The Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game was the first hobby game I ever played, and the first adventure module for that game that I ever saw and lusted after was the vampire romp Ravenloft. So in spite of not having touched a D&D line product in over a decade, when I saw that Wizards of the Coast were re-entering the boardgame market with a co-operative Ravenloft adventure game I was instantly intrigued. The kind folks at Wizards of the Coast were good enough to whet my appetite further by indulging my request for a review copy which came a few days prior to release. So I've already been lucky enough to play this ten times or so, plenty on which to form an opinion.
The very first time that I played this game, I was rapidly struck by two things. The first is that this quite possibly does the best job ever of capturing the spirit of those old-fashioned role-playing game dungeon crawls that were so much fun in the days of my youth. In spite of the fact that it has a decent amount of board game style strategic meat on its bones it really feels like a stripped down role-playing session: each turn the heroes move and the dungeon unfurls slowly before them as they draw tiles from a stack and add them to the board. They then draw a monster card, to represent what appears from out of the gloom and attacks, following a pre-set AI routine printed on the card, and often an encounter card representing such things as events and traps. The players must work together to use their mixed and complimentary abilities to defeat their foes and solve their problems, gaining treasure cards in return and the whole is wrapped in a loosely binding plot thanks to one of the thirteen different scenarios that come with the game. You can tell the designers were aiming for this sort of effect thanks to the old-school flavour text that’s supplied for one of the players to read out at the start of each scenario and at certain key events, just like the room descriptions that the dungeon master was supposed to read in adventure modules. And boy, did they ever succeed in that intention. It’s partly thanks to the co-operative nature of the game that it gets this effect across, and here the co-operation feels like something natural and expected instead of the sense of forced jollity in what is normally a competitive medium that so pervades and spoils the majority of co-op board games.
The second is that the game is absolutely packed with really neat little mechanical twists that aim to get the most tactical and narrative mileage out of the simple rules. There’s nothing mold-breaking involved here, just a real sense that people worked hard to do as much as the could with relatively little. The best example of this is the tile-based movement system that all monsters (and occasionally some of the heroes) use: rather than plotting at path across squares, it involves simply moving to a different tile, and this being a co-op game the players get to choose which square on the tile the piece gets moved to. In a nutshell this sidesteps an array of potentially complex rules for plotting monster movement square-by-square while at the same time providing the backbone of tactical choice in the game since the precise positioning of the target on a tile can result in the powers of the monsters and the heroes having different results on the situation. It’s a brilliantly stripped-down design that manages to simultaneously trim off all the excess fat that has historically so plagued dungeon crawl games whilst at the same time actually making use of that minimalism to improve the game experience.
Sadly the rules aren’t all a bed of roses. The process of slimming down the rules has, unfortunately, resulted in a slew of minor ambiguities. It’s unclear, for example, whether dungeon squares containing furniture like coffins or laboratory equipment are valid for movement or not. There’s nothing that will bring the game crashing down round your ears and, usefully, co-op games by their very nature can make light work of bypassing rules loopholes so long as all the players agree on how to interpret the written instructions, but it’s still a bit sad to see these sorts of problems in a game from such a major publisher, who certainly have the resources to playtest and iron out rules issues.
The low rules weight also means that some of the gothic flavour of the game is almost inevitably lost. Wraiths in this game don’t drain the life force of mortals, or need magic weapons to hit them, they’re just tough to kill and hand out terrifying amounts of damage. I think this is what’s behind some of the accusations of blandness that I’ve seen levelled at the design. However I think this is pretty unfair: the designers have clearly worked hard to try and differentiate the monsters as much as possible from each other and you can really see this in the AI routines printed on each monster card that governs how they behave. Almost every conceivable point of difference has been worked out and utlilised to make sure that a skeleton is not quite the same as a zombie and so on. Personally I’m entirely comfortable with the level of detail that’s been sacrificed in order to make this as fast playing and as accessible as possible. And given that it plays in around an hour, is simple enough for a primary-school age child to engage with (if not play effectively), and retains enough complexity to support thirteen scenarios, six boss monsters, and ten or so normal monsters plus traps, events, items and other effects I’d argue those sacrifices were well worth making.
The other thing that some commentators have described as bland is the artwork in the game. I have a mixed response to this. The dungeon tiles do look a bit generic but on the upside this leaves them interchangeable with future releases. The cards are, it must be said, a bit lacking. Only the monster cards have artwork on them and you really would have thought a company with the resources of Wizards of the Coast could find some stock art to use on other cards. It would certainly help you to feel that you’d found a cool item to see it pictured instead of just a line of text telling you that it gives you +1 to attack rolls. But really, to suggest a game that has such great miniatures as this one does as “bland” is just silly. They’re the best sculpts I’ve seen outside of a Games Workshop title and there’s tons of them in the box, the majority of them being unique figures rather than duplicates.
The light rules weight and the well-known nature of the license also leaves ample scope for both official and fan-generated extra content to be squeezed in. There are already a couple of extra scenarios you can download from the Wizards of the Coast site as well as plans for another game based on the same framework with interchangeable components called Wrath of Ashardalon which includes rules for campaigns, the only really major omission in this title. The game feels like a toolbox in a good way, not by providing you with lots of components that aren't covered by the rules, but by inviting the player to use their skill and imagination to expand the game in whatever direction they choose. Want to add some rules for items heroes can carry into the dungeon? Go ahead. Want to add some more monsters from your figure collection? Be my guest. I suspect there are expansions planned for this, waiting, as yet unannounced.
But frankly there's already plenty in the box to provide plenty of replay value right off the bat. One thing I haven't mentioned yet is that each character can pick four or five powers unique to them, and while suggested combinations are offered, there's actually about twice as many to choose from, providing lots of opportunity for exploring different approaches to different scenarios. The basic items in the treasure deck are supplemented by more powerful scenario specific items and by one-shot fortunes and blessings. And as well as traps the encounter deck boasts all kinds of cool stuff like atmospheric cackling skulls, to old-school dungeon favourites such as gray ooze all the way to bizarre effects that teleport heroes and monsters all round the dungeon. As ever the simple rules are made to work as hard as possible to provide one of the staple requirements of a good dungeon crawler: plenty of variety.
After all the good stuff, I do have one major gripe about the game and that is it’s odd, unpredictable difficulty curve. This is a multi-faceted problem. For starters there’s no guide as to how tough the various scenarios in the game are, and I can assure you that some are considerably more difficult than others. The characters are not balanced, with some looking distinctly more powerful than others. I remain unconvinced that the mechanics for increasing difficulty when more characters are in the game really works since it’s reliant on more than one player drawing the same monster card, and that monster type then acts twice per turn. Not only is it random, but it’s actually pretty unlikely to happen with ten-odd different monsters in the game and in any case I don’t think it really makes up for the synergy of abilities you get having more characters playing together. There’s also the fact that the game adds pressure to the players by making them get behind on their use of actions. Each player gets on action (an attack, for example) each turn and usually they’ll reveal a monster on their turn. As long as the next player makes their attack roll and kills the monster the players stay in control: it’s when they start missing and the actions needed to deal with the backlog start to pile up that things become hard to handle. And all the action checks in the game are handled by a twenty-sided dice of course, so it’s quite possible to get a run of bad (or good) results in a row thanks to the flat probability curve of rolling a single dice, resulting in games that are ridiculously difficult (or easy).
That flat probability curve and all those checks for action success also mean that, obviously, there’s a fairly high level of randomness in the game generally because to accomplish many actions in the game beyond moving, you need to roll the dice. There’s also quite a lot to think about. I’ve already mentioned the tile-based movement and the variable character powers. There’s also a lot of risk-based decisions such as whether you want to reveal a new tile - and a new monster - each turn or whether you care to risk taking an encounter instead, something you're forced to do if you fail to explore. If you do take it, you have the option of spending some of your hard-earned monster kills to cancel it and if you let it happen it might be a question of whether to take damage or suffer a different effect. The game is permeated with these sorts of "what-if" decisions. So, although there is meaningful choice in the game, those of you who came looking for a level of detailed tactics like that found in Descent or an Arkham Horror like level of control will be disappointed. I actually think the game hits a really sweet spot in balancing skill and random elements, and it helps a lot that the game is so quick playing because it means that a trip into the dungeon plagued with ill luck feels more like a story with a bad ending than a waste of gaming time.
In a nutshell then, this is a really impressive re-entry into the board game market for the Dungeons & Dragons licence and one with a lot of mileage in front of it. Another major publisher in the business can't do anything but good for the hobby. My personal distaste for co-op games is well known but Castle Ravenloft has joined the extremely small shortlist of co-ops that have become regular visitors to my gaming table: no small feat in itself. Yet I can imagine it, and its brethren, returning again and again in the months to come.