Innovation in game design seems to be in short supply nowadays. Yet you can find it in unexpected places. Take all those wargames that use the same basic rules but have new units, maps and mechanical tweaks for different battles. Playing through these franchises can reveal an ocean of wonder inside those tiny details, making history come to life.
So, just because Temple of Elemental Evil is the fourth game in a series doesn’t mean it’s not going to feel fresh and clever. However, in honesty, it’s going to need to pull out all the stops to impress. A sense of staleness was already present in the last Adventure System game, Legend of Drizzt, back in 2011.
For those unfamiliar, the Adventure System is a series of co-operative dungeon crawl games. The rules are based on a pared-down version of 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons. Players pick a scenario and build a random stack of dungeon tiles. As they explore the turned over tiles will reveal traps, event and monsters. Each creature has a set of simple AI routines to attack and use its special abilities. Easy rules that bring life and colour to the gray flagstones.
It’s a great system. Separate decks of monster, encounter and treasure cards offer a lot of variety from basic mechanics. Yet for all that accessibility, decisions matter. Many hero abilities are one-shot, and timing can be crucial. A particularly neat twist is that monsters often move per dungeon tile. This leaves precise placement to the players, offering the chance of clever strategic combinations.
It also helps to avoid the boss-player problem that’s such an issue in co-operative games. Each player has their own set of powers and controls their own movement and monsters. They can do whatever they like. Yet the standard balance of abilities across D&D character classes encourages true co-operation. Tanks can tank, but it helps if there are Mages for missile fire and Rogues to bust traps.
The first game in this series, Castle Ravenloft, also used scenario setup to add further interest and imagination. The second, and my favourite, Wrath of Ashardalon, had simpler scenarios but chained them together into a campaign. There was some official and some fan-made material to allow owners to use both games together. By the time we got to Legend of Drizzit, there didn’t seem to be much new to offer any more.
So what do we have in Elemental Evil to resurrect this system? Sadly, not much.
There are precisely two major innovations. First, traps are no longer the result of encounter cards but get placed as tokens on certain tiles. This feels like a step back. They do offer players the choice between spending an action disarming the trap or risking it and hoping for a “clear” result. But many trap tiles don’t have monster spaces, so the tension cranks down. And the actual traps are just numeric damage. A far cry from cool stuff like the rolling rock trap in Ashardalon, which saw players fleeing and scattering like fleshy ninepins.
That leaves us with a new campaign. This was the big draw for me: the campaign in Ashardalon was the reason I liked that game best. The series seemed to be crying out for some more detailed rules. Most of all what people wanted was a way to build their characters beyond the arbitrary second level cap on the cards.
They didn’t get that. Although what they did get offers much of the same feel and is an improvement on Ashardalon’s campaign. Now, most of the treasure cards are gold pieces and you use them to purchase upgrades. A thousand gold nets you second level. Then you buy tokens for things like dice bonuses or power re-use. Players carry these between adventures and can use each token once per scenario.
The campaign itself also does a fine job of linking adventures into a narrative. Together with the campaign rules, playing through them one at a time builds a proper sense of camaraderie. It feels very much like a full-blooded role-playing game, with more strategy and less rules arguments.
The flip side, of course, is that the adventures don’t work so well played as one-shot games. The fact they build in difficulty doesn’t help. Neither does a lack of imagination. Most of these lack the spark of originality seen in Castle Ravenloft.
I don’t want to denigrate this game: Elemental Evil is a good game. It’s worth your time and money. Especially so if you’re really up for playing through the campaign, which is obviously the focus of the design. And I would encourage everyone to own and play an Adventure System game. Maybe even two. They’re ace, and they all integrate well together. But you don’t need all four.
So the question becomes one of which is better. And in spite of the new material on offer here, the answer is still Ravenloft or Ashardalon. Unless, that is, you’re looking for a top value way of obtaining some plastic figures for your Princes of the Apocalypse campaign.