Saturday, June 9, 2012

Tommy's Take on Castle Ravenloft

I'm a pretty big fan of Ravenloft. Even as I've decided I don't really care about every trying to run D&D again, I still love some of the settings, with Ravenloft the foremost among them. I also don't really care for D&D4e at all...but I did get the Castle Ravenloft board game by Wizards of the Coast, which does a hefty combination of the two.

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: This is a high end board game, with lots of minis (unpainted D&D minis), map tiles and so forth. It retails for $64.99, but you can usually get it for around $20 less at buying from Amazon through that link helps support this blog). It's recommended for ages 12 and up, but my eight year old and I have played multiple cooperative games together. It supports anywhere from 1 to 5 players.

The "story" of the board game boils Ravenloft down to its basic elemements: Strahd and his nefarious evils are lording over the village of Barovia until a handful of heroes move in to stop him.

The system uses a streamlined 4e...streamlined to the point that the heroes are distilled down to Armor Class, Hit Points, Speed, Surge Value and Powers. Yep, Healing Surges are present here (the default being each group having two), with characters who are reduced to 0 health coming back at half strength.

The game is played without a GM, with each monster and villain have a list of tactics that pretty much govern everything they do (move closer to hero, what attacks they use in which situation, etc). The game board is made as you go, using a series of map tiles that range from big, open rooms and hallways to Von Zarovich family tombs, laboratories and magic circles.

Each turn is simple: Each turn you can Move and Attack, Attack and Move or Move Twice. If you end your turn at the edge of a tile, you flip over a new one (which guarantees the arrival of a monster). Every player's turn has a Villain Phase, in which the "Boss" of the adventure, if active, takes his turn, followed by every monster whose card you control taking a turn. Additionally, there are Encounter Cards which are played if you draw tiles featuring black arrows, and these are almost always Very Bad (and are also drawn if you fail to explore on a turn).

Combat is simple: Roll d20, add your attack bonus (based on the attack you are using and any relevant magic items), compare to Armor Class and apply damage. Most non-bosses only have 1-2 HP. You get a magic item for killing them and add their card to the XP pile, which you can use to block Encounter cards or level up to level 2 if have enough XP when you roll a 20 during gameplay (granting you an extra Daily Power, boosting your stats and giving a Critical Hit bonus).

Each Adventure has its own goals, and usually additional rules, giving a sense of variety even though the gameplay is pretty basic. Usually you have a boss fight of some sort to deal with, and occassionally a secondary goal.

The Daily, Utility and At-Will Powers - as well as each character's unique ability - make the characters feel different as well.

Hero options include a Human Ranger (who can "Explore" tiles she's not next to, and has lots of ranged attacks, as well as powers that allow her to either put space between her and the bad guys to open up her ranged attacks), a Dragonborn Fighter (who can breath fire, give an AC bonus to any ally on the same tile, and force monsters into combat even if they aren't adjacent to him), a Dwarf Cleric (who can heal himself and others, and has a few Powers like Bless and Flame Strike which'll be familiar to long time D&D fans), an Eladrin Wizard (who gives his allies bonuses to hit due to his knowledge of monsters, the ability to make a short range teleportation and some classic Wizard Powers like Magic Missile, Dispel Magic and Shield) and a Human Rogue (who gets a bonus to disarm traps, and has a lot of sneaky, high-probability, low damage attack options).

Most of the monsters feel very "Ravenloft", with Zombies, Ghouls, Skeletons, Gargoyles and Wraiths, as well as more esoteric choices like Burning Skeletons. Wolves, Spiders and Rat Swarms also feel at home, though I probably would have left Kobolds out.

The Villains include a Kobold Sorcerer named Klak, a Howling Hag, a Werewolf, a Flesh Golem, a Zombie Dragon, a Dracolich named Gravestorm and Strahd himself.

Treasures you can find include items like Thieves' Tools, Magic Swords, Holy Avengers (which provide an extra bonus against the undead), Crystal Balls and Potions of Healing, as well as Blessings that let you move faster for a turn, heal a hit point or even regain a spent Power.

The Encounter Cards are very flavorful, including things like Animated Armor attacking you, bat swarms filling the Castle to provide penalties to ranged attacks, Strahd getting into your head and forcing you to make an attack against an ally, and even a few Encounters that can go either way, like a movement in the corner of your eye that can either be a sneak attack or a friendly spirit who restores one of your powers.

The game includes 13 adventures (I've played 11 of them), from a solo scenario in which you have to escape Strahd's tomb before he wakes up, to an escort mission in which you have to lead a villager to the Dark Fountain before he transforms into a vampire, to a seek and destroy mission in which you play each of the five heroes (one after the other) taking out as many of Strahd's followers as possible in a blaze of glory, to a two-part mission in which you attempt to finally hunt down and destroy Strahd himself.

Additionally, Wizards of the Coast provides a few free adventures, and this game is also compatible with its sister games Wrath of Ashardalon and The Legend of Drizzt (and you can make your own scenarios, of course).

WHAT WORKS: The minis are great, and will see play in games outside of just this, I'm sure of it. Gravestorm is a particularly impressive centerpiece, although the Flesh Golem is amazing as well. The Heroes all feel unique with their various abilities, and the theme feels about as close to Ravenloft as you can get in a hack and slash dungeon crawler.

WHAT DOESN'T WORK: It's HARD. Like, almost TOO hard. I think that we have only won once, defeating the Kobold Sorcerer. It is a meatgrinder, in part because so many of the monsters and encounters inflict a point of damage even if they miss (as opposed to 2 or 3 if they hit). The rulebooks really needed tighter editing, and it is REALLY easy to overthink the rules sometimes (Tip: Whatever the card, rule, etc, is, read it literally. That's usually the right answer).

CONCLUSION: If I got to roleplay more, the game would have been worth the price of admission for the minis alone. That said, the production values are fantastic and the gameplay is fun, if very difficult. I've had a blast playing with my son, in part because he takes it upon himself to roleplay his character, talking in character as we adventure through the castle, which usually sparks me into doing the same. It would just be nice to actually WIN sometime. Now I know how everyone that played in my Ravenloft games felt. Still, I don't regret the purchase at all. Probably not the best "gateway game", though, given the Meatgrinder effect.