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Cardboard Children: Castle Ravenloft

Hello, all you parents of Cardboard Children.

This week we had some big news from that board game publishing behemoth, Fantasy Flight Games. Mansions of Madness was announced, a new board game with an H.P. Lovecraft theme. Ol' brown sauce himself. Apparently the game is a scenario-based effort, where one player tries to advance an evil plot while everyone else tries to put a stop to the bad player's schemes. All set in a house. At night. Probably. Hey, It'll be nice to actually be Nyarlathotep for a change, instead of just masturbating while looking at pictures of him.

It's good to see another Lovecraftian board game in the mix, particularly one designed by Corey Konieczka, who is one of the most brilliant designers working in the field. He's a designer who understands that thematic games have a responsibility to serve their theme well, and always seems to find a perfect balance of his elegant gameplay mechanics and thematic “fluff”. He's a guy who was born to be in board games, because his surname claims a killer score in Scrabble. I'll be looking forward to this game a great deal, and I'll keep you all updated on its progress.

This week also saw the release of Arcana, a card game set in “the wondrous city of Cadwallon”. Jesus. I'd love to hear the lead singer of Kings of Leon say that sentence to one of his groupies backstage. From blowjob to no-job in five seconds flat. Anyway, Arcana has been out before, but Fantasy Flight is giving it a big fat wide release, so all you Cadwallonamaniacs can get some serious card-bidding action on the go. What and where the fuck is Cadwallon? I think I'm supposed to know. But I don't.

And that's really all the big gaming news. If you don't count the fact that I played my first game of Pandemic this week, and cured all the diseases with one turn to go, and then strutted around my house with my chest puffed out.

Last week I said I'd be looking at something old and something new this week. But I've changed my mind. I'll only be talking about the something new. For ages.


Here's an interesting confession. Here's something that might make you roll your eyes and say “this guy is telling ME about games?”

I have never played Dungeons & Dragons.

There we go. It's out. I feel better now. I was raised a Catholic, and so I would have a duty to go to confession every so often. I would go in and see Father Devine, and he'd ask me to tell him my sins. And I hadn't really done anything wrong. So I'd have to make some sins up. I'd say “I swore at my mum” when I hadn't. I would go into confession and lie to a priest so that I would have something to confess. I would come out a worse person than I was when I went in. Even as a young boy I could see this was TOTALLY MENTAL. And thus, my journey away from religion began. This has nothing to do with Dungeons & Dragons, I know, but I just want you to understand that I would never lie about something just to make my column more interesting. (Actually, I have lied to make my column more interesting before. Told a girl it had been inside Russell Brand's arse. Feel free to use that one.)

I have never played Dungeons & Dragons, forgive me father. Pen and paper RPG-wise, I played pretty much everything else. Shadowrun, DC Heroes, Call of Cthulhu, you name it. But D&D passed me by, somehow. Maybe it was just too big, too sprawling a thing. Maybe it just seemed a bit too difficult to get into, when you could pick up the core rulebook of Cthulhu and just start playing.

What I do remember making a big impact on me was the comic book ad for this thing:

I was heavily into comics at the time, and the Ravenloft ad was everywhere. And it looked amazing. I had always thought that D&D was quite a dusty, uninspired fantasy thing, and suddenly there was a Christopher Lee style Dracula involved and a beautiful virgin and a WHAT NOW? Sea Monkeys and now this? Awesome! Go American comics!

But I still didn't pick it up. Still couldn't find my entry point. Bought Sea Monkeys though. Or “Disgusting Stink Beasties UGH” as they SHOULD be called.

Which brings us to NOW, and the release of Castle Ravenloft, a D&D board game. It's a game that promises to introduce players to the concepts of 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, while satisfying that dungeon crawl urge many of us board gamers have. Seriously, if we didn't play board games, we'd all probably end up living in the sewers, searching for shiny items in piles of human waste.

Here's how the game works.

There are 41 interlocking dungeon tiles. These are kept in a big old stack, face down. You choose one of the scenarios from the game's Adventure Book. Then, you and your buddies enter the castle, and start pulling tiles off the stack. Each time you place a tile, you also spawn a monster. When a monster spawns, you place them on the board and take the card for that monster. On the card is the monster's statistics and, clever this, the way the monster behaves. So, let's take a look at what the Skeleton's card says:

If the Skeleton is adjacent to a Hero it attacks that hero with a scimitar.

If the Skeleton is within 1 tile of a Hero it moves adjacent to the closest Hero and attacks that Hero with a charging slice.

Otherwise, the Skeleton moves 1 tile toward the closest Hero.”

As you can see, there's never any ambiguity about what a baddie does. They're always moving, always attacking, always coming at you. And you always know who that unlucky “you” is.

Whoever spawned the monster keeps control of the monster, which is an elegant solution for the problem of how to time everyone's attack. You know that this Skeleton will always make his move after I do, because he's a copycat, and you can plan for that.

In your turn, you also usually need to draw an Encounter Card, which makes everyone groan and wail and die. These cards are usually traps and ambushes and environmental effects that just pretty much ruin your night. I hate them. In a good way.

Oh, and combat is resolved with one die. You roll it, add your attack bonus, and try to beat the target's Armour Class. Easy as pie.

That's pretty much how Castle Ravenloft plays. The different scenarios in the Adventure Book give the game a lot of variety. Some scenarios are quick smash and grab retrieval missions, where you try to find some magical icon and cheese it before you get overwhelmed, but fail. Some are horrible “Go Kill This Really Hard Baddie” missions that slap you down HARD. The game finds even more variety in the randomness of the tile draws, and the monster card draws, and the encounter card draws. No two games should ever play exactly the same, although that getting slapped down HARD part crops up quite often.

Castle Ravenloft is a wonderful board game. These days, when board games are just getting bigger and bulkier, and the rules more complex, it's rare to see a game that feels so epic while being so simple and playing so quickly. You can have a game of Castle Ravenloft in an hour. And in that hour you'll get all the feel of a big dungeon crawl adventure. You'll kill some baddies, disarm some traps, get some treasure and die. All in an hour. And then you'll want to go again.

I'm a guy who has played many a game of Descent, that big old monster of a dungeon crawl game. It's a game that takes hours to play. Hours! It's a game that demands someone plays the bad guy. And that person who plays the bad guy (it's always me) ends up hated. It's a game with a terrible rulebook, with incomprehensible rules that need pages of FAQs to clarify. It's a game I love, and I'll talk more about it further down the line, but OH MY GOD it's a lot of work.

Castle Ravenloft lets me play a similar game quickly, with little set-up time. It's reminiscent of the amazing Warhammer Quest, and that can only be a good thing, right? And it lets me play with four of my friends, as one of the good guys, in a nice little co-op team. The components are lovely, the monster miniatures are great, and the feel of Dungeons & Dragons really comes through. I believe elements of 4th Edition are there in the player characters' powers. Some powers can be used At-Will, and some can only be used Daily, and I seem to remember these “cooldowns” for spells being part of the whole controversy over 4th Edition. “IT'S TOO MUCH LIKE WOOOORLD OF WWWWAAAAAARRRCRAAAAAAAAFT!”, people screamed, disgusted at a company's attempt to make their game more accessible to millions of people.


Castle Ravenloft makes me want to try out Dungeons & Dragons 4e. If the same simplicity of design is there in 4e as exists in this board game, then I want to check that bad boy out. Last week, the bold Alexander Norris, in the comments section of this very column, told me not to cover Dungeons & Dragons. He pretty much said it would cause some stupid fights. And that, my friends, is like a red rag to a bull. We should be fighting here, every Saturday. Fighting about geek stuff is fun!

At this point, I want to answer the bold Blunders, who wrote this in the comments section last week:

“I was excited to read this until I arrived at the portion where Mr. Florence dismissively wrote off most of Reiner Knizia’s games and claimed that it’s hard to be passionate about German-style board games. Sorry, I don’t think this column will be for me, but I appreciate RPS expanding its coverage.”

I was maybe a bit harsh on Knizia last week. And made some rude comments about Eurogames. I should clarify my stance on these areas. There are many Eurogames I love. And I'll be talking about many of them as we continue through the weeks and months ahead. Eurogames ROOL OK.

Knizia, though, is a guy who seems to be able to make gold and shit in equal measure. He's a bi-polar Midas. He's the guy who made the Lord of The Rings co-op board game, which is absolute fucking torture. Knizia's Lord of the Rings is the only board game on the library shelf at Guantanamo Bay. I'll get to Knizia down the line, believe me. God, he frustrates me.


Lost track a bit there.

Yes, so the message of this week's column is GO AND BUY CASTLE RAVENLOFT. It's a great game. A romp. Easy to teach and quick to play. I couldn't recommend it more highly. Get it bought.

And the other message is this:

Be back here next week for a look at the new Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition Starter Set. The Red Box is back! And we're probably going to fight about it! Sorry, Alexander!

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About the Author

Robert Florence