What is this game about?
Dungeons & Dragons: Castle Ravenloft is a board game based on the Ravenloft module from D&D. Your ultimate goal is to destroy Count Strahd, a nasty vampire who is terrorizing the area. Castle Ravenloft basically uses simplified D&D rules, but the game runs the dungeon and you (plus up to four friends) work together to defeat the game itself.
The game comes with a booklet that gives you several different scenarios. Individual scenarios add up together to create a campaign that culminates in a showdown with Strahd. While each scenario will have some specific setup requirements, most of your room explorations, monsters, and encounters are randomized. All of the dungeon tiles can be fitted together in any configuration, so a room that is important in one scenario serves as a normal tile in another. Characters and monsters are represented by some pretty fun miniatures that will run amok over the dungeon areas you've explored. (The dracolich is particularly awesome—you'll figure that out the moment you open the game box!)
Turn structure is very simple. Each turn is divided into three phases: The player turn, when a character gets to move and/or attack; the exploration turn, when new exploration tiles may be drawn if a player is standing on the edge of the current map; and the enemy turn, when monsters (even newly generated ones) get to attack you. In this game, you will essentially never get the jump on a monster, and they can outnumber you very quickly, so.... be ready.
If you are already used to Dungeons & Dragons, your player's combat abilities will be second nature to you. If not, worry not—each of your characters will have a set of ability cards that clearly explain what each ability does and how it works. Monsters work similarly, in that their attack and movement conditions are clearly explained on individual monster cards. All successes and failures are determined by the roll of a single d20. While it seems like this game has a ton of monsters and many confusing ability choices, most combat scenarios are just variations on the same theme. You will get the hang of combat in no time, especially if you start with one of the first two scenarios to get your feet wet.
How does it play solo?
Castle Ravenloft is definitely a solo-friendly game. Two out of the thirteen scenarios that come with the game are explicitly for solo play, while the rest are cooperative adventures for 2–5 players. As with most cooperative games, Castle Ravenloft can be enjoyed solo as long as the player is comfortable with playing as multiple characters.
Controlling several characters is not too difficult in Castle Ravenloft because the turn structure is so straightforward. This game also scales reasonably well, in the sense that fewer characters means fewer monsters coming off of the monster deck. If you don't want to deal with the maximum number of miniatures on the board, just play with 2–3 characters. Playing with fewer characters can also save you both brain and table space, as each character has a set of ability cards to use during the game. While no ability is complicated on its own, it can get frustrating for one player to deal with all of them at once, especially if that player is new to the game.
For what it is, Castle Ravenloft is a very enjoyable experience. This game is best for people who just want to beat up monsters. The onslaught of monsters and encounters is relentless, and it can feel like the game is more about survival than about tactical brilliance. Since success and failure are determined by d20 rolls, there is a lot of randomness in the game, and you can definitely lose because you have a run of bad luck. If none of that bothers you, you are going to have a good time—the combat system makes sense, the minis are pretty nice, and you'll get to experience some D&D goodness without needing to get a full tabletop campaign underway.
That said, Castle Ravenloft is not without its flaws. Its streamlined system can get fairly repetitive, especially during "intense" parts of a scenario where you are dealing with crazy numbers of monsters. I think this repetitiveness is exacerbated during solo play, because there is no one to banter or argue with while you brawl it out. The adventure book does its very best to switch things up for you from scenario to scenario, but the story is just a little too thin to carry the game over an extended period of time, at least for me.
I also think that the advent of more complicated, story-driven board game RPGs (think Gloomhaven) are making Castle Ravenloft show its age. It's fun, but it's not cutting edge anymore. I am personally okay with that, but it's something to know going in.
Do I recommend it?
If you like dungeon crawls and occasionally need to scratch that D&D itch without long-term commitment, then yes, I recommend this game. It's a good option if you want to beat up some monsters, cast some spells, and call it a night. It's also great if you want to introduce other gamers to a lighter version of D&D.
For me, Castle Ravenloft is fun, but not compelling enough for me to want more D&D board games in my collection. There are actually several entries in the D&D board game series, including The Legend of Drizzt, Wrath of Ashardalon, and Temple of Elemental Evil. While others would probably disagree, I personally do not recommend keeping more than one of these on hand. Each one will run you roughly $50, the game boxes are enormous, and all of the games are based on essentially the same repetitive turn and combat sequences. Pick the one that appeals to you most and stick with it.
Overall Rating: 3 stars
5 - I love it!
4- I really like it.
3 - I like it.
2 - It's okay.
1 - Meh.