Board Game Review - Castle Ravenloft

This might be the least timely review ever written. By this point, every other reviewer alive has chimed in about Castle Ravenloft. It was one of last year's biggest releases, and everyone had to talk about it and argue about it and disagree about it and either proclaim it the best game ever created, or call it a heaping pile of rabbit pellets. And while all that was happening, I found myself completely unable to get a copy, so that when I do finally get around to reviewing the game, I might as well be reviewing checkers.

However, thanks to Noble Knight Games, I finally have a copy of the latest big hitter in the dungeon crawl game category, and so I can now tell you why I will be playing it for a good long time, and why I am now even more upset that it will be several months before I can get a copy of Wrath of Ashardalon.

If you've been living somewhere outside a Tibetan monastery for the last six months or so, you've probably already read half a dozen reviews about Castle Ravenloft (in fact, you have probably already decided whether you want a copy). So you probably already know that it's a fully cooperative game where you go traipsing around inside Count Strahd's gloomy house, investigating corridors and rooms and being attacked by an incredible number of monsters while looking for loot. You have characters ripped right out of Fourth Edition D&D, like a dragonborn fighter and dwarf cleric, as well as a variety of unfriendly inhabitants who will pop out and hurt you.

Given the wealth of knowledge available for Castle Ravenloft, I'm not going to bother describing how everything works. You can't swing a dead lolcatz without hitting a review of the game, so I'm positive someone has told you how you draw cards and roll dice. Besides, that stuff is boring. Instead of being boring, let's just skip right to the good parts and the bad parts.

A fully cooperative dungeon crawl is hard to create. The problem is, a dungeon master is able to make monsters act tricky, and prescripted monster reactions make them predictable. And that means that instead of a tactical game, it becomes almost a puzzle game. You'll find yourself attacking less attractive targets just because they're on the right tile, or killing silly rat swarms because the treasure might let you level up.

But just because you know what the monsters are going to do, that doesn't mean the game isn't tense. The game is not very hard to win, and that's why it isn't tense. I grant you that I've only played three times so far, but we never had any trouble winning. We had fun, and wanted to play more, but we never really had a moment where we said, 'holy crap, we're all going to die!' Maybe future adventures get a little more difficult, but so far, we have sailed through them.

Another problem with Castle Ravenloft that might make it less fun is that it lacks some of the feeling that you're playing out a story. It's a little too technical and dry, and just doesn't ooze theme the way I want it to do. Every attempt has been made to pull a tale of derring-do and dark adventure out of the randomized tiles and plastic miniatures, but that story is at odds with the game itself.

For instance, you're going to draw a monster on every tile. You know this. If you don't draw a new tile, you're guaranteed to have to draw an encounter card, and then something bad will happen to you. Again, you know this. And so rather than a story or tactical battle where you're sneaking through a dungeon, you wind up with a game where you're pushing forward, trying to clear out one tile before you pull another, ignoring some traps because you won't need to pass that tile again, or arranging your miniatures to best exploit your various powers. It just doesn't create a cohesive story.

Another blow against the story is the fact that your characters cannot improve from one dungeon to the next. You start every adventure at first level, and maybe reach second level before you're done, and then the next time you play, your ranger forgot all the crap she learned last time. That shoots a hole right through the middle of the story. I like a game where each adventure feels like another step on a path, where every villain I destroy is just one step closer to the final confrontation. The scenarios build toward the eventual hunt for Strahd, but it feels like anyone could do any of them whenever they want (mostly because they can).

Story or not, however, Castle Ravenloft is fun. It's fun to tromp through a dungeon, discovering room after room, hacking away at zombies and ghouls and giant spiders. Traps pop up and shoot spears at our heroes, and scary mists roll through the hallways, making us soil our trousers and cry for our mothers. It may be a tad academic, but it's all dungeon romp, all the time.

And unlike my favorite dungeon crawl game of all time (which would still be Warhammer Quest), there is more to do than just cut things. The first adventure had me scrambling to escape the castle, and the second had us searching for the lost icon of Ravenloft in an overrun chapel full of monsters. In the third, we battled a very unfriendly kobold sorcerer and destroyed his infernal device. Other adventures have still other goals, and the game is full of specialized markers and tokens that afford you the chance to do something besides maraud from room to room and kill things (not that there's anything wrong with that).

Another strong point in Ravenloft's favor is that it is pretty darn sexy. The art is great, and the miniatures are straight out of the D&D miniatures game (though they don't have paint). There's even a huge scary dracolich, which is a cross between a dead wizard and that mean kid from Harry Potter. The tiles look neat, with piles of bones and altars and coffins and stuff, and the game has a decidedly polished look. No rookie designer built this game, I'll tell you that.

Now, in my completely biased and unfair opinion, any dungeon crawl game that wants to compete has to measure up against Warhammer Quest. And while Castle Ravenloft does some things better than my favorite game, it has downsides. Where Warhammer Quest really feels like a tale about a group of warriors battling through a dank dungeon to defeat ancient evil (or maybe just rat-people with bad hygiene), Castle Ravenloft lacks some of the flavor. The option to improve from game to game is one of the greatest things about Warhammer Quest - that, and the non-stop, fast-paced action. While Ravenloft moves very quickly, and affords the players lots of choices to make, you're going to start every adventure with a first-level guy, regardless of how long you've been playing.

There are a few other reasons that Warhammer Quest beats Ravenloft, but they're very small. I like Warhammer art, for example, and I've never been able to sign off on some of the silliness of D&D (dragonborn being one good example). On the other hand, Ravenloft offers a much wider variety of game, with lots of different games coming out of just the one box. Combat is actually faster than Quest, and it's a tighter game with a lot less accounting and record-keeping. While I am not persuaded, I could definitely see where a gamer might think Ravenloft is actually better than Warhammer Quest. I know which one I prefer, but it's awfully close.

Finally, Castle Ravenloft has an incredible amount of staying power. Never mind that there's already an expansion (not really, of course - Ashardalon is a stand-alone game, but it provides a lot more toys to throw in the toybox). Once you play all the scenarios in the box, Ravenloft provides enough doodads and widgets for an enterprising game nerd to create nearly any kind of adventure he wants, without having to buy anything beyond a pen and a sheet of paper. When you can play the same game twenty times and still never play the same thing twice, you're getting your money out of your investment.

So now you know why I totally dig Castle Ravenloft, and why I will be playing it a lot more, even though I still have Warhammer Quest regularly calling to me from the shelf where it is stored with reverence and pride. Sure, it took me a long time to get a copy and write a review. Better late than never, I suppose.


1-5 players

Great adventure game
Lots of options and tons of replay
Incredibly slick production
Fast and easy to play, with slick rules that are easy to resolve

A little dry
Characters don't get better between adventures

Castle Ravenloft is already priced to be a deal, considering how much awesome is in the box, but if you want to save even more, Noble Knight Games has it right here: