Throughout high school and college, I was a huge role-playing game nerd. D&D, Vampire, Paranoia, Nexus – my bookshelf was packed with RPG manuals and supplements. As my gaming circle began graduating from college and finding real jobs, we simply didn’t have time to keep up with an ongoing, persistent campaign.
That said, role-playing games haven’t lost their spark for me. I was intrigued when Dungeons & Dragons: Castle Ravenloft (dubbed by many as “D&D in a box”) was released, but I ultimately never got a chance to play. After winning a gift certificate at a gaming event, I picked up its successor, Wrath of Ashardalon, despite never having played anything from the series.
The first unboxing of the game was impressive, and I can see where its $65 list price originates. Upon removing the box lid, I found a mountain of sturdy plastic miniatures representing the game’s heroes, villains, and wretched creatures that prowl the halls of Ashardalon’s lair. The miniatures are unpainted but well-detailed, and they fit the theme nicely — from the tiny kobold raiders all the way up to the five-inch-tall red dragon (the eponymous Ashardalon). There are also dozens of thick cardboard dungeon tiles that interlock and fit together like puzzle pieces, allowing a random, unique dungeon to be constructed for each new session.
One hugely disappointing contrast to the high quality of the miniatures and tiles is the stock used for the cards. The included decks contain around 200 cards, representing treasure, events, and other random dungeon elements. These cards are without a doubt the cheapest, flimsiest cards I’ve ever found in a board game. Just removing them from the box and laying them flat on the table caused some of the cards to curl slightly from the ambient humidity. Fortunately, I had card sleeves on hand (Wrath’s cards are standard Magic: The Gathering size), but it boggles my mind that Wizards of the Coast would have included such terrible quality cards in a game with otherwise top-notch components.
The theme of the game is simple: A red dragon named Ashardalon has been causing a ruckus, and the players take on the role of a party of adventurers sent to stop him. Everything is faithful to the D&D universe, from the standard dungeon-fare monsters to the magic items dropped as loot. The miniature sculpts are very good, although I found myself wishing for pre-painted miniatures. I know that’s a lot to ask from a mass-produced game, but Heroscape managed to pull it off. As someone who rarely has time to paint anymore, I’ll take poorly-painted miniatures over mono-color plastic any day.
The included campaign book contains around fourteen scenarios to play, each progressing in complexity and difficulty. For example, the first adventure requires the players to simply delve a bit into the dragon’s lair, kill some of his minions, and escape — while the final scenario tasks the players with defeating the mighty Ashardalon himself.
Sounds good so far, right? But how does it play? Here’s where things become hit-and-miss.
Gameplay is relatively simple. Each character can move a set distance, and can make an attack before or after movement. Characters also have the option to perform minor actions such as picking up an item or casting certain spells. The players each move in turn, and then update the dungeon. As the dungeon is explored, more monsters will inevitably appear. However, there is pressure on the party to keep moving, as failing to explore a new dungeon tile each turn results in drawing a new event card, which are uniformly bad for the characters; these cards often contain traps, perils, and other dangerous encounters.
Many similarly dungeon-based games have one player take on the role of the “dungeon master” (insert non-trademarked referee term here), while the other participants play the heroes. Wrath is a purely cooperative game, automating all of the “bad things” that one tends to stumble upon while exploring a dungeon.
While I prefer pure co-op games over “one against everyone” designs, this is both a blessing and a curse. One of the big draws of role-playing games is that the players feel like they’re working against a malevolent intelligence. A good Dungeon Master designs his encounters to make sense, and DM-controlled villains and monsters will act in their own best interest.
By doing away with the human intelligence controlling the antagonists, Wrath seems a bit lifeless. The monsters move mechanically and predictably, and their scripted actions can easily be “gamed” by the players to produce optimal positioning. It often feels like more of a puzzle than a tactical combat game. During a review session, one of our characters kept an enemy archer running around in circles while the rest of the party proceeded to the final goal. You’d think after the fifth time around the loop that the archer might have wised up and gone the other way.
Event cards such as traps and curses feel overly random — there’s no reason or rhyme to a dungeon’s layout or the perils found within. Drawing a card that says “Oops, the roof caved in. Take damage.” is not very fulfilling; in a real role-playing game, the Dungeon Master would have been giving clues about the impending collapse, or would have at least rolled skill checks for the players to detect the danger ahead.
Wrath of Ashardalon uses a dumbed-down version of the D&D Fourth Edition combat rules. This is not an indictment of the design; the simplified rules remove a lot of bookkeeping and overhead tasks while still allowing the players enough freedom to form strategies. The attack and defense system is very straightforward and easy to figure out, even for someone who doesn’t know a polyhedron from a polymorph spell. The board layout is similarly simple to follow, with clearly-marked grid lines that make determining movement and attack range a breeze to calculate.
Overall, Wrath of Ashardalon is a solid effort to condense the Dungeons and Dragons experience into a single box, and the playtime of under two hours should appeal to those of us who have the RPG passion but not the RPG time. While I’m disappointed that the scripted monster actions are so predictable and easy to manipulate, it seems like a necessary evil to make the game purely cooperative. It’s far from perfect, but if you’re looking for a purely co-op dungeon crawler, Wrath is the best thing out there right now.