We interrupt your regularly scheduled blog (on designing a drow city) for a review of WotC's new board game: Castle Ravenloft. I've only played through the game a few times and have not yet tried all the scenarios, but I think I've played enough to attempt a review.
Background / Disclaimer
I'm a huge Ravenloft fan. Which is primarily why I picked-up this game. Okay, full disclosure, it's the only reason I picked-up this game. Gotta keep that collection complete. So I was concerned and interested with its authenticity to the Ravenloft brand, history, and feel.
Oddly, I don't expect the game to see that much use with friends. While I hang with geeky people and we enjoy board game nights, we're probably more likely to try another game rather than play D&D on our non-D&D night. We'll saving our D&D fix for an actual role-playing day. But the board game might be a nice for rare days when a game falls apart, or inspiration was just lacking. My DM is currently away on a business trip, so it might be opportune to crack open Ravenloft for the group and have a quick social visit 'n' gaming experience.
My first thought was a common though: damn, this is one heavy box. It's a big box and it just feels packed. There's not alot of wiggle room in the box. Upon opening there was the small rulebook (surprisingly small) and the adventure book (small, but with a surprising number of options). Oh, and a flyer for D&D Essentials. Yeah, if I'm dropping $60-80 on a board game based on a 27 year-old adventure I know the game and don't need an advertisement for newbie books.
After opening the box and glancing at the cards (lots, but fewer than I expected) and dungeon tiles (more than I expected) I began popping-out the tile sheets. The card stock is thick. Thicker than generic Dungeon Tiles yet easier to punch-out. I've had some problems punching-out Dungeon Tiles with the printed top-sheet ripping, so I was worried the same would happen here. Thankfully, all came out easily.
There are alot of tokens. No, really, there are a LOT of tokens. The adventure book comes with a dozen scenarios and many have their own unique little tokens. There are so many tokens even with twelve adventures not all the tokens are used.
This seems a little needless. Firstly, it clogs the box with stay cardboard. Secondly, having such specific tokens means it's harder to have downloadable adventures that won't seem like rehashes of existing scenarios because they'll have to use the existing hyper-specific tokens. Many times the tokens only use one side but don't need to be hidden. There's no reason to have a separate "immobilize" and "slowed" tokens when they could flipped , and the monster's "breath weapon" and "mist form" token could also have been two sides of the same token, or a much more simple "special power" token.
With so many extra tokens just increases the risk of losing one or two. It's hard to keep track of them all. If there were fewer tokens I'd be able to do a quick count on opening or packing-up. As it is I'm sure one or two were left behind while moving the game. You need ziploc bags. This is not optional. There are simply too many small, loose tiles to not have baggies. I was a little disappointed generic baggies were not supplied. Other games provide appropriately sized bags for some of their components and a box for cards. For what they were charging they could have dropped $5 on cheap baggies.
I'm not even sure what some of the tokens are for. There's not alot of explanation. Really, it feels like they just wanted to use as much negative space as possible to avoid wasting any cardstock, so they got specific. I think I would have preferred more extraneous, doubled tokens so I had extras in the likely event of loss, dogs, or small children. (This isn't to say there are no extras. You have 5 healing surge tokens but will only ever use 2. Curious...)
I found the game easy. It's 4e. Only with far fewer hit points, less damage, and a slightly smaller array of powers. However, the number of options still proves to be a little tricky for the absolute newbies. Given D&D Essentials was out at around the same time they could have used its design tenants and had an easier and more accessible class for newbs. (Among the players of my first attempt were my sister-in-law and mother-in-law, both non gamers. There were some delays with so many choices and waffling. I hate telling them what they should do in a game...)
One of the hurdles was the terminology. Acronyms like "AC" and "HP" make sense to gamers, but need a little extra explaining. Yes, it takes up less space but if you're new remembering which is your defence and which is your life is awkward. And the terms are not that accessible. A more generic "Armour" and "Health" might have been easier, but slightly less D&D. This is a Catch-22 really.
Regardless, the game itself was simple enough to pick-up and the cooperative element went over very well. Competitive games can be a little tricky for some people, who are just too nice to shaft family or friends.
The tricky parts were the board game specific rules. We keep forgetting to draw treasure after a monster, and messed-up several smaller un-emphasised rules (monster on every new tile AND an encounter card if the triangle is black: we spent two games only placing monsters when the triangle was white. And I initially missed the rule where you draw an encounter card if you don't reveal a tile).
The game really is simplified 4e. Range and area effects are measure by tiles for a nice simple effect. The game adopts a phase approach similar to many Eurogames and everyone gets a card that describes phases. This reminds me of Settlers of Catan or Twilight Imperium and provided a clear hierarchy of what happened when and if you were moving a monster a villain or a hero. You move your hero, you explore, and then you move monsters. This means much of the time you move, end your turn and unlock the next tile, then get smacked by the monster you find. I often missed standard D&D where you move, unveil a new area with a monster, and still have your unused standard action to lay a pre-emptive smackdown.
You also control your own monster, so you're often attacking yourself. Handy for fewer hard feelings. But when you repeatedly hit yourself and flub attacks against the monster, risking a loss for the entire group, there might still be some sighs. I never hit my monsters and they always seem to connect with me.
There is some funkiness as a result of the new rules. And many spells use the phrase "within 1 tile" or "within 2 tiles": I was uncertain if "within 2 tiles" meant "2 or fewer tiles" or "fewer than 2 tiles". Likewise, some powers are unclear if they can be used in addition an attack or in place of an attack. There's no "minor action" to use, and most cards that replace an attack typically say so, but it's still unclear. Healing world was the prime offender for this. A number of scenarios also have unclear actions, such as searching and destroying coffins in the hunt for Strahd.
And the game plays so much better as a group activity. There are two solo quests. The first is fun and has a great race-against-time mechanic but the second is a slog which exposes some flaws in the scripting of the villains (I played cheap and kited them around, claiming a slow but easy victory).
However, the game really encourages you to split-up. If you share a tile you'll often all die quickly from triggered traps and area attacks. So it often doesn't feel as co-operative as it should be. It likely plays best with 4 or 5 people where you can have two pairs of heroes and possibly one hero floating between.
Encounters are also deadly. There are many encounter cards that fall flat because you don't meet the requirements to make them deadly but there are fewer neutral or positive cards. Heck, many of the positive cards require a roll to make them a benefit. The game is very, very hack-and-slash. Every tile has a monster so you're always revealing new foes that can regularly attack you first. To avoid the oft-deadly encounter cards you have to finish it off quickly and move forward revealing the next foe with their pre-emptive attack .
The classes and powers don't feel entirely balanced either. You need a cleric in the game, it's the only way to get healing. And given the populace of the dungeon, the powers you take are healing strike and lance of faith. There just aren't enough conditions to take an alternate at-will. And the wizard is a death-magnet. They have too low of AC (tied for lowest) and HP (lowest) to explore solo and work best as support from behind, but that means they continually pull encounter cards that regularly trigger traps or miscellaneous attacks that are often more deadly than the monsters. Their long range just isn't an advantage in this game and area effect powers only work well when you survive long enough for multiple foes to be a problem.
How Much Ravenloft?
The game really isn't "Castle" Ravenloft. A better name would have been "Crypts of Castle Ravenloft" or even "Crypts of Ravenloft". You're not in it a castle, you're in the dungeon beneath. There are alot of small references to locales from those crypts, which often feature as the climactic area of the original adventure (or a long, slow slog of checking dozens of uniquely named crypts). Several of the scenarios also seem similar to events from the original module, such as finding the Holy Icon of Ravenloft: a lost relic that was featured prominently in the original adventure and is the highlight of the suggest first group scenario. And many of the cards recall classic moments in the module, such as being teleported away from the group, attacked by a banshee, ambushed by Strahd, or met by Strahd's thrall accountant, Leif LipSiege.
Then there's the other adventures, such as fighting a howling hag, destroying the machine of a mad scientist, facing a rampaging flesh golem, or confronting the dracolich. None of these really seemed to mesh well with Castle Ravenloft, although they loosely fit the gothic atmosphere of the adventure and the campaign setting. But the names are new. When you're destroying the infernal machine (Klak's Infernal Artifact) it's not The Apparatus from I10: The House on Gryphon Hill (the Ravenloft sequel). The golem isn't Adam or related to Mordenheim.
Most notably, when you escort the victim being turned into a vampire into the crypt to save them, it's some new unremarkable schlub (Kavan) and not Ireena Kolyana, the reincarnation of Strahd's lost love Tatyana. In fact, one of the named tiles is the Tomb of Ireena Kolyana which is a very large "huh??" moment. I imagine someone in the creation mixed-up Tatyana and Kolyana, a not improbable event but still sloppy fact checking.
It's oddness like the above which is the game's largest problem as a Ravenloft product. Instead of drawing from an extensive potential collection of NPCs and name characters with a history and resonance with fans, the game creates new characters that are just less interesting. Why does Strahd has a kobold sorcerer (the aforementioned Klak)? Wouldn't the lich Azalin (I10 again) have been far more impressive and interesting? Why are kobolds such a common menace in the crypts anyway?
This is easy to dismiss but feels like a missed opportunity. It would similar to if they did a Forgotten Realms game based on the Horde invasion but only referenced the modules and didn't even glance at any of the campaign settings or novelizations. Or based an Eberron Last War game entirely only the 4e campaign setting. It could work and the results could be cool and fun, but much of what makes the brand recognizable and popular is just missing...
(This isn't even touching on the adventures that make it sound like Strahd is out to kill everyone in Barovia. Umm... no, that's not really Strahd's M.O. He was their master and they were his, he wouldn't destroy his people... unless they offended him.)
Some of this is understandable; the intent behind the game was making a product tied to the original 1983 adventure, like the 3e megadventure Expedition to Castle Ravenloft. They didn't need to draw from the campaign setting or related novels, even ones that tied the Castle Ravenloft (Vampire of the Mists) so I'm not surprised there are no references to the Terg invasion of Barovia or appearances by Jander Sunstar. But the campaign setting is so much more interesting than the original occasionally lame and over long dungeon crawl module. It was great for its time but I6: Ravenloft has not aged well in terms of design, verisimilitude, or even logic.
So, in conclusion, it's an adequate game. It's quick and you can pop-out a quick game in an hour or two, but you're set-up to fail frequently, so it's not always a positive experience and might lead to repeated attempts to succeed. It's not a good Ravenloft game but it's a reasonable game based on Ravenloft. It's a little like attempting to judge a movie based on a short story. No matter how much you loved the short story, it's a different medium trying to do different things.
I also can't see myself springing for the stand-alone sequel. If they eventually released expansion sets (new PCs, new encounters and treasure cards, new monsters, and minis) that might be more palatable. As it is, the DM Rewards program for the RPGA (last one for home play) was a hag monster card for the game. It might be fun to see more alternate monsters that use the existing minis.