Review – Castle Ravenloft

Castle Ravenloft

Designer: Rob Heinsoo, Peter Lee, Mike Mearls, Bill Slavicsek  (2010)
Publisher(s): Wizards of the Coast
# of Players: 1-5
Ages: 12+
Play Time: 60 minutes
BGG Rank/Rating: #194/7.05
Category: Gamer’s Game

This review originally appeared in issue #4 of the thru-the-portal magazine.

Castle Ravenloft is the first in what promises to be a series of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) themed boardgames which use a simplified version of the 4th edition D&D rules. Now, I’ve played D&D off an on for over 25 years, but was still a little hesitant about whether to pick this game up until I heard that it was actually a cooperative game, and that it was playable solitaire. So, what got me to pony up my money was the idea of a cooperative dungeon-crawl game with opportunity for solo play, a rather unique entity in the larger genre of dungeon-crawl adventure games.

I’ve played it several times since then, and I have some pretty strong feelings about the game. But before I get to that, let’s start off with a little discussion about how to play the darn thing.

Game Basics (click here for complete game rules)

From a materials point of view, Castle Ravenloft is pretty impressive. It comes with a big stack of dungeon tiles, a lot of cards, several types of tokens and counters, and a metric crap-ton of plastic miniatures (42 of them, to be exact). Personally, I’m pretty happy with the components, but a lot of people online complain about the bland art on the tiles, the lack of art and general low quality of the cards, and the uninspired art direction of the whole game. I think that everyone agrees on how nice the minis are, though, even if I did choose to replace most of mine with similar models from the pre-painted D&D Miniatures I already owned (which you’ll see in most of the pictures included in this review).

The rules are 15 pages long and look very nice, but I found them to be far vaguer and at times confusing than they should have been. Part of my problem stemmed from assumptions that I brought with me from D&D and other similar games, but the rulebook could have been written a lot better to head off a lot of the issues that I (and others) have had. I know that they were trying to make it ultra simple for those with no D&D experience, but a little extra explanation would have gone a long way to make it clearer.

In order to set up the game, you have to first choose one of the 13 scenarios and do a little bit of work to set up the dungeon tile stack and find the right tokens as indicated in the scenario. Each player gets to choose a unique character, make some choices about which specific powers it will use throughout the game, and place its miniature on the start tile (most of the time, anyway). Then you just shuffle up the three different decks of cards (monsters, encounters and treasure) and get started.

On each player’s turn, there are three different phases. In the Hero Phase, they get to move and attack, attack and move, or move twice. Most of the time, players will use one of their character powers to attack a monster or do something else that’s pretty cool in this phase. To attack, you usually roll the 20-sided die and add the modifier from your attack power, and if you meet or exceed the monster’s Armor Class, you deal damage to it. When a monster has received enough damage to kill it, its card is placed in an experience point pile and you get to draw a Treasure card.

If the player is lucky enough to roll a natural 20 on the die, they may spend 5 experience points from the common pool to level up their character to 2nd level, which gives them a new power and some slightly improved stats. Since it’s a short-form game with no campaign play at this point, characters can’t advance beyond 2nd level.

Next is the Exploration Phase. If the character is next to an unexplored edge of the dungeon map, you draw the next dungeon tile from the stack and place it next to the character. A new monster card is then drawn and its miniature is placed on the new tile. The monster card itself is placed in the play area of the player who drew it.

The final phase of each turn is the Villain Phase. The first step in this phase is to draw an Encounter card if the tile just placed contains a black triangle or if the player did not explore a new tile this turn. Encounter cards are always bad (usually at least as bad as a new monster, and they don’t provide treasure or experience in most cases). The only good thing is that you can choose to discard 5 experience points (if you have enough) to cancel an Encounter card once it’s been revealed.

After possible drawing an Encounter card, any Villain (boss-level monsters defined by the scenario) in play will activate, followed then by certain other monsters. One of the really cool aspects of this game is how they “programmed” the monsters to act. On each monster card, there is a little algorithm that you read from bottom to top until you find a circumstance that applies. For instance, the first line on the Skeleton card reads “If the skeleton is adjacent to a Hero, it attacks that Hero with a Scimitar,” so you look to see if the skeleton is next to a hero, and carry out the attack (roll the die and compare it to the hero’s AC). If it’s not next to a hero, then you read the next line, “If the Skeleton is within 1 tile of a Hero, it moves adjacent to the nearest Hero and attacks that Hero with a charging slice” and carry it out if it applies. The last line on the card is always the default action for the monster (if nothing else applies), which is usually to move towards the closest hero.

All monster cards in the current player’s area will activate in the order in which they were placed. The evil thing is that if any other player also has the same kind of monster in their area, it will activate at the same time as the active player’s monster. So, when the skeleton activates, every other skeleton in play will activate as well. Clearly, it’s always a priority to eliminate duplicate monsters.

Players go around the table taking their turns until the game is won or lost. Winning conditions are always defined by the scenario, which occasionally also includes special losing parameters as well. But the default way to lose is to have any player be at 0 hit points (“dead”, I presume) at the beginning of their turn and have no remaining Healing Surge token available to revive them. The entire group only has a total of 2 Healing Surge tokens to use throughout the game, which allow a hero to regain half of their maximum hit points if they are still dead at the beginning of their turn.

Most people who rave about Castle Ravenloft frequently tout that it’s always done in an hour. That may be true for some of the more straightforward scenarios, but most of my games have probably lasted more in the 75-90 minute range, with some taking upwards of 2 hours.

What I’ve found is that while the simple scenarios are quick to play, they also fall into a rut very quickly. It’s almost always more efficient to explore a new tile every turn (since most of the scenario goals are tied to finding a certain tile), which means that you see a new monster every turn. And because of the order of the turn, it always means that the new monster will have a chance to attack the exploring hero before they can do anything about it. Then the next hero attacks that monster and explores a new tile, revealing a new monster, which attacks them, and so on and so on.

The more advanced scenarios mix things up a little bit with different layouts for the dungeon and by adding in additional rules for placing monsters, but what I’ve found is that adding in the cool twists to expand the play experience also tends to add more time to the game. And since the game is still so simple at its core, it doesn’t always hold up well to longer play times.

What I Think…

I’ll get to my final thoughts in just a minute, but let me start by discussing a few things that have tripped up some of the people I’ve played this with. First of all, Castle Ravenloft is not really “D&D Lite”. Well, I guess it sort of is, but people who walk in with the expectation that it will provide a very similar experience to “real” D&D will probably be disappointed by how much it has been simplified and tweaked. Most of the tactical decision-making and miniature-combat elements that you get in recent versions of D&D are totally lost here, and it can be confusing when powers have the same name as powers in the RPG but do very different things.

You’ve got to remember that Castle Ravenloft is, first and foremost, a cooperative game. Most of the confusion that I and others had when learning the game stemmed from trying to make it be something that it isn’t by adding in more tactical complexity or roleplaying aspects that simply aren’t there. If a player is allowed to make a choice (like where exactly to place a monster when it moves, for example), then it should be made in the best interests of the player, rather than in an attempt to bring more realism (i.e. “what the monster would do”) into the game (as long as you’re still following the letter of the law in regards to rules or text on the cards, of course).

Unfortunately, as a cooperative game, I don’t know that it’s all that compelling. Mostly, that’s because it’s too easy, with my experience being that a group with any experience at all will usually survive the average scenario with Healing Surges to spare.

And while I really like the customization that you have when you choose the powers for your character, the structure of the game actually hinders character specialization quite a bit. As I said earlier, the most efficient way to play in most cases is just to explore a new tile every turn, but the wizard character (with its AC, hit points and powers) would normally be one to hang back and deal damage from a distance. So to play the wizard to its strengths and thematic nature is actually at odds with doing well in the game, which kind of sucks.

There are, of course, still several opportunities for players to strategize about how to handle situations, especially when it comes to the villain or main challenge of the scenario. And synergies still exist about when and how is best to use the characters’ powers, but in my opinion, they are far more constrained than they should be.

It’s much prettier with painted minis…

On its surface, Castle Ravenloft seems like it would have oodles of replayability, what with being modular, scenario based, and having some level of character individualization. But to me, every game feels pretty much the same as every other. Again, it goes back to the rut of continually exploring and the rigidity of each turn. So you may say, “Then do something different, stupid!” But the problem there is that not falling into the rut means that you’re probably not playing as well as you could, and that you’re extending the game, which isn’t really that much fun either.

One of the main reasons that I picked up Castle Ravenloft was for the possibility of playing it solitaire, and for the most part, it does well on that count. The actual scenarios designed to be played solo (i.e. with one hero) don’t seem to work all that well (I don’t think that the game is really balanced for just one character to be played), but as with most any cooperative game, it’s very easy to just run multiple characters at the same time and play the game as designed.

A lot of this review sounds mostly negative. And in the big picture of how I feel about Castle Ravenloft, I’d have to say that overall I’m a bit disappointed in it. But on the other hand, most of the times when I’ve played it, I and the others around the table have had quite a bit of fun. I like the cooperative games as a whole, and the ease of setup makes it very attractive when a longer or more involved adventure/dungeon-crawl game would be difficult to pull off.

And while I don’t think that experienced D&D players will really be satisfied with the game, I do think that it could be an excellent tool to introduce the basics of the RPG and its setting to a new player. I could see lots of school-age boys just eating this up, which could then feed directly into an introduction to real roleplaying. And one of the coolest things about cooperative games in general is how easy it is to bring in new players (since you can help them play their turns until they get the hand of it), so I’d definitely say that this would be a great game to introduce to new boardgamers who have any interest at all in its fantasy theme.

The “real” Strahd mini (from the collectible minis game), which wasn’t included in this game for some unknown reason

This review is based on the game as packaged by Wizards of the Coast, but I think that it would be an oversight if I didn’t mention the online community surrounding this game. There are already lots of unofficial scenarios, monsters, heroes, and rules variants available on BoardGameGeek and other places throughout the internet, with more being created all the time. I’m very eager to try out some of these fan-created resources (especially the ones that address my issues with the game), and when you consider the potential for all this wealth of creativity, the replayability of the game really skyrockets.

So to end, I’ll go back to where I started. The thing that brings me back to Castle Ravenloft is still the fact that it fills a niche almost completely untouched by other games in the genre. I especially like the Ravenloft setting, I love cooperative games, and I like the option to play solo. So at least until something better comes along to meet these needs, I will continue to appreciate and enjoy this game for all the things it is, rather than hate on it for all that it is not.

The Verdict!

Castle Ravenloft has a lot of potential to fill a very interesting niche in the cooperative and dungeon-crawling boardgame settings, but ultimately is a little too disappointing for me to recommend wholeheartedly.

  • Rules: Easy to pick up, once you get past your own assumptions and the horrendous rulebook 
  • Downtime: Very little, since it’s coop and turns go so quickly
  • Length: “About an hour”, which usually turns more into 90 minutes for me.  And it does tend to wear out its welcome by the end a lot of times.
  • Player Interaction: It’s cooperative, and I’ll agree that there are lots of ways to actually cooperate and plan/help each other.
  • Overall Weight: Medium Light
  • GamerChris’ Rating: 6 (on the BGG 10-point scale)


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