlock new characters, and the cards you use will change other cards. So, Gloomhaven will stay new and exciting for quite a few replays.
While Gloomhaven’s monster enemies are cardboard stand-ins, Descent: Journeys in the Dark Second Edition has detailed miniatures to represent the monsters. These intricate miniatures can appeal to younger players and older players alike!
Also, there’s a greater variety of monsters in Descent than in Gloomhaven, but these creatures in Descent are more generic (like lieutenant or boss).
Descent: Legends of the Dark
This game isn’t the third edition of Descent: Journeys in the Dark but is instead something of a “sequel.” Despite carrying the name and legacy of the Descent games, it’s a pretty different game (released nearly ten years after the second edition of Journeys).
Where there’s a playable overlord in Descent: Journeys 2nd Ed., Descent: Legends borrows from the cooperative style of Gloomhaven. Your objective in Descent: Legends is to band together with your allies to complete a series of quests and scenarios.
The game is set in the same world of Terrinoth (which has been evolving since the early 2000s). It features the same classic, dungeon-crawling gameplay and intricate miniature monsters as Descent: Journeys 2nd Ed.
A significant difference in Descent: Legends is the use of apps as an integral part of the game. It has been described as “the perfect blend of video games and tabletop adventure.”
While many board games have integrated apps into gameplay, Descent: Legends takes it to a new level for tabletop RPGs.
This excellent app powers a full soundtrack, enemies controlled by AI, and dialogue options.
The game, released in 2021, offers seasoned board game fans a unique experience unlike any other. The app lends an exciting, video game-type experience to Descent: Legends.
The AI guides you along the way, telling you what will happen next. The result is an added element of intrigue to the whole gaming experience. The AI stands in as the dungeon master in this game, allowing all players to engage.
However, players still need to keep track of their cards, dice rolls, and enemy positions by hand and enter the results into the app.
Descent: Legends has great potential for players seeking an innovative gaming adventure. It can appeal to board gamers and video gamers alike.
Differences Between Descent and Gloomhaven
Descent and Gloomhaven Have Different Sizes, Expansions, and Setup
Just beholding the size of Gloomhaven’s hefty, 20-pound (9.07 kg) box gives you a glimpse into what the game’s all about. Contained inside this massive box are over 1,500 cards. The game includes an enormous number of 95 (unique) scenarios and 17 playable classes.
Playing through the primary campaign of Gloomhaven could take a year if you were playing one scenario per week. It also contains a load of side quests to explore after.
Although it doesn’t have as many expansions as Descent: Journeys 2nd Ed., Gloomhaven comes with a massive amount of content in the box.
In contrast, Descent: Journeys 2nd Ed. weighs around 5.77 lb (2.61 kg) and has 20 quests to choose from within the core campaign. Still, as the game’s been out for ages, you can choose from 13 different types of expansions to supplement the core game.
Many expansion packs feature new campaigns to explore, and the enormous number of additions will enrichen your journeys. Additionally, if you own Descent: Journeys 1st Ed., you can purchase a conversion kit to transfer the first edition’s content to the second edition. Then there’s also the fan-made content you can download to add to the base game!
Descent: Legends is heftier than the second edition, with the box weighing around 8.78 lb (3.94 kg). Gameplay is dependent on using the game’s app.
In terms of setup time for these three games, it can take up to 30 minutes to set up your first missions. But you’ll be playing for at least an hour (maybe 2 or 3), so it’s worth it. And by organizing your content, and with time, you’ll find it quicker to set up.
Many YouTubers and bloggers have offered handy tips and tricks for storing and organizing massive games like Gloomhaven. Check out this video for ideas:
Gloomhaven Is More Complex Than Descent
Board Game Geeks polls users to determine how complex a board game is. Most RPG fans will be comfortable with a certain level of complexity to their board games, but make sure you are ready to invest enough time to thoroughly learn the rules to get the full enjoyment out of the game.
So, how complex, complicated, and heavy are the games?
- Gloomhaven gets a “Medium Heavy” grade, scoring at 3.87/5. That makes it the most complex of the games, indicating a steeper learning curve for beginners.
- Descent: Journeys in the Dark Second Editions has a score of 3.21/5. It’s ranked at a “Medium” complexity level.
- Descent: Legends of the Dark has a lower score of just 2.63/5. This game earns it the lowest complexity rating of the three games. It’s possibly the best choice if younger teens are involved.
As a handy side note, Cephalofair Games has published a simplified version of Gloomhaven called Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion, designed for more casual board gamers.
Jaws of the Lion might be a good option for younger teens as well.
Gloomhaven Is a Legacy Game, and Descent Is Not
A legacy game is a board game where the choices and achievements of players create permanent changes to aspects of the game, such as missions, abilities, and characters.
Gloomhaven takes place in an ever-changing world that the players shape based on their actions and choices. It’s a legacy game.
However, Descent: Journeys in the Dark Second Edition is not a legacy game. You’re able to start afresh every time you play it.
Depending on your preferences, you may enjoy the higher stakes of Gloomhaven, where you feel more involved and have a more significant impact on the game world. After all, an ever-changing world means your actions have more significant implications.
However, legacy games can also be more challenging and time-consuming. In addition, your achievements and the changes made to the game could make it more complicated for new players to join in on the fun.
Gloomhaven Vs. Descent History and Game Details
The original Descent: Journeys in the Dark game was published by Fantasy Flight Games in 2005. Its creators designed it to improve the gameplay mechanics from Doom: The Boardgame (another FFG game).
The second edition of Journeys in the Dark was released in 2012 (You can buy Descent: Journeys in the Dark Second Edition from Amazon. com). Following its initial release, it took FFG nearly a decade to publish the follow-up game Descent: Legends of the Dark in 2021.
Although it’s the company’s third game with the same name, they’ve said that Descent: Legends of the Dark is “not a third edition of Descent: Journeys in the Dark … [but] a new addition to our catalog.” Legends also takes place in the realm of Terrinoth and is a dungeon crawler.
Gloomhaven (available from Amazon) was published by Cephalofair Games in 2017. A second edition came out in 2020.
That means the first Descent RPG was on the scene for over ten years before Gloomhaven was first released. Still, after Gloomhaven generated such colossal success and hype, Descent: Legends of the Dark was revealed in 2021 to act as a worthy competitor.
Gloomhaven vs. Descent Compared
Below is a table with some specs and details about the games. You might find this info handy when comparing the three games. You can read the Descent Second Edition Rulebook and Gloomhaven-related docs here for more information.
|Descent: Journeys in the Dark (2nd Ed)||Descent: Legends of the Dark||Gloomhaven|
|Hours per Scenario||1-2||2-3||1-2|
|Weight||5.77 lb||8.68 lb||20 (!) lbs|
|Setup Time||Under 30 minutes||Under 30 minutes||Under 30 minutes|
|Expansions||13 expansions||One expansion||One expansion|
|Mechanics||Dice, Grid Movement, Modular Board, Partnerships, Variable Player Powers||Dice, Cooperative, Grid Movement, Modular Board, Variable Player Powers||Cards, Cooperative, Grid Movement, Hand Management, Modular Board|
|Cost||Click Here for Current Pricing on Amazon||Click Here for Current Pricing on Amazon||Click Here for Current Pricing on Amazon|
If you want to delve into a cooperative campaigning experience with slower-paced action, tons of content, and strategic card play, you could sink your teeth into Gloomhaven. It clinched the top spot on BGG for a reason!
However, there could be a steep learning curve with dense content to micro-manage.
If you’re seeking a game with faster action, unpredictable dice dynamics, and a classic role-play feel, Descent: Journeys in the Dark Second Edition could be right up your alley. The first edition has been around since the early 2000s, and the second edition has an extensive range of expansions.
If, however, you want to invest in a new game that innovatively integrates aspects of both tabletop RPGs and video games, consider Descent: Legends of the Dark. The AI app offers players a unique, fun experience unlike any other in the board game world.
In this article, I’ve discussed the possible pros and cons of Gloomhaven, Descent: Journeys in the Dark Second Edition, and Descent: Legends of the Dark, but ultimately the choice is up to you which one you play.
Whichever game you decide on (or if you choose to try them all!) I hope you have a great time on your adventures!
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Proud to embrace the locally created moniker of “Corrupt Overlord” from one of the all time great Lords of Waterdeep runs, Shane is one member of the Assorted Meeples crew and will be hard at work creating awesome content for the website. He is a long-time player of board games, one time semi-professional poker player, and tends to run to the quirky or RPG side of things when it comes to playing video games. He loves tabletop roleplaying systems like Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, Werewolf, Fate, and others, and not only has been a player but has run games as DM for years. You can find his other work in publications like Level Skip or Hobby Lark.