A friend asked if a few of us would want to get together and spend an afternoon trying this out. He had just gotten it and was excited. I have to admit, being used to roleplaying games, I was not excited about playing a board game. I didn't think it would fill up a whole afternoon or really grab my attention like an RPG. I was wrong.
I love previous Ravenloft adventures and so I gave it a try, and I'm glad I did. We played with four players (the game can accommodate up to 5 and there is no GM), and ended up playing 4 scenarios which took about 5 hours total. I estimate a full game, if you win, will take about 60-90 minutes on average, however, it is a very lethal game and there is a wide variation on how long it takes to win or TPK. If you sit down for a session with a few friends, I would plan on playing for 2 hours at a minimum. This would give time for two shorter games or one very satisfying long game.
The Board Game vs D&D
Castle Ravenloft Board Game (CRBG) is modeled on the 4e D&D rules, but very loosely. The things you will recognize from 4e include "powers" (utility, at-will, and daily; no "encounter" powers); the classes and races of the heroes; and the basic mechanic with an attack roll versus AC, hit points, and healing surges.
However these are in many ways superficial similarities. First off the only die you will ever use in CRBG is a d20. Nothing else is ever rolled, it is only & always d20's. The game includes a d20, which handily always rolls 6 or lower for heroes and 19 or 20 for monsters, to make your life more interesting.
The other major difference is the nature of game play. This is a tile-based dungeon crawl game, which uses turn phases to govern play and keep the action moving. In this way it is truly a tactical board game and the feel is decidedly different than D&D. Things change rapidly and there are more surprises than in an RPG.
I would say - and I really want to stress this - even if you hate 4th edition D&D you might still love CRBG. Why? Because all the stuff about 4e that some people dislike - it's too much like a video game, etc. - makes for a GREAT tactical board game. The fact that you have limited, perfectly balanced resources of powers; tightly controlled magic items; superpowers that change the battlefield, etc has a terrific impact on gameplay. It is almost perfectly suited to this medium.
How it Works
Each player chooses one of the premade heroes. There are five by default (though I suspect there will be expansions) and you really must choose one of them, there is no char gen. The classes available are rogue, ranger, fighter, cleric and wizard. Each one has a race, a name and some pretty badass artwork too, but you may as well get used to thinking of them just as the classes because this is not an RPG. Their stats and available powers are what matter here. I think I am the only one of the four players who called my character by their name at any point (I made up a theme song for her).
Each character starts at Level 1 and can conceivably reach Level 2 during play, though this is rare. It is impossible to go higher than L2.
The first and most important thing to do is choose your powers. Each character comes with a deck of power cards and typically you get 1 utility, 2 at-will and 1 daily power. You can choose which ones you want from the deck (it isn't random draw) and this adds a nice element of customization and uniqueness to each character. The rules include suggested powers to choose if you have never played before. At least for the ranger, I felt it was a poor suggestion (I also played the rogue but just custom chose my powers).
Then it's time to start play. The goal of gameplay depends on which scenario you're running. The rules come with quite a few different scenarios, with a range in difficulty. Most scenarios involve playing until a specific room is found, which will trigger a final fight. The typical condition for victory is to defeat a boss monster and obtain a specific item, but there are others. My favorite scenario had a goal of collecting 12 treasures before a daylight timer reached sundown.
While the conditions for victory vary, conditions for defeat are fixed and rather steep. The group has two healing surges - two total, for the whole group - and if a hero reaches zero hp, they can use one of the surges on their next turn to resuscitate. If there are no more surges left and someone reaches zero hp? GAME OVER. That's right - the entire party loses if one team member dies. This is an AWESOME rule. It really changes the feel of gameplay. All the rules are oriented toward team cooperation and you will see that over and over below.
Once the scenario is chosen you lay down the starting tile, which is the dungeon entrance, and put your minis (included) on it. Gameplay then proceeds in phases.
PHASE 1: Hero Phase
The active hero (that is, the person whose turn it is) can either attack and move, move and attack, or move twice. Movement is limited by your character's speed stat and attacks are determined by your powers. There is no "basic attack" - but you have two at-wills so you can usually attack in some way if you want. Some attacks only work against adjacent creatures, some against any creature on your tile, and some against creatures one or more tiles away. Obviously if there are no monsters in play, you can't attack. This is the lot of whoever goes first.
PHASE 2: Exploration
If you have positioned yourself at the edge of a tile, you can now choose to draw a tile and slap it down to expand the map. (The ranger can do this from anywhere on the tile, not just at the edge.) Two things happen....
1) you draw a Monster who appears on the new tile
2) Some other effect happens as well, based on a colored arrow on the new tile. If the arrow is black, you draw an Encounter card. If it's white, something else happens depending on which scenario you're playing (for instance, the daylight timer advances, or you get to gain a new power). White arrows are fairly rare.
If an Encounter card is drawn, it is resolved immediately. Encounters are almost always bad. In fact, they are horrible. They generally present a much greater threat than the monsters, because they are unpredictable, happen virtually every turn, and frequently affect multiple heroes or the whole board.
But all that stuff happens only if you added a new tile. Remember how I said non-rangers can only do that if they ended at the edge of a tile? Well, if you didn't end at the edge of a tile, then you don't add any new tiles and you probably don't incur any monsters.... but you have to draw an Encounter.
PHASE 3: Villains
Once you've finished your exploration phase, monsters attack. Any monster that you "control" - i.e., that you were responsible for adding to the board - takes its turn. Almost all monsters can move at least 1 tile to reach someone to attack.
The ironic thing about this is that when you place a new tile (and thus a new monster) in your Explore phase, you have no chance to defeat it that turn. It gets to attack you on the Villain phase, and then you don't move again till the Hero phase of your next turn. This seems a little odd but it really only matters on the first turn, when there are no monsters to attack on your Hero phase. After that, people often spend their Hero phase dealing with the monsters activated by the previous player's turn. Again, this really reinforces the idea of team play. If you spawn 3 monsters on your turn, someone needs to save your butt before your next turn comes up when those monsters can act again.
That's pretty much it for the phases. Play continues like that, with each player going through the phases in order. If you defeat a monster you get to draw a Treasure, but no more than once per turn (thanks to various multi-attacks and area effects, you can defeat multiple monsters in your turn, it just doesn't up your treasure haul).
EXPERIENCE. You can also gain XP. Each defeated monster goes into an XP pile, having an XP value between 1 and 3. This is a group pool, not divvied up to those who killed the monsters. If a hero rolls a natural 20 at any time, the group can spend 5 XP to allow that person to level.
More importantly, anytime an Encounter card is drawn, the group can spend 5 XP to stop that card's effect. The Encounter is then just discarded. This is extremely useful, as some Encounters create traps that attack every hero in 1 tile in any direction for heavy damage, every turn. We decided early on that it was always, always worth it to spend the XP to throw such traps away. In general, our policy was to keep a "reserve pool" of 5 XP in case someone had a chance to level (this only happened twice in 4 games) and otherwise use all of our XP to prevent Encounters. Since you can rack up 5 XP in 2 to 3 turns, you can choose to throw away nearly 50% of the Encounter cards that come up, which is vital to your survival.
The Physical Thing
The game showcases typical high quality you'd expect of a contemporary D&D product. The pieces are printed in full color on a lush, heavy, super thick stock that I am confident will last a long time. This is true of every printed piece except of course the cards, which are thinner to allow easy shuffling (still high quality).
Of the printed pieces, I particularly loved the tokens that represent hit points. One side is gold and the other black, so that you can flip them over as you lose health to show your "empty" hit points. This was such a natural visual cue that I found myself making Zelda-esque sound effects as I flipped them, as if I was gaining or losing hearts in a video game. (Some of the others never seemed to get the hang of this, and would just discard their pieces back into the box as they lost hit points, and then fish them back out when they healed.... but I think that's just because my friends are a little special.)
There are also a large number of plastic mini's that come with the set, so many that my friend suggested it would be cheaper to buy the $65 board game than to buy an equivalent number of mini's. He's probably right, but the figures are all single-color. Most of the monsters are either bone white or raw beef red, and the heroes are all blue (I like to imagine this corresponds to the political parties of the heroes and the undead). I recognized early on that this made it very easy for us to see what was what on the board, but I still found it disappointing. The hero minis, which are individualized to match the art on the character card, should have at least been painted. They would have looked awesome and still stood out on the board from the monochrome monsters. Of course you could always swap out your own mini's to represent your hero, but it'd be nice if you got some beautiful new figs in your CRBG. Instead all you get are one-color dummies who, at best, can stand in as mooks in your normal D&D game and might just stay in the box instead.
The game has awesome gameplay in which fortunes change quickly. A group has a decent chance of survival if they learn to stay near each other (spread over 2-3 adjacent tiles) and not to add new rooms until killing off the existing monsters (to avoid being overwhelmed). We called this our "control the square" strategy and it worked well. Even with that, I'd say it's about a 50% survival rate. You'll lose as many games as you win. Players should go in knowing that and expecting it. To me, it added excitement. Since it's not easy to get attached to the characters there is a lot more appeal to testing yourself against an unpredictable meat grinder than there would be in an RPG.
Gameplay tends to move pretty quickly, metagaming is transparent and acceptable ("How many hit points does the skeleton have?"), and an Encounter card can suddenly teleport one of you 6 tiles away from the rest or cause the game to completely change.
Most importantly, I didn't find a way to "break" the game in 5 hours of playing. That's good for a board game. Take Scrabble for example. If you save your Q or Z until you get a triple word score, and you always put something down on a double or triple word score no matter how bad your letters are, you will always win against someone who doesn't do that. Always.
There is no win button in CRBG, at least not that I could find. There are strategies the group can use, as mentioned above, but the whole group has to stick to them and even then things can change rapidly. Our last game was our best game in terms of strategy but we died with only 4 of our 12 items collected.
It's also fascinating playing without a GM. The usual rules lawyering seemed to vanish, because there was no one to lawyer against, and if we let ourselves get away with stuff we were essentially just letting ourselves win like a 5 year old. We just naturally fell into a habit of not making ridiculous requests and not allowing weird interpretations.
For all those reasons, it's a solid 5 in Substance.
Because of the monochromatic heroes and monsters, and the fairly repetitive-looking dungeon tiles, it's only a 4 in Style.