I am a big fan of the board game Descent: Journeys in the Dark. It’s a “dungeon crawl” game, which means that the players each have a hero who moves around a dungeon map, exploring rooms and corridors and fighting monsters and finding treasure. Descent has a ton of variety in the characters and their powers, and a pretty slick combat system, and my game group used to play it all the time—I say used to because the game relies on pre-designed scenarios, and we eventually realized that none of the scenarios were properly balanced. Sometime the heroes would win, and sometimes the evil overlord would win, but the games were never close and the winning team was usually obvious from very early on. We’re still looking for ways to balance it, but it’s been months since we’ve played because we just got disillusioned; it’s fun to play, but the games are long and the imbalance makes our accomplishments, or lack thereof, feel hollow.
The trouble is, we love dungeon crawl games, so we’ve been searching far and wide for a replacement. Last Night on Earth fills a similar niche, as a zombie survival game that really feels like you’re playing a zombie B-movie, and we love it. If you like zombies, you should definitely check it out. But there’s something iconic about the fantasy dungeon, and sometimes you just want to be a wizard or a barbarian and beat up monsters with a magic sword. Then a few months ago Wizards of the Coast, the company that owns Dungeons & Dragons, announced a new dungeon crawl game set in the D&D universe, and using a simplified form of the D&D rules, and I was intrigued. The current version of D&D is already very close to a board game anyway, so the mechanics would translate well; on the other hand, if we’re going to play D&D anyway, why not just play the real game? Would the new boardgame fill the niche that Descent used to fill? Would it capture the quick, goofy fun we wanted from a boardgame, without crumbling under balance issues or bogging down in source material baggage?
In a word, yes. In twelve words, Castle Ravenloft fills that niche better than any game I’ve ever played.
Castle Ravenloft is superior to other dungeon crawls because of two main things: its quick, almost abstract simplicity, and its full automation. First, the quickness: a game of CR takes about 10-15 minutes to set up, and about 60 minutes to play. That’s really fast for a boardgame, and blazingly fast in a genre that includes 4-hour epics like Descent. It does this by abstracting a lot of things such as line of sight and monster movement—you can figure out who can attack who with just a quick glance, and there’s no need to agonize over details. This takes away some of the deeper strategy and theme you get in a game like Descent, but leaves you with a light, often frantic adventure with plenty of action. Sometime the bookkeeping of a more detailed game is fun, but sometimes you want to forget the details and get straight to the good stuff. Castle Ravenloft does that perfectly.
The other thing that sets CR apart is the full automation—in most dungeon crawl games there is a specific scenario already mapped out, and one player controls the bad guys instead of a hero. Being the bad guy is fun, but it invites all the balance problems I was talking about earlier, especially if the pre-designed map is out of whack. CR uses a fully random tile-laying system, which not only avoids the balance issues (since you don’t have to rely on someone else’s map and hope they tested it for fairness), but makes the game far more replayable. Every time you play a scenario the dungeon layout will be different, different monsters will arrive in different places, and the game feels new. The monsters all follow simple tactics, so you don’t even need someone to control them, making it a fully cooperative experience: the players against the game. After several games I can say that the game engine is tough but beatable, which makes it challenging and exciting.
What has me most excited, honestly, is the prospect of future additions. The game is complete on it’s own, and Wizards of the Coast is releasing new games, also complete, that use the same system, so you can combine them for an even bigger experience.
Castle Ravenloft is a blast, and incredibly essay to learn and play—though often quite difficult to win. What more could you ask from a boardgame?