Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Saturday, 9 October 2010

White Box Fever IV

To gamers of a certain age, the mention of Castle Ravenloft will both strike fear into their hearts and invoke any number of strong memories. Originally published in 1983, the legendary I6: Castle Ravenloft was a gothic horror adventure that pitted the heroes against the feared vampire, Count Strahd von Zarovich. Playing upon Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the heroes had to brave his castle in an attempt save the fate of a young woman that the Count believed to be his long lost love. As they explore the beautifully mapped castle and the crypts below, danger was never far away in the form of numerous undead creatures and the Count constantly toying with them.

I6: Castle Ravenloft not only received its own setting, but three sequels: I10: The House on Gryphon Hill in 1986 and then in 2006, Expedition to Castle Ravenloft, the latter for Wizards of the Coast’s Dungeons & Dragons 3.5. The third sequel is also from Wizards of the Coast, is based on Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition, but is not a roleplaying adventure. Rather it is a boardgame. Moreover, it is a co-operative boardgame in which a party of delvers must venture into Castle Ravenloft on a number of missions that will thwart the evil Count’s ambitions. Designed for between one and five players aged twelve and up, the game uses a simplified version of the rules for Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition, and with everyone taking turns being the Dungeon Master, the Castle Ravenloft Board Game never lets up!

Open up the box and you will find it crammed full with components. These include the Dungeon “Start” Tile and forty Dungeon Tiles; five Hero, seven Villain, and thirty Monster figures; five Hero, four Villain, sixty Encounter, fifty Power, thirty Monster, and fifty Treasure Cards, plus others; and some two hundred different Tokens. All topped off by the Rulebook and the Adventure Book, each sixteen pages long, and the game’s twenty-sided die.

Apart from the Dungeon “Start” Tile, which is effectively two Tiles together, all of the Dungeon Tiles are four inches square and marked in one inch squares. All have a black or white triangle marked on them to determine their orientation and a square with a pile of bones to indicate where the monsters start. Some Dungeon Tiles are marked with walls while others are “Quest Tiles,” the target locations described in the missions given in the Adventure Book. Together they form the corridors and rooms of the crypts below Castle Ravenloft.

The miniatures are unpainted, but come in a variety of different colours. So the heroes come in a rich blue, wolves and rat swarms (or rat pizzas as we have described them) in brown; the skeleton and the gargoyle in ivory; the villains such as Count von Strahd in grey; and the blazing skeletons in clear ice blue. These are not the only monsters of course, but all of the figures are nicely sculpted, especially the giant Dracolich Gravestorm.

Each monster has its own Monster card. This lists its Armour Class, its Hit Points – most monsters only one Hit Point, while Count von Strahd has twelve! – its Tactics, its Attacks and Damage inflicted, and its Experience, or rather the amount of Experience Points the heroes gain for killing it. So for example, if the Skeleton is adjacent to a Hero, it attacks him with a scimitar (a +7 attack that does one damage); if it is within a tile of a Hero, it charges and does a slice (a +9 attack that does two damage!); otherwise, the Skeleton moves one tile closer towards the nearest Hero. Essentially, these tactics are conditional, and while they vary from Monster to Monster, they are always easy to interpret.

The Hero Cards are slightly different to the Monster Cards. First, they have more details on them, and second, they are double-sided. On the one side are the stats for each Hero at first level and on the other side, for second level. Each Hero has a name, a race and a class, a little background, and then his Armour Class, his Hit Points (ranging between six for the Wizard and ten for the Fighter), his Speed (movement points per turn), his Healing Surge (How many Hit Points he gets back after he dies) and a special ability. For example, Thorgrim, the Dwarf Cleric has the Aid ability, which allows him to heal another Hero for one Hit Point if Thorgrim did not attack that turn. In addition, each Hero has one Utility, two At-Will, and one Daily Power Cards that his player can chose from several available. For quick play, the Adventure Book suggests the starting Power Cards for each Hero. Most Power Cards will be familiar to players of Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition, and will provide some form of attack. Utility Power Cards provide another non-combat related advantage, and like the Daily Power Cards are one shot affairs.

It takes a critical roll of twenty and five Experience for a Hero to go up to second level. This increases all of his stats and enables him to inflict extra damage when he rolls a twenty. Besides Thorgrim, the Dwarf Cleric, the other Heroes are a Dragonborn Fighter (provides an Armour Class bonus to Heroes on the same Dungeon Tile), a Human Ranger (can explore or reveal unexplored Dungeon Tiles even if not adjacent to them), a Human Rogue (has a bonus to disarm Traps), and an Eladrin Wizard (knowledge of monsters grants a +1 attack bonus to all Heroes on the same Dungeon Tile). Given that each of these Hero Cards is in a different colour, it would have been nice if the matching Hero figure had been done in the same colour for easier identification.

Both the Rule Book and the Adventure Book are done in full colour and are easy to read and understand. There are a total of thirteen missions in the Adventure Book, of which two are designed to be played solo with just the one Hero. For most of them, the Heroes have to find their way to a certain location, usually a Quest Tile and there defeat all of the Monsters that appear. Nevertheless, the missions provide variety in terms of objective if not necessarily game play.

Game set-up is reasonably quick once a Mission has been decided upon. Play will require a reasonable surface area as the crypts will expand quickly. A player’s turn consists of three phases. During the Hero Phase, a Hero can either move twice, move and attack, or attack and move. Each move is equal to a Hero’s speed, while an attack consists of rolling the die and adding any bonuses listed on the Power Card to beat the Monster’s Armour Class. The most damage that a Hero will inflict is one or two points, usually enough to defeat most Monsters. A defeated Monster goes into the Experience pile, while the victorious Hero can draw a Treasure Card. Some Treasure Cards have an immediate effect such as granting a temporary bonus to attack rolls or forcing the next card drawn from the Monster or Encounter deck to be discarded. Other Treasure Cards have a lasting effect, for example the bonus to Speed that the Boots of Striding grant. Treasure Cards like this can be given to any player upon being drawn.

Following the Hero Phase is the Exploration Phase. If a Hero ends his move adjacent to an unexplored edge, then a new Dungeon Tile is drawn and added to the dungeon. A new Monster Card is drawn by the current player who will control it until it is defeated, its figure being placed on the new Dungeon Tiles’ pile of bones square.

The third and final phase is the Villain Phase, and is perhaps the most interesting. If a Hero did not add a new Dungeon Tile in the Exploration Phase or if the newly added Dungeon Tile was marked with a black triangle, then the player draws and plays an Encounter Card. These take effect immediately and have various effects. These include adding an Environment, such as “Bat Swarm,” which makes attacking adjacent Dungeon Tiles more difficult; an Event, such as “Strahd Attacks,” when the vampire lord appears suddenly, attacks everyone, and disappears; and Traps, such as a the “Crossbow Turret.” Traps remain in play until disarmed and are controlled by the player who drew them affecting only the heroes on that Dungeon Tile.

After the Encounter Card has been drawn and played, any Villains, Monsters, and Traps controlled by a player activate, attacking and moving as dictated on their Cards. Where the Villain Phase gets truly villainous is when there are two or more monsters of single type in play. If a player controls one of these monsters, he not only moves that monster, but also every other monster of that type in play, even if controlled by another player! So if you control a Spider during your Villain Phase, you will not only control its movement and attack, but that of every other Spider in play. Worse, when it gets to the player who controls that other Spider, he not only moves and attacks with his Spider, but also with yours! This multiple monster rule forces the players to try and keep the number of monsters in play down to a minimum of one type.

Once play starts, a rhythm soon develops. The game flows as each Hero advances through the dungeon, revealing more Dungeon Tiles and Monsters, an Encounter occurring, his Monsters moving and attacking, before the next Hero having an opportunity to move and attack, usually to defeat a Monster before it has a chance to attack again. The Encounter Cards add a weird, strange randomness to the game from turn to turn, actually echoing the eeriness of the crypts below Castle Ravenloft that many will recall from I6: Ravenloft.

So how do you win in the Castle Ravenloft Board Game? Well, there are thirteen missions in the Adventure Book, which gives you thirteen ways in which to win by achieving the objectives listed for each mission. Losing is another matter, and there is just the one way in which to lose. When a Hero dies, he is healed a number of Hit Points equal to his Surge value at the start of his next turn. This costs a single Healing Surge. In the standard game, there are only two Healing Surges available, and once both of these are gone, the game is lost.

Yet because new Monsters appear and Encounters occur almost every turn, the game literally never lets up against the Heroes. It confronts them relentlessly with evil and the undead. The only respite from this is Experience. Gained from killing Monsters, a total of five Experience points can be spent to negate the effects of a newly played Encounter Card. This will probably occur more frequently than a Hero going up to second level, which not only takes five Experience points, but also a roll of twenty on the game's die.

The relentless nature of the game's play can also make it a dispiriting experience for younger players. It can be just too hard for them. There are ways to make the game easier for them though. The one listed in the rule book is increasing the number of Healing Surges available to the players, but the Heroes could also start the game with more Treasure Cards and the Experience point cost to negate Encounter Cards and to go up levels could also be lowered. The game could also be made harder by doing the reverse of any of these options and also by having the players randomly choose the Power Cards for their Heroes. Then again, even playing without the Cleric Hero will handicap the players.

So is Castle Ravenloft Board Game a co-operative game? Absolutely. The players have to co-operate in order to defeat the Monsters and get to the objective. Just like any dungeon crawl. As with any co-operative game, the players are free to discuss their actions and should be encouraged to do so to make the best use of each Hero's powers and benefits. It is also co-operative in that the players are up against the game itself, each player's Villain Phase giving him a turn at being the Dungeon Master. In addition, the game can be played solo, a player controlling just the one Hero or many according to the mission. Nor is there anything to stop a fewer number of players controlling more Heroes between them.

The other question is, how reminiscent is Castle Ravenloft Board Game of the original 1983 scenario? Putting aside the big disappointment that the Heroes only get to explore the crypts below the castle – which surely means that there is room for an expansion supplement? – then it evokes memories of part of the castle. The randomness of the Encounter Cards brings to mind the Count's constant toying with the Heroes in the original scenario and the endless supply of Monsters at his beck and call.

Although playing Castle Ravenloft Board Game is hard, it is also fun. Anyone who has played Dungeons & Dragons will find its rules familiar, more so if they have played Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition. Indeed, one player described it playing a roleplaying game, but without the roleplaying. Of course this boardgame is unlike playing Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition in that the game is never relentless like Castle Ravenloft Board Game. Monsters and Encounters do not keep coming at the player characters as they do here, but are neatly parcelled up in set Encounters.

On its own, Castle Ravenloft Board Game offers hard play against a relentless foe. Yet it also serves as a basic introduction to Dungeons & Dragons. Which leaves me with an interesting thought. For just a little time, before the release of Dungeons & Dragons Essentials Red Box, the fact is that Castle Ravenloft Board Game was the best introduction to Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition. Perhaps it still is...?