Once more to Barovia – Castle Ravenloft Returns!
The mists have rolled in, sitting in the deep valleys of Barovia. There is a chill in the air, and in the distance the sound of the vistani caravans moving down forest paths heralds the return of one of D&D’s classic villains. Count Strahd von Zarovich of Barovia has emerged from his crypt, wrapped in a shiny new simplified 4th edition ruleset, designed specifically to create a fast moving board game experience.
The Castle Ravenloft Board Game is the first in a series of games using the D&D Adventure Game System. The rules are based on fourth edition, but everything has been extremely simplified. You start every game at level 1, there is no DM, and the dungeon is different every time, thanks to a Betrayal at the House on the Hill style stack of random dungeon locations.
The game itself is of extremely high production quality. The tiles and chits are printed on thick card stock in full color. Of particular note are the dungeon tiles themselves. The tiles are either a generic hallway space of some sort, or a specific place which may be referenced in the rules for the particular adventure you are playing. They are detailed, attractive to look at, and best of all feature jigsaw edges, allowing you to lock tiles together while playing. No more tiles sliding around!
The minis are molds already existing as D&D minis for the most part, though they are unpainted. Happily, they are the same size as D&D minis and can work extremely well in other RPG games if desired. There are also a few unique molds, including the heroes (which are quite attractive), and some of the monsters. My personal favorite is the Strahd mini, which features the vampire in a dramatic pose with his now signature blade. Other neat ones are the undead dragons and the zombies, which are way more exciting than the usual D&D zombie minis.
The remaining notable components are cards, which forms decks of powers, encounters, treasures and monsters. They are all full color, and very easy to read. The only downside is the lack of artwork on encounter cards. Some of the environmental encounters in particular would benefit from a small flavor illustration.
The game itself plays much like D&D, but extremely simplified. You move around, exploring the hallways of Castle Ravenloft, occasionally encountering traps and monsters. Combat consists of a single d20 roll, which you add your attack’s bonus to to try and hit. If your number meets or exceeds the target’s, voila! You can choose between at-wills and daily/utility powers. At wills function much like you would expect, while the daily and utility powers are single use per game. The damage numbers are very low, with the most imposing standard creatures generally sitting around 2 hit points.
One thing that is exciting for me in Ravenloft as a DM is that I can now get in on the action as a player thanks to the game being built around automatic monster behavior. Each monster has directions on the card, dictating to the players what the monster does in all possible situations. The favorite enemy so far at our table has been Klak, the kobold sorcerer. His behavior after we found him made the game become very intense very quickly, as his tactics involved quickly distancing himself from the players, running further into the depths of the castle and grabbing the attention of the resident monsters, directing them towards us. The end of that scenario resulted in a dramatic chase through the corridors as we tried to take Klak out before we were overwhelmed.
All in all, I would recommend this game based on a few things. Firstly, if you have ever been a Ravenloft fan, its almost a must have. It is the first time we’ve seen anything else in 4e based around Ravenloft besides the stat block for Strahd presented in Open Grave. I am a huge Ravenloft fan, both of the setting and of the classic adventures, and the existence of a game called Castle Ravenloft was almost all it took for me to pick it up. Secondly, if you have a ground of friends who enjoy Betrayal at the House on the Hill, and you want to either ease them into more complex, RPG based gameplay, or perhaps just show them what D&D is all about, this is almost a guaranteed success. The basic play is very similar to Betrayal, and yet it still feels distinctly D&D. It really is a great mix, and its surprising it took this long to see it. Finally, between the simple rules, fast paced gameplay, and occasionally harrowing moments when things just seem to go from bad to almost certain defeat, it is simply fun. Its satisfying to explore the Castle anew every game, and the variety of scenarios is excellent, even if there are only 15 in the box, two of which are solo experiences.
Grab your lanterns, and pray to your gods as you cross the threshold to that most memorable of Castles. Sharpen your sword, tighten your bowstring. Strahd has awoken, and he means for you to be his guest. Don’t go alone, and be ready for adventure.