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Posted on Apr 4, 2011 in Boardgames

Dungeons & Dragons: Wrath of Ashardalon – Board Game Review

By Scott R. Krol

Dungeons & Dragons: Wrath of Ashardalon Board Game.  Boardgame Review.  Publisher: Wizards of the Coast.  Designer: Peter Lee, Mike Mearls, Bill Slavicsek.  $64.99

Passed Inspection: Superb-looking miniatures, classic RPG hack and slash dungeoncrawling in a board game, quick set up time, no need for a real Dungeonmaster.

Failed Basic: Except for the minis lacks a visual oomph, can feel repetitive after multiple plays.

Wizards of the Coast’s Dungeons & Dragons: Wrath of Ashardalon Board Game (henceforth, simply Wrath) is the second in their series of Adventure System board games, the first being the Gothic horror themed Castle Ravenloft. The Adventure System is a series of cooperatively played dungeoncrawl board games in which the system creates the dungeons and controls the monsters. While based on the Fourth Edition ruleset for the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game, these are purely boardgames, so no knowledge of the role-playing game is necessary.

Wrath’s core theme is Old School: your party of heroes, through a series of scenarios, fights through the underground tunnels of a volcano, killing monsters and taking their stuff. The ultimate bad guy? An ancient red dragon (but of course).

Each player going at it as a lone wolf will have the party decimated before you can say TPK.

Up to five characters form the adventuring party, with the character classes representing the standard spectrum: fighter, rogue, wizard, cleric, and paladin. While there are up to five characters in the party the game itself can be played with anywhere from one to five players, as the game’s system acts as the Dungeonmaster. So one player could control all five characters, five players could have individual control, or there could be a mixture of characters and players. Just like the role-playing game it is based on typically the more, the merrier.

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Each character will possess some inherent abilities, but also has access to a variety of Powers. These Powers, which range from those that can be performed each turn to those that can only be performed potentially once a game, are chosen from a deck specific to each class. These Powers represent everything from a standard melee attack to casting spells. Many Powers are complementary to each other, and figuring out the best combinations can be a rewarding experience. It’s important for the players to have open communication while customizing their characters, as what Powers would be best for the party must also be considered.

Wrath is scenario based, and includes a nifty campaign mode that allows the party to progress through a series of linked adventures. Although the scenarios (“Adventures”) vary in complexity and special rules, the basics of gameplay remain unchanged, and are quite simplistic in nature. Gameplay consists of the heroes exploring the dungeon, defeating monsters and gaining loot, all while moving forward towards the Adventure goal.

The dungeon itself is made up of high-quality tiles, using an interlocking puzzle mechanism, while heroes and monsters are represented by miniatures. Unfortunately, while the physical quality of the tiles is good their actual art is merely functional, lacking any type of pizzazz. This is an overall problem with the game. The best components are the fantastic-looking plastic miniatures, but that’s to be expected from a company that has access to several hundred figures already sculpted. Everything else, though, has the feel of a playtest copy. Cards, from Encounters (events) to Treasures, are walls of text with absolutely no artwork. Considering the vast library of art Wizards of the Coast has to draw upon, this is inexcusable.

As mentioned previously the game system itself acts as the Dungeonmaster, and is admittedly a pretty clever system. Tiles are connected to one another as the heroes explore by being chosen from a randomly constructed stack, much like how the city in Twilight Creation’s Zombies!!! is constructed. Watching the dungeon spread out is pretty cool. While a roomy surface is required for play, the dungeons tend not to grow obnoxiously large, as most Adventures have their goals start to appear after the eighth tile in play.

With each tile a monster appears, drawn randomly from a deck of monsters. Each monster uses a series of IF/THEN statements to control its actions. Let’s look at a Kobold Dragonshield as an example. When drawn the Kobold figure is placed on the new tile and the card is consulted for what it will do.

  • If the Kobold is adjacent to a Hero, it attacks with a sword.
  • If the Kobold is on a tile with no Heroes and an unexplored edge, draw a dungeon tile from the bottom of the stack and place it next to the Kobold’s tile. Place a new Monster on that tile.
  • Otherwise, the Kobold moves 1 tile toward the closest Hero.

The “AI” is no worse than your typical computer RPG, and considering there aren’t a lot of tactical options the monsters possess, having a player actually control the critters would add very little. So overall the mechanics work well, although the ambiguity of certain statements can create some minor discussions. Such as in the above case: if the Kobold is adjacent to multiple heroes, who gets poked? Obviously, the hero being controlled by the player who didn’t chip in on the pizza.

Combat itself is straight forward. Roll a d20, add your attack score, get equal to or higher than the opponent’s Armor Class and score a hit. Damage is not variable, with most weapons doing between one and two points of damage. Many monsters have at least two hit points, and with heroes usually only being able to make a single attack a turn, even low-level monsters can stick around if the party is spread out. Defeating monsters allows the hero to take a random Treasure card. Treasures can be more powerful weapons, better armor, and a variety of potions.

Besides the monsters the party also has to face Encounter cards. These cards are drawn either when a certain type of tile is placed or if the hero did not explore for the turn. Encounter cards are by and large meant to do one thing: drain hit points. Whether by traps (which anyone, not just a Rogue can disable), or random attacks on the party, there are very few helpful Encounter cards.

In fact, due to the fact that monsters will usually get to always attack first, and the frequency of damaging Encounters, the party is being constantly drained of hit points. Regardless of the individual scenario’s win/loss rules, the party always loses if a single member dies. Each party gains two Healing Surges at the beginning of the game, with a single Surge partially replacing a character’s hit points when they fall to zero. You’d be surprised though how often the Surges are used, making the need for healing powers and items of paramount importance. While it’s been argued that the death-of-a-thousand-cuts is needed to keep the party moving forward a turn limit would do the same thing.

The constant abuse of the party can be mitigated somewhat by the tactical decisions the heroes make. Like a good role-playing game, in Wrath the importance of a cohesive adventuring party, operating like a well-oiled machine, cannot be understated. To truly get the most of the game players will have to communicate with each other, strategize, and plan their moves in concert. Each player going at it as a lone wolf will have the party decimated before you can say TPK.

One could even go so far and say the party dynamic is the heart of the game. Without a good group the basic nature of the game is very exposed. Get a new tile, put down a monster, repeat. While the system based Dungeonmaster is neat, much like the difference between a dynamic campaign and one that is handcrafted in a flight sim, it becomes obvious that the random nature isn’t always a good thing. But when the players all come together to craft an action plan, and then see it unfold flawlessly (crashing and burning can also be fun), the lack of overall depth in the mechanics can be overlooked. At least for a time.

When Dungeons & Dragons first hit the scene it was exactly that: dungeons, and dragons. As time went on players wanted more than just kicking doors in and killing big lizards. They wanted characters that were more than the sum of their THAC0 and AC, worlds and not dungeons to explore, and motivation beyond kewl lewt. Ultimately, Wrath of Ashardalon (and its predecessor, Castle Ravenloft), by stripping everything down to a hack and slash dungeoncrawl also manages to strip away the longevity. With the right group, and the right scenarios, Wrath of Ashardalon makes for a pleasant evening. The more it is played though, the more the cracks in its armor begin to show. There’s a little too much sameness to how the game unfolds, and a little too much reliance on punishing the players to make up for the weaknesses in the game design.

If you’re looking for a fast-playing, easy-to-understand dungeoncrawl that can be played in a couple of hours, and you have a good group of players (or looking for a solo experience), Wrath of Ashardalon makes the best choice out of the current crop of dungeoncrawl board games. Just don’t expect to return to it week after week.

Solitaire: 5 vorpal swords out of 5.

About the Author:

A warrior-poet who launches his excursions into the heart of darkness from historic Roswell, Georgia, Scott R. Krol started gaming in the early ‘70s and has wasted his life with it ever since. Professionally he began writing about games in the mid-nineties at Gamespot, and is currently employed by Shrapnel Games. He also contributes wacky cartoons to the magazine Knights of the Dinner Table, and enjoys raising ferocious beasts to terrorize the neighborhood children.

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