Review of Wrath of Ashardalon – courtesy of the Superfly Circus

Review by: Pete Ruth (courtesy of the Superfly Circus)

[Editor’s Note – I’ve definitely wanted to make sure that we considered all types of games here on the Opinionated Gamers – from time to time, I would like to bring in guest writers with well written reviews.  These new Dungeons and Dragons board games have always interested me — though Castle Ravenloft didn’t capture my imagination as I hoped that it would (after 2 plays).   This review, from the Superfly Circus, is a review of an advance copy of the next game in the series — Wrath of Ashardalon.  I haven’t played it yet, but since Pete lives quite close to me and was lucky enough to get an advance copy, I’m hoping to get in a game in the near future!   Welcome to the OG, Pete!  Dale]

Dungeons & Dragons: Wrath of Ashardalon Board Game

Designers: Peter Lee, Mike Mearls, Bill Slavicek
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Players: 1-5
Ages: 12+
Suggested Playing Time: 60 mins

Review by: Pete Ruth

I was not always a Wizards of the Coast fan, oh no, not by a long shot. I despised them for putting the final nail in the coffin of my second true love, Heroscape, and I thought, like a woman scorned, I could never forgive that indiscretion. Then came Castle Ravenloft. I was more than a little skeptical, reading about how it lacked theme and was somehow not up to the lofty standards set by other Dungeon Crawl games. I was one of the last adopters of the first wave of Ravenloft sales, still thinking that it would somehow not meet my expectations. Now I know I was wrong, and I have forgiven Wizards, although I may never forget the death of my beloved Heroscape.

Castle Ravenloft impressed me with not only the incredibly smart rules, excellent components, and fun gameplay, but with its flexibility as a game system. I’m not going to go over that here, because it has been said before with electron-beam precision before (see the link at bottom of page). Suffice to say that I found it quite justifiable to commit some heinous felony in order to fund the purchase of it, if need be. It’s an exceptional, refreshing game that I thoroughly enjoy; so much so, in fact, that I just completed my painting project where I’ve spent the last week’s nights enrobing my Ravenlofties with a silky coat of luxurious Apple Barrel paints. The only other game I was compelled to do that to was Space Hulk, just for the record. In short, to quote a friend, “If you don’t like Ravenloft, you may be an idiot.” I stand by that idiom, even though I, in fact, was an idiot, at least initially.

So, when a magazine I write for was offered up an advance copy of the second in the Dungeons and Dragons Board Game System family, “Wrath of Ashardalon”, I jumped on it like a man on fire jumping into a pool. It recently arrived, and not unlike a five year old child on Christmas, I tore that bad boy in a timeframe normally reserved for atomic activity. My immediate disappointment that I would again be spending the next few weeks painting Wrath figures was tempered by the fact that I would be playing Wrath that very evening with my lovely and godesslike wife. Good times, folks. Good times.

Some of the tiles that you use to create the rooms in the game

While many have complained that Castle Ravenloft lacked theme, where I disagree wholeheartedly, Ashardalon goes further in almost all ways, with the exception of the dungeon tiles. Where in Ravenloft you had many special one-tile rooms, such as the Arcane Circle, in this game there are almost all generic tiles, and some large multi-tile rooms that are combined to make large lairs such as the Horrid Chamber and Dire Chamber. That being said, they’ve added so many new mechanics to these new tiles, such as the door. These doors have special chits that are laid across the open door image on the tiles to indicate a door that is closed. In gameplay, this makes a tremendous difference in the feel to the game and the thrill of opening a door to find terrible, nightmare creatures that want nothing more than your impending doom and ruination. Then, besides the door, there’s some new chits that turn the generic tiles into useful rooms.

Examples of some of the new chits

For instance, instead of a “Chapel” tile, there’s an “Altar” marker you can place on any tile. Same with the Vast Ritual Gate, which can be used as a teleporter of sorts. Then there’s the treasure! This game now supports items that can be purchased in between adventures if you so desire. Bought, you ask? I didn’t stuttutterrr, boys and girls, I said bought. The game now has gold, jewels, and…a new car! Well, no new car, but now you can not only find useless trinkets, you can also find awesome sauce by the 55-gallon drum, such as the Crossbow of Speed, a +2 Magic Sword, and the Elven Cloak. Each of these new items are cards in the Treasure deck versus the Adventure Treasure deck as they might’ve been in Ravenloft. Further, each has a gold value listed on the card for purchasing between, or before, adventures. This only builds on the open system that Ravenloft began, and I, for one, welcome my Dragon masters.

Promotional picture from WotC showing all the components

Cracking the box open, you’ll find five new Heroes to play, a Dragonborn Wizard, a Human Cleric, an Elf Paladin, a Half-Orc Rogue, and a Dwarf fighter. These are actually cooler than the Ravenloft figures, and their Power cards are more clearly written, especially regarding the Cleric. Next, delving further into the box, are 13 sheets of Ashardalony goodness, loaded with new stuff such as new, improved treasure tokens and markers, new traps such as the Poison Dart Trap and Lava Flow Trap, and a great many other markers and chits. There’s even new effects, Poisoned and Dazed, which can happen if you ingest some bad mushrooms or if your Hero is hit by certain creature or trap types. There’s also a bunch of monster markers, similar to Ravenloft’s generic ones, but these all are specific to the kinds of boss monsters that come in this set, so you can literally pre-load rooms with monsters to create theme and narrative whilst crafting your sinister adventures. There’s also the new “toolkit” stuff, such as a shield marker, markers that you can place in-game as effects, such as caltrops, walls of blades, and other powers, and then on top of those, there’s villager markers, gold/treasure markers, and a variety of other items and bits to implement in your own adventures or to use with the existing 13 adventures in the Adventure book. Finally, there’s a crapload of new miniatures that are far more varied than in Ravenloft.

The Otyugh - one of the new villains in the game

There’s a big red Dragon, which was to be expected, but now there’s a lot more interesting critters to slay with no regard for their litter of demon spawn, such as the ever-beloved Beholder and the Otyugh, which is the equivalent of how many perceive their Mother-In-Law to be. There’s an Orc Shaman, a Drake that gets more powerful as you beat on it, a Kobold Dragonlord, and all kinds of other nasties. All in all I am very impressed with the collection of stuff in the box, and they went above and beyond my expectations with all this new stuff. When you combine all this stuff with the Ravenloft stuff, you’re talking about being able to craft amazingly deep, narrative, complex adventures and campaigns that will keep you entertained for years. To top it all off, Wizards just announced a third sister to these tantalizing twins, The Legend of Drizzt, so we’re talking about nearly 140 figures, 30+ sheets of tiles, and more cards than a poker room at the Mandalay Bay. I simply could not be more excited about the epic Dungeon Crawling that I will be doing in 2011, and that’s a fact.

Now to the really new stuff that makes this so much better than its predecessor: the new decks. Besides the normal Encounters, now you have Hazards, which are persistent effects that, like Traps, cause bad things to happen to you, but can’t be disarmed. Then you have Curses, which are semipermanent effects that happen to the player’s Hero when pulled and last, generally, until you pass a die roll check or kill something. These are nasty as hell, and are simply no fun when you pull them.

Next, there’s the purple-backed Adventure cards, which act as an AI for Non-Player Characters in the game, so you can account for guiding them through a dungeon or out of a dungeon, depending on the scenario. This is the single most awesome thing that has been developed for this system because it allows you to create far more interesting scenarios than you ever could with Ravenloft, and that’s saying a lot.

Moving on, there’s the Boon cards, which are a neat new type, although there’s only six of them. These cards are given at varying times, in a scripted manner, when the players do something amazing, like killing a major menace to society. These allow you to skip pulling certain types of monsters and draw new tiles without monsters. Not a real…boon…to the game, but I can see them being useful to dungeoneers who wish to create a campaign.

Finally, there’s the Chamber cards. These cards essentially allow for scripted, interesting adventures because they give specific instructions regarding tiles and monsters to place, and furthermore, give you what I can only describe as objectives. Essentially, when you pull a “Chamber Tile” which is specially marked on the back, you must draw from the Chamber Deck. This then scripts the final showdown’s events, how to place the monsters, and what you’re looking to do. This new mechanic is a godsend for those who wish to make cool, compelling adventures without having to put in a ton of effort.

Now that you know what kinds of happy stuff is in the box, let’s look at how the game plays. I’m into Wrath of Ashardalon 5 adventures deep now, and I’ve already got the wheels churning on how I’m going to build my next Campaign for this awesome game system. This plays almost identically to Ravenloft, so there’s not a lot of new learning you’re going to have to do if you want to jump into this, but if you, like me, were a Ravenloft Denier, then you definitely want to get Ravenloft before it goes out of print. Anyhow, enough about my aspirations and onto the game.

The idea of the game is that one to five adventurers has to romp through a dragon-infested cavern system, hunting the King Dragon, Ashardalon, while saving villagers, recovering artifacts, helping a little person find his gear, or my favorite, laying waste to an entire room because it’s “mysterious”. Essentially, each turn you will be asked to explore a new tile when you’re at a tile’s edge, which boils down to placing a new tile and drawing a new monster to inhabit that tile, or potentially having an Encounter, which means drawing an Encounter card and resolving the effect. This game is just as nasty as its predecessor, and all manner of bad things will happen to you.

Gameplay is the same in virtually every way to Ravenloft, so I won’t belabor the specifics on how to play. I invite you to look at my Castle Ravenloft review, in which I detail how to play, and the link is at the bottom of this page. The long and short is that the monster AI system in this system is so profoundly good that I hope to see it mimicked in the future by all other Dungeon Games. The fact that there is no single person to play against, or to “run” the game, is what I believe makes this an incredibly enjoyable experience. All the players must work together to accomplish the objective-based missions or all players will fail. One of the key aspects to this game is that teamwork is absolutely required since if one Hero falls in battle, all Heroes lose the game.

Combat is both card- and dice- based, with each character having Powers to play, some of which are persistently available and some that are one-time use, and the combat is resolved by a dice roll. If your roll, plus bonuses, are equal or greater than the enemy’s armor rating, well, he’s going to get smacked. The damage and/or effects caused by the weapons or spells are constant, and are printed on the card, so if you do hit, you’re more than likely going to do damage to the monster. Some found or bought items help with either the damage you do, the chance to hit, or both, and these are mountains and oceans better than the Ravenloft items, as I noted before.

Some of the item cards you can acquire in this game

Another note about the game is that it has some backward- and future- compatibility built into it. Three of the Power cards for the Heroes are now “Racial Powers”, meaning that you can use the Dragonborn’s “Hurled Breath” Utility Power on Ravenloft’s Dragonborn Fighter, you can use the Dwarf’s “Dwarven Resiliance” Utility Power on Ravenloft’s Dwarf Cleric, and finally, you can use the Half-Orc’s “Furious Assault” Daily Power in any future expansion’s Half-Orcs.  This means that the entire game system is now, truly, tied together by racial powers. Very exciting, indeed!

The long and short on Wrath of Ashardalon is that it’s everything that I hoped it would be, and more. It fixes all but one of the things that I disliked about Ravenloft, which were the prepainted miniatures, and it absolutely does everything that I loved about Ravenloft better. Standing on its own, I have to say that it is a better buy than Ravenloft, but that being said, once you play this, you’re going to want Ravenloft too. I hate to say it, but I even like this better than my Holy Grail Game, Dungeons and Dragons Fantasy Adventure Boardgame, in all aspects other than the fact that game had so many awesome dice to toss. This is just a better game than any other Dungeon Crawl system that I’ve played, be it Dungeonquest, Warhammer Quest, Clastrophobia, Heroquest, Dragon Strike, Tomb, and especially the expensive and bloated Descent. This does everything I want it to, and nothing I don’t. Just a great, wicked great game, guys. What more can I say.

What Makes Ashardalon So Damned Hot:
*Everything about Ravenloft, plus….
*Campaign rules make this an ongoing slaughterfest, not a one-time thrill kill
*The characters and bestiary for Wrath make for a very interesting adventure, every time
*Treasures worth fighting for and items that make a difference are SO awesome

Why Ashardalon Sounds Like “I Shart A Lot”:
*Still no painted minis, and now I have to paint these too…
*Items from Ravenloft have no price tag, so there’s a small backwards-compatibility issue

Some of Pete's painted minis from Castle Ravenloft...

Overall: I love it!
If you don’t like Ravenloft, you may not like this, because the two games are a lot alike. That being said, it’s deeper, both thematically and strategically, and the game is just downright fun to play. Those who found Ravenloft too shallow, I maintain, are not seeing it for what it is: a game system that allows you to not only play what’s been printed in the book, but that allows you to create epic adventures on a grand scale if you so desire. If you want a game where you need no thought or creativity, try Container; I hear it’s a hoot. If you want to slash and incinerate fiends and fell beasts until your boots are soaked to the knees with blood of differing shades, then Wrath of Ashardalon is what you’re looking for.

Comments from other Opinionated Gamers:

Frank Branham’s thoughts: I’ve played it once, and it is very close to the original Castle Ravenloft game in basic structure. The first one felt fairly samey in terms of how individual missions ran. Especially deadly to the overall lifetime of the original is the basic play model of “kill the monster the last guy just spawned, then explore” which drove the game.  Looking at the changes, I THINK they have worked out ways to break this up. Encounter cards, doors, monsters, are all designed to bring more monsters onto the board. Powers, treasures and monster behaviors are distinctly more interesting. The idea of a chamber deck is genius, and provides a strong element of surprise to the final boss confrontations in most scenarios.

The campaign mode actually looks fairly uninteresting. The game doesn’t really support character growth in any serious way, and so this aspect pales even to the character advancement of a good adventure boardgame like Prophecy or Runebound. It doesn’t even begin to approach the sophistication of its RPG cousin. The rating of Love it is tentative. Ravenloft dropped in my view over time, but this one seems to deal with most of my issues with the original.

Rating: I love it!

Matt Carlson’s Opinion: I’ve only begun to explore the second game in the D&D Boardgame Adventure line (I’ve played a number of games, but few of them the actual game, see below!*).  I enjoyed Castle Ravenloft as a quick dungeon crawl with a minimum of rules and setup overhead.  It also has the bonus of being a cooperative game, which I enjoy.  However, despite the random generation of dungeons and several different scenarios available, gameplay often seemed to have a very similar feel throughout the game.  Each turn was attack, explore, reveal a monster, rinse, and repeat.  Only near the end of a scenario did some variety appear.  In the meantime it was a sort of whack-a-mole as players tried to stay a step or two ahead of any monsters that were revealed.  Wrath of Ashardalon manages to keep everything that Castle Ravenloft did right (cooperative, thematic, quick dungeon crawl) and improve a few things along the way.  With chambers, long hallways, and doors appearing within the dungeon tile stack, dungeons seem to hold more variety.  The NPCs enrich the theme while adding to the players’ challenges.  I also prefer the monsters included in Wrath of Ashardalon, as they seem to be slightly more varied than the primarily undead-themed ones found in Castle Ravenloft.  Both games are good and would fall in the OP Gamer “I like it” scale for me, but while Castle Ravenloft was bordering on a “Neutral” scale for me, Wrath of Ashardalon is securely in the “I like it.” camp, pushing close to the “I love it!” score.  If you want to try out the D&D Boardgame system I recommend trying Ashardalon first.

***I’ve only played Ashardalon solo, but I’ve played WITH Ashardalon many times with my 4 year old son.  As an OPG writer with a kid-game focus I thought it worthy of mention that Ashardalon is currently my son’s favorite game, primarily due to the very nice collection of figurines included in the game.  We both take creatures (he gets about two thirds of them) and line them up across the table from each other.  We then take turns rolling the 20 sided die and any roll greater than a 5 scores a hit on the opposing player’s troops.  (This is great practice for recognizing his numbers up to 20 – although the 6’s and 9’s are pretty tricky.)  When all my troops are gone, I lose (duh – I gave him 2x the figures.)  What makes it worthy of mention is how I’ve snuck in some additional rules to make things interesting for myself.  I quickly declared any roll of 20 causes two hits, and also decided the dragon figure takes two hits to kill.  (The first hit just knocks him down.)  Since then we’ve even upgraded to minions (you can protect a favorite figure by putting some in front, they have to be taken out first) and whenever I roll a “1” I give myself a critical miss and lose another figure.  Sure, it doesn’t have anything to do with the official game, but I’m getting nearly daily use out of a game I’d otherwise need several months to play through.

[Ed note: Thanks again to Pete for allowing us to republish his review!  If you enjoy his writing and would like to see more, he regularly posts at his blog, The Superfly Circus!]

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6 Responses to Review of Wrath of Ashardalon – courtesy of the Superfly Circus

  1. Pete Ruth says:

    Frank and Matt, check out the adventure that I’ve created for Ravenloft, then apply the lessons from that to what CAN be made to get away from the “find a tile, get jumped, then next guy in line smokes that monster/rinse/repeat” mechanic.

    http://superflycircus.blogspot.com/2011/01/castle-ravenloft-adventure-hunt-for.html

    It’s brilliant if I do say so myself….and I do! (I am, however, biased). Play it through and then you’ll see what I am saying about flexibility within the game.

    Also remember that the “campaign mode” is VERY weak, but it is adventure-dependent and thus anyone can come up with their own rules, which is clearly sanctioned by the design to be allowable.

    Good write up, boys.

  2. Matt J Carlson says:

    Pete, I’d seen your review and mention of your adventure over on BGG, but hadn’t looked at the adventure yet. Just checked it out and there are some nice points. It does involve even more setup time than normal, but that is probably a fine trade-off for a more thematic experience.

    However, the statement that “anyone can come up with their own rules” is very true, but not really something I consider when judging a boardgame for review purposes. I’ll admit that, in the D&D Adventure system case, the game is more intended for player-“designed” expansion than in other boardgames we discuss here at OpG. While your player-designed campaign does have some interesting options to avoid the “flip the tile and fight the monster” repetition, the basic game(s) as written don’t have anything similar. I’m forced to evaluate them without that style of play.

  3. Doug Adams says:

    Good review. Played the new one twice and everything they’ve tweaked seems to improve it, and make it tougher. I love the system, and simple-yet-challenging AI.

  4. Pete Ruth says:

    Matt, the setup isn’t bad at all to begin with, and only takes maybe 5 minutes or so if you’ve played it a couple of times and bag your shit up properly. Playing my adventure extends that immeasurably (to 10 minutes!), but adventures like that really make the game shine.

    I’d argue that reviewing a game for what it is, while fair and earnest, is shortsighted at best in some cases. It works fine for a cube-pusher because there’s not a whole lot of imagination that you can insert into it; you open the box, and it is what it is. With a light RPG that was designed, from the ground up, purposefully, to be built upon by users in the long tradition of D&D is a bit like measuring a car’s handling at high speed by driving it 40 miles an hour on a straight flat road.

    Normally I’d be 100% in agreement with you. Cosmic Encounter? Is what it is. Agricola? Is what it is. Some games, though, don’t fit into a neat little box, and you have to measure it with the thought in mind that the game is designed with a purpose in mind: to not only provide an entertaining adventure as written in the rules, but as a system to create your own worlds.

    Last Night on Earth had this quality, to some degree, and while it was a solid little game to begin with, the fact that it included myriad wee bits to extend the lifetime and experience of the game simply could not be overlooked. I submit that the D&D Adventure Boardgame system has this quality, and it could not, in fairness, be looked upon as “just shit in a box”. There’s more to it, and I recognized it, hence my reviews’ emphasis on this fact.

    If someone’s not an RPGer, or never was an RPGer, stick to games that don’t require imaginative design. This game, or family of games is NOT for them. I hear Container’s nice! :)

  5. Pete Ruth says:

    Oh, and Matt, I love the Science Theater. I’d love to see something on electrolysis – my 9-year old just aced her science fair project on the subject of electron exchange through mild acid electrolyte (you guessed it, the magical potato-light experiment).

    It’s funny, but there’s relatively little information about it available in a digestible format. That being said, I actually anodized a handgun in my backyard using 100% Sulfuric (Liquid Fire Drain Cleaner!), a pie tin, and a battery charger. =)

  6. John Enfield says:

    I love to read novels about adventures, especially D&D ones. However, I’ve found that I seem to lack the level of stick-to-it-iveness to play (and certainly not nearly enough to DM) a D&D RPG campaign. It’s just way too complicated with way too many sheets, rules, books etc. Now that WOC has the ability to change the rules all the time on a website, it’s simply impossible to keep up with for me.

    That’s why I’ve been a bigger fan of the D&D strategy game DDM. It only has two books (one for the basic Battles Game and one for tournaments). Instead of sheafs of character sheets, you have a single stat card for each creature in your warband. We’ve been making “Dungeon Runs” and scenarios using DDMGuild’s rules for some time now. These dungeon runs (which are like a campaign boiled down to just the most exciting parts: killing monsters, rescuing maidens and finding treasure) have been my favorite form of D&D. At least up until Castle Ravenloft and Wrath of Ashardalon came out. I’m a long-time player of other board games and really enjoy them.

    These two new D&D board games remind me a lot of the DDMGuild dungeon runs but with the added bonuses of the interlocking tiles, event cards and such. I’m also enjoying painting the minis in these games. Many of them are “remakes” of earlier minis from other sets, but I don’t have all of them already (plus there are some monsters that it’s cool to have several copies of) so I don’t mind. I love that each player is both in control of heroes and monsters and of the “A.I” of the game. This takes the burden off of only one person being expected to “run” the game and keep the story unfolding while the other people are busy breaking it and picking it apart with all sorts of weird hero actions and decisions.

    I love what Matt Carlson said about making a 4-year-old friendly version of the game for his kid. It’s a lot like DDMGuild’s Battle Rules only with fewer attack types and simpler rules. I’ve played a simplified version of Battle Rules with kids too, when I’ve found that the regular rules are too confusing for them.

    Great review! Nice to see a writer who can overcome their prior gripes and give a new game from a company that has “burned” them in the past a chance.

    BTW, Heroscape is not dead. Just because WOC/Hasbro can’t be bothered to make new stuff for it doesn’t mean the game is no longer fun. Just check out what other fans have done with it at sites like heroscapers.com. Same goes for DDM. It isn’t dead either, it’s also being run by the fans themselves and continued at sites like ddmguild.com and hordelings.com

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