Put down the controllers and grab your icosahedron; Castle Ravenloft brings Dungeons & Dragons to the moderately more accessible realm of high-end board gaming.
Since its heyday the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game brand has had tabletop board game aspirations. In fact the roots of this geek culture institution run deep into the military war-gaming genre. For the most part, mainstream success has eluded the name since the eighties. Various iterations of the core game and forays into card games, computer and video games and collectible miniatures have met with moderate success.
Alongside the role-playing game field there has always been a vibrant board game scene. Crossover strategy titles like Settlers of Catan, Carcassone and Pandemic have brought the formerly insular world of strategy games to the masses. Castle Ravenloft is a D&D-befrocked stab in the direction of such titles.
One to five players begin by choosing from a selection of stereotyped fantasy characters (wizard, thief, cleric, etc.) and customizing their abilities via a deck of power cards. Each adventurer works cooperatively to drive further into the titular evil castle by uncovering modular map tiles and combating random dread monsters. On most turns you will also draw from a deck of encounter cards to trigger traps and harmful environmental effects. The foes you face, zombies, gargoyles and the ultimate evil vampire Count Strahd von Zarovich, act in conjunction with player turns according to guidelines on each monster’s card. Defeating these evils rewards players with treasure like arms and armor, healing potions or temporary tactical advantages. The tile-revealing, trap- and monster-activating mechanic that forms part of each player’s turn does a great job of steadily increasing the threat as play lengthens as well as ramping up difficulty for larger groups. The modular layout of tiles and breadth of enemies allow for nearly limitless scenarios for players, a dozen of which come packed in and more being made and found on forums such as wizards.com and boardgamegeek.com.
Castle Ravenloft definately isn’t a slim line travel board of Scrabble; this $65 box set will fill a third of a bookshelf on its own. With 41 map tiles, dozens of player ability cards, 40- to 60-card decks of encounters, monsters and treasures, and almost 200 heavy card stock tokens and markers, you really don’t want to spill this near a central AC vent. Most impressive are the 42 miniatures boxed in. Each hero and signature villain has a molded plastic figure as well as triplicates of each of the game’s more common enemies like translucent blazing skeletons, shambling ghouls, hordes of rats and an enormous undead dragon. While the minis are unpainted plastic versions from the collectible D&D line, they really work to take the game presentation above the flat chit management of many high-end board games.
In truth Castle Ravenloft is a direct reaction to the popularity of an expansive series of strategy board games. While Dungeons & Dragons had over the years become more and more complicated, a market for simpler yet still rich fantasy strategy games grew. In the past decade a number of high-quality big box board games arrived to fill that niche, most notably the Descent series by Fantasy Flight Games. In Descent, as in Castle Ravenloft, players picked fantasy archetypes and delved into dungeons for treasure and monster-slaying for $60 to $80 a box. While D&D has moved to more accesible formats such as Castle Ravenloft to reclaim those players, games like Descent have added complexity to try and siphon more audience away; but I digress into geek socioeconomics.
Castle Ravenloft accomplishes its goals well. The coop gameplay is inviting to casual players and the opportunities for character customization appeal to more analytic gamers. The modular tiles and double fistful of bits, minis and tokens create a wide palette for scenario creation that will keep this game entertaining long past your initial few plays. The figures, while neat, could have traded quantity for higher-quality molding and a better fit as the box can quickly be overflowing. The rule and scenario books leave much to be desired as the realtively straightforward turn structure of move-fight/flip-tile/activate-monster is explained with needless convulsions. The scenario book is also an unfortunate format when a few double-sided leaflets would have done a better job and made for easier reference during play. These are small sour notes, though. With more boxed games coming down the pike, which promise compatability with what is in all honesty a stripped-down version of regular D&D, we can all look forward to empty wallets and bowed bookshelves. B+ —Glenn Given