Monday, January 10, 2011

Castle Ravenloft - Why It's Justified To Commit A Felony To Fund A Purchase Of This Game

I'm starting to realize something about myself and my reviews, and it's quite enlightening. I've come to understand that what sets me apart from other reviewers is that I actually play a lot of a game before reviewing it, generally; at least 3 times per game, and almost always with different people. Many other reviewers seem to think that an opinion can be formed by a single play, and many reviews are rife with assumptions and, in many cases, errors. Maybe that's why I have almost ten thousand reads of my article (that I can track) over the entire internet with all of my syndication partners. I'm truly happy to have you as a reader, and it's because of you guys and gals that I put my life on hold for 4 to 6 hours every Sunday to review games for you fine folks in order to help you sort the chaff from the wheat.

Let me begin this review by noting that I initially thought this game was mediocre at best, and that it didn't have much in the way of compelling gameplay. I thought it to be too mechanical, with many other dungeon crawl games being far superior and thus found myself wondering why I would want to purchase a game like this with such other, better, games out there on the market. Then, like a bottle of Smirnoff to the head, it hit me. I had an epiphany of epic proportions regarding Ravenloft that changed my mind entirely, and now I realize that this game system is far superior to almost all of its peers in the genre. It's not because of the bits, although the bits are tip-top. It's not because of the mechanics, really, because they are fairly bland and a little wonky at first. It's because this game has such an amazing host of possibilities in creating scenarios and has such an open architecture that you can create, and are encouraged to, add house rules to it that are scenario-specific.

I don't know why I didn't see the beauty of this game in the first 15 plays. I think it's because, to be fair, the built-in scenarios are really not that interesting, and they do not take advantage of the mechanic that I have discovered in scenario building which really is what makes this game such a fucking gem among the ore that's out there today. I realized on Saturday night that by stacking the decks in a specific order, you can create an incredibly compelling narrative within the game and create a true D&D-worthy adventure for you and your friends to participate in that evokes strong feelings of fear, terror, and ultimately, supreme satisfaction. My only regret is that I didn't realize this until so recently.

I know, I'm putting the cart before the horse. You're asking yourselves, "Pete, what the hell are you talking about? You haven't told me dick about the game yet, so how can I understand what you're talking about until you frame the former comments in a context I understand??" Well, let's get into that, shall we?

The concept of Castle Ravenloft, from a 10,000 foot perspective, is that up to five noble adventurers are compelled to head to the land of Borovia, which is home to Castle Ravenloft, roost of the dread vampire Count Strahd. This "world" was envisioned back in 1983, in an Advanced Dungeons and Dragons module named 'Ravenloft'. Anyhow, this update of the theme has adventurers roaming the catacombs of Castle Ravenloft in search of adventure and riches beyond imagination, although they generally will find nothing but vile beasts and death.

It's an atypical dungeon crawl in that it has Space-Hulk style interlocking tiles that are mostly placed in a random order, meaning the game is different every time you play it. Every aspect of the game is set up from the scenario you choose to play, where certain items are listed to be in play or certain tiles pulled from the stack and placed at key locations. Generally, a 'goal' tile is placed nine to twelve places deep within the random tile stack, and when the players reach that goal the endgame begins. There's no scoring in this game, and it's an Ameritrasher's dream in that there are only two states the game can end in, which are total victory and the utter destruction of the heroes.

The box is very large in depth but the standard bookshelf design as far as length and width. Inside are a virtually endless sea of chits, unpainted plastic miniatures, a boatload of cards, and a crapload of incredibly well produced interlocking dungeon tiles. Also within is a very, very short rulebook and an equally miniscule adventure guide, which serves as the blueprint to play scenarios which do little more than get you accustomed to the concepts of the game. While not precisely telling you so, you are compelled to want to create your own scenarios, and this is where the game's true shine emits from. Suffice to say that the art is very nice, and while some people call it bland, it is not so in my humble opinion. The cards themselves do not have much art on them at all, and there are no magical weapons depicted anywhere, really. There's no shiny armor.

The cards are, in fact, all text-based, with the exception of the monster cards which have a hand-drawn image of whatever creature that the card represents. While some see this as a shortcoming, I think that it leaves things to the imagination, which is par for the course with D&D, so it's actually quite thematic to have omitted the pictures. Anyhow, everything is of the highest quality regarding construction, and you will certainly not be disappointed.

My only beef with the entire box is that the miniatures are unpainted versions of existing Dungeons and Dragons Miniatures Game minis, and I'd have rather paid 100$ for the game with painted minis than have to try to go out and source them from a singles retailer or paint them myself. That, my friends, was a typical Wizards "Fuck You, Consumer" move that should not be easily forgiven. So, in response to that, "Fuck You, Wizards, you cheap bastards." The smart play for them would be to release a "Ravenloft Upgrade" package for $50 that has all of the miniatures for the game in it. I would jump on that like a recently-released inmate on a prostitute. I've always liked Wizards, and Ravenloft hasn't changed that, but this again makes me wonder who the hell is driving the sales force over there.

Anyhow, the setup is completely determined by the scenario you choose to play out of either the book or your head, depending on how much effort you wish to put in. The common factors, though, come down to each player picking a character and selecting the skills they wish to use for this game. The skills are cards from a character-specific deck which have three classes of powers.

Two of the powers, the 'At-Will' types, are essentially your hand-to-hand or ranged weapon powers that you can use over and over again. The other cards, though, are generally one-time use powers that may be recovered by winning the ability to do so through a lucky treasure down the road. Each player also gets one Treasure Card at the beginning of your game, which may or may not be helpful. In all cases, though, the "dungeon tile" stack gets placed within reach, and a starting tile of some sort is placed in the play area, with each players miniature put thereon.

There are several stacks of cards which need to be set out and shuffled: the Treasure deck, the Monster deck, and the Encounter deck. There's another deck as well, the Adventure Deck, but that is generally reserved for cherry-picking certain items out of if certain scenario-based actions happen. Personally, I like to shuffle that deck right into the Treasure deck for general consumption because the Treasure deck is mostly comprised of very small one-time boosts where the Adventure deck is where most of the weapons and "items" that you'd want to actually carry with you are located.

Gameplay consists of each player taking their two actions, which are either to move and attack, attack and move, or move twice. Once they've done these actions, if they are on a tile that has an open edge and they are standing on that edge, they add a new tile. If they are not standing on an unexplored edge, then they pull and resolve an Encounter card, which are ALWAYS very bad news.

Also, if a player pulls a tile with a black arrow icon on it when they pull a tile, they place that tile and then pull an Encounter card. In all cases, though, when a new tile is pulled, a player must pull a Monster card, place the miniature on the skull pile icon in the newly placed room, and place the Monster card in front of them as they now control that monster. After you've resolved the Encounter card, Tile pull and subsequent Monster card, or both, you must then activate any monster types you control, in the order you pulled the card that controls them.

Each monster has a specific script that it follows, and this is simply the most brilliant boardgame AI system I've ever seen. It's far superior to the Dungeon Twister 2 AI method, although it is similar. In short, each monster has its own personality, and the monsters were all done very, very well. This mechanic alone will be copied by all other dungeon crawls, if we're lucky, because this was the one stand-out design triumph that I noticed from play one to today. It's, simply put, flawlessly designed and executed.

Another Dirty McNasty aspect of the game is that the Encounter cards almost always attempt to mercilessly curb stomp the players by placing traps into the dungeon, causing very bad events to occur, placing "auras" into play that affect all players and in some cases all monsters, or generally enact some other form of fuckery. The word "Encounter" doesn't normally mean "something very bad is about to happen to you" in life; I mean, you could "encounter" a beautiful woman who wishes to perform sexual favors on you, right? Not in Ravenloft. Bad stuff ALWAYS happens when you have an "Encounter".

Maybe it's just the fact that stunning, nymphomaniacal women don't generally hang out in a vampire-haunted crypt, but either way, I dread pulling these cards, to the point of irrational terror while playing the game. In all the failures I've had, Encounters were the prime target of my ire postgame because they always seem to just plain 'hate on you' at every turn. So, yes, I am man enough to admit that I hate, and I do mean HATE, Encounter cards. Hate them. Oh, do I hate them. Grr.

Traps, as I noted before my minor rant, can come about by the hated Encounters (grr...) and these are generally one of the nastier varieties of nastiness that the Encounters can cause. They're nasty because they always come into play right where you're standing, and the fact that you've pulled them means you've already taken your turn and are about to have to resolve the traps, along with the monsters, so you're about to get messed up in a major way. These lovely traps are fireballs, spears, crossbows, smashing walls...all kinds of bad stuff. The good news is that on players' turns, they can attempt to disarm them by a die roll, and if you've played the 'Rogue' character, you have a 75% chance of success in doing so. Traps are activated just like monsters, luckily, so only one player will activate it, and most traps only affect players on that tile during activation, although a few have a ranged effect.

Combat with monsters is all resolved by playing one of your power cards, and every single aspect of the game is resolved with a D20 roll, so this is no different. The short version is that you roll the D20, add your power's modifier, add any treasure modifiers, and compare against the enemy's armor class. If you equal or exceed that, you hit him for the set amount of damage listed on the card. If you hit the enemy hard enough to exceed its hit points, it dies. You keep the monster card, which is taken from the controlling player, and it earns the hero team an experience amount as listed on the card. The player who dealt the killing blow also gets a Treasure card for their trouble.

Speaking of Treasure cards, I should explain why I'm not a big fan of them. Most of the treasures in the game are not treasure items, but rather helpful effects that can do things like heal a character a little, or allow you to look at the top three Encounter cards and rearrange them to your liking. There are a few "+1 Sword of Ballbusting" type items, but most of the real goodies in the game are in the Adventure Treasure deck, which is a separate deck altogether that generally isn't used. My advice to you is to take that deck and mix it into the regular treasures, because it really feels more like an adventure when you find cool stuff. The other aspect is that the Adventure Treasure deck has a different back, so it will be known when a cool treasure is about to be found. What I like to do is take that card and place it under the next monster that is pulled, and when that monster is pulled, the slayer takes that card as his treasure in lieu of pulling from the Advenure deck.

Experience points are of an odd sort in Ravenloft. They can be used, when five are amassed, to cancel an Encounter card or to level up a character. These experience points are shared among the entire team, so they build up fast, and are spent even faster. To level up a character from level one to level two, the player who wishes to level up must roll a natural 20 on any roll they make and may spend five experience to do so. This is the weakest mechanic in the game, and as such you will not see this happening more than five percent of the time, statistically. The bump you get from leveling up is pretty much a one armor class point boost and a couple of hit points, with one additional special power being revealed. The physical difference is that you simply flip your cardboard character sheet over to the opposing side, and now you're a level two character. There is no level three, so once you're boosted up, that's that.

Now that you understand the basics of how to play, let's explore my initial point about Ravenloft. The magic of the game, in my opinion, is that it is so open ended that it leads you to the proverbial water and lets you drink as much, or as little, as you wish to. You can play an out-of-the-book scenario, or you can craft amazingly intricate, immersive scenarios to play. You can use random tiles, cards, and cookie-cutter rules, or you can have all hundred-and-fifty-or-so cards and all forty tiles in a specific order with scenario-based rules for each tile to make this a true-to-D&D adventure of epic scale. It's a grand sandbox to spill as much or as little blood into as you wish, and for those of us who are creative enough to see the merit within this system, this game is phenomenal.

I will be publishing a scenario that I came up with on Saturday Morning, which is a 2-part adventure, and even as simple as it is, it's far more engaging and challenging than the out-of-the-box scenarios which might lead you to believe that the game is less interesting than its potential enjoyability truly is. Keep an eye out for it here or on, if you're interested.

The long and short, in closing, is that this game that I initially thought was a short-sighted epic failure turned out to be one of the best, most immersive, dungeon crawls I've played to date, and I've played a shitload of them. Don't let your first couple "learning" plays dissuade you, and once you've got ten games in and really, really understand the game's core concepts, pace, and flow, try to come up with some bad-ass scenarios on your own that fit your expectations and group's style. That's what makes this game magnificent, really. I just wish I hadn't publicly scorned the game so much, because now I look a little bit like an asshat for it. Honestly, though, that's what makes me a decent reviewer: I play the subject game a lot, and I'm not set on an opinion until I feel I know the game well enough to review it. And sometimes, I need to have an epiphany.

What Makes Castle Ravenloft An Amazing Summer Home:
* Theme drips from this game like urine from a kid who has seen a vampire
* The simple core rule set makes this approachable and learnable in a very short amount of time
* The art, while not DaVinci, is quite nice and appealing
* The sandbox architecture of the game makes this an amazingly agile game system

What Makes Castle Ravenloft Look Like A Shit-Filled Outhouse:
* WTF, Wizards? You already had the molds and small Chinese hands to do the painting...why are the minis unpainted???
* There has not been an AEG/Alderac-style aftermarket "painted miniatures" pack released to fix the aforementioned oversight
* The Treasure deck is mostly loaded with shitty items and one-time-use crap

What a great game! I wish I'd seen the light earlier, but I had been so indoctrinated by other dungeon crawls that I overlooked the sandbox aspect. The only downside, which really isn't that big of a deal, is that the game ships with unpainted miniatures, which it should not have. This game should be an auto-buy for anyone who even thinks they MAY like dungeon crawls. It can actually appeal to a person who only likes Euro games as well, because the mechanics are so simple that even a Container disciple could get the game without blowing a circuit and having to chant "Tikal, Tikal, Tikal" to save them from flipping the light switch on and off seven times in a row to save the planet from imploding.

4.5/5 Stars

To read more about Castle Ravenloft, check out WoTC's dedicated site:

And they've got NEW scenarios, downloadable and free here:

If you were offended by my use of cruder language and/or my making fun of Eurogamers and people with OCD, tough shit. I've played nice for the last 4 months and I'm finding it's not nearly as fun to write, nor read, my articles and since I do this for the enjoyment, I've decided that political correctness will not make me another casualty of the American Thought Wars of the 21st century. Learn to take a joke and laugh a little; statistically, happier people live longer.


dferg said...

Just found your site via Board Game Geeks. Enjoying the reviews thus far....

Would love to see you write up a list of the top ten list of must-own games.... Maybe by RPG/Euro/American categories.

=+=SuperflyTNT=+= said...

Awesome sauce! Glad to have you aboard!

I plan to do a "top ten" list, but I want to do it mid-year because of the advent of the games that came out in late 2010 that I haven't yet got my paws on.

dferg said...

Sweet! Look forward to seeing the list. Meanwhile I will keep tuned in here.

Btw, what do you know about the next D&D board game in the cycle: Wrath of Ashardalon?

Does it look to be the same theme as Ravenloft boardgame?

Kitten Mew said...

You are a skilled writer man, you carry off enthusiasm very well and genuinely.

I don't want to discourage your writing, because getting ones work out into the world IS what life is all about it. However, the inmate and the prostitute's not a question of someone being offended by their political correctness, it's a question of the unironic childishness of it (to pull of crudity requires maturity), and think about how it reflects on people who play these games: Stuff like that makes D&D gamers seem like socially inept retards, not rebels sticking their fingers up at political correctness!

Stop me if I've jumped the gun, but are you deliberately trying to be edgy and/or offensive? It'll only seem forced if you do. It may attract a different type of reader, but it will lose you 'stuck-up pedantic' types such as myself =P

Anyway, as I said, I would *never* discourage a person from pursuing their creative goals - just my attempt at constructive criticism.

=+=SuperflyTNT=+= said...

I'm not a hipster who concerns himself with being ironic. The analogy was perfect: As someone who knows many people who've done time, the two things that every one of them wanted when they got out were, in this order:
1. Some ass
2. A drink

So, me saying that I'd be on something like a released inmate on a prostute indicates that I'd really like it. A lot.

I could've said "a man dying of thirst on a Pepsi Max" but the inmate/whore thing was the first thing that came into my mind.

You see, I don't "try" to be anything. I don't even know what "edgy" is supposed to mean other than a nice euphamism for a poseur who's trying to sound hard.

Well, I am me. Everyone who knows me knows that I'm a crude, loud, funny, and arguably, dashingly handsome cad. I'm a rugger, a shootist, a martial arts enthusiast and practitioner, and I revel in being me, damn the sails.

So, it is what it is. I'm glad you enjoy the blog, though, and I appreciate your constructive criticism. If you enjoy it, continue reading. If you can't handle the bleeding eyes, try Rumpus Room. Nate's a good guy, and I'd argue he's Stephen King to my Joe Lansdale.