The new D&D boardgame is here- Tomb of Annihilation. Previous games have revisited classic adventures and storylines, like Castle Ravenloft, the Temple of Elemental Evil, or the Drizzt stories. This is the first one to be released concurrently with the adventure it simulates, which had me a little concerned at first that it might feature spoilers for players of the adventure. Looking through it (and having read the adventure), there will be spoilers, but they will be relatively minor- some of the villains the characters will face, and the types of traps.
Visually, the components are pretty impressive. The miniatures are the usual high quality sculpts. There are none of the assemble-yourself fliers that have plagued recent D&D mini sets (or the dragon from ToEE), and the Stone Juggernaut figure actually made me wish I’d considered shelling out for the pre-painted premium set. The dungeon tiles themselves feature both jungle and tomb sites, (each adventure uses one set or the other), and are more visually detailed than previous sets.
Gameplay-wise, it follows the example of the previous set, featuring a campaign mode where characters can level-up, and the adventure deck changes from session to session. One of my complaints of ToEE was campaign balance- the first few adventures were challenging, but character abilities quickly escalated to the point that the final adventures were a cakewalk. There seems to be greater attention to balancing the game here- adventure deck card substitutions are consistent, the cost of canceling event cards increases as the game progresses (and the monster deck becomes filled with higher xp monsters). Failing an adventure lets you do it an again with an additional healing surge, and completing an adventure and spending no healing surges gives you an immediate boon (usually extra gold), but a fewer surge on your next adventure. I played the two adventures, and the deck seemed filled with pretty generous encounter cards and low-powered monsters.
The heroes are a pretty exciting mix. They represent friendly NPCs from the Tomb of Annihilation adventure, and feature a Ranger, a Wizard, a Paladin (only the 2nd), and for the first time, a Bard, and a Druid. At a first glance, they appear to be a bit more powerful than previous adventurer’s counterparts- Arctus Cimber, the Ranger, gets two extra daily powers from a special selection as his special ability, and Ashara the Aarakocra Wizard can spend movement points to fly over monsters and traps, potentially moving three tiles a turn.
The tiles follow the ToEE model- some tiles have more than one monster symbol, some have trap tokens, some have both. The trap tokens are flipped over when stepped on- they might be safe, they might have a damage amount on them, or a new innovation, they might say ‘draw’, and have you draw a trap card, like the trap encounter cards of the first few sets. This combines the best of both worlds- featuring the minor traps and the more exciting trap cards, however they have a different card back, that means mixing them with the other sets may need sleeves if you want to make them more traditional trap cards, and you still have the physical fiddliness of the trap tiles themselves.
Another innovation is the Spell deck, a deck of random spells. The Wand of Wonder can let you cast a random spell from the deck, and certain encounter cards or enemies will let the bad guys cast a spell. I didn’t get a chance to draw any cards from the spell deck, but I’m looking forward to seeing it in play.
The boss monster we encountered, a Vegypygmy Chieftan, came along with three more Vegypygmies, which acted each turn after its activation, and could spawn more if they were defeated. This seems like a pretty interesting innovation- a boss design other than just a pile of hit points and some various attacks, like the Elementals in ToEE.
The booklets say you can play any adventure as a pick-up scenario, which I suppose is technically true, but without the campaign balancing, the difficulty is likely to be a crapshoot. If you liked the campaign experience of ToEE, this seems a bit more refined. If you preferred the modular one-shots of the early sets, you may end up a bit disappointed. Overall, I’m eager to give this one a try.