Saturday, January 21, 2012

Impressions of Castle Ravenloft (Avalon Hill/Hasbro)

Recently I came across a new cooperative game related to Fourth edition (4e) Dungeons & Dragons, Castle Ravenloft.  The game lets each player act as a novice 4e character, complete with hit points, armor class, and at-will, utility, and daily powers.  There are replayable scenarios for 1 to 5 players, with the opposition governed by simple rules related by cards drawn from specific decks.

For $50 the contents of the box are quite impressive.  There are several dozen unpainted plastic miniatures in various colors representing the five player characters, undead, typical dungeon denizens, a flesh golem, and the huge dracolich.  There is a large stack of roughly 4 x 4" heavy cardboard interlocking dungeon tiles.  There are several decks of cards.  And there are lots of other heavy cardboard pieces such as hit point markers and character cards.

Gameplay in Castle Ravenloft is very tactical and decisions offer only a few choices.  To a considerable extent you can say the same thing about 4e D&D, though the intelligent opposition from a referee ought to make a huge difference.  When the opposition amounts to what the monster(s) do when you draw cards the simplicity is not surprising.  The number of hit points for each character is much lower than in actual 4e D&D (e.g. 6 for the wizard), and each hit point is represented by a cardboard marker.  You can customize your character though your choice of powers.  There are five different classes, but no way for a group to have two of the same class.  You can even gain second level, though this is unusual.

When you fight a monster it generally inflicts two hits when it succeeds and one hit when it misses.  Everyone on a tile fights all the monsters, and all take damage, so there isn’t maneuver doesn’t amount to much, other than which tile you’re in.  If you move to the edge of the “board” you draw a tile and one kind of card to see what you encounter; if you are anywhere else (probably fighting a monster) you draw a different kind of card.  Adult players can be frustrated because some of the cards simply inflict damage on everyone, regardless of location.  This moves the game toward a conclusion, but does not seem “fair” or real.

The party has two healing surges, plus some of the characters have healing powers. The game ends when one of the characters in the party dies and there is no healing to bring them back into the game, or when the objective (such as unmaking the Draclich) is achieved.

A five player scenario takes more than an hour.

Cooperative games without human opposition have become quite popular.  I’m sure there are many reasons for this, but one is that such games are essentially puzzles, and they rarely have much gameplay depth to them (as is often the case with puzzles), so players don’t have to concentrate/think hard, even if they’re playing solo.  And of course when they’re playing with several other players then the truism “two heads are better than one” means they have to think even less.

I suspect this game is aimed at non-adults, though I saw it at a college game club.  It looks great but there really isn’t much to it.  Like many games nowadays it offers variety but not depth.  Compared to real D&D there’s little if anything to recommend it, other than no need for a referee/DM.  Those who have never played a fantasy RPG may well find it much more interesting than those who have.

It’s a cooperative game.  It’s good-looking, and clever for what it is.   But what it is, is a game for 10-15 year olds, or for adult game players who want to play a youth-like game, for adults more a time-waster than a mental exercise.

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