Gathering some friends together for Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) can be fun, but if your group is anything like mine, the position of Dungeon Master is not sought after. Everyone usually wants to play a carefully crafted character, which is understandable considering how much time can go into developing one. Sure, the DM controls a bunch of characters and story, but more often than not, the NPCs will be murdered (usually by friends' characters) and the story will be derailed (by those same friends). Plus, D&D can eat up a lot of time. It’s for those reasons I was interested in the new Dungeon & Dragons: Temple of Elemental Evil board game from Wizards of the Coast (WotC) and WizKids.
Instant Adventure in a Box
Temple of Elemental Evil is the newest game in the D&D Adventure System Cooperative Board Games line (previous releases include Castle Ravenloft, Wrath of Ashardalon, and Legend of Drizzt) and the first from the WizKids/WotC partnership. The Adventure System games provide 1-5 players with a fully cooperative, D&D-light experience without needing a DM. The monsters, traps, and other things that go bump in the dungeon are controlled by a fairly simple set of “If, Then” statements. The dungeons (or towns) are randomly generated as the players reveal new rooms from a stack of tiles. And the dice have been scaled back to just one 20-sided die to determine hits while damage varies based on skills and monsters.
Temple gives players a lot of bang for their buck. You get your standard Rulebook (with some new rules that we’ll discuss in a bit), an Adventure Book (where you’ll find the campaign), 32 interlocking dungeon tiles, 42 plastic miniatures, 200 cards, 280 tokens/markers, and a 20-sided die. Unfortunately, as in previous editions of the games, the stones pictured on the back of the box are not included. I guess it would making shipping a real Bugbear to deal with. Oh well.
The components are all very well made. The cardboard tiles are sturdy, with no peeling or tearing (even after using them multiple times). The same goes for all of the tokens and markers. The cards are durable. I haven’t sleeved them yet, but they’ve stood up to intense shuffling without bending. And then we have the real standouts (and stand ups) of the game: the minis. WizKids’ experience with miniature making seems to have paid off. Every mini is fully assembled and nicely detailed, especially the five heroes. I think they’d end up looking really nice with some paint on them, but I’ll leave that to those with more patience than me.
It's Not D&D Without a Story
Once you have everything unpacked and all the cardboard punched out, you’re ready to start the Temple of Elemental Evil campaign. The heroes follow a set campaign that takes place over 13 different adventures, ranging from a daring escape from the titular Temple, to a hunt for cultists hidden among the town of Red Larch, to a final climactic battle with a twist ending. I like the campaign approach because it helps recreate the feeling of a story being told, something I imagine would be easy to lose when creating a board game version of D&D.
You're not required to play the adventures in any particular order if you don't want to, but I think you're doing yourself and the game a disservice if you don't play the campaign at least once in the intended order. A bit of narrative starts off each adventure, picking up from the last one, weaving a story not unlike a DM would do for their gaming group. At times, there are even player choices to be made that will affect certain outcomes. Speaking of player choices, before the first adventure, everyone chooses their favorite hero. All the iconic classes are represented: Cleric, Fighter, Rogue, Ranger, and Wizard. These will be your heroes for the story and will increase in power as you go, but more on that later.
Randomly Generated Fun (and Death)
When you begin an adventure, special instructions are provided on how to sort specific tiles into the Dungeon Tile Deck — the game’s way of generating the random dungeons each time you play — and what cards to include in the Monster, Treasure, and Encounters Decks. Depending on how your group did in one adventure dictates what goes into those decks (except the Tile Deck) for the next one. And while you know what is in each deck, you never know what is going to be revealed when.
Once you start exploring from the starter tile, new dungeon tiles are revealed from the deck when a player ends their turn on an unexplored edge of a tile. When revealed, the new tile indicates whether one, two, or three monsters are deployed through the use of Monster Symbols. And sometimes, if you’re lucky, there will be no Monster Symbols at all. In previous editions, monsters spawned on bone piles that were one per tile, so Temple is a much more dangerous experience.
The way monsters are controlled is fairly clever. The player that revealed a tile is considered the owner of the monster(s) it spawned (each player can only control one of each type). Meaning, on that player's turn, those monsters activate. The only time one of your monsters might activate on another player’s turn (or you might activate theirs) is if you each have the same type of monster in your control. Knowing who controls which monsters helps players plan out strategies for what to kill first. There are even abilities that allow a player to pass a monster to someone else, so the monster's action can be delayed for at least a turn, which can prove critical.
A Monster’s movement and attack patterns are detailed on their cards. These are the “If, Then” statements I referred to earlier. For example, the Bugbear says, “If the Bugbear is within 1 tile of a Hero, it moves adjacent to the closet Hero and attacks that Hero with a spiky club. Otherwise, this Monster moves 2 tiles toward the closest Hero.” The Monster’s card also contains their AC, HP, Attack bonus, Damage, Experience value (more on this in a bit), and any Special Abilities it may have.
Tiles also indicate where traps will be placed. In previous games, the Encounter Deck would spring traps, but tiles now come with pre-marked spots for trap that must be disabled through a simple die check (1-10 fails and 11-20 succeeds) or through carelessly walking over them (looking at all you fighter types out there).
The tiles’ duty is not done yet, however. Each tile has a black or white arrow that points towards the tile it’s connecting to. A white arrow means you can relax. A black arrow means you’re the lucky winner of an Encounter Card. Encounter Cards are bad. Actually, they are the worst. Nothing good comes of them. The best thing that could happen is it destroys your treasure, and that’s only good because it means your hero’s blood is staying inside their body where it belongs… unless, of course, it destroys your treasure and damages you. How fun!
The black arrow isn’t the only way to get an Encounter Card. If you don’t explore a new tile, you’re forced to draw an Encounter as well. And this is on every player’s turn. As you might have guessed, this makes the game very difficult. My group ran into a situation where we were fighting a Villain (think boss monster) and slowly retreating back through the temple, careful to not reveal new tiles in fear of spawning a bunch of monsters. However, this meant we had to constantly reveal Encounters, which ended up costing us the game. The best way to avoid these Encounters (besides randomly revealing a tile with a white arrow) is with experience.
Experience and Money
In past games, experience gained from killing monsters was used to level a character up (and only when a natural 20 was rolled or a card draw dictated it). In an odd turn, monster experience is no longer tied to leveling up. Experience can be spent during an adventure to prevent Encounters from spawning in an "appeasing the gods" kind of way, which is very helpful. The experience doesn't carry over each game, so it is wise to spend it when you have it. But how do characters level up without experience? Gold!
When a monster is killed, that player gets a Treasure Card, which could net them a cool new item or some gold. Between Adventures, when the heroes travel back to the town of Red Larch, they can spend 1,000 gold to go from Level 1 to Level 2. This whole idea of using gold instead of experience is really odd to me, but it works just fine.
I find only having two levels gives the impression of being fairly limited, especially when you're able to level up by the third adventure in a 13 adventure campaign. However, to rectify this, Temple introduces Advancement Tokens. These tokens can be purchased in town after reaching Level 2 and help to further improve your hero through offering once per adventure bonuses like “Regain 2 HP” or “+1 Damage.” The tokens are a nice touch, giving players something more to strive for after leveling up.
Dungeons & Dragons: Temple of Elemental Evil is a great addition to the D&D Adventure System Cooperative Board Games line. I've found myself looking forward to playing the next adventure each time. The game is very straightforward to play and easy to pick up. However, I don't know if I'd recommend it to players new to tabletop games because its difficulty level is fairly punishing due to the Encounter cards and a fairly high rate of monster spawns. The miniatures included with the game are high quality, so it isn't a bad way to get some minis for your next full D&D game. Whether you've been a longtime fan of the series or you're new to it, I highly recommend Temple of Elemental Evil, but it will make you work for that win.
A copy of Dungeons & Dragons: Temple of Elemental Evil was provided to TGN by WizKids for review purposes.