Late last year when the release of a new board game in the Dungeon & Dragons franchise was announced I was really excited. It was really good to see a company with the muscle and experience of Wizards of the Coast re-entering the board game market, and I was hoping they’d bring something new to the dungeoncrawl genre, a group of games in which I love the concept but have too often been disappointed by the execution. That game was Castle Ravenloft and this time I certainly was not disappointed. Ever since I’ve been eagerly looking forward to the followup Wrath of Ashardalon and thanks to Wizards of the Coast supplying me with a review copy, I now get a second chance to evangelize about their “adventure system”.
This game works on the same basic rules system as its predecessor Castle Ravenloft. Indeed the basic premise of the two games is so similar that I’m going to do something a little different in this review and give a detailed rundown on what’s changed, rather than focus on the considerable merits of the system that underpins both titles. If you want the lowdown on Castle Ravenloft then basically it’s a stripped down, simple, quick-playing co-operative dungeon crawl packed with variety, narrative and excitement and just enough strategy to keep the brain engaged and it’s absolutely brilliant. If you want more then read my original Castle Ravenloft review. Wrath of Ashardalon has the same underlying mechanics but it ditches the gothic horror veneer of Ravenloft and goes instead for old-school Dungeons & Dragons. It’s packed with Orcs, Kobolds, Devils, a Beholder (a “Gauth” really but that’s splitting hairs) and of course the titular Red Dragon, Ashardalon himself.
There are two major innovations in this newer game. The first - and least expected - is the addition of “chambers” to the dungeon stack. Chambers are basically just large rooms: if you draw the entrance tile you have to then draw between 4-6 extra tiles from a specific chamber stack which form the rough shape of a room. You then populate this using a card from a new deck of Chamber cards, either a specific one stated by the scenario or a random one that you draw from the deck. In most cases you’ll be adding a nasty boss monster plus zero or one extra in-theme monster per player. For example if you draw the orc chamber you’ll get the orc shaman boss, plus some ordinary common-or-garden orc monsters - archers and bashers - from the monster deck. The card also has a win condition that you must overcome in order to “pass” the chamber - usually just kill all the monsters - which often equates to the win condition for the adventure. These new rooms are a fantastic addition: they offer a real challenge to overcome, new tactical opportunities to explore and lend a better sense of overall thematic cohesion to the adventure. If that were not enough, just as in Castle Ravenloft the designers have really pushed the boat out when it comes to making as much variety as possible from the incredibly simple rules of the game. The chamber deck isn’t just about boss monsters: mixed in with these boilerplate encounters are some real gems such as a treasure chamber from which the heroes can desperately try and loot as much stuff as possible before the random turn when the dragon appears, and a prison cell full of stupid villagers, each with their own individual AI routine that the adventurers must try and rescue before the monstrous guards slaughter them all. These are a brilliant step up from the explore-encounter-destroy template that was the basis of nearly all the Castle Ravenloft adventures and even that basic mechanic managed to be highly entertaining. A minor niggle is that - again, just like Castle Ravenloft - the level of challenge is highly variable. Not only are some chambers much more lethal than others but the random-draw population mechanic can leave some chambers packed with horrors and others virtually bare. Also, most of the offered scenarios depend heavily on the chamber mechanic and so are perhaps a little less creative than those in Castle Ravenloft: but the chamber cards are good enough and varied enough to easily compensate for that.
The other major addition is the long awaited campaign system that allows you to string together several adventures into a linked whole. When I first read the rules for this I was a little disappointed: rather than being a set of rules, the two campaigns in the game are actually in the scenario booklet and consist of a number of entirely random adventures with a randomly determined chamber card as the goal. However when I came to understand just how much narrative and variety the new Chamber mechanic entailed I was reassured that these were not just afterthoughts to the main game. To add to the feel of an over-arching campaign the game also offers “boons” which are one-shot improvements you gain after completing a particular adventure in the campaign, often linked to the nature of the challenge you’ve just overcome. For example, if you manage to overcome the kobold lair chamber then you earn a boon that allows you to ignore one kobold encounter in each remaining adventure in the campaign. This adds yet another thematic hook into a game already loaded with drama and narrative and ensures that the campaigns have an overarching flavour that ties all the adventures together. The sense of progression is aided not, as many had hoped, by an extension of the hero levels beyond 2nd (although heroes who’ve levelled up get to keep their extra level of course), but by changes to the treasure system. Instead of drawing treasure cards for defeating monsters, as you do in regular adventures, you draw treasure counters instead. These have a value in gold pieces and there are a few item counters mixed in for variety. At the end of the adventure you total the gold and get to go shopping: all the treasure cards have a value on them and you can spend your hard-earned gold kitting out the heroes in cool items which can then be carried between adventures. It’s a good system on the whole, with an adventure usually generating enough gold to buy one good item which adds more tactical choice to the game in terms of what to buy and who to give it to. But it also has a down side in that the treasure deck, unlike that in Castle Ravenloft, is 100% item-based and that can become very overpowered if you’re just playing regular adventures instead of a campaign. There’s a new rule about only using one defensive and one offensive item at once, but the end of one regular game can still end up looking like the aftermath of the worst Monty Haul excess you’ve ever seen. I’m a little disappointed not to see more levels available for the heroes but the treasure system does its job of adding a sense of progression and some extra tactics to the game well enough that I don’t feel it’s a major omission, and it’d be quite easy to house rule if you really wanted to.
In addition to these two big additions there are a whole slew of minor improvements. The dungeon now contains doors, which are occasionally interesting but which are usually easily bypassed and sometimes end up opening onto walls, thanks to the random dungeon generation system. The dungeon also now boasts hallways that can lead to two tiles (and monsters) being placed at once. The powers for the five new adventurers add some more tactics to the game as they tend to be more tied up with the positioning of monsters and heroes: some require heroes to be on the same tile, others require adjacency of monsters/heroes for best effect, a couple allow you to move an adventurer or monster as part of the attack and so on and so forth. Monster behaviour is a bit more interesting with some monsters wandering off and turning over new tiles (with more monsters) for you and a boss with a highly entertaining randomly determined attack mode. The encounter deck has some new stuff, nasty curses and some really horrible and quite imaginatively varied traps. There’s a FAQ to smooth over some of the rules ambiguities and the game seems slightly more difficult to beat, no bad thing in a co-op game, and nearer the 25-33% win rate that I reckon is optimal for a good co-op. Overall there’s lots of fun new stuff but the games in the series are so closely related that I don’t think that anyone who didn’t care for Castle Ravenloft will find anything here to transform their view of the series, and it’s your loss for missing out on a fantastic game. However if you were sitting on the fence then the changes are probably - certainly should be - enough to push you off it and into your favourite game store to get a copy.
The only serious disappointment I have with Wrath of Ashardalon is simply that the designers don’t really seem to have used much of the feedback from the previous game to improve on the basics of their design. There’s still no art on most of the cards. There are still some minor rules ambiguities (easily overcome in a co-op game). There’s still a problem with very variable difficulty depending on scenario, the adventurers chosen, and the whims of the chamber deck. To me these are all very small niggles but they seem to bother some gamers more than others. One common criticism of the original was that the base monster AI routines were not variable enough. I don’t really buy this: in both games the boss monster routines are much more complex and interesting while the base monsters behave in a more scripted manner and that’s just as it should be in my opinion. But if that bothered you about the previous game, it’s still an issue here.
However I will confess that I was surprised to discover that there are no rules at all to help owners of both games in the series so far to link them up and make use of the two sets together. Indeed there are a number of aspects of these two otherwise tightly integrated sets of mechanics that make it a harder task than, really, it ought to be. The encounter decks from the two don’t mesh thematically as the Castle Ravenloft encounters were largely responsible for giving that game its gothic horror feel. The treasures in Castle Ravenloft don’t have a cost on them and in any case the need for Chamber cards to run a successful campaign means that the campaign rules won’t work well with Castle Ravenloft without some serious tweaking. Swapping heroes and monsters around between the two can seriously mess up the already variable balance of the game. I have no doubt that the huge fan community for these games are going to come up with a whole bunch of really exciting ways to integrate the two in the near future: I’ve already seen two very creative adventures that use both as well as a frequent suggestion to solve the overpowered treasures problem in regular Wrath of Ashardalon adventures by using the Castle Ravenloft treasure deck in non-campaign games. And after all the potential for creativity that’s inherent in the system is a huge part of its appeal and having the two games together offers players a real genuine toolbox that excites the imagination with the huge possibilities that it creates. Personally I’d love someone to come up with a competitive Descent-style variant that can use both monster decks and sets of tiles together in pre-set adventures and the fact it now looks possible is testament to just how much could potentially be done with these games. But although Wizards of the Coast have promised some combined adventures in the near future, it’s a bit of a shame that they haven’t provided some official guidelines to mesh the games in this line together out of the box and have just left it up to the players instead. Not least because it’s a lost marketing opportunity for them: as it stands however excellent the two games are I can’t see a compelling reason to own both. Hopefully it’s just a matter of time before this is remedied.
I don’t give out top marks to a game lightly: only four games so far have earned that accolade from me, and the last one was two years ago but this game absolutely deserves to join that exclusive club. It’s simple, fast, challenging, exciting, packed from end to end with drama and narrative, totally nails that old-fashioned feeling of starting an RPG session with a fresh party and venturing into the unknown and is easily the best dungeon crawl I’ve ever played. The only bad thing I can find to say about it is that there are still some obvious areas to explore and expand where it could be even better than it already is. I was amazed to discover recently that Wizards have announced a third game in the series, Legends of Drizzit. I seriously hope it takes the opportunity to fill in those gray areas and turn this system into the totally definitive dungeon experience that it ought to be. But given that I’ve already been astonished by the creativity that the designers of Wrath of Ashardalon have employed to squeeze all that extra entertainment value out of its bare-bones rules framework, who knows what surprises the future may bring?