Dungeons & Dragons Castle Ravenloft Review


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Posted by Drew on May 27, 2015

Middle and High School was an awesome time for me, and not because I was busy worrying about wearing the right clothes or listening to the right music. I was instead spending my formative, young adult years slaying everything in the Monster Manual. I loved AD&D Second (the only true edition, as far as I am concerned) and have always had a soft spot in my heart for D&D. So when Wizards of the Coast started releasing board games in the Dungeons and Dragons Adventure System, I was stoked.

The first release, from 2011, was Castle Ravenloft and it was set in one of my favorite D&D campaign settings, a sort of gothic horror fantasy world lorded over by the powerful vampire Count Strahd. Players take on the roles of heroes – classic D&D classes such as Fighter, Ranger, Thief, Cleric and Wizard – tasked with infiltrating Strahd’s sprawling castle. The game comes with a Quest Book including thirteen different quests. The first scenario is a single player get-to-know-ya type quest, but after that one to five players must accomplish various objectives or goals while surviving the perils of the dungeon.

Each hero has a deck of at-will (unlimited) and daily (one time use) attacks, as well as utility (non-combat) powers. A few are mandatory for the class and then the player selects a few additional abilities from among the remaining powers. In this way, you get to customize your character slightly – or at least fine tune them.

Although there is a loose narrative linking one quest to the next, the quests are fully self-contained and can be played in any order. A few of the quests have really neat mechanics like finding items to pacify a flesh golem, or racing to escape before the sun goes down. But most adventures require you to find a certain location and then kill a powerful villain or survive an ambush of monsters.

On a turn, a player can move and attack. If a player moves to the edge of a tile, he can stop there to explore the edge. A random tile is taken off the stack and placed on the edge. Each tile also spawns a monster. A random monster is drawn from the deck and then the corresponding miniature is placed on the tile. Some tiles also require players to draw an Encounter card – bad things that affect one or more players. If no tile is explored, then an Encounter is automatically drawn, which creates a pressure to keep moving forward. Then, any monster cards in front of the player (including the one just drawn) cause the monsters to attack.

Each monster card details a simple AI routine that directs its actions. It’ll say, “If the monster is next to the hero, it attacks. If within one tile, it moves then uses a different attack. Otherwise, it moves two tiles toward the heroes.” Or something similar that triages how the monster will behave during activation. After the monster attacks, the next player’s turn begins.

Play continues until the end tile is found – usually between 9 and 12 tiles. At that point, the big event happens as dictated by the quest and the players must overcome whatever obstacle is introduced.

Castle Ravenloft is great D&D fun – especially if what you like about D&D is the combat and cool monsters. The game comes with a bunch of minis – including one giant undead dragon. The square grid makes it easy to move and attack. For players who especially like 4th Edition D&D, this uses a highly streamlined version of the tactical combat that should be familiar.

But a love of D&D isn’t strictly necessary. The real fun from Castle Ravenloft comes in the cooperative nature of the game. Unlike other dungeon crawls, no DM or “overlord” player is needed. Everyone gets to be on the same team. The monster AI, written on each individual monster card is great. There is no confusion, it is easy to understand, and most importantly, allows for a fully cooperative dungeon crawl.

The quest book also has flavor text to read at the beginning, the end, and generally whenever the event happens. It’s great for players wanting some immersive play and is a nice cherry on top for others more concerned about making monsters dead and taking their things from them.

Castle Ravenloft isn’t without its problems. Some of the quests feel similar even though the end bosses are quite different. The customization of the characters isn’t very robust which can lead to a same-y feeling after a dozen or so plays. Also, there are tons of tokens and chits that are used for only single quests or in unusual circumstances which can be annoying when you’re sifting through to find the one token that applies.

Castle Ravenloft also does have some issues with scaling. It seems that most adventures are tuned for five players. Each player less than a full table tends to make the adventure harder.

Perhaps the biggest misstep is the lack of any kind of campaign system. There is simply no way to carry over characters and levels from one adventure to the next, absent some excellent homebrew systems. While I don’t find this a terrible omission, some players who crawl dungeons absolutely want to see characters that grow over several sessions. This oversight was remedied in later D&D Adventure System titles, including the recently released Temple of Elemental Evil.

It’s important to be comfortable with what Castle Ravenloft is and what it isn’t. It is a fun out-of-the box dungeon crawl where friends can fight, kill, and hopefully defeat terrifying villains from the D&D world. It isn’t D&D in-a-box with complete character customization, the ability to level up significantly, or even a campaign system linking one quest to the next. Each play should be viewed as a fun one-shot story.

But in replicating the one-shot story, Castle Ravenloft succeeds beautifully. Plays tend to be engaging and tense, if focused heavily on combat. Just as players think they have a handle on things, a new monster comes out to challenge them all again. And falling behind on monsters means getting overwhelmed and failing. But you’ll want to try again even if you blow through the regenerative Healing Surges you are allowed each scenario because it is a fun system that is definitely worth checking out.