Title: Escape the Dark Castle
Designer: Alex Crispin, Thomas Pike, James Shelton
Publisher: Themeborne Ltd
Player no: 1 - 4
Avg Play Time: 30 - 40 mins
45 x A6 Chapter Cards
9 x Custom Character Cards
6 x A6 Character Cards
6 x Customised Character Dice
3 x A6 Boss Cards
35 x Item Cards
1 x A6 Start Card
1 x Score Pad
4 x Pencils
One of my absolute favourite books growing up was a Fighting Fantasy book called “Deathtrap Dungeon” where the reader would be invited to make a decision about how the story progressed. These choices could range from deciding which way to head down a corridor or whether to help a fair maiden (an invariably fatal decision in Fighting Fantasy). The first time I remember the stress of trying to make the ‘right’ choice and hoping against hope that I would survive, I think I even tried to cheat and peek at the options until I figured out there wasn’t right choice, but rather a journey I should experience. I read that book so many times, choosing every possible scenario, each more fun than the last! Escape the Dark Castle, evokes similar feelings of equal dread but excitement as the path ahead is unclear but the story is just beginning!
Escape the Dark Castle fills this childhood void, and allows me to share the experience of these Fighting Fantasy books with friends or even as a solo game. As a co-operative dice rolling adventure game for 1-4 players, Escape the Dark Castle was designed by Themeborne an independent design studio based in Nottingham, England. It was successfully funded on Kickstarter in November 2017 and shipped out to prisoners - oh I mean backers - in January 2018. The Kickstarter backers were given the option of the core game, and also the first Expansion (Cult of the Death Knight). A limited edition cassette of ambient soundtrack to accompany your party as you progress through the castle was also available if you missed out, you can still listen to it here.
Game Play Overview
Start in a prison cell with 1+ characters, their special dice, and then working as a team to defeat the (randomly selected) big boss and win freedom! Fifteen simple looking monochrome chapter cards are selected at random which will form your story deck and at the bottom of the pile you place a randomly selected boss. To progress, just turn over the cards and make the relevant decisions. Each character uses a dice weighted to that characters skill set which are cleverly depicted by carvings on the cell wall. Progress through the deck, a chapter (card) at a time, defeating encounters, keeping track of health using pen and paper, collecting items until you meet your final boss.
Escape the Dark Castle: Example Encounter
Escape the Dark Castle: Example Final Boss
All very basic stuff but the beauty of this game is that it is oozing in theme. Each time you play this game it will be different – 45 chapter cards in the base set alone and only 15 required to complete the quest. All the bosses are equally horrible to deal with. As you escape you will face bats and other monsters but sometimes you’ll just get cursed by an evil spirit or wandering figures which may help or hinder you.
Escape the Dark Castle: Example Items
The page turning effect mechanic is simple but effective and allow the team to focus on immediate decisions without being distracted by what else is going on around a board or some personal objective. Every choice important down to who turns over the next card, because of who might be lurking around the next card! The removal of distractions such as overly stylized colourful art allows the highly thematic cards and text retain a focused feeling. The chapter cards just don’t tell you what will kill you, they give you a choice. The combat rolls required for each opponent differ each time – adding further randomness in each quest. Despite its simple concept, it is certainly not easy – we have only escaped once! If you play with the Cult of the Death Knight expansion, it offers an additional:
3 New Characters & their Custom Dice - each a powerful specialist
15 New Chapter Cards – taking you to new areas of The Dark Castle
1 New Boss Card – the Death Knight himself, Lord of Decay
3 New Item Cards – Introducing Curses, terrible afflictions to thwart your progress
It is hard not to be captivated by the story potential behind the game and where it could potentially lead (perhaps beyond the castle!) through additional adventure packs. The theme is immersive but the story telling adds a level of engagement, that for such a deceptively simple game, means turning over the chapter card, feeling dread for what lies ahead, is almost something to look forward to, despite knowing whatever it was could kill us...
So What’s the Scoop?
One of the features of this game which is referred to almost unanimously in all reviews I could find is the artwork, which seems to has had a polarising effect on the board game community. There are those feeling that it is one of the attractive aspects about the game (Unfiltered Gamer), and others, such as Tom Vasel, who believe that it does not look like much, and even go as far as to say it is amateurish. Personally, I think it would be a disservice to the artist (Alex Crispin), and indeed the publishers for choosing this style to vilify them for the art choice. I enjoy the ambience it creates and believe that it is an important stylistic decision for the nostalgia they clearly want to create. It provides a reverence to the classic rpg games of old without giving into kitsch or gimmicky components.
Escape the Dark Castle: Rule Book
Broadly speaking Talisman would be the most comparable game with much greater depth and variety of gameplay in terms of character archetypes and strategy, meaning theoretically Escape the Dark Castle will not support the same number of plays. However, Escape the Dark Castle has allows for much better game pacing, which means that practically speaking this is more likely to hit your gaming table multiple times per gaming session.
On the surface it might not look like much but one of the great things about Escape the Dark Castle is that the rules can be learned in just a few minutes. There are no standout characters that would cause any quarterbacking at the table, often an issue for co-operative games. The mechanics are elegant in their simplicity, so it’s accessible to people new to tabletop gaming. Some people may find the old style of manually recording HP points a bit frustrating but a D20 could easily act as a stand in to pen and paper.
There have been some criticisms of decision making process, as the cards clearly state what the results will mean. Giving cards to other players to read to act as a stand-in DM is a way to overcome this, but I feel the randomness of the dice rolls prevent any decisions being obvious - there is always a risk when chance is involved!
Themeborne currently have another live Kickstarter for the next expansion packs and a collectors box. One of the pledge tiers offer the current entire Escape the Dark Castle collection for £80 if you don’t want to miss out. The next expansions included in this kickstarter are:
Adventure Pack 2 - Scourge of the Undead Queen
Adventure Pack 3 - Blight of the Plague Lord
The Collector's Box
If you’re a fan of choose your own adventures, simple and engaging gameplay and disturbing monsters then Escape the Dark castle may be for you! It's the most fun we have had with pen and paper!