Dungeons & Dragons: Wrath of Ashardalon is a tabletop game by Wizards of the Coast designed for 1-5 players. “Hang on,” you might ask, “how in the world can one player play a D&D game? Who is the Dungeon Master?” Good question, astute reader – in this particular game, there is no Dungeon Master.
I’m somewhat new to board games in general, so when I decided to take the plunge, I was looking for a few things in particular: one, a game played with lots of figurines and small parts – much like Hero Quest and Space Crusade, both of which I loved as a kid; two, a fairly easy rule-set that was not a huge impediment to new players; and three, a game that could be played by two players and didn’t require a Dungeon Master. D&D: Wrath of Ashardalon ticks all three boxes perfectly.
Set up is a bit of a chore, but when it comes to these kinds of board games, that’s part of the fun. In fact, I’d go as far as saying it’s possibly the most complex aspect of the game. Let me provide a brief example. In the manual, there are 13 scenarios – each outlines a slightly different story, and describes the components required for play. Depending on how well you have organised the box, this could be quick and painless, or could involve you going through a pile of small tokens trying to find that one item you need. Fun.
Once set up, players then choose their character from 5 pre-made builds, choose their powers (which essentially defines standard attacks and special moves), and place their character on a starting tile to begin the game.
Hero choices are distinct, but no single hero really outclasses any other. The rogue, fighter, and paladin start out with fairly similar specs, but the rogue and fighter have useful skills to put them out of harm’s way in difficult situations. The wizard, while defensively weak in comparison to other heroes, has a multitude of abilities to choose from, most of which are either high-powered attacks, or can relocate monsters on the board. The cleric, surprisingly, has the best set of Daily Powers – one of which allows all players to attack at once, and then moves all remaining monsters on that tile up to two tiles away. That said, the rest of the cleric’s moves are pretty tame by comparison. In essence, choice of hero comes down to slightly more useful per move (at will) options, or over powered single use (utility/daily power) options.
Story progression and dungeon randomisation is pretty simple. The board comes in pieces – each tile containing a number of spaces that players can move upon. These are shuffled into a pile, with special tiles required for specific scenarios shuffled into the middle of the pile. Play then progresses until either a specific tile (location) or enemy is discovered – this could take one hour, or several, and all depends on the kind of situations are encountered in the interim.
A player’s move consists of three stages – the Hero Phase, which covers your players moves and attacks; the Villain Phase, whereby that same player then moves the enemy characters under their control (more on that shortly); and the Exploration Phase, where the board is expanded, or random encounters/events occur (sometimes both). This occurs for each player, and it is for this reason that games can take a LONG time to play through, so be prepared.
So how does the Villain Phase play out? Again, the premise is simple. Over the course of a turn at least one monster is likely to be discovered – for example, selecting a new tile to expand the board includes a monster (selected at random from a card deck). Any monster discovered on a specific player’s turn remains under the control of that player for the duration of the game (although there are some Encounter cards that can change that). During that player’s Villain Phase, they then refer to the Monster card for the monsters under their control – the simple steps outlined therein defines exactly who and how the monster will attack. In this way, players can’t (necessarily) pick on another player.
It all plays quite well, although it is a little clinical, and that’s my biggest gripe. With so many rules to define everything you do as a player, it feels less like Role Playing and more like ticking off a to-do list. Don’t get me wrong, though – it’s fun, and there are so many different enemies to encounter that the game feels varied, but just lacks a sense of imagination.
Another issue – the game can be really difficult, especially with only two players (there’s only one scenario recommended for a single player). As the game relies heavily on chance, and there are some extremely overpowered Encounter cards to be found within the deck, sometimesthe experience can prove very frustrating. In one game, where my wife and I wanted to sneak in a quick game before bed, we pulled trap upon trap, upon high-level monster upon high-level monster… It was relentless, and we actually gave up in the end (although we didn’t die, let’s be clear on that). Whether this bothers you or not depends, I guess, on what kind of game you are expecting to sit down to. If you just want a quick, quiet game, perhaps just chose the first scenario. Otherwise, you could be in for a battle.
For example, the traps themselves can be a bit of a trial. There are tokens that can represent the trap you’ve discovered, whether it’s a Flow of Lava, or Boulders, or Darts, or whatever, but with effects that are intended to be applied at the start of every turn until the trap is destroyed – they can often be overlooked. The tiles themselves are pretty drab, and the traps are no more colourful, so it’s often something that can go unnoticed for several turns. We never really came up with a good solution for this.
Attacks and cancels (for traps and status ailments) are extremely simplified – all rolls use a single 20-sided die. In fact, the whole game feels like a watered-down version of Dungeons & Dragons which, in reality, is what this is. Take away a large chunk of player control, and put in place a number of very simple rules to follow and you have a board game that pretty much follows the format of a standard game of Dungeons & Dragons, albeit at a different pace.
I have to mention that this is one title in a series of what Wizards of the Coast refer to as their “D&D Adventure System”. Three different titles, with slightly different rules, monsters, characters, and so on, but all of which can be mixed and matched to play together. Hopefully I will get around to reviewing the other titles in the series (Castle Ravenloft and The Legend of Drizzt), at which point I’ll outline the differences, but more importantly, I hope to try this system in practice, and see how well it works…
Overall, I do think I made the right choice when I chose D&D: Wrath of Ashardalon as my first foray into the world of tabletop games. It holds your hand from start to finish (which some may see as a negative), and really lays down the foundations for a number of RPG tropes – hit points, Armour Class, traps, rolls, and so on – essentially, now that I’ve played this, more complex games will be somewhat easier. The problem is that it has left me craving more – while we’ve played a number of games, we haven’t quite had that “wow” moment that I felt I needed to share. Maybe with more players in some of the later scenarios we will achieve that goal.
It is fun to play, though, and I guess that’s what it all boils down to. There’s no complexity to the game, and within one turn there are several monsters on the board ready to tear your eyes out – some of which are incredibly dangerous, others just fodder. And with the apparent randomness of the board itself, it really does feel like some basic dungeon crawling/exploration.
As an added bonus, I was able to teach my wife to play pretty easily – and she has likely never played a similar game in her life. And she enjoyed it, too, even playing subsequent games, so that’s really saying something.