Ravenloft, both the adventure, and the setting which surrounds it, have always fascinated me. Partially because of my well known love for the macabre, but also because everything about them has a kind of mystique which I find enthralling. The dangers of Ravenloft are always unseen, always shifting, and you never know where you’re going to end up. And Castle Ravenloft itself stands as a figurative edifice among dungeons. My mind’s eye imagines an endless maze of corridors, filled with every kind of danger imaginable. And at the end there is Strahd, a villain so legendary that he’s withstood almost 30 years of marketing and re-marketing without becoming boring.
At least, that’s my view, as someone whose never been so fortunate as to venture into Castle Ravenloft himself.
When I first saw that Wizards of the Coast had created an Expedition to Castle Ravenloft boardgame, it piqued my curiosity. And when my gaming group recently began experimenting with board games (we all very much enjoyed Hero Quest) I took that as an excuse to spend $60 on the game, so the group could have some variety. Last night was the first time we played the game as a group, and we ran through three adventures before calling it an evening.
The game is quite clearly based on 4th edition rules, which I personally found a little off putting, as I have a strong aversion to that ruleset. But even though it uses the terminology of 4th edition (daily/utility/at-will powers, dragonborn, elradin, etc.)the board game is none the less a fully self-contained product. And while my personal feelings made me a little uncomfortable talking about “healing surges” at the table, they function perfectly well as a mechanic for the board game. Even if I do not approve of their use in a tabletop RPG.
The basic premise of the game is very simple. Each player selects a character from the five which are included with the game. The characters all have a race and class, which determine which stack of ability cards they recieve. The players then take four abilities which they’d like to have access to during the game, plus one ability which is fixed and must be taken every time. The environment is created using a stack of dungon tiles with interlocking edges, which are shuffled and placed face down on the table. Whenever a player explores the “edge” of a tile currently in play, they take a new tile off the stack and connect it to the game board. When a monster is encountered, the player who encounters it draws a monster card, and at the end of their turn each round they must play the monster according to the tactics listed on the card. Each game session consists of braving the dangers of Castle Ravenloft to complete a specific objective, which you select from the adventure booklet before play begins.
The game is actually quite difficult. Groups who wander into the dungeon without understanding their own abilities probably will not walk out again. It also helps to have a thorough understanding of the game’s rules; during my playtesting session prior to getting the whole group together I nearly flipped the table because I didn’t realize I was supposed to be picking up treasure cards every time I killed a monster.
Most of the game’s difficulty comes from its manic pace. If a player does not explore any new dungeon tiles during their turn, they must draw an encounter card. Some cards summon traps or monsters, while other cards are spell effects which can damage or immobilize you. The worse encounter cards, however, are those with environment effects which remain in play until replaced by a new environment effect. Most of these effects are a severe hinderance to the party. Some cause damage when a player uses an item, or a once-daily ability. Perhaps the worst environment effect is the one which damages a player if they end their turn on the same tile as any other players, essentially forcing the party to split up.
The only way to avoid drawing an encounter card is to explore a new part of the dungeon, and when you do that you must place a new monster on the newly explored tile. So no matter what, each character’s turn creates a new complication for the party. Plus, some tiles have black triangles on them, indicating that you must draw an encounter card anyway! I must acknowledge the elegance of the design. Since the number of dangers encountered rises with the number of players, the game automatically scales up and down for whatever number of players you have at the table.
Not everything about the game’s design is quite so elegant, unfortunately. My group quickly implemented a number of house rules to combat some of the game’s ridiculousness. For example, we combined the “Hero” and “Exploration” phases of each player’s turn. In the basic rules, players must first do all of their moving and attacking, and only then can they choose whether or not they will add a new tile to the board. That means that if you begin your turn by moving to a tile’s edge, and exploring, then you cannot attack the monster which appears there until your next turn. Apparently every monster in the dungeon has the element of surprise.
We also changed the rules for leveling up. According to the manual, once a player has collected 5xp worth of monsters, then the next time they roll a 20, they may discard those experience points, and flip their character sheet over to the “level 2” side. This is a nuisance kind of rule. In both session of the game where we followed that rule, it ends up with every player sitting on 10 or 15 experience points, waiting for a fucking twenty to come up. Instead, we allow each player to level up immediately upon reaching 5xp.
We’ve changed a few other minor rules here and there, but those are the two largest changes I think.
I am intrigued by the possibilities for expanding this game. It only comes with a handful of adventures, but there’s no reason that we couldn’t come up with our own adventures for the game ad-infinitum. And that’s not even to mention its sister games. Expedition to Castle Ravenloft uses the exact same system for play as two other D&D Board Games: Legends of Drizzt, and Caverns of Ashardalon. The games could easily be mixed together to add a larger variety of monsters, treasure, encounters, and adventurers.
As a final point, I have to mention the miniatures. As a GM, I refuse to use miniatures for anything but PCs. But, for those who do like to have more ornate monster representations on the battlefield, the minis included with this game will be a significant bonus. They’re very nicely creafted plastic, and come from the same molds that official D&D miniatures have come from in the past. And there’s so many of them! Enough, I think, for every monster card in the game to be in-play simultaneously.
Without question, Expedition to Castle Ravenloft is worth the remarkably cheap $65 price tag. Any criticism I have for the game is minor, and the amount of fun I’ve already gotten out of it in just a few weeks is impressive. Plus, even if you don’t like the game, your purchase won’t be a total loss, because you’ll have miniatures to play with.