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Micro Reviews of Board Games From a Non-Competetive Perspective

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Gothi[c]:
I'd also like to add that I love assembling boards, not from a scenario, but something you make up. It's half the fun for me :D

wraith808:
What would you suggest starting out with to try heroscape?  It seems like something my son might like...

mouser:
I'd recommend getting ONE of the two main Master Sets:

* http://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/11170/heroscape-master-set-rise-of-the-valkyrie (better if he likes heroes)
* http://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/27976/heroscape-master-set-swarm-of-the-marro (better if he likes zombie monsters)
These two sets are mostly the same so it doesn't really matter which one you get.  They should be about $36 dollars each.  You only need one.

mouser:
By the way, when they have it in stock, i buy my board games from BoardsAndBits (http://www.boardsandbits.com/) -- they have significantly cheaper prices.  They don't have as big a selection though, and they are clearly a little less polished than the biggest stores (like amazon or funagain.com).  [i have no relation to them, i just appreciate their prices].

mouser:
My next micro-review is for first impressions of: Castle Ravenloft




Castle Ravenloft is a pure cooperative game, all of the players are on a team that explores a random dungeon, fighting monsters and trying to achieve some goal spelled out in the adventure they've chosen (usually to find some specific treasure).

I expected to fall in love with Castle Ravenloft -- It is very heavily themed, plays very fast, and uses a very streamlined combat mechanism that is easy to understand and is largely luck based.

I think the game does a great job when it comes to the players -- their abilities are good, the way players can choose a few abilities, and the way some special abilities can only be used rarely, the mechanism for attacking and defending -- for me this simplified combat system hit the mark perfectly.

However, I have to report that after my first play I was left underwhelmed and a bit flat (my fellow players, Traci and John, felt similarly, and I note that some other reviewers on boardgamegeek report the same).

Why did this beautifully produced game leave me flat?

* There is almost no "adventuring" and building suspense - after almost every move a new random low-level monster is revealed and it attacks the player that just moved.  Battle is straightforward and usually results in the monster being killed on the next turn.
* Everything you encounter in the dungeon is randomly generated -- the map, the monsters, the treasures.  The fact that they managed to make that work and still play in a reasonably balanced way is a tribute to the designers, BUT it seems to lead to really flat, non-suspenseful, undifferentiated gameplay.  Contrast this with a game like Descent which also has a modular board, but relies on adventure scenarios to describe the layout of the dungeon specifically and the positioning and powers of specific monsters.  The effect in Descent is that each adventure feels completely different and feels like you are on a real quest against a real adversary.  Ravenloft just feels like running around in a random dungeon with tons of monsters to hack up.  Now there are further adventures to play in the Ravenloft quest book, and the potential is there for better adventuring.. but while the game comes with tons of tiles, it's hard to feel like there is any real effect to having all of these tiles that look and behave almost identically.
* Compounding on the problem of feeling like you are in a non-stop uninteresting hack fest, is the fact monster movement is almost entirely uninteresting and does not involve any strategic/tactical element of interest.  This is a pretty damning problem -- basically monsters move by larger tile units, and there is really no sense in which players can tactically position themselves in certain places.  The benefit is very streamlined fast combat, which is great, but it also sucks almost most of the fun out of fighting monsters. Ravenloft is basically a monster-fighting game where the monster fighting isn't particularly fun.  Contrast this to Heroscape which is a pure-combat game with no adventuring; the fighting in Heroscape is fast and simple, but dripping with strategic positioning, tough choices, and unpredictable extended battles.  Now in fairness, both Heroscape and Descent are not pure co-op games, they use a dungeon master player to control monsters; Ravenloft designers have found a way to let all players play on the same team, but the combat really suffers horribly from it.
* Lots of different monster figures, but the differences between how they behave are pretty small, and because you kill off and reveal monsters at such a rapid pace, you quickly start seeing the same monsters over and over, and it can get monotonous; the cure to this would be to have a gameplay that involves much fewer monster battles, with much stronger creatures that involve long drawn out fights.
* Teamwork feels limited; as much as this is a cooperative game, it doesn't feel like there is much room for real teamwork; on each players turn there is usually a new monster that will attack that player, so at least in our game every player was usually fighting their own monster and not paying too much attention to each other.  Clearly there was the potential for players to help each other out a little, but it just didn't seem like this was a key part of the gameplay.
Redeeming Features:

* Beautiful game pieces; not very much real "art" but everything looks and feels great.  Great theme.
* Huge potential to have many of the problems outlined above "fixed" using alternate/home variations in rules; the game is begging for someone to re-work the rules to make the combat less frequent and less boring.
* Great streamlining of player combat and movement choices; great use of special rare actions.
* Easy to learn, easy to set up.
* Clever use of experience points to fend off negative encounters.
* Clever use of encounter deck to add some variety of events

Game Designer Interests:

* Good example of providing a variety of characters the players can choose to play and customizing them using the players choice of ability cards.
* Good example of putting enough instructions on cards to make it possible to play without referring to rulebook.
* Great lesson (in its failure) in how hard it is to make random quests feel suspenseful and like adventures.
* Great lesson (in its failure) about the drawbacks of having new monsters encountered and killed at such a rapid pace.
* Great lesson (in its failure) on the advantages of having a DM player controlling monsters, and how hard it is to design to pure coop for this genre without one.
* Great lesson (in its failure) about the trade-offs of randomness vs. scripted quests, and in why randomness in map layout may not be such a great idea.

Summary:

Reading my list of problems with the game, one might get the impression that I really disliked the game.  I didn't.  I actually enjoyed it, I just couldn't help but feel like it hadn't come close to living up to it's expectations, and could have been so much of a better game.

The main thing that could be done to fix the game would be to fix the way players encounter and battle monsters.  It has to be made much less frequent, much more of a drawn out extended process, and needs to involve some real strategic positioning, planning, and teamwork combat elements, and some variety in the way monsters react.

Final Rating:
Game as released: 7 of 10
Potential with rule changes: 9 of 10
Fellow player ratings: John (5.5), Traci (6)

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