Review: Wrath of Ashardalon

March 29th, 2011

Wrath of PAX

The most fun I had at PAX East 2011 was playing Wrath of Ashardalon (WoA).  That’s a huge statement to make considering PAX was a giant geek-playground stocked with more board games and table top games than I imagined existed.  I was lucky enough to get in on a Wizards of the Coast (WotC) sponsored WoA game.  Wrath of Ashardalon is for 1-5 players, and with a lengthy queue forming, Wizards of the Coast was getting five in for every game.  As first in line I was picked first along with three guys who knew each other and one more person in line who was also by themselves. (Helpful Hint: At PAX you can sometimes skip part of the queue if you’re by yourself and they just need one more to fill out a group.)

What is it

WoA is a cooperative board game set in the Dungeons & Dragons universe.  The gameplay is very similar to current 4e D&D, but stripped down and simplified.  Players new to D&D (and RPGs) will find this an inviting, non-intimidating board game, while those more familiar will feel right at home.  For the D&D veterans out there WoA feels like a D&D adventure with less story, no roleplaying and, hopefully, no rules lawyering.  While some may miss the story and roleplaying elements, the game builds its own sense of tension and impending doom.

The major differences between WoA and a regular D&D 4e session all stem from a single point: WoA does not use a Dungeon Master.  Instead of a single mind having pre-planned encounters, intricate plots and controlling monsters in combat, this is all left up to chance.  While this may make the game feel random compared to a more coherent story line (Why is a Duergar fighting with a bear, a snake and three legion demons?), it also allows for the same game to be vastly different on each play through.  Randomness is what generates the re-playability.  No DM also means that playing with three or two or even one person is now not only possible, but simple!

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In the box

WoA comes in a large, heavy box, which is necessary considering how much is packed in there.  There is no one large fold out board as you would expect from a boardgame. Instead the you build the game board (dungeon map) as you go from randomly shuffled tiles.  The box contents include:

  • 41 dungeon tiles (one starting tile, 22  for general use, and the remaining 18 are used on a scenario-dependent basis)
  • Large cards representing each hero and the major villains in the game
  • 42 miniatures, 5 representing heroes and the rest are all the monsters you will face.
  • 200 cards form the randomized decks of monsters, treasures, encounters and more.
  • A rule book containing the basic rules for playing.
  • An adventure book containing the different adventures you can run.
  • An incredible number of tokens for everything from player hit points to healing surges, condition markers, spell powers, etc.
  • A single d20, which is the only die you’ll need for WoA.

Upon first opening the box you’ll find all the dungeon tiles, hero cards and tokens in 13 large cardboard sheets.  You’ll begin by popping all of there out of the cardboard sheets.  The miniatures are sealed in bags by color which are then sealed in a single larger bag.  The cards are sealed into two decks.  So expect a little (dis)assembly time before you get to play.  Thankfully the plastic insert in the box is fairly well divided and I found a place for everything to fit in a reasonably organized way.  The insert contains two spots for cards, which underneath have room for the larger door, trap and hazard markers. Next there are two spots for the dungeon tiles which allows you to break up the commonly used from the scenario specific tiles and hero cards, underneath which you can sort your tokens into the commonly/scenario specific piles.  Lastly there is a large bin for all the miniatures to sit.

As someone who owns quite a few of the pre-painted D&D miniatures, I was very interested to see what these minis were like.  At PAX East they had substituted in pre-painted minis instead of the more boring monochromatic minis that come with the game.  All of the minis seem to use sculpts from previously released miniature sets and are made of a similar rubbery-plastic material.  Sadly no pre-paints here: heroes are blue, monsters are either red or grey.  That being said, there is nothing to stop you from swapping in your own pre-painted minis or you can paint the minis that came with WoA.  Here is an amazing example of the latter: Painted Wrath of Ashardalon Miniatures.

The d20 that comes with the game was also disappointing.  Much like the dice included with any WotC product they seem to pick the  cheapest, most boring dice they can find.  I think they greatly underestimate player’s attachment to really nice looking dice, and being the only one in a $70 board game, I’d like to think they could have splurged for something a little nicer.  Again, there’s nothing stopping you from using your own d20 or having each player use their own d20’s, which will also help speed up play. So why is there only a single die include? Because all damage is pre-calculated, so you only need to see if you hit, the rest of the math is done for you.

General gameplay

There are five heroes to choose from: Dwarf Fighter, Dragonborn Wizard, Half-Orc Rogue, Elf Paladin and Human Cleric.  Everyone starts at level one with the ability to level up to a maximum of two during the course of the game.  The concept of At-Will, Daily and Utility powers all transition from D&D 4e to WoA. There are no encounter powers, which makes sense as the game is not broken cleanly into encounters.  In fact it will be fairly rare for there to be no monsters prowling the dungeon.  Daily and Utility powers are flipped over after use, though certain treasure cards and abilities may later allow you to flip them back over.  Don’t count on getting more than one, so use these powers wisely.  At-will powers can of course be used repeatedly.  You begin the game with 2 At-wills, 1 Daily, 1 utility and one class/race power.  There is a small selection of powers for each class allowing you to customize your character to some extent.

Every turn is composed of the Hero Phase, where you can attack and/or move, Exploration Phase where you may flip new dungeon tiles exposing new monsters and possibly find an encounter, and lastly the Villain phase where you are responsible for moving and attacking with any monsters under your control.  Attacking is the standard roll a d20, add a modifier and compare it to target number.  Meet it or beat it to hit.  Monsters have 1 or 2 hit points, while villains will have 6 or more, similar to the heroes.

The game begins with three healing surges(this number is customizable between 0-5 making it harder->easier).  If a character begins a turn with zero hit points, they use a healing surge to regain their character specific number of hit points back.  If a character begins their turn with zero hit points and there are no healing surges left, the game is over.  This really emphasizes the cooperative nature of the game.  One lose, all lose.  Both the paladin and cleric have limited healing abilities and there are healing potion treasures to be found.

Solo play

The idea of being able to play WoA with just one person was my biggest point of interest when I first heard about this game.  “I can play D&D without having to schedule it with 4 other people?! WOOHOO!”  While the Adventure Book only contains one adventure designated for solo play, it does state that any of the adventures can be run solo, either by having a single player run multiple heroes or just a single hero “for the ultimate challenge”.

After un-boxing and (dis)assembling the game pieces, I was ready to try the introductory solo scenario.  In this scenario you shuffle the 22 standard dungeon tiles then take one of the adventure-specific tiles and place it sixth in the stack.  This tile is the exit tile which when flipped reveals the big villain for this adventure (a Kobold!).  To win you must end your turn on the exit tile having slain the Kobold villain. I found it strange to know where in the pile the exit would be and it was fairly difficult not to metagame the situation when you know the tile is coming up sixth.  The other option would be random placement, but then the length of the game becomes significantly more indeterminate.  Some middle ground is needed to keep players from knowing they only have so many tiles to flip before the game is over.  On the plus side, there are encounters and monsters that will flip tiles up from the bottom of the stack as well, so the map took more turns and was larger than this fixed number might imply.

If you’re worried about a solo board game being easy and boring, I assure you that is not the case.  I nearly died after flipping the first tile from the stack.  I was immediately confronted by a cave bear and a whirling blades trap. This took out 4 of my 5 hit points first turn.  This is no simple, easy walk-through dungeon.  By the time I killed the villain and escaped there were six more monsters approaching from every direction.

Going into it, I wasn’t sure what to expect from a game I was going to play alone, but the overall feel of solo play is similar to playing a computer game.  You’re not actively conversing with your opponent (the game/computer) but you definitely feel the opposition.  By the time I found the last tile the tension was palpable.  The threats were quite real as monsters were causing new tiles to flip spawning more monsters.  I was lucky enough to level up along my way (thanks to a treasure card), which helped considerably.  It was touch and go, but I made it alive, just barely.  There was not a dull moment to be had, WoA picks up steam quickly and never relents until you’re dead or you’ve won.

Group play

Group play is just as exciting, though perhaps slightly less tense than solo play as you feel like someone else has your back.  Before writing this I played in two group games, one hosted by WotC at PAX East, and another with my usual D&D group.  Both runs were very exciting and a lot of fun, but true to the game’s intentions they were wildly different experiences.  The game’s scalability from 1-5 works so well because each player is going to discover new tiles, monsters and encounters.  The more players the more monsters and encounters you are going to encounter, so the game naturally scales up the intensity.  There are no special rule changes when you add more people, it’s all cleverly built into the game system.

In the case of group play it’s important to remember that the moment any one player dies, the game is over and you have lost.  Group cooperation isn’t just helpful, it’s necessary to win. “Don’t split the party!”, fourth-edition’s mantra carries over into WoA.  Most quests have the goal of finding a certain location and killing a villain to win.  If the group is vastly separated when someone does find the final room, the rest of the group will have a struggle just to get there, having to not only run from monsters they discovered but possibly crashing head long into a wave of monsters that another player is running from.  All the while you have one or two heroes facing the dreaded villain all alone.  A balance must be struck as having the entire group on one tile opens them up to devastating tile-wide encounters, traps and monster attacks.  The best balance is had by continually moving the group forward in the same basic direction, trying to keep line of sight with the party as much as possible, but not clumping up on the same tile.

Another added benefit of group play is that a lot more monsters will be killed, leading to a larger experience pool from which you can draw to level up or cancel a particularly nasty encounter card.  The additional treasures generated are also helpful.  Keep in mind that items can be traded freely between adjacent characters, so have the wizard hand off the melee weapon to the fighter, and share around the healing potions.  The sharing of treasure items can really add another level of tactical cooperation.  In our regular D&D group’s game handing a speed potion off to the rogue was enough to get him into position to finish off the villain and win the game.

I think the weight of the cooperative nature of WoA is heavier than a regular session of D&D. Players are much more open to discussing their planned tactics and to new suggestions, as each hero is not as tough individually as in a typical D&D encounter for 4e.  You need the group to survive and they need you to survive.  The meta-gaming aspects I mentioned in solo play were, for us, completely removed.  There were three main reasons for this:  First because I setup the game and did not tell the players that the end tile was a certain number of cards deep, so everyone else was clueless.  Second, the end tile was mixed with three other tiles and shuffled, then that stack was placed a certain number of tiles deep in the pile, so even I did not know exactly when it would pop.  Third, with five people there were so many tiles coming off the top and bottom of the stack that keeping track of how deep we were would have required paying special attention and it was easy to get lost in the game and not worry about the meta-gaming aspects of the dungeon tile stack.  Shuffling the tile into a number of other tiles should have been a part of the initial solo adventure, which would have helped there as well.

At PAX, with no distractions and under the tutelage of a WotC employee, five new players completed and won a game of WoA in about an hour and a half.  Playing with my regular D&D group, with only myself having played before, along with allowing the players to select their own power cards, we spent closer to three hours, but as is often the case with at home D&D sessions, there were many distractions, including lunch and two babies.  The box makes the bold claim that each quest can be completed in an hour or less.  Perhaps for a group familiar with the game and a couple runs under their belt this may be realistic, but plan for a lot more for your group’s first time.


There were very few drawbacks to be found in WoA.  It’s a solid game packed with excitiment for 1-5 players.  I would like to see more Power Cards for the heroes, giving more diversity to characters that can be created as well as a couple additional characters, giving better selection to 5 players. While more adventures would certainly be welcome, the ones included contain sufficient randomization to keep it interesting for many runs. More adventures are available online, both from WotC as well as fan-made adventures, and of course you can always make your own.  As I mentioned above a nicer d20 is such a simple thing to provide that would really add a special touch of quality to the game.  Lastly I recognize the price for the game would skyrocket to have all pre-painted minis, but including pre-painted hero minis would really set them off as the heroes in the dungeon rather than blue blobs amidst other monochromatic blobs.

As a solo game this game was very challenging and much more engaging than I expected considering there was no one to interact with.  As a group game all the players had a great time and challenge level was definitely comparable to solo play.  The re-playability factor here is enormous, as it should be since that’s the fundamental basis for the game.  Everything that can be randomized is, treasure, leveling up, the monsters, the map, the encounters, all different every time.  Some adventures even have a randomized villain at the end.  If your group is looking for a longer game with WoA, campaign rules are also included.

For those board gamers who are already fans of D&D, this is a must-have.  For gamers who are interested in getting into D&D, this makes a nice gateway into the world and combat of Dungeons & Dragons, without the roleplaying and DMing.  Lastly, for anyone who wants an immersive, re-playable board game with tactics, tension and excitement this will not disappoint. I look forward to playing it again, alone or with friends, very soon.

March 29th, 2011
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