Previews Archive | 8/16/2010
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Castle Ravenloft Preview
Mike Mearls

Back in the misty days of 1983, a new villain appeared on gaming tables across the world. Strahd von Zarovich, D&D’s iconic vampire, made his debut in Ravenloft. One of the most popular adventures of all time, Ravenloft set new standards in terms of its atmosphere, its compelling central villain, and the random element ensuring that no two Ravenloft experiences were exactly the same. Even after 27 years, it’s the rare adventure that approaches Ravenloft’s excellence.

This August sees the release of the Castle Ravenloft Board Game. Building on story elements of the original adventure, Castle Ravenloft offers a whole new way to battle Strahd and his minions. Here at Wizards of the Coast, we’re excited to offer a preview of the board game’s rulebook. When the game hits store shelves, you’ll be ready to dive in and pit sword and spell against the deadliest vampire in D&D history.

Castle Ravenloft Rulebook (9.7 Mbs PDF)

I was fortunate enough to help create and develop the Castle Ravenloft Board Game. This article serves as its designer’s commentary. Each paragraph is marked with a page number that corresponds to the rulebook. So, crack open your rule book from your copy of the game or download the rules.

Page 3

It was very important for us to capture the spirit of the original adventure in the board game. As you can read here, the basic setup follows Ravenloft. As we designed the game, we kept copies of the original adventure close at hand. In designing elements of the game, we took material directly from the adventure whenever possible.

The Encounter Cards, the deck of cards that spawns traps, hazards, and other dangers, reflects this approach. Strahd might appear to cast a spell on one of the heroes or attack for a brief moment. At other times, he might unleash more monsters to attack you. We wanted the players to feel a personal grudge against the vampire. He is always present and working against the players, even if only indirectly.

Page 4-5

The Dungeon Tile stack plays a big role in making Castle Ravenloft easy to set up. I can name any number of board games that I love but rarely play because it takes awhile to set up the miniatures, board, and other components. It’s hard to play such games on the spur of the moment.

Castle Ravenloft draws on what I like to call benevolent sloth. There’s very little setup because most of that work – placing monsters, setting up the board (or building the dungeon in this case) – happens as you play the game. It reminds me a little bit of Tikal, Carcassonne, and similar games where pieces come out of the box as you play.

That might sound like a minor concern, but we really wanted this game to be one that you could pull out with as little prep as possible. There have been plenty of times when I’ve been hanging around with friends, wondering what to do, and I wanted this game to be a good option at times like those. The shorter the time between "Let’s play a game of Castle Ravenloft" and the first player’s turn, the better.

The Dungeon Tile stack was an early part of the design. One of the fun things of D&D is the sense of mystery each adventure creates. Most board games show you the entire play environment from the beginning. D&D is different because you never really know what’s around the next corner. The Dungeon Tile stack tries to create a sense of a D&D adventure by ensuring that no two dungeons are the same. Even better, it provides a lot more options in designed adventures than a static board or a more structured environment.

Page 6-7

Probably the biggest breakthrough in design was the Villain Phase. That rule’s introduction allowed the game to scale easily. Each player completes a Hero Phase and then brings an appropriate amount of monsters and other threats into play by taking a Villain Phase. You can think of the game as balancing a Hero’s effort with the events in the Villain Phase. The cleric heals the fighter, or the wizard blasts a few skeletons, but Strahd counters by cursing the ranger or sending more undead monsters into the fray. Each player’s action, regardless of the number of players, receives a response from the game.

You might have noticed that we took a very direct, step-by-step approach to writing the rulebook. We wanted players to quickly and easily understand their options and decisions. Again, this plays into the idea of making a game that’s easy to setup and quick to play. For your first few games, you can pass the rule book from player to player. Keep it open to this spread for most basic rules, and then refer to later sections of the book as needed.

Page 8-9

The component design of the game deserves a mention here. Originally, the status tokens marking slowed and immobilized were small counters. Peter Lee had the great idea of making them big, bright, and obvious. If you suffer one of those effects, simply put it on your character sheet as a handy reminder.

Whenever possible, we tried to include the full rules for any game component on its marker or card. When you need to look something up, play grinds to a halt. We wanted a fast paced game, and that directive extended beyond the rules to include the components.

The attack and utility cards are also worth mentioning at this point. Since this is a D&D game, character creation is an important part of the experience. To keep things fast (notice a trend here?), we wanted focused, easy to understand character creation. Picking a few attacks and tricks seemed like just enough customization to make a character interesting without overwhelming a new player or slowing down the action. After all, you’re venturing into Castle Ravenloft. Don’t get too attached to your character!

Page 10-11

Page 10 is noteworthy because it covers both of the rules we added to the game as part of development and playtesting.

Treasure came into the game after the first wave of gameplay. The game was a little too relentless in beating up the players. Treasure seemed like an obvious way to add micro-rewards, little boosts to reward you for slaying a monster. Of course, we made the game a little harder to account for that power up.

The Healing Surges were added after we discovered that the game entered a fairly annoying cycle. If the Heroes lost, there was a tipping point where a few Heroes were defeated and the rest of the group had to fight on. While that was sometimes exciting, too many times it left one person playing the game while everyone else watched. We added Healing Surges to bring downed Heroes back into the game, though at the price of defeat if you used up your surges.

Originally, using a Healing Surge was optional. This led to almost the same pattern, where the players were using a Surge only if they absolutely had to. There were also situations where it made sense for a Hero to fall, remain down while the monsters around him moved elsewhere, and then spring up with a Healing Surge on a later turn. By making them mandatory, we both made Healing Surges a precious commodity and gave the cleric a huge incentive to run in and heal a downed character.

The tactics printed on each card in the Monster Deck proved an important turning point in the game. Originally, the players controlled the monsters with a few guidelines dictating actions. It proved too easy for players to game the system. The tactics proved easy to understand and fast in play. They also let us give monsters some unique features and even a bit of personality.

Page 12-13

The Encounter Deck received the most attention during playtesting and development. With each iteration of the deck, we simplified things to keep the game’s pace moving and to keep the cards fairly consistent in complexity from one card to the next.

At one point in time, we had very complex cards sitting alongside fairly simple ones. The complexity level was far beyond what you see in the game right now. While those cards were nifty, it was irritating when the game dragged to a halt as the players worked through their mechanics. Those mechanics instead made their way into the adventures, where we could explain them more thoroughly and spend our complexity budget on something more flavorful and deep than a single card.

For instance, the basic premise of adventure 5 – escort a villager to safety – earlier came up as an Encounter Card. That card was fun early on, when we had simple adventures to use. As the adventures became deeper and more compelling, side quests like saving a lost villager just got in the way.

Page 14-15

Experience points played a role in the game from an early stage. The option of cancelling an Encounter Card can swing a situation from defeat to victory. It provides a clear reason to battle monsters, and it also adds an element of teamwork and group decision making to the game.

Later on in development, we added the option of leveling up. We also wanted to make cancelling a card an interesting choice. It now comes at the cost of losing out on gaining a level if you roll a 20. Early in the game, you might want to wait and see if you have that chance… though later in the game cancelling the card is the better play.

Unboxing Castle Ravenloft

About the Author

Mike Mearls is the Group Manager for the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game. His recent credits include Player’s Handbook 3, Hammerfast, and Monster Manual 3.