REVIEW: D&D Adventures: Wrath of Ashardalon

Before last fall's Castle Ravenloft board game was even available, Wizards of the Coast had already announced that their second D&D Adventures game, Wrath of Ashardalon, was near completion. This raised plenty of questions: How much different could it actually be? Would Wizards have enough time to incorporate feedback from Ravenloft? What is an Ashardalon anyway? Take a deep breath, gamers, as this game does make solid improvements over its predecesor (and Ashardalon is a dragon from D&D 3rd Edition’s Bastion of Broken Souls). Read on to find out just exactly what has changed in the full review:

Just the Facts:

Players: 1-5

Playing Time: 90 minutes

Age: 12 to adult

Publisher: Wizards of the Coast

MSRP: $64.99

Release: February 15th, 2011

The Gameplay:

Wrath of Ashardalon, like all D&D Adventures board games, is a co-operative experience where players will either win or lose together. Each player takes control of one hero (Elf Paladin, Dwarf Fighter, Half-Orc Rogue, Dragonborn Wizard or Human Cleric) and can customize their abilities by choosing from the available at-will, utility and daily power cards. From there, the heroes descend into a dungeon in one of thirteen unique scenarios provided by the game's adventure book. A wide range of objectives include killing a prescribed number of monsters, retrieving specific items, rescuing townsfolk and defeating large boss monsters.

Play in Wrath of Ashardalon is not extremely deep, as it seeks to provide a lighter dungeon crawling experience that is both low in complexity and short in time. This is good news for board gamers looking to get a play in without committing several hours, and also serves as a way for experienced D&D players to get a "quick fix" when a full session is not an option.

On each turn, a hero can choose between moving and attacking, or moving twice. If the hero has reached the edge of a tile, a new one is added to the map and a monster appears on it. However, if the hero has not reached the edge of a tile, they will be penalized with an encounter card. This keeps players from resting on their heels, as facing too many encounter cards will leave their heroes with not enough health to complete their objective.

After a player finishes their turn, they activate any traps or monsters they have drawn in this or previous turns. The tactics that each will employ are listed right on the card, so player must move and attack for each accordingly. For a more detailed breakdown of how hero and monster turns work, see my Castle Ravenloft review, as these base mechanics have not changed. From this point on, I'm going to focus on what new elements have been added in Wrath of Ashardalon.

A cave bear stand between the dragonborn wizard and a closed door.

The first addition players are likely to encounter are doors. Instead of only unexplored edges and walls on tiles, an edge can now hold a doorway. All doorways start shut, and a doorway marker is placed face-down on top of the tile. When a hero is adjacent to the doorway, they can flip the marker to reveal either an unlocked, locked or trapped door. Unlocked doors allow free passage, locked doors require an attack action with a 10+ roll to unlock and trapped doors deal one damage before unlocking on their own.

The larger change to Ashardalon, though, is the open feel.  WotC designer Peter Lee has gone on the record to state that Castle Ravenloft was intentionally meant to feel claustrophobic. Wrath of Ashardalon provides a much different experience, though, as some of the monsters will actively try to expand the board and add new monsters rather than attack heroes directly. Letting too many of these guys onto the board opens the game up and is an easy way to have an adventure get out of hand. There are also chamber tiles that when drawn, cause the immediate placement of five additional tiles around it. When players stumble into a chamber, they are walking into a wide-open are of six tiles. Special chamber cards instruct the players on how to fill up these new spaces with monsters, setting up some epic showdowns in the process.

A group of heroes stumble into the Horrid Chamber where they face the Elite Regiment, a group of four monsters all level 2 or above.

There is hope for your heroes though, as a major change from Castle Ravenloft is the importance of treasure. Whereas these cards used to be painfully unhelpful in moments of need, they new almost always produce a valuable item. Towards the end of a game, it is now common for every player to have a least two, if not more, stat-increasing pieces of gear. Many of the effects previously seen on immediate-play fortune cards, such as regaining health or recycling used power cards, are now kept as one-time-use items. This is a great move, as it takes the luck of a deck and turns it into strategy in a player's hand.

The new rules for campaign sessions are a stroke of genius as well. The D&D Adventures line is sticking with what it does best, provide a streamlined dungeon crawling experience. To that end, these campaigns are focused on the group of gamers that want to play three or more rounds in one sitting, with rules that allow characters to advance from one dungeon to the next. During such multi-dungeon campaigns, characters maintain their items and stats, earn special rewards that only come with completing multiple dungeons and have the opportunity to shop in town between rounds. That's pretty much all there is to it, though. This is not a dungeon-crawling campaign that sets out to compete with Descent: Road to Legend, which can take months to complete. Rather, Wrath of Ashardalon sets to complement those lengthier campaigns with a lightweight alternative, and this is a good thing.

The final wrinkle in these adventures is the occasional addition of non-player characters (NPCs). Represented as various townsfolk, these characters are controlled by players in the same fashion as a monster would move and act, but their tactics are vary between cowardly NPCs that will flee across the board and others who will recklessly charge into battle. When involved in the scenario, having these other characters playing alongside the heroes on auto-pilot adds enough variety to keep Wrath of Ashardalon from throwing too much hack-and-slash repetition at players.

The Components:

• 42 plastic heroes and monsters

• 13 sheets of interlocking cardstock dungeon tiles

• 200 encounter and treasure cards

• Rulebook

• Scenario book

• 20-sided die

There are a great number of pieces in this game, but unfortunately their quality varies quite a bit. While tiles, markers and the larger player/villain cards are of top-notch thickness and print quality, the decks of cards are incredibly thin. After unboxing this game, most of the card decks experienced some fairly severe warping, so factor in a few minutes to bend cards back into shape when planning your setup time.

The models are generally a hit, although they do have some issues as well. The sculpts are impressive (check out that Ashardalon, he's huge!), but on the smaller characters such as the legion devil monsters, the soft plastics lead to characters with drastic leans or appendages that want to twist in odd directions. Do not let a few errors in the mold sour your opinion on the entire model range, though. Other standard-size pieces such as the cave bear, gibbering mouther, dwarf fighter, and Duergar guard are all awesome. It's hard to put these ones back in the box. You'll want to paint them and put them on a shelf!

The rulebook is a great step up from Castle Ravenloft, as it is much clearer on how to resolve the occasionally complicated interactions between players and monsters. There is even a full FAQ printed on the back cover that address questions for both games.

Final Thoughts:

Wrath of Ashardalon deserves a spot on your shelf. The dungeons have increased ever so slightly in complexity, and both the treasure and encounter cards have been re-tooled to provide for more enjoyable adventures. Sure, there are deeper dungeon-crawling options on the game market, but it is not easy to turn down two (or more) rounds of Wrath of Ashardalon in the time it takes to complete one round of a game like Descent.

In light of Ashardlon's improvements in game mechanics, it would be hard to recommend Castle Ravenloft as a first purchase in the D&D Adventures line. However, for those who absolutely love the dungeon-crawling gameplay presented in Ashardalon, there is reason to own both. Wizards of the Coast has promised to unveil at least three new scenarios on its website that will contain specific rules for combining the two games, and I'm sure the fan community will step up to produce more.

The component issues are the biggest disappointing with this title, as this is not the first time in recent memory we have seen issues with warping from Wizards of the Coast. Does anyone remember trying to playBetrayal at House on the Hill? Still, there are enough impressive pieces to warrant adding this game to your collection.

Now we'll have to sit tight and wait until October for the release of The Legend of Drizzt. Will the D&D Adventures series continue to improve, and will a third title be worth player's time?