Monday, May 16, 2011

Product Review: Castle Ravenloft Tabletop Game

Castle Ravenloft was the first expansion I was introduced to as a kid in the late 80s. I can always recall the interesting mix of gothic horror imagery in a fantasy setting and, being one of my first exposures to tabletop gaming, still holds a special place in my heart. Those of you who know me though, know that I'm not a big RPG player, due to either my penchant for being a visual thinker or my lack of any sizable attention span. Probably a little of both.

So, my interest was piqued when WOC introduced the Castle Ravenloft Board Game. My wife was able to track down a copy for me this past Christmas and, after not having a lot of time to play it earlier in the year, I finally got around to playing a few games.

The box cover (that's Count Strahd BTW, D&D's answer to Count Vlad Dracul)

First impressions - this box is substantial! It's roughly 15" square and about 6" deep and weighs in somewhere around 5 or 6 pounds. All markers/tiles/player cards are printed on thick, heavy-duty cardstock in full-color and must be "punched" out of the sheets they come in before playing. There also appears to be a thin plastic film over all the cardstock, so it slides well and seems better protected. Once finished, there's a plastic insert in the box designed to comfortably hold all the cards, tiles, markers, and figures (though I supplemented mine with some plastic baggies to keep everything tidy and easier to find).

The dungeon tiles (sturdy, colorful, and evocative!)

The box contents (PBR not included!)

As you can see in the picture above, there's certainly a lot of stuff included in the game. There's roughly 40 miniatures, 40 tiles, 10 Hero & (major) Villain tiles, 200 cards (divided into Hero Powers, Encounters, Monster, Treasure, and a few misc. decks), a rulebook, "adventure" book, a D20, and something like 200 various markers/tokens/counters.

As a person who loves miniatures, these certainly don't disappoint! All 40-some minis are cast in that semi-soft/hard plastic, which is sturdy enough to handle some abuse but could still be crushed with enough force. Moldlines are either non-existent or so well camouflaged that you can't notice them. Each "class" is cast in its own particular color - blue for Heroes, grey for Villains, off-white for undead, clear for spirits, and rust red for animals. Each mini has its name embossed in raised plastic under its base. A quick wash with some black ink would make the name and the details stand out well.

Obviously, the centerpiece is Gravestorm, the undead dragon. As you can see in the picture above, he's a good 6" or so tall and an imposing Villain. The "Spirits" are also very nicely sculpted and include a flaming Skeleton (née Ghost Rider) and a Wraith. Personally, I think the only weak point here are the Hero minis, which could have been more dynamic in their poses and (in the case of the Elf wizard and Dragonkin Fighter) much more substantial. That isn't to say they aren't nice, it's just that - after looking at all the cool monsters - everyone just wants to use those minis!

The Hero/Villain tiles

Gameplay is pretty straight-forward, let's call this "RPG lite". Players choose an adventure from the Adventure Book, choose a player character tile & model, and a set number of special Power cards. These can be anything from certain attacks, to healing powers, to magic. Each PC has 4 attributes and one constant "complimentary" power that helps other PCs. The 4 attributes are:

AC (Armor Class) - your defense. Traps, attacks, and magic must roll higher then this amount to damage the PC
HP (Hit Points) - your life. Each attack causes a certain amount of damage, which is subtracted from your HP. If a PC's HP reaches 0 at the beginning of his Hero Phase, and he cannot heal with a Healing Surge, ALL PCs lose!
Speed - the distance you can move in squares. Each dungeon tile is 4x4 squares (not counting walls)
Surge Value - the amount of HP you regain when a Healing Surge is used.

Right out of the gate, there's an issue here - Monsters & Villains both lack a Speed attribute. This can be confusing as, when a monster activates in the Villain phase (more below) and must "move", it simply moves 1-3 tiles towards the Heroes (usually). But there's no mechanism for where within the tile the monster moves to. This is both good and bad. For new players (especially new gamers entirely) this is abstract and simplistic enough to (generally) get the monsters into an attack on the heroes). For more experienced players, it can get confusing and a little boring at times.

Anyway, moving on, let me show you the first Adventure - a solo adventure named "Escape The Tomb". Here, the PC is trapped in the Strahd's Crypt tile and must escape to the Secret Staircase tile before the sun sets and Strahd awakes.

"Forever Alone."

The initial setup. I've taken my PC tile, a selection of 5 Power cards, 1 Treasure card (to represent booty from previous adventures), the Strahd Villain figure and tile (not in play yet), and placed the Hero figure on the Strahd's Crypt tile. I then shuffle the Secret Stairway tile into the Dungeon tile stack somewhere after the 8th tile down.

The first phase is Hero Phase. The active PC can either Move+Move, Move+Attack, or Attack+Move. Here, I've chosen to do nothing as, when you hit an Unexplored Edge (a tile edge with an unoccupied square that does not have another tile next to it, yet) you must stop. Next phase is Exploration. As I'm the active PC (well, the only PC, technically) and I'm on an Unexplored Edge, I take the first tile from the top of the stack and lay it with it's arrow facing my edge.

The new tile has a black square so I must draw an Encounter card. I draw the Spear Gauntlet trap. Not good! I lay the relevant trap marker down on my current tile (Strahd's Crypt) and keep the Trap card in my "Monster pile". The next phase is Villain phase, any monsters or traps I have in my "Monster pile" now activate, so (since I occupy a tile with a trap on it) I roll the D20, add the trap's Attack value, and compare the total to my AC.

Balderdash! The total is 21, 4 more than my PC's armor class of 17. I therefore take 3 damage and subtract 3 HP. No more monsters or traps so I go again. Hero Phase = Move+Move to the next Unexplored Edge. Exploration Phase = I draw another Dungeon tile (this time a hallway, black spaces are walls), an Encounter card calling for a Monster, and Mr. Flaming Skeleton arrives (into my "Monster Pile" he goes).

In this Villain phase, I now have a Trap and a Monster and each are activated in the order I drew them. First, the Spear Gauntlet is still within 1 tile of my PC, so can still attack. I roll but it does not exceed my AC, so it does no damage. Mr. Flaming Skeleton ("'Ello!") then activates and I follow the Tactics on his card. He's in the tile adjacent to me, so moves unto my tile and attacks with a fireball, so I roll the D20 again and add it's Attack value. A miss, so I take no damage ("'Cor blimey, guv'nah!")

This Hero phase I decide to Move+Attack. I move away 5 squares into the adjacent tile and use my Necklace of Fireballs card on Mr. Flaming Skeleton. It hits and does 1 damage. Mr. FS now has 1 HP. I've come into contact with another Unexplored Edge so I draw a Dungeon tile with a black triangle. The Encounter card I draw is Ambush. I roll the D20, add the Attack value, and am hit. I take no damage from the Ambush but suffer a Slowed condition, reducing my Speed to 2 (squares) until the end of my (next) Hero phase. Mr. FS attacks in the Villain phase but misses.

In the next Hero phase, I Move+Move to the next Unexplored Edge, draw a Dungeon tile with a white triangle (in this adventure meaning that the "Sun" sets 1 space lower to sunset and Strahd's awakening), no Encounter is drawn (because of the white triangle), and Mr. FS (being out of attack range, or 1 adjacent tile from me) moves 1 tile towards me.

With the slowed condition discarded, I elect to again Move+Move, again draw a Dungeon tile, an Encounter card ("Deadly Shadows" - which is discarded as it only affects a game of 2+ PCs), and Mr. FS moves another tile closer to me and attacks, missing.

In this Hero phase, I've elected to Attack+Move. I use my Trapping Strike power, roll D20, add Attack value, and hit; killing Mr. FS. I now remove the Mr. FS mini, take his card and its' Experience Points, and draw 1 Treasure card for my use. I then move 5 squares to the next UE, draw another white triangled Dungeon tile ("Strahd's right eye twitches in the darkness...").

Experience from destroyed monsters is handled in 2 ways. If I have 5 or more EXP and a PC draws an Encounter card I don't want, I may spend 5 EXP to cancel that card. Additionally, if my PC rolls a natural 20 on the D20, I can spend 5 EXP, flip my PC tile over, and now use the Level 2 PC on this side, who's obviously a little tougher.

Nothing really happens for a few turns until I draw the "Cyrus" Encounter card, what I refer to as the "Why-the-hell-did-you-follow-an-Igor-you-fool?" card. I draw a Dungeon tile, move to it, then draw 2 Monsters (a Gargoyle & Kobold Skirmisher).

There's a lot of back and forth and Running Away going on and inevitably, I reach 0 HP and decide to use one of my Healing Surges, bringing me back to 5HP and keeping me in the fight.

I'm eventually able to defeat the Kobold, gain a treasure, and move to reveal the Secret Staircase just as Strahd wakes up. The end!

-Quick, easily accessible gameplay for all players
-Nicely sculpted miniatures & full-color Dungeon tiles
-Big list of adventures
-Real sense of cooperation in multi-player games
-Sense of escalating terror reinforced by Encounter mechanism
-Reasonably priced @ ~$60USD

-No movement attribute for monsters , can be frustrating and confusing
-Some villains can be insanely powerful (i.e. Klak the Sorceror and his Teleportation/Horde of Monsters tactics)
-May be too simplistic for "Hardcore" D&D players
-Being forced to split from other players/team may mean near-automatic failure
-No expansions scheduled for release; though game is compatible with Legend of Drizzt and Wrath of Ashardolan games (thanks to TheMightyFlip on Lead Adventure for this info)
-PCs may only "level up" to Level 2

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