Castle Ravenloft is Dungeons & Dragons for the rest of us. Assuming I count as “the rest of us.”

Castle Ravenloft
Until a couple of weeks ago, I’d never played Dungeons & Dragons. I’d done a couple one-time-only sessions of other role-playing games, and I’d played a couple of the computer games that use the “official” rule set, but I’d never played through the real thing. That kind of puts you at a disadvantage when you work in games, when you have to smile and nod and pretend to understand when somebody’s talking about THAC0.

Over New Year’s Eve and then later, I was in a local game store, and I found myself strangely drawn to the shelf with the Castle Ravenloft board game. It’s like a gateway to the real Dungeons & Dragons game: you can get a simplified and streamlined dungeon crawl without having to set up characters, do all the prep work for the campaign, and get a big group of friends together.

Plus it comes with a whole bunch of figures, including a huge skeleton dragon monster thing. And it’s got my first-ever 20-sided die. I’d be lying if I said that didn’t factor into my buying the game.

(Incidentally, as soon as the cat saw the 20-sided die, he just went apeshit. He knocked it off the table, chased it all around the living room, kept rolling it over and over. I’ll never know if the cat was already a nerd when I got him from the shelter, or if I turned him into one).

The way the game works is that you choose a (pre-generated) character, pick some starting powers, and then lay down randomly-drawn tiles as your characters explore the dungeon. With each new tile, you draw cards that spawn horrible monsters that try to kill you, or random events that try to kill you. Each move makes more and more terrible stuff happen to you, until you finish whatever adventure you’re playing or you die.

It’s pretty tough. I can’t tell if I just needed to get used to how the game worked, or if I’m just too used to videogames that are obsessively balanced, but I got slaughtered the first couple of times I tried it out. In theory, any character you choose in WoW or Diablo is equally capable of finishing the game; in Castle Ravenloft, you’re doomed if you don’t have the cleric. We were finally able to beat the game with a party of three characters, and eventually, tonight, I managed to win solo.

I do realize it’s nothing like a real game of D&D, but occasionally I just get the urge to go through a dungeon and lob some magic missiles at skeletons. And there’s something undeniably appealing about the board game version that you can’t get from Neverwinter Nights and the like. Sometimes laying the cards out, moving the little dudes around, and rolling a die are more appealing than any number of particle effects.

There’s another board game called Wrath of Ashardalon that’s due out next month. I’m not sure how it’s different except that it comes with a big red dragon and presumably different “stories.” Hmm, I wonder if I’ve just hit upon the entire Dungeons & Dragons business model….

5 thoughts on “Initiative”

  1. When I was a kid, I used to play a D&D like board game with my brothers. Not the one you’re talking about, though. There was a board that was always the same, and a book full of different places for the enemies to go depending on which scenario you picked.
    The characters were pre-made as well. I seem to recall always picking the dwarf because he could detect traps, so every time I entered a room, the DM (always my eldest brother) would have to show where all the traps were in that room.

    I wish I remembered what that game was called. It was really nice. Anyways, I haven’t played much real D&D either. Actually, I was regularly reading at least 5 D&D webcomics before I played my first game of the actual tabletop RPG.

    I think the conclusion here is clear: board games are awesome. Yours sounds pretty good too, I’ll take a look at it if I get a chance.

  2. I’m psyched for Castle Ravenloft – I think it is probably with Descent, in that category of board games that hit that D&D nerve more precisely than D&D does…go into a dungeon and kill monsters.

  3. @Jeff: Yes! The name didn’t ring a bell (maybe it had a different name in French? Or maybe I just didn’t remember it) but this video is DEFINITELY it. I remember the boards, cards and so on… certainly don’t remember any of the monsters being red or anything, but for all I know my brothers painted them all, I remember they were into painting miniatures.

    EDIT: I’ve just done a bit more checking to find the French name. Well, Dragon Strike was never released in France, however Heroquest, which is apparently a simpler version, was. That’s definitely the game. As soon as I saw the name, I thought “YES! YES!”, and pictures I saw corroborate that.

    Thanks so much for helping me figure out what that game was.

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