Castle Ravenloft...

One hobby that I haven't indulged in as much as I'd like to lately is geeky board-gaming. I still play the occasional game of Settlers of Catan, or Cards Against Humanity, but every once-in-a-while I get the hankering for a game that involves moving minis around a board and stompin' monsters. I still remember getting a copy of Hero Quest as a kid, which forever after made Monopoly seem positively quaint.

A couple of events over the past month re-kindled my interest in these games. First, a buddy introduced me to a very cool, if devilishly brutal, board game called Kingdom Death: Monster. Second, our family moved to a new town where I discovered that I live just a few blocks away from a table-top gaming store (Heretic Games).

I've been particularly interested in 'cooperative' games, where the players either work together against some ultimate objective, or otherwise take turns playing both pro- and antagonists [1]. Perusing my local shop's wares, I came across a game called Castle Ravenloft, which scratches a certain classic D&D nostalgic itch.

Ravenloft has a pretty cool set up. You form a party from between one and five of the playable heroes and explore the dungeons below the Vampire Lord Strahd's eponymous castle (yes, you can 'solo' the game, which is great when you're the father of a baby and don't get out much). Rather than a board, you shuffle a number of room/corridor tiles into a stack and build out the dungeon as you explore, leading to a unique layout with each play session. The game is played over a series of 'adventures', each involving swapping in special tiles/items/monsters into an otherwise default pool and varying the specific victory conditions in order to keep things interesting.

As the dude at the store remarked, however, the game is tough: the is deck firmly stacked against the players [2]. Exploration is a war of attrition - uncovering new rooms activates new monsters who always get a free attack on the exploring hero. Conversely, failure to explore (in order to defeat monsters, heal party members, etc.) provokes random events that themselves can be utterly devastating. Ravenloft's overall strategy involves a trade-off between being thorough in exploration, taking time to carefully defeat foes and traps, versus making steady progress before insane random dungeon events whittle down your health. If you succeed, it's often by the skin of your teeth. 

A few neat aspects of the game bear mention: First, monsters follow 'AI' routines via a series of if/else if/else statements and exploiting these behaviors is part of the strategy. Second, the game uses the D&D concept of experience gained from defeating foes in an interesting way. While you can spend it to buff your characters, you can also 'pay' experience points in order to avoid encounters entirely - often a necessity in order to survive. Finally, Ravenloft has a built-in difficulty setting in the form of extra lives, called 'healing surges'. When a party member is defeated, the player must spend one healing surge token to recover ~1/2 their hp. Otherwise, the game is over for everyone [3]. The default option gives the party two surge tokens, but you can begin with up to five if the challenge is overwhelming. It's a nice, organic way to tweak the brutality of the game to the tolerance of the audience. 

I think I'm going to need a bigger table...

These types of games always skirt a fine line between depth and commitment - the deeper and more involved the game is, the more time it takes to learn, set-up and play. Castle Ravenloft errs toward the simpler side of strategic combat, but games are quick to set up and generally last less than an hour if you're not regularly referring to the rules. That roughly corresponds to the maximum amount of baby-free time we can possibly get before we fall asleep ourselves.

So far, I'm quite pleased with the game - and who doesn't want to return to Ravenloft every once in a while? 

[1] I didn't realize that such cooperative games are quite common and popular until relatively recently. It's not that I'm opposed to competition, rather I think that cooperation is generally more sociable and less intimidating to newcomers. The latter is important because I'm always trying to find games that my significant other is willing to try! 

[2] Pun intended.

[3] Unlike some of the other games in this vein that I've played, if any hero dies, it's game over. Therefore, 'lives' are a shared, party resource. Honestly, who wants to sit out and watch the rest of the game from the sidelines anyways?