In our continuing series on tabletop games that are fun for video gamers, we look at this cooperative fantasy board game of horror and adventure.

No one reading this website needs to be sold on the fun of online cooperative play. The ability to shoot your way through a Covenant army in Halo or tackle a big boss in World of Warcraft with a bunch of friends is thrilling. But the cooperative gaming experience isn't just available in the video game sphere. As we continue to examine tabletop games that we think are a good fit for the video gaming crowd, we zero in on a new game from the folks who bring us the Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game.

Castle Ravenloft strips away much of the complexity inherent to a true D&D game, and delivers a cooperative dungeon crawl that is perfect for gamers fond of Diablo, Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance, or Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, but uninterested in spending hours bogged down in complicated rules.

Gameplay

Castle Ravenloft is a 1 to 5-player cooperative game of dungeon exploration and questing. The game uses a dramatically pared down set of 4th edition D&D rules, minus the need for a dungeon master or a doctorate in the game rules in order to enjoy. Every player takes on the role of a pre-made hero with a set of special abilities and stats, mostly represented on a large cardboard card. The group works together to tackle one of several unique scenarios. In one, the characters need to escape the dungeon before waves of monsters destroy them. In another, the adventurers must hunt down the villainous vampire at the heart of the castle. Each quest has its own special rules and setup, assuring a variation in the story and objectives. On top of that, the dungeon is created randomly over the course of the game as the heroes explore, so the adventure feels unexpected and challenging every time.

Story

Castle Ravenloft carries the Dungeons & Dragons logo on its front, but don't be fooled. There's not much in the way of complex character interactions or storytelling at play here, unless, of course, you put them in yourself. Instead, Castle Ravenloft presents a simple premise. A dangerous castle filled with ghastly undead and their terrifying vampire master loom over an unfortunate town, and you must act to save its people. Each scenario offers a little more detail to flesh out the fiction, but things are kept simple in order to get to what the game is really about -- combat.

Unique Features

Castle Ravenloft is all about exploring a mysterious dungeon and fighting monsters along the way. You're fighting monsters at nearly every turn, and there's a fantastic terror connected to feeling overwhelmed by the attacking baddies.

The game does a great job of keeping the intensity high and the action moving quickly around the table. Turns occur at a fast pace, with clearly delineated phases for each turn. Players move and act, then potentially place a new tile, and finally control designated monsters as they spawn. Every player participates in "running the board." The creatures that spawn move by preset rules on their own monster cards, which usually involve attacking the nearest character to where the creature appears. The game's random dungeon tiles keep things interesting, as do the large number of surprising encounters that arise. Between unique treasure items, numerous monsters, lots of traps and other event-based challenges, and customizable characters, there's plenty to keep the game feeling fresh and exciting. Even though the game is pretty easy to pick up, don't mistake that for the game being easy. Your party will be defeated almost as much as it will win the day.

The game also comes with a bunch of great looking unpainted mini figures to help visualize the action.

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Complexity

One of Castle Ravenloft's greatest features is its accessibility. We've tested the game with experienced gaming groups and with kids as young as eight, even though it's recommended for ages 12 and up. Without exception, the game played smoothly and the players were able to grasp the rules after only a short explanation from an experienced player.

It's this same simplicity that could be a turn off for some gamers. The streamlined rules system can feel overly contrived for gamers more used to high-end tabletop games. If you're that type of player, you may want to stick with a true Dungeons & Dragons role-playing experience, or a more detailed but complicated cooperative board game  like Descent: Journeys in the Dark or Arkham Horror.

It's also worth noting that the game has a lot of pieces. Make sure and keep your cards, figures, and cardboard tokens organized in some way. We recommend bringing more than a few zip-lock baggies to your first session.

For Video Gamers?

Anyone who has ever thrilled to a loot-collecting, monster-slaying co-op game has a lot to look forward to in Castle Ravenloft. Players can learn the game quickly and get to playing without too much hassle, and the game itself has all the familiar hallmarks of a great dungeon crawler adventure.

There are a number of unique treasure items to find as you explore the dark halls of Ravenloft, and many of the items give bonuses to your attacks, or one-off actions that can save the day, just like a power-up or potion in your favorite video game lootfest.

There's also a simple leveling mechanic that delivers a sense of progression as you kill monsters and gain experience. More significantly, every one of the game's five characters has a broad selection of powers that you can select before the game begins. The customized builds that emerge will feel familiar to anyone who has spent time tweaking an MMO character.

Most importantly, Castle Ravenloft demands that your team work together to survive. Your healer must keep everyone's hit points up. Your fighter must keep the worst monsters from reaching your vulnerable caster. The familiar roles we play in video games are in full effect here, and gamers will quickly recognize their character's utility and how to maximize benefit to the group. Like the best co-op video games, winning a game of Castle Ravenloft requires teamwork.

What Else Do I Need To Know?

Castle Ravenloft is the first installment of a new board game initiative by Wizards of the Coast. While the company continues to release regular updates to its more complex 4th edition D&D role-playing game, these new "Adventure System" games offer an easier route into questing fun. Each installment of these adventure games are cross-compatible with each other, but stand alone if bought separately. The second game, Wrath of Ashardalon (pictured below) offers a similar experience, but is built around the mountain lair of a great dragon. That second game also clarifies some of the rules that were up for debate in Castle Ravenloft.  Wrath is already available at retail beside Ravenloft. You can pull characters from either game, or even create custom scenarios that mix the monsters and tiles from both games.



Castle Ravenloft and Wrath of Ashardalon are both available via online stores like Amazon, or CoolStuffInc, or you can always visit your local tabletop game store as well. Retail price on Castle Ravenloft is $64.95, but both the links we provided offer it substantially cheaper.

We hope you enjoy the game. If there are other tabletop games you'd like us to feature in this column in future installments, let us know in the comments below.

In the meantime, for another tabletop game that's great for video gamers, make sure and check out our look at Tannhauser, an alternate reality WWI game that plays remarkably like a first-person shooter.