Escape The Dark Castle; and the Nightmare
“After years of incarceration in the depths of the dark castle, you finally break free of your cell. You hear footsteps approaching. You must not linger here. You make for the exit, slipping away and disappearing into the darkness…”
Usually, I’d put my own generally nonsensical preamble first, but the introduction to Escape The Dark Castle is so cool that I had to plagiarise it for the beginning of my review.
Any of you readers which were at the UK Games Expo may not know, but had you have made your way to the Games Quest stand, then you’d have seen yours truly. Before you ask, I’m the handsome one. What you may also have gotten is a leaflet in your bag with a black and white image and a choice on it: “A drunken guard stops you and demands to know your business. He is unsteady on his feet and his breath is vile (sorry to break theme for a second here, but honestly that sounds like every work Christmas Party I have ever been to). Do you Bribe him or Attack Him?
That one piece of card alone was enough for me to be interested in Escape The Dark Castle, and now I’d like to share my thoughts about it now it has been successfully fulfilled from its Kickstarter campaign.
Great! But what is it?
Escape the Dark Castle is a fully co-operative, dice flinging, semi “choose your own adventure”-esque board game from a first time publisher called Themeborne. In it, a group of 1-4 players will choose starting characters, wander through the trials and tribulations of the titular castle and then find themselves up again a big boss of some kind at the end. Because, let’s face it; you can’t escape the dark castle if someone is just going to leave the door open for you. I’m sure it’s tradition to stick something big and nasty in the way of the “heroes” just when they think they might be about to escape.
I need to say right away though, that Escape The Dark Castle is a game built around theme. See? Themeborne wasn’t just a cool name for a game company, it really was born that way. As such, I’m going to keep this review as spoiler free as possible, save for showing some of the really cool art.
Commence the Escape!
At the beginning of Escape the Dark Castle, you will choose at random 15 of 45 different chapter cards and lay these face down. You will then turn these over one at a time and deal with the consequences on the card before heading on to the next chapter. From the ones I have already encountered, they can be good or bad. Generally more bad than good, but even the sun shines on a dog’s behind some days. It can be that you’re faced with a choice as mentioned at the beginning, or you could end up stuck in combat against someone or something.
There is a big decision to be made at every turn of a chapter card though since some of them will have effects aimed at the player which turned it over. This is really great when you’re playing with other people as the “volunteering” can descend into sheer lunacy, but it’s something you really have to be mindful of playing solo. I ended up loosely cheating a couple of times by forgetting.
Combat is handled in an interesting manner. Each character has their own custom dice with different faces on it, as each character has specific strengths and weaknesses. For example, The Abbot is full of wisdom so has more of this than anything else on their die, but The Cook and The Smith are much stronger than the rest so has more might faces on their dice.
If you happen along a Chapter Card which asks for combat then you will be asked to add some Chapter Dice underneath the card and this will be the symbols the characters will need to roll to win in combat. There is also a “person” symbol which appears on a lot of Chapter Cards and this means that additional Chapter Dice need to be rolled for the amount of players and added to the Chapter Dice already needed for the person you’re in combat against.
For each round that you’re not successful against your foe, they will do you damage, and the amount of damage caused is in the bottom corner of the card. The amount of health each character has is determined by the amount of players at the beginning of the game, but you can also get items to help you along, or you can rest in the middle of combat if you need to gain some health back in and don’t have any items which can help you heal.
Items of Interest
Items in Escape the Dark Castle are an interesting affair on their own. Like I said, I’m not going to spoil too much for you, but they are all just a little bit off; sometimes literally. You can’t have a loaf of bread or an apple; it has to be a stale loaf of bread or a partially rotten apple. Even if you’re lucky to find a weapon or two (these will generally allow you to re-roll different dice for different attributes if need be) it’ll be rusted or cracked. Thematically, this makes tremendous sense as you’ve been stuck in a dark castle for goodness knows how long but it also adds the right tone to the game to go with the art and “story” you’re following.
Be prepared for Creepy
The art is probably what drew me towards Escape the Dark Castle in the first place, but it does make me worry about the state of my psyche. If there’s one word which can describe it, it’s just “off”. The character cards are all sat squarely in the middle of uncanny valley and the art of the chapter cards is hardly sweetness and light either. The character cards remind me of those creepy old paintings which are found in castles and stately homes and such which just look wrong and have eyes that follow you around the room. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, as it sets the tone beautifully for the game, but I think you need to understand that it’s just a bit creepy for no particular reason.
Art aside, the component quality for Escape the Dark Castle is fantastic and Themeborne need some recognition for the fact that they made wise choices with their Kickstarter backers money. All of the cards stock is smooth and easy to shuffle but sturdy and this is especially important for the chapter cards since they form the basis of the gameplay. The dice have been well made and have a nice heft and they seem to be engraved well enough that the inner colouring is unlikely to chip off any time soon.
Definitely not “one and done”
So, in a nutshell: Run through a story with your friends, come up against a big, bad nasty, and escape the dark castle if you’re still alive. Easy peasy!
Escape the Dark Castle plays in around 25-30 minutes and you will either escape or die trying in this time. I have played at different player counts ranging from solo to 4 and it seems to be the average, so Escape the Dark Castle sits in filler territory, but I found that I wanted to have more than one go each time considering it is such a challenge to win. The challenges are challenging as the name would suggest and so are the 3 bosses that you get in the game. And by challenging I mean SUPERHARD.
Also worth a mention is that being fully co-operative, if one person dies then you all lose… like it wasn’t hard enough to win already!
Push Lady Luck
I know that some people are put off by heavy luck based games and since a lot of Escape the Dark Castle is resolved by dice rolling, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t; but for me sometimes it’s really nice just to put the heavy Euro’s and the brainburners to one side and play something which is just fun and can’t be “math’d out”.
One of my favourite things about Escape the Dark Castle is that at the turn of every card, somebody gets to channel their inner Vincent Price and read the scene setting text on the card. In hindsight I reckon that should this game be mixed with beer then the sensibility of the narration could go out of the window, but I’m curious to see if this detracts from the enjoyment of the game any.
I have really enjoyed playing Escape the Dark Castle so far, and so I owe a massive thank you to Tom Pike the designer for letting me get my hands on it before general release, and I am exceptionally grateful he did as it is a fantastic game.
Scores, but no open doors
Escape the Dark Castle is definitely a game for an evening around the table with friends where the atmosphere between you is more important than getting some solid gaming done. It’s a social game where you’re all in it to win it together. The solo game is fun and still a challenge, but I think friends are necessary to get the full enjoyment from it.
There is no doubt in my mind that Escape the Dark Castle is a keeper for me and deserves a mad starey-eyed, boss pummelling, stale bread munching 8 out of 10, and If you’d like a copy, it should be on retail release around February according to their website.
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I am just a regular guy that fell into board gaming. That's why I am no longer allowed in my local Toys R Us. I'm a huge fan of deckbuilding games and games with unusual themes or mechanics. OK, maybe I'm not that regular after all.